As movie-goers, theatre owners and studio shareholders endure yet another wave of anti-American box office duds like Rendition and Lions for Lambs it is worth remembering that left wing propaganda has real roots in Hollywood. And thanks to the character of our media and cultural establishment, we rarely get to hear about them.
One of the big disappointments concerning domestic communism is that we'll never hear the full story from their end. The losing side ordinarily has plenty to say once the dust settles -- what went wrong, who was to blame, how they could have done better. But not the American rojos. Alger Hiss denied to his dying day, in the face of evidence that would have convicted the Pope, that he had been a Soviet agent. (Hiss went so far as to get a leading Russian historian, Dmitri Volkoganov, up from his sickbed -- Volkoganov was dying of cancer -- to look through KGB files for evidence.
Hiss in fact worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence. This was a propaganda ploy. You may as well look for a CIA agent in FBI files.)
The same is true of the Hollywood communists, one of the largest and most active Communist Party groups during the Red Decade -- roughly 1936-1946. There never were any Hollywood communist propaganda films, we're assured. Nope, they say, Mayer or Goldwyn or Warner would have found out and spanked everybody involved. The Red hunters imagined it all.
We can take this as seriously as we do the claims of Hiss. The films are out there, many of them still available on VHS or DVD. They are what they are, and there's no denying it. A closer look will provide us with a useful introduction to the art of failed propaganda. (There's one other good reason for the denials: these films are strange. It's as if they were made by people who were raised in basements and educated solely through Communist Party tracts. Which, in fact, may be nothing less than the truth.)
One reason these films are hard to sweep under the rug is that several (North Star, Mission to Moscow, and Song of Russia) were made at the behest of none other than FDR himself. Roosevelt had been hearing muttering from voters over our "alliance" with the USSR, and with one eye no doubt on the ‘44 elections, asked the studios to help drum up support for the Soviets. The industry was quick to comply.
North Star (also called Armored Attack, 1943) stands as one of the weirdest war films ever made, fully as demented, in its own way, as Plan Nine From Outer Space. At first glance, this is a perfectly professional effort, directed by Lewis Milestone, auteur of All Quiet on the Western Front, and starring Ann Baxter, Dana Andrews, both Walter Huston and Walter Brennan (must have been confusing on the set), and Erich von Stroheim. To top it off, Aaron Copland handled the score.
But after this list of luminaries, we get to the clinker: Lillian Hellman. his film is all the evidence needed to show that Hellman was an unmitigated hack.
It's long been speculated that the actual hand behind her successful plays (Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine) was in fact her longtime lover, Dashiell Hammett. (For one thing, Hammett never published another word after hooking up with Hellmann.) North Star closes that case. At the time Hammett was doing his war service in the Aleutians -- even though he was some years overage -- and not around for rewrites. So Hellmann had to do it herself, and the result was this dreadful mess of a movie.
First we get a half-hour of the Bliss of Working for Comrade Stalin on the Ukrainian Collective Farm, a first chapter that could have been made in the USSR itself without upsetting the most doctrinaire commissar. When the Nazis pull in (an alternate title is Armored Attack, but they're all on motorcycles as far as I can see), the male kolkhozniks head for the woods to begin their heroic resistance. (In fact, the Ukrainians, having survived a forced famine a decade earlier, often enough welcomed the Germans as liberators until the SS massacres began.) The women remain, bothered not at all by the Nazi troops, who use the farm as an aid station.
We endure a lengthy stretch of huggermugger and melodramatic confrontations between Von Stroheim and Brennan, playing a wise old muzhik, climaxing with a revelation of Nazi evil: the Wehrmacht doctors are snatching the village children and draining their blood for transfusions! Whoa!
Now, the Ukrainians were Slavs, which meant that, to the Nazi mentality, they were Untermenschen barely a step above the Jews and Gypsies. It's doubtful any Nazi doctor would have used their blood for any such thing. At least one case occurred where an SS officer allowed himself to bleed to death because a U.S. Army doctor told him that the plasma supply almost certainly contained Jewish blood products.
Clearly, Hellman could no more get her mind around the reality of Nazism than she could that of communism. Nazis-as-vampires is simply pulp magazine schtick that drains the film of any sense of credibility, not that much existed in the first place.
Compare this propaganda effort to the Russian film Come and See (1985), which could have been made from the same template as North Star. The storyline is a close match -- even to the successful partisan raid at the climax -- and the Russian film is nearly as hallucinatory (a sinister crane stalks among piles of bodies, characters appear and disappear with no sense of continuity, an SS commander plays with a pet ferret as a village is massacred). But the makers of Come and See knew exactly what they were doing -- creating an eerie and unworldly atmosphere as background against which to portray the demonic unleashed among human beings.
It's interesting to speculate what Hammett would have done with the same material. As it is, North Star received no less than six Academy Award nominations.
Mission to Moscow (1943) is nearly as grotesque. Based on the book of the same title by Joseph Davies, former ambassador to the USSR, it's an example of almost pure propaganda. Davies was more than gullible; he was what the Soviets called a "transmission belt", someone who could be depended on to pass on propaganda material verbatim with little in the way of prompting. (The film's tagline was "One American's Journey into the Truth", which I hereby commend to Joseph Wilson IV.)
The book reads as if it were dictated by Stalin personally -- the victims of the purges were traitors, the "nonaggression pact" with Hitler a necessary ruse, life in the USSR was edenic, and so forth. (Stalin himself is characterized as something of a combination of Pericles, Moses, and Cicero). The book's propaganda is carried over onto film without much in the way of modification.
But at the same time, director Michael Curtiz (the legendary director of Casablanca) loads the film with touches suggesting that he was not completely fooled. Two of the major Soviet figures, for instance, are played by veteran character actors noted for portraying villains - Andrei Vyshinsky, the show trial prosecutor known as the "human rat", portrayed by Victor Francen, and Maxim Litvinov, foreign minister before the pact with Hitler, by none other than Oskar Homolka, beloved for decades of portrayals of Gestapo and KGB thugs.
Nobody appears to have bothered Curtiz, but screenwriter Howard Koch was blacklisted, in part for his work on this film. The FDR connection failed to help him at all.
Moscow was also nominated for an Oscar; 1943 must have been a very strange year.
Song of Russia was the third "officially inspired" pro-Soviet flick, and one that I haven't seen. It's supposed to contain actual Soviet-suppled war footage, which would probably be worth seeing. Of course, the Hollywood rojos didn't require the nod from FDR, as Tender Comrade (1944), directed by Edward Dymytryk and scripted by Dalton Trumbo will reveal.
Four girls working in a defense plant decide to take a house together which they plan to run "the American way" -- you know, collectivization, show trials, execution of "wreckers"... While it doesn't go quite that far, the Soviet-style rhetoric, of a type never spoken by any human being not under the thumb of the KGB, is laid on pretty thick. This is the film in which Ginger Rogers' mother nixed the line of dialogue, "Share and share alike... that's the way we do things in America!" as communist propaganda. Smart woman. Ginger later became a diehard supporter of Ronald Reagan. Trumbo, on the other hand, got bounced good and hard.
With Gung Ho (1943) we move even deeper into the communist version of the twilight zone. The subject here is the Makin raid, carried out a year earlier by the First Marine Raider Battalion. The strangeness starts early, with the unit's commander (played by oater veteran Randolph Scott) explaining that he saw combat with "the Chinese army". This turns out to be the Eighth Route Army, that is, the one commanded by Mao tse-Tung. From that point on the dialectic comes fast and furious, with not a single opportunity for a lecture on class antagonism and the need for revolutionary action allowed to pass, exactly as if the screenwriters Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffmann knew they'd never get another chance and wanted to fit it all in. The irony here is that the story is based on actual events -- Evans Carlson, the "Red Marine", in fact served with Mao, became enamored of communism, and adapted Mao's ideas on guerilla warfare to establish the raider battalions.
The Makin raid was as close to an abject disaster as anyone would ever care to imagine. Men became separated, confusion reigned, Carlson at one point contemplated surrender, and although the Japanese base was destroyed, several men were inadvertently left behind and executed. Carlson's Raiders went on to more successful operations during the Solomons campaign and were the indirect ancestor of today's Marine Force Recon units.
None of this appears in the film, needless to say. The Japanese chatter wildly and run (very few wartime flicks -- Bataan is one exception -- portrayed the Japanese as the superb fighters they actually were), the Marines stroll in and begin playing the fool in a way only seen on film. One Marine climbs atop a Japanese headquarters building and, in the middle of enemy territory, paints an American flag on the roof. It's about twenty by ten, and is perfect, with not a single run, and takes him about ten minutes to complete. Why does he bother? Well, it seems that Japanese planes are on the way, and when they arrive, and see that flag, they bomb their own headquarters and save the Raiders the trouble.
Now this is pure Hollywood, but it's also, obviously enough, pure Moscow as well. Hubbard and Hoffmann evidently got clean away with it. I could discover no evidence that they were ever in any congressional committee's sights.
Gung Ho! wasn't nominated for an Oscar. I wonder why?
Action in the North Atlantic (1943), is something unexpected -- a halfway decent film. This is odd, since the picture was both written and directed by committee. But one of the directorial troika was Raoul Walsh, which goes a long way to explain the picture's quality. And one of the writer's collective (there were no less than four of ‘em) was John Howard Lawson, the Hollywood Communist Party head and the party's chief cultural officer, which explains the Stalinist propaganda.
Action in the North Atlantic deals with the Murmansk run, an almost forgotten episode of the war in which U.S. and British convoys supplied the Russians with Lend-Lease shipments. This required the convoys to head through the Iceland-UK gap, up the coast of Norway, across the Arctic Circle, and around the North Cape to Russia. Virtually all of this route was within easy range of Nazi bombers, U-boats, and surface warships, which made the run one of the most dangerous of the entire war. At least one convoy was effectively annihilated.
The first part of the film conveys this well through a series of running battles. On arrival in Russia, they're rescued at the last minute by Soviet warplanes which drive the Germans off, then welcomed by grateful, cheerful Russians shouting greetings as they dock. ("Tovarisch?" bluff old Alan Hale explains. "That means friend!" As in "comrade") Communist officials are cooperative and pleased to see their American allies.
All this took place somewhere in the back of Lawson's brain and nowhere else. The truth is that the Soviets refused to provide any escorts. (To my knowledge, this has never been adequately explained.) There was no contact between seamen and the locals, except when carefully arranged for propaganda purposes. The sailors were effectively quarantined aboard ship. There were even cases where badly wounded men were refused treatment in Russian hospitals.
Walsh, cynical old pirate that he was, would never have sat still for any such distortions, nor would Lawson have challenged him. So evidently all the agitprop was stuffed in when one of the other directors was at work. It would interesting to learn which one, and why Walsh didn't do the complete film.
Humphrey Bogart, who played the lead, is well-known for coming to the aid of the Hollywood Ten. What's not so widely known is how he reacted when the party started manipulating everyone involved for the purpose of cloaking its activities. "Those commies," he said, in a perfect Bogartism, "played us for suckers."
Lawson, of course, was one of the Ten. Found guilty of contempt, he spent a year in prison.
Not even the Red Scare itself put an end to these films. Caught (1949) was a kind of borderline film noir/women's picture (not unique even then -- Mildred Pierce was another). Directed by the great Max Ophuls, it was not one of his better efforts. The screenplay by Arthur Laurents is largely to blame.
James Mason, as an "idealistic" young doctor, spends most of the film ranting about the evils of money and capitalism and the virtues of the poor. This is completely irrelevant to the storyline (involving a young woman married to a wealthy, aging psycho) and grows so distracting that you begin to dread seeing Mason pop up. But the real peculiarity here is the "happy ending", which comes to pass when the female lead has a miscarriage. Now, you'd be hard put to sell an ending like that today. How it was done in 1948 I have no idea.
Ophuls returned to Europe to make better films. Mason's appearance in this botch doesn't seem to have hurt him much. As for Laurents -- he was blacklisted for several years, but recovered nicely and later inflicted The Way We Were on the world.
There are good reasons why the left doesn't claim these films. Instead, they try to take credit for other, unrelated films: film noir, which is supposed to represent a "Marxist critique of American society". (This is nonsense - almost none of the noir film-makers were leftists of any sort. Like all film buffs, I have my own theory concerning noir, which we don't have the space for here.), and the "social problem" films of the late 40s through the 50s, such as Gentleman's Agreement, No Way Out, and On the Waterfront. But the Hollywood Reds were either blacklisted or doing time during the heyday of these pictures. With few exceptions (Laurents wrote one, Home of the Brave), social problem films were liberal propositions.
No better example of the intellectual and artistic bankruptcy of the left exists than these films. They should have been allowed to make as many as they wanted. No blacklist, no Congressional hearings, no interference whatsoever. A couple dozen more like these and Hollywood communism would have been relegated to comic relief. Left alone, they'd have knocked themselves out.
Instead we got the legend of martyrdom, and hundreds of hours of foul ideological exercises, unto the present day. J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker