Our central feature in this issue reviews, largely pictorially, Ronald Reagan's important place in history. This column looks at what screenwriters call the backstory, what happens before the main saga begins. For, just as Lord Wellington two centuries ago explained that "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," so the presidential fortitude that led to victory over the Soviet Union emerged from the drawing rooms of Hollywood.
The backstory begins in the 1930s, when-as journalist Oliver Carlson put it-Hollywood's "drawing room tables were stocked with the works of Marx, Lenin, Stalin.... The astrologers, spiritualists, mystics, and fortune tellers who had so long adorned Hollywood salons were unceremoniously dumped overboard. In their places came spokesmen for the Communist Party or its satellite organizations, who explained (between cocktails) dialectical materialism.... Liveried chauffeurs sat at the wheels of sleek high-powered limousines while their owners graced some nearby picket line."
But what began as a fad had, by the 1940s, hardened into a blacklisting organization. As director Sam Wood testified in 1947, Hollywood Communists had developed "a well-organized system; not only in the case of the writer but in every case they deprive people of work whenever they can." The president of the Story Analysts Guild (she also headed the story-reading department at Paramount) was a Communist. Esquire film critic John Moffit noted in 1947 that "members of this guild prepare very bad synopses of all material submitted by people who are not Communists, and they damn thoroughly in their reports any stories that are not friendly to the Communist line."
The screenwriter known as the "commissar" of Hollywood, John Howard Lawson, wrote in his book Film in the Battle of Ideas that "cultural workers" must "throw off the shackles of bourgeois ideology ... their vision must be transformed and made new if it is to serve a new purpose." Dalton Trumbo similarly wrote in 1946 about "the artist conscientiously employing his art as a weapon.... Every screenwriter worth his salt wages the battle in his own way-a kind of literary guerrilla warfare."
Lawson offered advice for waging such guerrilla warfare: "As a writer do not try to write an entire Communist picture, [but] try to get five minutes of Communist doctrine, five minutes of the party line in every script that you write." Lawson told young actors, "It is your duty 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 your best to appear to be a snob, do your best to create class antagonism." Lawson particularly wanted a "campaign against religion, where the minister will be shown as the tool of his richest parishioner."
Lawson's rant was louder than his results. The Hollywood left deprived some conservatives of work and fostered some class antagonism but could do little more than that-unless it gained control over both the screenwriters and actors guilds. It came close, but Ronald Reagan and a few others decided to fight. Mr. Reagan, formerly an FDR Democrat who spoke out against fascism, encountered criticism from liberal friends when he expressed concern about Communism as well-and that made him suspicious.
Soon, as Mr. Reagan saw how Communists operated with the help of liberal "useful idiots," he began to understand the shortcomings of liberalism. The threats he received while serving as president of the actors guild led him to see Communism as a form of terrorism. At police request he wore a .32 Smith & Wesson for seven months. Later, he noted that "our Red foes even went so far as to threaten to throw acid in the faces of myself and some other stars, so that we 'never would appear on the screen again.'"
Opposition built determination in Mr. Reagan, and by 1951 he was reporting "frustration and failure in the party's bold plot to seize control of the talent guilds and craft unions.... Never again can the Communists hope to get anywhere in the movie capital." But that was too optimistic. In the late 1950s Hollywood leftists gained sympathy because the tactic of "blacklisting" that they had developed was briefly used against them.
In the 1960s the Hollywood left was firmly in control once more. Conservatives once again had trouble finding work-but journalists did not report that. Providentially, one conservative, Ronald Reagan, did find useful work, and the rest is history.
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