Features

Shades of red

Interview | Historian Ronald Radosh traces moviedom's left from the Popular Front to pop stars today

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

The significance of Red Star over Hollywood (Encounter, 2005) lies in its subtitle: The Film Colony's Long Romance with the Left. Authors Ronald and Allis Radosh concentrate on the 1930s and the 1940s, but their work is relevant to the present because the tryst has been so protracted, with moviedom's leftists (such as Jane Fonda a generation ago and Tim Robbins or Sean Penn today) repeating the mistakes of their forebears: hating America, cheering for militants from other countries who would destroy us, and forgetting that talent in role-playing does not equal political discernment.

Ronald Radosh is the author of numerous books about American Communists, and in The Rosenberg Files he was the first writer to establish the guilt of nuclear bomb spy Julius Rosenberg. Mr. Radosh has looked extensively at records of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a group much reviled by the left and in today's standard history texts.

WORLD: How important was the Communist Party in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, and who were some of the best-known leftists at that time?

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RADOSH: The Communist Party was small in numbers. The Hollywood branch only had about 300 members. Yet its activism and diligence allowed it to create numerous front groups that had vast influence and thousands of members. The Anti-Nazi League, which the Party created with the guidance of Comintern agent Otto Katz, had as members a who's who of the Hollywood elite. Its members included studio chiefs, actors, writers and directors. At its fundraising dinner even the Archbishop of Los Angeles sat on the stage. Well-known leftists of the day included Lillian Hellman, James Cagney, John Garfield, Budd Schulberg, Maurice Rapf and, of course, writers like the future "Hollywood Ten," including Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, Adrian Scott, Alvah Bessie, and Albert Maltz.

WORLD: Did the Hollywood left succeed in influencing the content of films? Is today's Hollywood left more successful in that regard?

RADOSH: More so than is usually conceded. In our book, we talk about numerous wartime films in which Party writers, directors and actors appeared in films that could appear to be patriotic (intent on winning the war against Germany) while being pro-Soviet and pro-Communist at the same time. We have a chapter about the 1943 film Mission to Moscow, in which writer Howard Koch and "technical advisor" Jay Leyda assured that the film would be done in such a way to prove to American audiences that the victims of Stalin's great 1936 purge trial were all guilty as charged. We are the first writers to show how these two men-Koch and Leyda-were American Stalinists loyal to the Soviet Union, not apolitical men as they have usually been portrayed.

Today's Hollywood left has no obstacles in its path. Back in the '40s sometimes the producers vetted the films and took out the worst Communist attempts at influencing films. Today Tim Robbins-a major star-can produce a big-budget film glamorizing the old Communist left, as he did in The Cradle Will Rock. And in our book, we include an appendix of all the films that have been made since the 1970s to the present that portray a Communist view of the blacklist and the Hollywood Reds. The most vile was One of the Hollywood Ten, in which Jeff Goldblum plays the most Stalinist of them all, Herbert Biberman.

WORLD: How was the Hollywood left defeated during the late 1940s?

RADOSH: It was defeated when Stalin moved toward waging Cold War. Honest liberals who let themselves align with the Communists during the wartime Popular Front left in disgust when the Communists began to attack any and all American administrations as fascist and imperialist. Melvyn Douglas advised people that liberals like himself should break all ties with the Reds, and Olivia de Havilland, given a pro-Soviet speech to read by writer Dalton Trumbo at a rally, tore it up and gave a tough anti-Communist speech. It was only HUAC's hearings that allowed the Reds to portray themselves as adherents of free speech and democracy, and allowed them to show themselves as innocent martyrs.

WORLD: What was the role of a future U.S. president in stopping Communists within the Screen Actors Guild?

RADOSH: Ronald Reagan cut his teeth in fighting Communism in his earliest experiences in Hollywood. Coming out of the U.S. Air Corps film division, Reagan, like others, joined one of the major Communist front groups. He soon would learn that it was secretly run and controlled by the Communists. When the Communists waged violent post-war strikes in an attempt to control the unions in Hollywood, Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild to vote against endorsement of the strikes.

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