'J. Edgar Goes to the Movies' Illuminates Our Times

by Jedd Beaudoin

2 October 2012

One of the more interesting moments of the last century gets a fresh look and offers new perspectives on what was and what might come to pass.
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J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War

John Sbardellati

(Cornell University Press)
US: May 2012

In the wake of 9/11, there was talk that Hollywood films had somehow helped the hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks of that day conceive and even realize their actions. That may be a hazy memory for some, but for others the slap of the suggestion still stings.

There was a period, shortly before that, when suggesting that films could pose a threat to national security could be met with little more than scoffs. But we must remember that in the years before television arrived, films were perhaps the most popular form of American entertainment. According to John Sbardellati, author of J. Edgar Goes to the Movies: The FBI and The Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War, in those pre-TV years, more Americans went to movies each week “than to school and church combined.” This made the motion picture industry subject to demands by the FBI, the house Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), each persuading the industry to portray American ideals on the silver screen while suppressing those that threatened––or could threaten––the American way of life.

Hard to believe, but one of the worst offenders of its time was Frank Capra’s holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life. By today’s standards the film seems little more than a rallying cry for the milquetoast, but at the time of its 1946 release it was considered perhaps the year’s most dangerous film as it “subverted unwilling audiences by encouraging class consciousness”. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) comes off as a classic Scrooge and George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) such an agitator that it was feared that the American public would discredit banks. The goal of this characterization, according to an FBI report from the era, was to malign “the upper class [while] attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters”.

The FBI’s ire was not so much directed at the film’s star (James Stewart) as its director, Frank Capra, who was suspected of having leftist leanings and whose 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was noted as equally problematic because of its leftist politics. As Sbardellati notes, a great irony of the FBI probing is that screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett––men who were not avowed Communists––were skewered in Bureau notes, although the investigation failed to uncover a dark truth about the film––that noted Communist Party members “Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and Michael Wilson had all performed uncredited work on the script”.

However, the FBI and other such organizations were not imagining that Hollywood had liberal politics. There was the rise of the Popular Front “a political coalition that brought together Communists, liberals, and other leftists” and “envisioned itself addressing a vast working class audience that would be simultaneously entertained, informed, and mobilized”. This movement was antiracist and deeply antifascist and was as concerned about the spread of fascism within North America as it was elsewhere.

Anti-Soviet sentiments were hardly ironclad during the era. World War II saw the US and the Soviets allied and thus a smattering of pro-Soviet films emerged during a time when no one “could be both patriotic and pro-Russian.” The pro-Russian sentiments were not the result of liberal elites in Hollywood, however. This was the work of the Office of War Information (OWI), eager to see heroes and villains on the silver screen that encapsulated the political sentiments of the nation at that moment.

World War II, Sbardellati writes, proves the pivotal moment in the story he tells in the pages of J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies. Although global concerns about Communism emerged after the war, domestic concerns, especially as they pertained to Hollywood, began much earlier. In a climate that was not entirely hostile to the Soviets during the war, Communists within the Hollywood machine “sought to use film to critique society, promote reform, and provide a moral justification for the war in keeping with a left/liberal vision of progress”.

In our collective memory we tend to see the controversies and concerns outlined in Sbardellati’s book as having arrived with McCarthy and the era after World War II had come to an end. But, in fact, this was already well in play by the time that the HUAC trials began in 1947. The trials are detailed here––including the “embarrassing” testimony given by Ayn Rand about the film Song of Russia, a film that ultimately offered little more than “typical Hollywood entertainment”. The HUAC trials were not without their benefit––Hollywood Communists and Hollywood liberals became united in political action, launching an effort to resist before the trials got underway.

Resistance may or may not have been ultimately necessary. As Sbardellati writes, “the FBI never developed direct means for stifling the production of Hollywood films it deemed communistic.” Wanting to dodge claims of “thought control”, the FBI was instructed, by Hoover, to keep its focus on the collection of facts. The simplest way of getting rid of Communist propaganda in films became getting rid of the communists themselves. As Sbardellati writes, the efforts of HUAC in 1947 yielded ten men who could be identified as Communists. He adds, perhaps with a dose of the grim, “During the next decade, the blacklist claimed the careers of at least three hundred.”

Sbardellati spends part of the book’s final chapter discussing Rand’s role in the anti-Communist movement––and it should be of interest to all and doubtless a point of alarm for others that “Rand’s brand of strident anti-Communism [was] so out of fashion in the literary world of the 1930s, her abhorrence of collectivism, and her insistence in including the New Deal under this rubric, placed her on the right-wing fringe, both politically and artistically”, something that perhaps accounts for a resurgence of interest in her work within the last five years. Try, though, as she might, her ideas and ideals were not accepted in the same way that Hoover’s were. “‘Hooverism,’” Sbardellati writes, “not ‘Randism,’ served as the guiding force” of how the struggle against Communism was presented to American audiences in the years to come.

In the end, too, it was liberalism and not Communism that won out. Perhaps Sbardellati’s book is perfectly placed in our current era when questions about what it means to be American and how certain political ideologies are defined are at the forefront of our speech, actions, and thoughts. The author takes his time in unfolding his argument and perhaps its pacing is detrimental to the book as a whole––this narrative takes uncommon patience, even among skilled historians––but the wait and the journey are worth it, if no other reason than it asks us to consider what was and what might yet come to pass.

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War


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