Movie Review: “Red Hollywood” (1996)
WARNING: FELLOW SPOILERS
During the inevitable Q&A after a Northwest Film Forum screening of the 1996 documentary, “Red Hollywood,” with one of the two documentarians, Thom Andersen, in attendance, an audience member, perhaps equally inevitably, objected to the documentary’s very existence.
“Red Hollywood” examines the work of those screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the late 1940s and early 1950s. These artists, Andersen and Noel Burch contend, are increasingly portrayed as mere victims of the blacklist, when, as Andersen said in his brief introduction to the film, “They had done something .. working within the confines of the Hollywood system.”
That’s what bothered this audience member, a Jewish woman in her sixties. She thought that that something was accusatory; that the doc made a hero out of Joe McCarthy.
“Why would you think that?” Andersen responded matter-of-factly. “What, in the documentary, would make you think that?”
She admitted there was nothing in there per se. Her objection was more of the “Why give ammunition to the opposition?” variety. She asked, “Why make the documentary in the first place?”
Andersen, in his 70s now, with unruly white hair, is a quiet, contemplative, occasionally apologetic man. He thought, viewing the doc again, that parts could’ve been cut. (I agree.) He admitted, yes, maybe they should’ve talked about the anti-Semitic undertones of the blacklist. But in his response to this question, he wasn’t apologetic. Why did he make the doc? He alluded to the last scene we see: Abraham Polonksy reading, charmingly, from his script to “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here“ (1969), the first film he directed, or got credit for directing, after decades on the blacklist. It’s a scene between the hunted Indian, Willie Boy (Robert Blake), and a woman, Lola (Katherine Ross):
Lola: Willie, are you going to kill them?
Willie Boy: If I have to.
Lola: What do you mean, ”If you have to?“
Willie Boy: I mean if they keep comin'.
Lola: But they‘re white, Willie. They’ll shoot forever.
Willie Boy: How long is that? Less than you think.
Lola: It's crazy, Willie! You can't win. You can't beat them, Willie, ever.
Willie Boy: Maybe... maybe. But they‘ll know I was here.
That’s why he made the doc, Andersen said. So people will know they were there.
My response to the woman’s concerns, her fear that the doc was right-wing, was essentially: “You’re kidding.” Because my response to Andersen’s contention that the doc shows the political propaganda of the Hollywood communists is essentially: “That’s it?”
There’s just not much there there.
Sure, we see the upbeat, smiling tractor lessons of “Song of Russia” (1943), co-written by Paul Jarrico, who, in 1950, was named before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), before which he himself refused to testify; but the movie was essentially American war propaganda, since it put our wartime ally in a good light.
Yes, we see “Mission to Moscow” (1943), made at the behest of FDR, and co-written by Howard Koch, who was blacklisted by Red Channels in the 1950s. Koch’s other credits include such communist propaganda as “The Sea Hawk” (1940), “Sergeant York” (1941) and “Casablanca” (1942).
Sure, we get scenes where female factory workers pool their resources to rent one fancy place rather than four crappy ones (“Tender Comrade” (1943), by Dalton Trumbo and Edward Dmytryk, two of the Hollywood 10), and, yes, we get scenes that mock business (“We Who Are Young” (1940), written by Trumbo), or show female independence (“I Can Get It For You Wholesale,” from 1951, co-written by Abraham Polonsky), but there’s nothing inherently communist or socialist about any of it. If anything, the tepidity of these scenes demonstrates how overwhelmingly conservative Hollywood in the studio era was—and, I would argue, remains.
No, the real propaganda, the propaganda so powerful we don’t recognize it as propaganda, isn’t from the left at all. It’s this: love leads to marriage which leads to a happy ending; good and evil are absolute and obvious; and the best way for a lone man to achieve justice, for himself and others, is through the use of violence. These are the main messages we’ve been getting from Hollywood for the past 100 years. They are, for all the attacks on Hollywood from the right, essentially conservative messages.
The bigger problem with “Red Hollywood,” though, is structural. If the intention of the documentarians is to restore artistic integrity to the artists by owning up to their political viewpoints, why not focus on those artists? Give us sections on Lardner, Trumbo, Polonksy, and Lawson. Make it clear which films they worked on, and what, if anything, could be read into these films, and what, if anything, got cut. Give us a sense of their lives in Hollywood. Give us a sense of the strength of the left in 1930s Hollywood, and of the strength of socialism among 1930s Jewish communities, and how anti-Semitic all the 1940s and 1950s red-baiting ultimately was.
Instead, the movie is divided into sections, WAR, CLASS, SEX, HATE, CRIME, which is less illuminating than confusing. It causes us to veer between the early 1930s and early 1950s, vastly different periods in American culture. The writers and directors—who they are and what they believed—are mere afterthoughts in this process.
I like Polonsky and ”Willie Boy“ but I might’ve ended the doc with “Salt of the Earth,” a 1954 film, written, directed and produced by blacklisted artists, which showed, for the first time in any film, a strike from the worker’s point of view. As interesting to me as the film itself, which is available for streaming online, is the critical reaction from Bowsley Crowther, the generally conservative movie reviewer for The New York Times. After delineating the troubled people behind the production, and the troubled production itself, he wrote:
In the light of this agitated history, it is somewhat surprising to find that “Salt of the Earth” is, in substance, simply a strong pro-labor film with a particularly sympathetic interest in the Mexican-Americans with whom it deals ...
The real dramatic crux of the picture is the stern and bitter conflict within the membership of the union. It is the issue of whether the women shall have equality of expression and of strike participation with the men. And it is along this line of contention that Michael Wilson's tautly muscled script develops considerable personal drama, raw emotion and power.
Even let loose outside the studio system, these blacklisted writers, directors and producers, commie bastards all, simply wanted to tell a good story.