Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Red Hollywood

RED HOLLYWOOD              B                      
USA  (118 mi)  1996, re-edited  2013  d:  Thomas Andersen   co-director:  Noël Burch

Whatever he tries to do is wrong. Because it has to be wrong. Because the situation is such that whatever you do is wrong. All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime. I mean, quote-unquote, morally speaking. At least that's what I used to think. Now I'm convinced. 
—Abraham Polonsky, speaking about his film Force of Evil (1948), from Red Hollywood, 1995

After all, politics is justified only by success, although the only battles worth fighting are the ones for lost causes.     —Abraham Polonsky, Red Hollywood, 1995

Thom Andersen is interestingly a Chicagoan who attended Berkeley in the early 60’s before attending the USC Film School, becoming a film programmer at the LA Film Forum, the maker of a few experimental documentary films, comprised primarily of found images and video clips, while now he teaches film theory and history at the California Institute of the Arts.  Andersen is perhaps best known for his highly acclaimed film documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a video essay that explores the way the city of Los Angeles has been presented in the movies, consisting entirely of clips from other films.  But he’s also known for his 1985 essay Red Hollywood, which documents, among other things, actor John Garfield’s involvement with the political left and the Hollywood blacklist.  It’s out of that essay that he discovered two blacklisted Hollywood directors still living in Europe, John Berry and Cy Endfield, both former employees of Orson Welles and both named as subversives before the HUAC committee.  Berry served time in prison in 1947 for defying the committee, before ironically directing the short documentary that denounces McCarthyism, THE HOLLYWOOD TEN (1950), currently available on Criterion, while decades later he directed one of the first mainstream black films, CLAUDINE (1974), while Endfield drew the committee’s interest with his harrowing indictment of mob rule in THE SOUND OF FURY (1950), which the committee labeled “un-American.”  Based on their extensive knowledge of the era, and the assistance of Noël Burch who was living in France, Andersen expanded his essay into a book published in France, Les communistes de Hollywood: autre chose que des martyrs (The Hollywood Communists — Something Other Than Martyrs).  This collective effort led to the film, another insightful essay, restored and re-edited seventeen years later in 2013, documenting the influence of communists and political leftists, mostly actors, screenwriters, or directors in the 30’s and 40’s until the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the postwar 40’s and early 50’s took a particular interest in rooting out communism from the movie industry, forcing people to name names and smear reputations, eventually creating a Hollywood blacklisting that prevented certain individuals from working in the motion picture business for over a decade.    

Using clips from 53 films, where with just a few exceptions, most all are unfamiliar and have not dented the cultural landscape.  What’s immediately interesting is the mainstream Hollywood format in nearly all of them, where what’s unusual is the attempt to place any social content into the storyline.  Seen in hindsight, the impact is negligible, hardly worth the fuss, as social content since the Vietnam War era of the 60’s has routinely been infused into quality films, where it takes an academic scrutiny like this to even uncover similarities between these earlier films.  Narrated by Billy Woodberry, the film is divided into seven sections—myths, war, class, sexes, hate, crime, and death—analyzing the impact in each area, with the directors laying out their objective, “The victims of the Hollywood blacklist have been canonized as martyrs, but their film work in Hollywood is still largely denigrated or ignored.  Red Hollywood considers this work to demonstrate how the communists of Hollywood were sometimes able to express their ideas in the films they wrote and directed.”  Much like Douglas Sirk in the 50’s, these artists were largely operating under the surface, as with a few exceptions, they were implementing complex ideas into ordinary mainstream films that felt standard in every other sense.  Historically, one must recall that leftist ideas and the influence of the Communist Party in America were outgrowths of the Great Depression, resulting in one of the great class struggles in our nation’s history.  As is pointed out here, “In the 30’s, class solidarity was still an ideal.  The homeless were not yet the excluded,” where in that era the idea of helping others in need was commonplace and ingrained into the fabric of society.  Similarly, speaking about communism and the Russian revolution was not altogether frowned upon, as historically it was still a work in progress, where even Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls is based upon his own personal experience joining the communist partisans fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and shortly afterwards Russia became our World War II ally fighting against fascism in Nazi Germany.  It was only after the war that communism became a dirty word, as by then Stalin had all but disregarded any pretense of a worker’s revolution, becoming a totalitarian police state exterminating millions of Russians while sending others to the gulags of Siberia. 

America experienced its own Cold War policy here at home by portraying about 150 people in the entertainment business as communists or anti-American subversives, creating a decade-long blacklist, including the infamous Hollywood Ten, where the humor of the day was Billy Wilder’s famous quip, “Of the ten, two had talent, the others were just unfriendly.”  Thankfully, this films gets under the surface to explore who these men really are, as some are interviewed, where they have a chance to explain what their agenda was in the making of these films, and mostly it was simply to raise the level of awareness about social issues that had not yet been explored.  While communist screenwriter John Howard Lawson is seen defying the HUAC inquiry in 1947, Henry Fonda is seen in a similar moral quandary about the Spanish civil war in a film written by Lawson, BLOCKADE (1938).  Ayn Rand testifies before the committee as an expert on Russian history and culture, where she alleges all the smiling faces in SONG OF RUSSIA (1943) are an outrage, as nobody smiles in Russia (this is her expertise, really), especially on their way to work in the fields.  Actually the film does bear a simplistic similarity to Disney movies, specifically SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937) and the song “Whistle While You Work.” Former communist screenwriter Paul Jarrico explains the idea behind the film was essentially American war propaganda, since it put our wartime ally in a good light, a postwar reconstruction observation that “we’re all in this together.”  Another communist screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten, (one of the two with talent, apparently), co-wrote the breezy comedy WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), featuring Katherine Hepburn in full feminist mode, where she’s so skilled at simultaneously balancing various social functions and events, that she’s seen as the international woman of the year, that is until Spencer Tracy, with just a scowl or a frown, expresses Lardner’s dissatisfaction at how she’s so continually busy and impressively on the move that she doesn’t have time left to be a woman anymore.  While many of the clips are hilarious, such as how Russian women behind the Iron Curtain are portrayed as so tough and invincible that men cower in their presence, but then we see a short written by Albert Maltz (another one of the Hollywood Ten) with Frank Sinatra in 1945 conveying a postwar message of religious tolerance to a bunch of bullying kids by singing to them “The House I Live In, That’s America to Me,” The House I live in with Frank Sinatra - YouTube (10:16, though the sequence starts at 2:45), a theme echoed later in this film with Paul Robeson singing the same song over the closing credits.  

There are some revelations here, where we learn that fellow communist screenwriters Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker helped write HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932), considered the only Hollywood film of the 30’s to treat a strike sympathetically.  Perhaps the most impressive example of blacklisted artists working together is the film Salt of the Earth (1954), based on an actual 1950 miner’s strike, revealing the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers who fought to obtain wage parity with the Anglo workers in the same jobs, considered years ahead if its time as an indictment of both racism and sexism, as it was the miner’s wives that eventually took to the picket lines.  Written, directed, and produced by members of the original Hollywood Ten, financed in part by the actual union involved, it was called communist propaganda by The Hollywood Reporter and was investigated by the FBI.  The film was voted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992.  The subject of crime offered many of the best quotes, where heard in the narration over a clip of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), “The crime movie had often been a privileged genre for social commentary, from both left and right.  The right portrayed crime as a symptom of social disintegration, the left presented it as a form of capitalist accumulation.”  Former communist Abraham Polonsky, director of Force of Evil (1948), a masterpiece of the film noir genre, humorously suggests “All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime.  I mean, quote-unquote, morally speaking.  At least that’s what I used to think.  Now I’m convinced.”  The film starred John Garfield, an actor synonymous with gritty, hard-nosed, and working-class characters, having grown up in poverty in the streets of New York during the Depression.  And while his wife was a communist, there’s no indication Garfield was ever a member, nonetheless the HUAC committee hounded Garfield to his death, as after his original testimony, he learned they were reviewing his testimony for possible perjury charges, where he died of a heart attack, allegedly aggravated by the stress of the blacklisting, at the age of 39.  This followed the news of fellow actor, Canada Lee, as both were part of Lee Strasberg’s New York Group Theatre and were named by director Elia Kazan as Communist Party members in his testimony before the committee, with both actors dying shortly after being added to the blacklist.  Despite its good intentions, even after viewing the film we know just as little about many of the featured artists, as the focus is entirely upon their work, and not the artists themselves.  As a result, the anti-Semitic current running against many of these men during their lifetimes is omitted from the film.  Nonetheless, it is uniquely interesting to find evidence of such progressive thought from little known movies of the 30’s and 40’s. 

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