Monday, 3 August 2015

Uncle Joe’s Hollywood Army - a review of Allan H. Ryskind's "Hollywood Traitors"

Regular readers of this blog (and, yes, there are some, believe it or not) will probably have realised by now that the infiltration of Hollywood by ardent Communists during its Golden Age is a subject which interests me to the point of obsession - mainly because present-day denizens of The Dream Factory (as Michael Parkinson always insisted on calling it) keep treating those vile traitors as if they were heroes. I've written a review of a recent book on the topic for the next issue of The Salisbury Review. Allan H. Ryskind's Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters -- Agents of Stalin, Allies of HitlerRegnery Publishing Inc, is available in hardover and ebook formats here. My review of it is available below:

The American film industry has spent decades assiduously fostering a myth regarding the activities of Hollywood Communists in the 1930s and ‘40s.  According to a rewriting of history as fanciful as that to be found in any Hollywood script of the period, fanatical, paranoid, right-wing Republicans viciously persecuted decent, ordinary film actors, writers and directors merely for expressing mildly left-of-centre opinions in support of the victims of America’s rapacious capitalist system. As a result, the standard narrative continues, many blameless members of Hollywood's creative community were hounded out of work by a studio-operated blacklist, simply for trying to stand up for the little guy.

At the heart of the myth lie the Hollywood Ten – nine scriptwriters and a director – who were fined and jailed for up to a year after refusing to answer questions about their membership of the Communist Party, during hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Los Angeles in 1947. In 1997 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences staged a star-studded 50th anniversary celebration of the Ten in Beverly Hills. One of them, Ring Lardner Jr., was presented with a plaque engraved with the text of the First Amendment (presumably to underline the traditional commitment of Communists to free speech).

As Allan H. Ryskind puts it in this definitive record of the attempted Communist takeover of Hollywood, “They were not honourable anti-fascists or patriotic Americans, as their defenders argue, but loyal Soviet apparatchiks, a fifth column working for Stalin inside our homeland.” All of the Ten (according to one of their number) had been or still were members of the American Communist Party (CPUSA), an organisation directly controlled by the Kremlin, and were therefore, in effect, agents of a foreign power intent on destroying America’s democratic system.  This was a party whose members had campaigned vigorously at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact against America entering the war, or sending any sort of aid to Britain, on the grounds that Britain and Nazi Germany were morally equivalent: as soon as Hitler attacked their spiritual homeland, the USSR, they instantly changed tack and stridently demanded that the US use its military might against Germany, and provide Russia and Britain with everything they needed to defeat fascism.

Even before the war, Ryskind argues, Hollywood writers had been stuffing their scripts
John Howard Lawson
with anti-American and pro-Soviet propaganda. Scriptwriter John Howard Lawson, Hollywood’s thuggish party enforcer, realised that films consisting of nothing but Communist propaganda would be unacceptable to the studios. He reportedly gave the following advice to writers: “Try to get five minutes of the Communist doctrine, five minutes of the party line in ever script that you write.” He also told a gathering of young left-wing actors that their duty was to “…further the class struggle by your performance. If you are nothing more than an extra wearing white flannels on a country club veranda do your best to appear decadent, do you best to be a snob…create class antagonism. If you are an extra in a tenement street, do your best to look downtrodden…to look a victim of existing society.”

While the studios mostly (but not always) recognised blatant propaganda in films dealing with domestic themes, they allowed several outrageously pro-Stalinist foreign-set films to slip through the net, particularly after the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The odious Lillian Hellman wrote The North Star (1943), a paean to collective farming in the Ukraine, which had caused the death of up to 7.5 million people in the region in the famine of 1932-33. The liberal critic, Mary McCarthy, dismissed the film as “a tissue of falsehoods woven of every variety of untruth”. MGM’s Song of Russia (1943), featuring merry, well-fed Russian villagers and, bizarrely, a popular village priest, was, according to one left-wing US newspaper, so pro-Soviet that it “left some moviegoers in pain”, and painted such a rosy picture of life in the USSR that, according to one Russian film official, “it made Russians laugh”. An early example of propaganda was The General Died at Dawn (1936), which lauded Chinese communist rebels, just as John Howard Lawson’s Blockade (1938) was an uncritical hymn of praise to Communists in the Spanish Civil War, even as the comrades were torturing and butchering many of the non-Stalinists fighting alongside them.

Why did hard-nosed studio bosses – occasionally liberal but never remotely Communist - allow themselves to be manipulated by Stalinists? Partly, it was because, while the USSR remained a US ally, pro-Soviet films were welcomed by a Roosevelt administration which had itself been infiltrated by a mixture of Soviet sympathisers and agents; and partly because, as Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers, explained, it was “often difficult to prevent the hiring of certain people due the fact the majority of employees are hired through unions and…guilds, some of which are Communist controlled.” Controlled to such an extent that Warners actually shut down their Story Analysts department, whose members, Ryskind tells us, were providing deliberately atrocious synopses of material by non-Communist writers. Stalinists routinely excluded non-believers from productions (a method of punishing conservatives apparently practiced by left-wingers in films and television to this day).

Stalinists also gained control of the powerful Screen Writers Guild, and created a welter of front organisations with the words “democracy”, “freedom” and “American” in their titles, in order to influence public opinion and to hoodwink idealistic members of the film industry into becoming members of Uncle Joe’s clandestine army.

Hollywood didn’t wait until HUAC rolled into town to fight back. In 1939, two emigrée liberals - director Ernst Lubitsch and writer Billy Wilder – produced Ninotchka, undoubtedly the wittiest anti-Communist film ever made (“The last mass trials have been a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) was launched in 1944. Among its founders were Walt Disney, Sam Wood (who directed Goodbye, Mr. Chips and For Whom the Bell Tolls), and liberal playwright Morrie Ryskind, who wrote the early Marx Brothers films, and whose son is the author of this book (his father would never write another Hollywood script after openly declaring his opposition to Communism). Other prominent industry anti-Communists included Ronald Reagan, who, despite being a self-described “haemophiliac liberal” at the time, fought the Reds tooth and nail in the Screen Actors Guild, persuading members not to support two Communist-led Conference of Studio Unions strikes designed to bring the studios to heel in 1945 and 1946: and Roy Brewer, a tough, wily union leader who almost single-handedly prevented the complete Communist takeover of Hollywood unions in the 1940s. Unlike the Hollywood Ten, only one of whom ever publicly renounced Communism, none of these notable anti-Communist has been specifically honoured for their brave stand  - in fact, they’ve been regularly maligned by leftists ever since.

The blacklist effectively ended in 1960 when Kirk Douglas named Dalton Trumbo (a keen supporter of North Korea’s Communist regime) as the writer of Spartacus. Since then, every Hollywood film dealing with the blacklist (e.g. The Front, The Majestic, Trumbo) has painted anti-Communists as fascist villains intent on destroying the lives of democracy-loving free-thinkers. When, two years after its 1997 tribute to the Hollywood Ten, the Academy redressed the balance somewhat by awarding an honorary Oscar to Elia Kazan, a former Communist who “named names”, half of the audience of assembled Hollywood luminaries refused to stand or applaud the immensely distinguished director. (Heroically, Steven Spielberg applauded - but remained seated.) One can only assume that ingrained political prejudice had rendered the central message of Kazan’s anti-Communist classic, On the Waterfront, unpalatable to the posturing refuseniks.

There were undoubtedly some liberal Hollywood film-makers whose lives were unfairly ruined by the blacklist because, despite being duped by hard-liners into lending their support to Communist front organisations, they found the prospect of “naming names” morally unpalatable. Sadly, liberal movie folk have spent years trying to convince us there was no other kind of Hollywood liberal, and that there was in fact no concerted effort to turn Hollywood into a propaganda factory for Stalin’s brand of totalitarianism. Hollywood Traitors leaves us in no doubt that such a plot existed. Its author – a conservative reporter and editor - is only too willing to name the plotters and to praise those who stood against them. This is a powerful, convincing, well-researched book.


  1. Two fascinating books in one day - thank you!

    I presume we will not be hearing about this one on R4's film programme?

    1. No, but I'm pretty sure the BBC's North America Editor Jon Sopel will be preparing a specially extended report on the book's contents for Newsnight. I bet they're really worried about left-wingers using publicly-funded mainstream media to pump out politically-biased propaganda.

  2. Nowadays in 'the wood' just substitute race for Communism.Great post-another reason to buy 'The Salisbury Review.'

    1. Thanks, Mr. Palmer - I'm particularly pleased TSR wanted to publish this article because, as far as I can see, no other UK publication has bothered to review "Hollywood Traitors". Shame on them! And hurrah for The Salisbury Review!