What Liberal Hollywood? posts
Saturday July 17, 2021
More on 'Mission to Moscow'
I'm reading Alan K. Rode's excellent biography “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” which includes so much backchannel Warner Bros. stuff from the 1930s and '40s, and maybe none so important as the machinations of Joseph E. Davies during the making of “Mission to Moscow” in 1943.
Davies was a lawyer who had been ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938 as the Moscow trials began, and who wrote a book about his experiences there. It was published in 1941, sold well, and FDR supposedly encouraged Jack Warner and Warner Bros. to make a movie about it. They did, with Curtiz directing, and Walter Huston starring, but Davies was a problem from the get-go. He submitted 24 pages of rewrites to Curtiz and producer Robert Buckner: “Buckner attempted to finesse these issues,” Rode writes, “by inviting the ambassador to Hollywood to discuss his concerns.” That just led to additonal requests for changes. These weren't minor changes, either:
The most egregious examples concerned the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland and the characterization of the Stalinist purge trial that was the heart of the film. Davies insisted on adding dialogue indicating that Russia did not invade Finland. The final cut included Walter Huston as Davies reciting this whopper after being asked about the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939: “Russia knew she was going to be attacked by Hitler so the Soviet leaders asked Finland's permission to occupy strategic positions to defend herself against German aggression. She offered to give Finland twice as much territory in exchange, but Hitler's friend Mannheim refused and the Red Army moved in.” When Buckner challenged Davies on the veracity of this startling revisionism, the former ambassador stated that he possessed “privileged knowledge.” Buckner said that Davies was “often prone to pulling this 'mysterious knowledge' to silence us.”
Why was Davies so insistent on whitewashing Stalin's crimes? To what end? He wasn't a communist. Was it just an insistence on a worldview he assumed he knew better than anyone? Soon he and his wife relocated to Beverly Hills, where, during production, he kept nitpicking. He saw that actors were made up to look like Churchill and Stalin, and wondered why Huston wasn't made up to look like him. “That, Mr. Davies,” Curtiz responded, “is because you are not famous.” He was quoted in the trades in January 1943: “There is no man in the world I would trust more fully than Joe Stalin.” And the movie was made the way it was made.
And when it was released in April 1943, there was almost universal condemnation.
The brickbats didn't come only from those on the Right. Two noted liberals, John Dewey of Columbia University and Suzanne La Follette, niece of the famed progressive senator, castigated the film in the New York Times. Dewey had led an independent commission with La Follette that had investigated Stalin's purges. He categorized Mission to Moscow as “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption—a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts.” Dewey and La Follette enumerated most of the film's more damning attributes, including deletion of any mention of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, the whitewashing of the purge trials, the overtly negative portrayal of prewar Britain and France, and the unfavorable portrayal of the U.S. Congress, contrasted with the film's presentation of “the Soviet dictatorship as an advanced democracy.” There was the additional fiction of the Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky being portrayed as one of the defendants in the trial sequence. There had been no public trial for Tukhachevsky; Stalin had him tortured and executed in June 1937.
But Davies didn't stop. He traveled to Moscow to screen the picture for Stalin. Apparently the Soviet leadership was tickled to see itself portrayed on a Hollywood movie screen, but the falsehoods were so egregious they burst out laughing.
Many in Hollywood weren't laughing.
Sam Wood, the director of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Kings Row, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was a right-wing zealot who viewed domestic Communism as a clear and present danger. Mission to Moscow motivated Wood to join with the screenwriters James Kevin McGuiness (described by no less than Ronald Reagan as a Red-baiter), Casey Robinson, and Morris Ryskind, along with the director-producers Victor Fleming, King Vidor, Walt Disney, Clarence Brown, and others to form the Motion Picture Alliance for Preservation of American Ideals in February 1944.
The Motion Picture Alliance led to FBI and HUAC investigations, and the Hollywood blacklist, where careers and lives were lost. Sure, there were communists in Hollywood, screenwriters mostly, but most of their attempts to get Marxist thoughts on screen never made it past front-line producers—let alone a Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. It took an upstanding U.S. ambassador to do that.
One wonders if the scales ever fell from Davies' eyes.
Sunday July 19, 2020
Would-Be Religious Conservative Mogul Denies that Religious Conservative Movies Already Exist
Recently on Fox News and its website, we apparently needed to know the following information:
And it's about time! Stupid liberal Hollywood. There's just no place for religious conservative filmmakers to tell their stories.
Except, of course, for Pure Flix Entertainment, which has produced and/or distrubted 88 such movies this century, including “God's Not Dead” (2014, $61m), “God's Not Dead 2” (2016, $21m), “Unplanned” (2019, $19m), “The Case for Christ” (2017, $15m), “Hillary's America” (2016, $13m), and “God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” (2018, $5.7 m).
Then there's Affirm Films, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures. It distributed three religious films in the past three years: “All Saints,” “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” and “Overcomer.” The last is about a high-school coach who trains a troubled teen in long-distance running. It grossed $34 million in August 2019.
Other studios have also gotten in on the religious conservative action. This year, Lionsgate distributed “I Still Believe,” about Christian music star Jeremy Camp, which had the bad luck to open as the Covid pandemic was starting but still managed to gross $9 million opening weekend. Last year, IFC Films distributed “Mary Magdalene” ($124k) and 20th Century Fox distributed “Breakthrough,” which was that “my son broke through the ice, please pray for him” movie that featured, among others, Topher Grace, Dennis Haysbert and Josh Lucas. It took in a cool $40 million.
There's also just the plain religious stories, sans “conservative,” that Hollywood has told in recent years: “Noah,” “Silence,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “The Nativity Story.” Hell, Tyler Perry's entire hugely successful career is based on telling Christian tales in modern settings. (Caveat: it's black people.)
And if none of that works for you, well, you can still check out mainstream Hollywood fare, in which, often, 1) two attractive white heterosexuals meet and fall in love, or 2) some American dude saves the world—generally with his NRA-approve firearm.
A few follow-ups we didn't get from host Maria Bartiromo. Does Sabato, Jr.'s promise about making movies by “religious conservatives” includes other religions besides Christianity? And do the people at Pure Flix Entertainment view Sabato Jr. as a potential partner, a rival, or just some doofus trying to steal their glory?
As for the idiot idea that religious conservatives are “blacklisted” in Hollywood? Just refer him to Clint, Arnold, and any number of right-wing stars doing regular work in Hollywood. If you can make money for someone in Hollywood, they‘ll hire you. If you’re a professional with a known face and schtick who won't waste anyone's time on set, they‘ll hire you. And if you’re neither of these things, then you're just like every other schmuck clawing for a piece of it. Welcome to the party, pal.
Monday May 18, 2020
Famous Hollywood Conservatives Say There's No Blacklist Against Hollywood Conservatives
John Milius: I‘ve been blacklisted as surely as anybody in the ’50s.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: I don't believe that much in a blacklisting idea because I have always been out there as a Republican. They don't care if you‘re Libertarian, if you’re an independent, if you decline to state if you‘re a Republican or a Democrat, that means nothing to Hollywood.
Clint Eastwood: They don’t care if you‘re—if you’re Lenin himself.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: In Hollywood, the only thing that means [anything] is money.
from “Milius” (2013), a documentary about writer-director John Milius
Friday March 20, 2020
Success at Any Price
Here's Otto Friedrich on John Howard Lawson, the first member of the Hollywood 10 to speak before HUAC, and a playwright before his Hollywood days:
Lawson's second Broadway production, Processional (1925), brought him success at the age of thirty. Subsequent titles tell a story: Loud Speaker (1927), The International (1928), Success Story (1932). Success lured him west, as it lured so many others, and the Hollywood titles began to tell a different story: Dream of Love (1928), Our Blushing Brides (1930), Bachelor Apartment (1931), Success at Any Price (1934) ...
He was the first president of the Screen Writers Guild, and he made no secret of his ideological views. Writing in New Theatre magazine in 1934, he announced that he had joined the Communist Party, and he added, “I do not hesitate to say that it is my aim to present the Communist position.” There was something sad about Lawson's efforts to “present the Communist position” on the screen. In 1938, the same year in which he wrote Algiers to introduce Hedy Lamarr, he also wrote Blockade, Walter Wanger's account of the Spanish civil war, which somehow failed to say which side was which. “This I accepted because it was the only way in which the picture could be undertaken,” Lawson said.
Not only did it fail to say which side was which, it failed to mention which country they were in, or that it was even a civil war; it actually seems like a war between different countries. So the great Hollywood movie about the Spanish Civil War that was made during the Spanish Civil War doesn't mention either “Spain” or “civil war.”
In a few grafs, Friedrich lays out the absurdity of the HUAC attacks. HUAC says it was concerned with communist infiltration of Hollywood and the messages these spies were lacing into movies. And yes, there were communists in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s. But even the most vocal of them, given a dream project, still produced pablum.
The Coen brothers played off this nicely in “Hail, Caesar!”
Saturday March 07, 2020
HUAC and the Battle of 1898
Amid Otto Friedrich's great account of the Hollywood 10—the unfriendly witnesses to appear before HUAC in 1947, and the bluster back and forth—in his great book on Hollywood in the 1940s, “City of Nets,” is this appearance by the 11th member of the Hollywood 10, Bertolt Brecht, who, here, despite Friedrich's description, reminds me of nothing so much as Droopy Dog, disarming his opponents with a kind of lugubrious, disinterested stillness:
Brecht always looked a bit like a raccoon, or a fox, sharp-eyed, wary, quick, but never more so than now. He also smoked one of his cheap cigars. “I was born in Augsburg, Germany, February 10, 1898,” he said. The committee seemed strangely unready for him. “What was that date again?” Thomas* asked, as though he had missed something important. “Would you give that date again?” asked Stripling**. The date was repeated. Representative John McDowell*** echoed it: “1898?” Brecht repeated it: “1898.” The committee then offered Brecht an interpreter, David Baumgardt, a consultant in philosophy at the Library of Congress, and Stripling resumed his interrogation: “You were born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, on February 10, 1888, is that correct?” Brecht docilely agreed to the misstatement. One of the attorneys, Bartley Crum, intervened to say that it was 1898. Brecht agreed again. “Is it ‘88 or ’98?” Stripling asked once more. “Ninety-eight,” Brecht said.
This account gave me great joy this morning.
* J. Parnell Thomas, U.S. representative from New Jersey's 7th district, and chairman of HUAC, who, a year later, would face corruption charges (relatives on the payroll, fraud, kickbacks, tax evasion), to which he would ironically plead the Fifth; he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
** Robert E. Stripling, chief investigator for both HUAC and its forerunner, the Dies Committee. A civil servant, he resigned after Democrats took control of Congress again in January 1949. In a quote in the New York Times, he said he would return to Texas to rest and then “accept a position offered me in the oil industry.”
*** McDowell, a representative from Pennsylvania, wasn't re-elected in 1948 and committed suicide in 1957.
Saturday July 27, 2019
HUAC: ‘All We Are After...’
Rewatched this doc on the original Hollywood moguls the other night. Their lives should be a miniseries. Or you could make a good feature film out of it, maybe focusing on one mogul, maybe Louis B. Mayer, but keeping the same theme: fleeing pogroms in Europe for America, rising to fame and fortune in the nascent movie industry, creating stories that reflect that—full of American ideals and “the American dream”—while subsuming your entire Jewish background, only to face the pogrom again in the form of HUAC, which was led by a virulent anti-Semite and bigot, Rep. John E. Rankin of Mississippi. Then knuckling under. Then the sad final years. Mayer even thought about converting to Catholicism in the end. Did he lose himself? That's the question. Or a question.
We hear the following, by the way, as HUAC begins its investigation into communist infiltration of Hollywood:
The Committee has determined that the hearings shall be fair and impartial. We have subpoenaed witnesses representing both sides of the question. All we are after are the facts.
Not so much, it turns out.
Friday March 22, 2019
Taylor wasn't the target.
The original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie was co-written by Michael Wilson, who also wrote “A Place in the Sun,” “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” and who had been blacklisted during the 1950s, so he didn't get initial proper credit for the original “Bridge” or even “Lawrence.” Born and raised in Oklahoma, Wilson was a U.S. Marine during World War II. After HUAC declared him an unfriendly witness, he moved with his family to France. About the nicest fallback position you could imagine.
I didn't know any of this until I began reading “Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002.” In the beginning of that book, authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner argue that, in “Planet,” Dr. Zaius cross-examining the chimpanzee scientists Cornelius and Zira is a kind of HUAC moment. Cornelius finds the ancient human civilization, Zira determines there's no physiological reason for humans to be mute, and Zaius wants these discoveries discredited. Taylor (Heston) is his excuse to do so. His target isn't Taylor, in other words, but the scientists and science generally.
“Your case was preordained,” he says to Taylor. “You made it possible for me to expose” the chimpanzees.
This is the part that really knocked me for a loop:
In Wilson's inner narrative, then, there was another warning accompanying the larger one against nuclear war contained in Serling's famous ending, when Taylor finds the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. The inner warning was addressed to the liberals of the Cold War: you may think they are after Communists, but in fact they are after you.
I'd always thought liberals like Edward G. Robinson getting entrapped and having to beg for redemption from the likes of Ward Bond, and often not finding it, was a bug of HUAC and the blacklisting system; according to this insight, it was a feature. That road, discredited though it was by the 1960s, eventually led to the “liberal Hollywood” attacks of today. The Breitbarts of the world don't need the communist cover anymore.
Tuesday January 08, 2019
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 101
“We‘re just so divided right now. Even in the identity of Hollywood as being the liberal place, when you’re in Hollywood, you know that's not all true. In fact, if you look at Ronald Reagan, he was not liberal, Clint Eastwood not liberal, Arnold Schwarzenegger not liberal. If you look at most action stars, in fact, they‘re not liberal. And they go on to politics.”
Peter Farrelly, director of “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” speaking to The Daily Mail at the Golden Globes ceremony, where his latest film, “Green Book,” won best comedy/musical, even though it's neither.
I‘ve been saying it for years from a product (movies, TV) perspective. And it’s true of the community itself, too? Jesus. BTW: Farrelly says it, the Mail, a dirty, conservative rag, repeats it, but conservatives will still push the “liberal Hollywood” meme because there's too much money and divisiveness in it for them not to. In a way, they want both. They want the scapegoat, and they want Hollywood to be theirs.
Saturday January 05, 2019
Fear of a Blacklisting
Patrick Radden Keefe's must-read piece in The New Yorker, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success,” is, as you gather from that title, mostly about how we wouldn't be in the precarious situation we‘re in without the Mark Burnett-produced reality show, “The Apprentice,” which restored and burnished the career and the image of the oft-bankrupt Donald Trump. Hell, in some ways, it created that image. And, god, the lengths they had to go to to make him seem like an intellilgent and intelligible human being. Reading, you think, it’s not just “sad”; it's a fucking crime.
And I didn't even mention Trump's mobsters reference yet.
Anyway, amidst all that, there's the following quote that made me flash back to all the whiny conservative complaints about how they can't be all whiny and conservative in Hollywood for fear of a “liberal McCarthyism.” Never mind Jon Voight, never mind Kelsey Grammer. Never mind that the real blacklist in Hollywood in the 1940s/50s was the result of collusion between right-wing and often anti-Semitic forces in the U.S. Congress (HUAC), the FBI, Hollywood (the MPA) and business (Red Channels); these guys feel bad because they can't wear their MAGA hats to a table reading for “Fresh Off the Boat.” Cry me a river. If you want to make America great again, learn some fucking history.
Here's what made me think of that. Is Burnett, the man who gave us Donald Trump, and who is still a Trump friend, on the outs in Hollywood? The opposite:
He had now achieved such a level of power that, even in reflexively liberal Hollywood, his association with Trump was discussed mostly in whispers. Many people who spoke to me for this piece would not do so on the record, citing fears of being blacklisted.
I assume they mean blacklisted by him and his shows and his production company. Only a few, like Tom Arnold and Jimmy Kimmel, have spoken up or out. It points out the lie of “liberal McCarthyism.” There's no collusion, per the real Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ’50s; there's just individual tastes, and everyone is worried about stepping on the toes of the powerful—whether they‘re on the left or the right.
It’s not criminal, it's just sad.
Monday June 18, 2018
Fox Family Values
This is the latest Fox-News anti-Hollywood piece. It's in reaction to Robert De Niro cursing out Trump at the Tony Awards. De Niro said “Fuck Trump” twice and got a standing ovation. So this.
Fox counters De Niro with Zachery Ty Bryan, which is a little like countering John Updike with me. Who's Bryan? He played the non-heart-throb child of Tim Allen on the 1990s sitcom “Home Improvement.” He's now a producer.
On air, Bryan seems like a decent sort, but he raises two problematic points. The first is apparent from the headline:
Former Sitcom Star: There Are 'A Lot More' Conservatives in Hollywood Than You'd Expect
Meaning Hollywood isn't as liberal as we think? So it‘s not liberal Hollywood? Fox gets a lot of mileage out of calling it that. Indeed, that’s most of their Hollywood coverage. So do they need to stop now? And if these conservatives are so numerous, aren't they a bit cowardly for not “coming out” sooner?
A lot to unpack there.
The second problematic point occurs at the end, when the female host brings up how great “Home Improvement” was. She says it wasn't political, it was just about “family values” (“Tool Time Girl” notwithstanding), and “what so many families go through: the ups and the downs.” She wants TV to do this more. “Just take it back to family. Just being a family.” Bryan agrees:
We need to start getting back to our traditional values. Because we've lost that. And a lot of things happening in the world are because of losing that family background.
Saturday May 26, 2018
We All Want to Change the World
I like that Noah Berlatsky has a piece on Hollywood that includes the following sentences:
Conservatives claim that Hollywood is hopelessly liberal, constantly pushing feminism and LGBTQ rights and other subversive agendas. But when it comes to portraying actual subversives, Hollywood isn't enthusiastic. On the contrary, big-budget action films often go out of their way to show that radicals are corrupt, misguided or ridiculous, and to insist that the status quo, whatever its faults, is the thing worth fighting for.
Good god, yes. Beyond that, Hollywood mostly glamorizes guns, violence, sex, and an absolutist vision of the world (white hats/black hats) because that's what sells. Most Hollywood plots would feel right at home at an NRA convention. So not “liberal.”
But the headline of Berlatsky's piece is misleading:
Hollywood isn't on the side of the resistance
His point is that Hollywood isn't revolutionary. Resistance to Trump (which most Hollywood folks back) and actual revolution (which ... not so much) are two different things. Indeed, you read the piece and you go, “Corporations don't want to lose power? No shit, Sherlock. Thanks for the news.”
That said, I'm a fan of anyone calling out the lie in the “liberal Hollywood” charge.
Wednesday April 26, 2017
Going up against Hedda Hopper excluded.
The following excerpt is from Glenn Frankel's much-recommended “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” and relates to a 1951 meeting of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the right-wing org that invited HUAC to Hollywood in the first place.
This was HUAC's second go-round at Hollywood. The first, in 1947, led to the Hollywood 10 being found in contempt of Congress and imprisioned. It also led to the Waldford Statement among moguls and producers, which led to the blacklist, which led to ruined careers and lives, and a sad stink permeating our democracy.
In 1951, HUAC returned with sharper teeth than ever, and the first witness before them was Larry Parks, the star of “The Jolson Story.” The committee broke him. He admitted he'd been a communist, didn't want to name names, but eventually, in tears, did. He gave up his honor, dignity and friends to keep working. And it didn't keep him working. From Frankel:
The next evening, the Motion Picture Alliance held its annual meeting at the Hollywood American Legion Auditorium. The alliance was riding high and more than a thousand people attended. John Wayne, its president, expressed sympathy for Parks. “When any member of the Party breaks with them, we must welcome him back into American society,” said Wayne. “We should give him friendship and help him find work again in our industry.” Guest speaker Victor Riesel, a fire-eating syndicated columnist, showed no such mercy. “The hell with Parks,” he declared. “He didn't tell us anything we didn't know.” Fellow columnist Hedda Hopper stood up and excoriated Wayne. ...
... a chastened Wayne rose to apologize for expressing sympathy for Parks.