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

Excerpted form Chapter 1: A Movie Problem (footnotes omitted), from J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Sbardellati. Reprinted by arrangement with Cornell University Press. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

A Movie Problem

As soon as the Jews gained control of the “movies,” we had a movie problem.

— Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, 1921

The idea that Hollywood could be subversive is as old as the industry itself. The culture wars at the turn of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of mass amusements as a challenge to a Victorian America grounded in distinct class and gender divisions, especially in the realm of entertainment. This Protestant culture faced the challenge of new immigrants, many of them Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. As the forces of urbanization and industrialization transformed the nation, a mass society emerged and, along with it, a mass culture. Starting with nickelodeons in ethnic communities and spreading to movie houses across the nation, cinema quickly became the leading form of mass culture.

As middle-class defenders of the Victorian way struggled to maintain social control, they turned their attention to the screen. To their dismay, they found that control of the film industry rested in the hands of the very groups they sought to maintain in a position of subordination. As one historian notes, the movie moguls—predominantly eastern European Jews—were seen by the public as “part splendid emperors, part barbarian invaders.” The Hollywood Jews soon became the target of vicious anti-Semitic diatribes. For instance, in 1921 Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent branded Hollywood as

Jew-controlled, not in spots only, not 50 per cent merely, but entirely; with the natural consequence that now the world is in arms against the trivializing and demoralizing influences of that form of entertainment as presently managed… As soon as the Jews gained control of the “movies,” we had a movie problem, the consequences of which are not yet visible. It is the genius of that race to create problems of a moral character in whatever business they achieve a majority.

The image of a Jewish-controlled medium, therefore, was deeply intertwined with the image of a morally subversive Hollywood.

For some, film became synonymous with licentiousness. The theaters themselves were seen as dens of iniquity, where illicit activities could take place beneath the cover of darkness. In an era marked by steep concern over urban vice and “white slavery,” moral guardians believed that the exhibition of movies threatened a sexual revolution. What appeared on the screen did little to set their minds at ease. Genteel-minded critics fretted over the vulgar antics of Charlie Chaplin, whose penchant for bawdy humor enthralled many. Film critic James Agee recalled his mother’s objections to the comedian: “That horrid little man! …He’s so nasty!.. So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!” Others were outraged by Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), which tantalized audiences with a brief glimpse of Gloria Swanson’s bare breasts. Fearing the effect on society and especially on children, middle-class reformers, Catholic leaders, and activists in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union pushed for control of the screen. Censorship boards sprang up at local and state levels, leading finally to the industry’s adoption of a code for self-regulation in the early 1930s. The motion picture industry, as historian Francis Couvares notes, took shape not only as a result of economic imperatives, but cultural ones as well.

Hollywood, therefore, served as a leading locale for early twentieth-century culture wars, a moral and ethnic challenge to the established order. Often seen as subversive in this broader sense, the motion picture also acquired a reputation for political subversion as well. Political struggles over film content focused largely on class issues until the late 1930s, when fighting fascism consumed much of Hollywood’s political focus. During this earlier period, filmmakers on the left sought to use film to promote the betterment of the working classes, their messages ranging from calls for sympathy to demands for revolution. Their enemies on the right detected a grave danger in all of this, fearing a Communist propaganda conspiracy that could induce the masses to overturn the social order in the name of Bolshevism. In this cultural struggle lay the roots, though not yet the beginning, of Hollywood’s cold war.

This chapter traces the “movie problem” during the 1920s and 1930s, when political battles for control of the screen focused first on issues of labor and class, and then, as fascism threatened Europe beginning with the Spanish Civil War, on issues of foreign policy. In the early 1920s, government officials, led by J. Edgar Hoover and his Bureau of Investigation began monitoring filmmakers, fearing the production of films they considered Communist propaganda. In the wake of the first red scare, however, the bureau’s powers were stripped, and federal surveillance of filmmaking all but ceased. Concerns over Communist propaganda remained, however. During the 1930s, Hollywood’s internal censors in the Production Code Administration sought to prohibit the production of radical films. By many standard accounts they succeeded in this endeavor, but film can be a tricky medium. In the past decade historians have chronicled the ways in which some 1930s Hollywood films managed to convey left-of-center ideas despite this censorship. Indeed, as I argue in this chapter, even in some cases where the censors believed they had scored a victory, alternative (even radical) readings of the film in question remained possible. Despite the efforts of these officials, 1930s culture remained open to cinematic critiques from the left. America’s “movie problem” had only just begun.

The First Red Scare and the Movies

It seems fitting that the Bureau of Investigation was founded by a Bonaparte. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general, Charles J. Bonaparte, grandnephew of Napoleon I, created the agency as the investigative arm of the Justice Department, which had previously relied on Pinkertons or the Secret Service Division of the Treasury Department. The act went against Congressional desires to preclude “a Federal secret police,” but it was nonetheless part of Teddy Roosevelt’s “new federalism,” which initiated one of the greatest political trends in twentieth-century America, the increasing centralization of power under the executive branch. Indeed, this trend was evident within the Bureau of Investigation itself (which would be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935), for its power and jurisdiction would eventually grow well beyond the role initially defined by Bonaparte.

However, the man who would preside over most of the bureau’s growth and wield much of its power did not descend from European rulers but from American bureaucrats. John Edgar Hoover joined the bureau as a clerk in 1917. The job paid poorly, but it did provide an indefinite deferment from military service. Having mastered the filing system at the Library of Congress before joining the bureau, Hoover used his bureaucratic skills to assist his meteoric rise in the agency. His xenophobia and antiradicalism also suited him well, for his rise within the bureau mirrored that agency’s expansion, largely a result of wartime legislation (the Immigration Act, the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act). The postwar biennio rosso, or “red years,” witnessed further repression from the newly formed Radical Division, headed by Hoover under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer and Hoover soon started a deportation drive that, according to Richard Gid Powers, had as its real aim “a permanent alteration in American political culture by the setting of strict legal limits to allowable political dissent.” Known perhaps misleadingly as the “Palmer raids,” the Justice Department’s roundup of thousands in 1919 and 1920 was secretly orchestrated by Hoover. Palmer sought political capital for his planned presidential campaign, but his predictions of radical violence on May Day came to naught, and Senate hearings soon exposed the Palmer raids for what they were. Palmer was out as soon as the Harding administration was in. Hoover managed to survive.

Warren Gamaliel Harding won election to the presidency on a “return to normalcy” campaign engineered by Will H. Hays. Harding’s attorney general, Harry Daugherty, named William J. Burns as the new director of the bureau in 1921. There was a new assistant director too—J. Edgar Hoover. Burns and Hoover continued the antiradicalism of the Palmer days, but with much less publicity. Bureau surveillance extended beyond radicals to such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Communists, leftist college students and faculty members, even members of Congress who had been critical of the Palmer raids or who advocated recognition of the Soviet Union were monitored by bureau agents. Hoover managed to strongly influence the bureau, even in this early period, and he would shape the agency’s ideological mold over the course of his half-century tenure as “the boss.

In many ways, Hoover’s fears were America’s fears. As historian Anders Stephanson argues, America’s cold war ideology evolved from a deeply rooted tradition in which the polar extremes of “freedom” and its opposite (tyranny, slavery, totalitarianism) are in constant tension. Indeed, the “first principle” of this peculiarly American mindset “is the dynamic notion that freedom is always already under threat, internally as well as externally, and that it must be defended by those so called upon.” Thus, the American worldview proclaims a messianic national mission (city on a hill, white man’s burden, containment) while revealing a fundamental insecurity.

And yet Hooverism greatly intensified this traditional American insecurity. Hoover, after all, subscribed to what some historians term a “countersubversive” tradition, an ideology marked by intense anxieties regarding the danger of foreign and radical subversion. Countersubversives were those patriotic zealots who despised the radical Left with a fury. Their anti-Communism was irresponsible, their devotion to the cause often fanatic and at times irrational. They were spurred on by nightmares of conspiracy, by their endless lists of spies and subversives (some real, some imagined), and by the intense feeling that radicalism was akin to a contagious germ that would spread unless quarantined. Over the years Hoover would often compare Communism to a disease, insisting that “the Communist hopes to implant his Red virus and to secure a deadly culture which will spread to others.” Whether this disease discourse truly represented Hoover’s fears, or whether he employed this language merely for public consumption, Hoover was quite effective in mobilizing a countersubversive network consisting of government, civic, business, labor, and religious institutions. His bureau was soon at the center of this network.

Hoover was by no means all powerful or unique, but his position of power—he was named director of the bureau in 1924, a position he held until his death nearly half a century later—meant that his ideology and his idiosyncrasies could be transmitted into policy, sometimes with disastrous effects. Hoover’s personality loomed large over his subordinates. To a great degree he was able to institutionalize his own worldview within the bureau. His biographers describe the FBI as a “tightly centralized bureaucracy” in which “a virtual cult of personality” reigned. Perhaps unable to control each of his agents as strictly as he wished, “the boss” nevertheless ran a tight ship. He formulated stringent guidelines for his men, moral as well as professional. He insisted that agents undergo extensive legal training, and also that their personal lives comport with his conservative values. Bureau agents were expected to abide by a dress code and remain faithful to their wives, and they were subject to a rigorous merit-based system for employee evaluations. Furthermore, recruits consisted mainly of young men from the South and West, whom Hoover believed were more easily molded to his conservative worldview. Hoover’s agents were a tightly disciplined bunch, monitored for their performance, professionalism, sobriety, and even marital status.

Despite his traditionalism, and even despite his quirks, Hoover was no simpleton. He quickly gained a reputation as an excellent administrator, an expert at scientific management. At the time he took the top spot in the bureau, Hoover was described as a youthful, no-nonsense leader dedicated to professionalizing the agency by discharging the “gumshoe sleuths” and putting a high premium on agents’ legal training. His administrative reforms successfully centralized the bureau’s files and operations. Under Hoover, the bureau pioneered advanced techniques in criminal identification. One arm of the FBI, the Crime Records Division, operated simultaneously as a tool for public information and bureau publicity. The director transformed the bureau into an efficient, yet authoritarian, outfit molded closely to his own ideological predispositions and personal idiosyncrasies.

Parochial, Xenophobic, and Power Hungry

A supremely talented bureaucrat and manager, Hoover was also an odd man. His biographers describe him as “probably totally repressed.” He was a moralist who lived with his domineering Calvinist mother. He was a loner whose few companions were always men. He was parochial, xenophobic, and power hungry. A sickly youngster, he maintained a phobia of germs. He even “had his toilet in northwest Washington built on a platform to protect him from the menace of micro-organic invasion.” And Communists, to Hoover, were much like germs, for “he identified political radicalism with filth and licentiousness, neither of which ever failed to arouse in him almost hysterical loathing.” Hoover’s bureau evinced this hysteria in its acute fears of Communist propaganda in the motion pictures.

Independent left-wing filmmakers, not Hollywood artists, were the first to raise the bureau’s fears concerning film propaganda. In November 1920, the director of Connecticut’s Department of Americanization, Robert Deming, alarmed the Justice Department to the threat mounted by the Labor Film Service (LFS), a New York–based company that has been described by one historian as the most ambitious of the left independents in the 1920s. Deming received his information from Guy Hedlund, a protégé of D. W. Griffith and director of The Contrast (1921) for LFS. Deming forwarded the Labor Film Service’s literature, noting “a peculiar flavor about it that is not pleasant.” To this Connecticut official, the existence of the Labor Film Service “indicate[d] that Lenine [sic] and Trotsky are not short of agents in this country.” This information quickly made its way to Hoover, who soon had his own agents monitoring LFS. Hoover promptly shared bureau reports with the director of Military Intelligence. In short time, the Labor Film Service aroused deep concern on the part of many government officials. Given their politics, the countersubversives were right to fear the Labor Film Service. Headed by Joseph D. Cannon, a fiery union radical who was New York’s Socialist candidate for governor in 1920, LFS had very lofty goals. The company recognized its task as propagandistic, yet asserted that its films would be made “always on the basis of truth and fact.” Cannon proclaimed that the masses would flock to LFS’s quality-made motion pictures; not only would these films be popular, they would “serve as the most potent force for good in the country.” Such may have been the typical hyperbole of a fund-raiser, but, nonetheless, Cannon and his colleagues in LFS were idealistic, even romantic radicals who believed their films could serve as a vanguard leading the masses to a better society.

The Labor Film Service operated on two basic premises. First, it recognized film as the most powerful medium for education in modern society. “All the questions and problems of the day are finding their forums in the motion picture,” declared an LFS brochure. “From day to day, from every standpoint of life, the possibilities of the motion picture are widening, and its scope appears limitless.” Proclaiming that fifty million Americans attended the movies every week, LFS optimistically believed in film’s potential to spread its message to the masses.

If LFS’s first premise was inherently optimistic, its second was decidedly pessimistic. For these fifty million fell victim each week to the “predatory” capitalists who controlled the film industry, putting the nation’s screen to “perverted and prostituted uses.” That labor’s enemies controlled such a powerful tool did not thwart the LFS, however, for Cannon and his colleagues believed they could win the competition for audiences since their films would not be antagonistic to the very working classes who constituted the vast majority of filmgoers. Curiously, the way to beat the capitalists was to join them. The Labor Film Service incorporated itself, capitalizing at $50,000 with plans to increase to $250,000. Shares were $10 each. LFS sought a broad-based ownership, limiting shareholders to one hundred shares and stipulating that 51 percent of the shares were to be held by labor unions. Cannon hunted for investors in labor unions, promising a safe investment that would not only pay dividends but would also provide “a fair deal to labor in the moving pictures.” Cannon’s evangelicalism was not limited to investors, for men and women could join the cause by promoting LFS films as well. Cannon made assurances of Labor Film Service’s dedication to a broad distribution of quality films. If need be, LFS would even lease theaters “in the ‘best’ theatre districts.”

The Labor Film Service recognized the motion picture as the greatest tool for building a mass movement, especially at a time when postal censorship threatened the ability of the Left to promote its programs via pamphlets and periodicals. LFS planned to produce three types of films. Its “Industrial” films would promote unions; these documentaries would play in theaters, colleges, union halls, and churches across the country. Its “Animated Short Subjects” would portray American working-class life, from the mines and railroads to the slums and farmlands. Finally, its “Labor and Reconstruction” film series aimed to present feature-length dramas “based upon the writings of iconoclasts and aiming to stimulate interest along sociological, literary and artistic lines, thus laying the foundation for a great cultural work.” The group also aimed to supplement the films with a lecture series. Thus, the Labor Film Service sought to use culture to build a broad movement that would cut across gender lines to include liberals, radicals, and working-class men and women. LFS would unite the people under its wide umbrella and serve as “a crusading legion in the army of Human Betterment.” As its model, LFS looked to Soviet Russia. “In their campaign to win and hold the masses of Russian people to their program,” trumpeted an LFS brochure, “they are successfully using the motion picture to the utmost.” Such reverence for the Bolsheviks surely caught the eyes of Hoover and his fellow countersubversives.

The Labor Film Service produced its first feature-length film, The Contrast, in 1921. Written by Cannon’s friend and fellow Socialist John W. Slayton, The Contrast explored the struggles between coal miners and mine owners in Mingo County, West Virginia, where laborers were tormented by the company’s armed industrial police. The film took its title from the dramatic contrast between the destitute lives of the workers and the opulent lives of the owners. Director Guy Hedlund used cross-cutting techniques learned from D. W. Griffith to convey the disparity between rich and poor, stirring contempt for the former and sympathy for the latter. One segment flashes from a scene of a young girl digging for food in a trash can to the wealthy estate of an owner where even his dog feasts on a scrumptious chicken dinner. Reviewing this film, a bureau agent warned Hoover of seditious propaganda made “to stir up antagonism and hatred between workmen and their employers.” Hoover quickly dispatched more agents to investigate the Labor Film Service and other left-wing independent film production companies.

The bureau was not the only government agency then concerned with Communist propaganda in the motion pictures. The Los Angeles Police Department’s infamous Radical Squad regularly monitored Southern California communities, keeping tabs on members of the Industrial Workers of the World; Italian anarchists; Mexican Obreros Libres (Free Workers); ACLU members; pacifists; radical intellectuals; the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association; radical churches and women’s clubs; and a veritable host of trade and labor union locals, including carpenters, painters, butchers, and bakers. The LAPD also paid close attention to any instances of “Red Propaganda with Moving Pictures.” William F. Hynes, then secretary (and later captain) of the LAPD Radical Squad, was particularly concerned about the activities of the International Workers’ Aid (IWA), formerly known as the Friends of Soviet Russia. The IWA started as a relief organization for famine victims in Soviet Russia in 1921, but soon it set out to counter anti-Communist portrayals of the Bolsheviks in the popular culture. To this end, the IWA hired William F. Kruse, known as the “Camera man of the American Communists” according to historian Steven Ross. Kruse, who was monitored by both the Bureau of Investigation and the LAPD, produced several documentaries for the company, including one that truly agitated Hynes, entitled Russia and Germany: A Tale of Two Republics (1924).

According to Hynes, Russia and Germany was “purely Communist propaganda.” Hynes was well aware of the film before its premier in Southern California on October 24, 1924. He reported that the Friday evening screening at the Philharmonic Auditorium drew an audience of 1,200 and that the Saturday afternoon showing played to 250, mostly children. Hynes described the film as hyping Soviet “industrial prosperity” against images of “Germany filled with extreme misery and poverty.” The several close-ups of Lenin and images of “Russian children in fairy gardens and German children eating out of garbage cans” indicated clearly which path the filmmakers were advocating for Germany and, by extension, the rest of the world. Attendees at the screening also listened to an IWA speaker rail against the Dawes plan as an imperialist tool of foreign capitalists. Evidence suggests that in Los Angeles and elsewhere local authorities did not merely monitor screenings of radical films, but at times they took heavy-handed steps to prevent their viewing. One owner of a Pennsylvania movie house complained of an armed raid by the local police during a showing of Russia and Germany. Hynes himself later admitted to pressuring local theater owners to not show radical films.

Faced with such pressure, it is no wonder that several left filmmakers simply gave up on using film to promote their goals. Hynes reported that the City Central Committee of the Socialist Party of Los Angeles turned its back on using film as propaganda, believing that obvious attempts would be crushed, whereas “if the proposed propaganda was so subtle as to get by the Censor Board and the Capitalist Press… it would be sure to go over the heads of the picture-going public.” Other left independents struggled on, only to meet with greater hardship. Cannon’s Labor Film Service encountered many difficulties in trying to raise capital and folded by the mid-1920s. Kruse’s International Workers’ Aid pressed on longer, producing cheap documentaries and exhibiting Russian films, but even with stronger Communist support the IWA had trouble raising funds, and it lost its key leader when Kruse was expelled from the Communist Party for supporting Jay Lovestone, the American Communist leader who had himself been ousted from the Party for backing Stalin’s rivals. The left independent film movement of the 1920s suffered from too little funds and too much attention from the state. New left independents, most notably Frontier Films and the Workers Film and Photo League (a descendent of IWA through the Workers International Relief), would arise in the 1930s and 1940s to arouse the fears of government officials. These groups would encounter their own successes and failures; however, as Steven Ross argues, left independent filmmakers were always disadvantaged against the “growing power of the Hollywood studio system.”

But what if Hollywood itself proved subversive? Indeed, in 1922 the bureau detected a new and more serious threat when special agent A. A. Hopkins sent Hoover a report about the “Parlor Bolsheviki” groups in Los Angeles. Hopkins alerted his superiors that the radicals had made inroads into the motion picture industry when Charlie Chaplin hosted a reception for Communist leader William Z. Foster, a hardliner who would later supplant Lovestone as head of the CPUSA. “At this reception,” warned Hopkins, “the great importance of moving pictures with their educational and propagandist appeal for the cause of the labor movement and the revolution was discussed, and several instances cited where radical ideas have been or are going to be embodied into moving pictures as well as legitimate plays.” The bureau now worried about the potential that Hollywood itself—with its most popular star taking the lead—could be used to indoctrinate mass audiences with radical messages.

Chaplin was no accidental target. Through his tramp character, Chaplin created sympathy for the have-nots while often thumbing his nose at upper-class pretensions, as in The Idle Class (1921), or giving the boot to thuggish public authorities, as in The Immigrant (1917). This latter short feature challenged the prevalent atmosphere of wartime xenophobia, evidenced by the birth of the campaign for “100% Americanism” and the harsh nativism of vigilantes in the American Protective League. The picture opens at sea, with the huddled, starving masses, a hodgepodge of rogues and innocents, making their way across turbulent waters for “the land of liberty” (as one title card announces). As the ship approaches the United States, the Statue of Liberty draws its passengers’ reverent gaze, but Chaplin’s invocation of freedom is ironic, for the new immigrants encounter their first taste of liberty when immigration officers rope them off like cattle. Casting his lot with the foreign born did little to ingratiate Chaplin with the anti-Communists of the first red scare, especially given their tendency to suspect immigrants of radicalism.

This is not to say that Chaplin’s transgressions were limited to the ideological content of his films. To be sure, the Hopkins report, which circulated to bureau offices in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, as well as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., highlighted fears of the red menace other than those related to propaganda. Hollywood would henceforth be suspected for its financial contributions, and Hopkins notified superiors that Chaplin had allegedly given money to a representative of the Garment Workers Union, known only to the bureau by his notorious-sounding surname, Plotkin. Furthermore, in early 1921 a bureau agent interviewed Mildred Harris, Chaplin’s former wife, seeking evidence of Chaplin’s radical activities. According to the agent, Harris “gladly volunteered any and all information” pertaining to Chaplin’s leftist politics, yet she “was unable to provide agent with any definite information except as to her positive knowledge that Mr. Chaplin entertained socialist beliefs.” Despite giving little in terms of concrete evidence, Harris confirmed the bureau’s suspicions of Chaplin’s radical politics and propensity to contribute to left-wing causes.

The “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”

Yet the bureau worried most over any possibility of such political activity finding representation on the screen. Agent Hopkins warned that the threat of leftist propaganda included others besides Chaplin. For example, Hopkins singled out one “scenario writer by the name of Hochstetter (or some such name),” who supposedly would “for a rather large sum of money… put some radical Communist propaganda into scenarios in a manner that would do the greatest possible good to the cause” (italics added). Apparently “Hochstetter” went about his subversive activities as any good capitalist would, though Hopkins seems to have missed this irony. His report also differed from bureau reports of the 1940s by its greater emphasis on the possibilities “of radical propaganda finding its way into the stage.” As an example Hopkins pointed to The Fool, which played at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles and starred Richard Bennett as a clergyman who mediates a strike on behalf of weavers in Silesia. Hopkins asserted that in the play the minister, “being said to have the traits of Jesus as well as Dostoevsky’s Idiot,” succeeds in making “the Company accept the strikers’ terms (which results in a loss of millions of dollars to the concern) and does all kinds of other impossible things in defiance of the existing social system, in an attempt to bring about the millenium [sic].” Perhaps most alarming to these self-assigned defenders of “the existing social system” in the bureau, The Fool was, in Hopkins’s estimation, “a decided success here.”

Yet, whereas Hopkins emphasized the “threat” to both stage and screen, his superiors were interested solely in the latter. Director Burns soon sent instructions to Leon Bone, SAC Los Angeles: “In view of the seriousness of this situation, I desire that Agent Hopkins immediately prepare a resume report upon all information contained in his files covering the radical activities of the movie stars, particularly their efforts to circulate Communist propaganda in this country via the movies.” Even at this early stage, bureau policy was driven by a fear of propaganda in a medium that reached the masses. “This Communist propaganda in the movie industry should be followed very closely,” warned Burns, “in view of the effect which such pictures will have upon the minds of the people of this country.”

Burns soon sent a telling memo to Assistant Director Hoover. The bureau planned to share its information with Will Hays. In 1922 Hays, who after working for the Harding campaign served briefly as Postmaster General, left government to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA). Through this so-called Hays Office the industry attempted to better its image and to ward off government censorship through self-regulation. If Hays was ultimately on the filmmakers’ side, not everyone saw the advantage. The Hokins report had highlighted Chaplin’s distaste for the Hays Office, quoting the actor’s flippant remark that he and his fellows in the film community “are against any kind of censorship, and particularly against Presbyterian censorship.” Chaplin mocked the censor with a pennant he hung on the men’s toilet door in his studio: “Welcome Will Hays.” The bureau was not amused. The higher-ups fretted that in light of “the contents of Mr. Hopkins’ report, it would appear that numerous stars have very little respect for Mr. Hays.” From the bureau’s perspective, the situation was dire, for stars as big as Chaplin were unwilling to submit themselves to the righteous control of the Hays Office, yet were seemingly open to the “subversive” control of the Communists.

The bureau in fact moved immediately to warn Will Hays of the rebellious Chaplin. Hays was grateful for the information, and he informed the bureau that Chaplin was the only one in Hollywood who was “against everything” when it came to censorship. Hays remarked that he had found Chaplin to be “a little odd in his mental processes, to say the least” but that he was nevertheless surprised to learn of Chaplin’s alleged radical connections. Hays indicated his interest in receiving further reports from the bureau and offered his future services as well. “I want to have a talk sometime,” wrote Hays, “about ways and means of making certain that there is no seditious propaganda allowed to get into anything.” It is unclear whether such a meeting ever took place. However, it is likely that the bureau’s activities in Hollywood either ceased or were strictly limited for the next twenty years.

As Hoover would in the years ahead, William J. Burns allowed the bureau to serve the whims of his political superiors, but unlike Hoover, Burns did not survive the consequences. The bureau became embroiled in the Teapot Dome scandal, and when the dust settled Burns was gone and Hoover, having convinced new attorney general Harlan F. Stone of his professional and moral uprightness, managed to secure for himself the top spot of director. Stone placed strict guidelines on the bureau, but Hoover devised ways of circumventing these. Stone’s reforms basically instructed the bureau to stay within its jurisdiction as a “fact-finding agency” with the duty of collecting information for Justice Department prosecutions. But Hoover instructed his agents to disguise themselves as “confidential informants” in their reports, thus allowing the bureau to claim that it had ceased investigating radicals and that it was merely the recipient of such information. Nevertheless, the bureau remained a somewhat small and anonymous agency until Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanded its powers in the 1930s.

Yet its brief foray into the motion picture industry during the early 1920s, and the concomitant fear of Communist propaganda, foreshadowed the larger campaign in years ahead. The bureau was guided by a firm belief that radical images on America’s screens could brainwash the masses. But after its excesses during the first red scare era, the newly restrained bureau was left with little ability to patrol the national cinema. For the time being, such policing would have to be left to others. The industry itself determined to be the keeper of its own house, yet in the decade ahead, Hollywood seemed to become more radical, as even its new internal censors feared.

Hollywood’s Self-Regulation

The Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the motion picture industry during the 1920s foundered almost as quickly as it began, but concerns over the political content of films remained a potent, if still nascent, force. Though public struggles for film censorship during the 1920s and early 1930s usually focused on the cinema’s supposed moral transgressions, the leaders of an ultimately successful movement to control Hollywood’s output at the preproduction stage were quite sensitive to what they regarded as Communist propaganda intruding on the nation’s screens. The Production Code Administration, Hollywood’s self-regulating censorship board, embodied these concerns as it labored to excise radical themes from scripts before filming began. Though led by a staunch anti-Communist, the PCA’s business was to approve, not ban, films. Successful at meddling with plot lines and dialogue, the PCA did not succeed in ridding all potentially subversive images from the screen. Though the PCA has often been criticized by historians for effectively deradicalizing Hollywood productions, contemporary anti-Communists by no means believed that the battle had been won.

Calls for film censorship erupted in the earliest days of the motion picture industry. Moral reformers pressed for regulation, often demanding federal control. To ward off such efforts, the industry attempted to appease these forces by adopting internal censorship. The first effort along these lines was the creation of the National Board of Review in 1909. The board, though, was quickly rejected as far too lenient, and soon state and municipal censorship boards surfaced in places like Kansas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. By the early 1920s the National Board of Review came under heavy attack, and Hollywood’s image as the capital of subversion solidified even more after a series of sex scandals, the most notorious being Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for murder after an actress died at one of his allegedly orgiastic parties. To improve public relations, the moguls created the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922, turning to Will Hays as their chief spokesman. Hays eventually created the Studio Relations Committee in an effort to blunt further calls for censorship. The forerunner to the PCA, the SRC sought to implement the mandate of its founding document, the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” which ruled out profanity and nudity and called for the sensitive treatment of adult themes. But the transformation to sound stirred a new round of criticism of America’s seemingly licentious art form. Soon a group of well-organized Catholic leaders and laymen secured the adoption of a more extensive code in 1930 and a mechanism for its enforcement in 1934, transforming the SRC into the Production Code Administration.

Three of the leading conspirators were Martin Quigley, publisher of the Motion Picture Herald; Father Daniel Lord, S.J., a professor of dramatics at St. Louis University; and Joseph I. Breen, the man who would head the PCA for twenty years. At Quigley’s behest, Lord penned the new production code, a document that not only prohibited the risqué but also demanded that films reinforce traditional values by punishing their criminals and redeeming their sinners. The idea was not to expunge every seedy character from the screen, but rather to transform movies into morality plays presenting the stark contrast between good and evil. Quigley pushed Will Hays to arrange for the code’s adoption. A resident of Chicago, Quigley saw firsthand the inadequacy of government censorship. With its reputation for strictness, Chicago’s censorship board frequently banned objectionable films; such pictures made their way to Chicago’s screens nonetheless, for the film industry found ways to influence those officials who were tasked with upholding the ban. To Quigley the lesson was clear: if censorship was to be effective, it would have to be practiced at the level of production rather than exhibition. Quigley thus pushed for self-regulation by the film industry. To Hays such criticism was a welcome departure from the calls for federal censorship put forth by scores of Protestant reformers. Moreover, Hays recognized that implementing the new code would be the province of his office, thereby enhancing his power vis-à-vis the studios. Hays sought to work with these Catholic reformers to persuade the industry to adopt the new code. Their efforts succeeded in 1930, but the producers insisted on a concession that hampered the code’s enforcement. Whenever disagreement arose on interpreting the code, a jury of producers, rather than officials of the Hays Office, would make the ultimate decisions.

Indeed, the adoption of the code in 1930 did not quell further demands for stricter censorship. In the coming years a constellation of forces piqued a crisis in filmdom, ultimately leading to the creation of the Production Code Administration to enforce the code. Although at first Hollywood appeared to be immune to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, eventually the industry suffered a serious drop in weekly attendance. Box office revenue plummeted from $730 million in 1930 to $527 million by 1932. In an effort to win back their audiences, studios turned against the code’s provisions and released sensational films like Scarface, starring Paul Muni as the violent gangster, and She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West as a singer in a bawdy saloon, belting out the virtues of “A Guy What Takes His Time.” Catholic crusaders like Quigley and Breen believed that their efforts to secure the production code had come to naught and that the reason was clear. “Hays is not strong in qualities of leadership,” wrote Breen, then working for Hays in Los Angeles. “He does, as you have frequently suggested, pull his punches,” Breen confided to Quigley. “He raves and rants at us but seems to be in abject fear of certain of the executives of our member companies. Howard Hughes [Scarface producer] and Joe Schenck, for instance, have just given him the trimming of his life on the advertising and exploitation of ‘Scarface’. Boy, but Hays backed down.” The film industry, according to Breen, sorely lacked a vigilant watchman.

Something had to be done. Breen’s intense anti-Semitism informed his view of the problem. In 1932 he confided to Quigley,

I hate like hell to admit it, but really the Code, to which you and I have given so much, is of no consequence whatever. Much of the talk you hear about it from Hays, or [Jason] Joy [director of the Studio Relations Committee], is bunk. Joy means well. So does the boss, for that matter. But the fact is that these dam [sic] Jews are a dirty, filthy lot. Their only standard is the standard of the box-office. To attempt to talk ethical values to them is time worse than wasted.

Breen’s racist views would eventually guide his strategy of using economic pressure to subdue the moguls, a group that in his estimation valued only the bottom line. He worked with Los Angeles bishop John Cantwell, Cincinnati bishop John T. McNicholas, and other Catholic leaders to drum up a boycott movement against Hollywood. Hays, fearing the organized Catholic Legion of Decency far more than the multidenominational Protestants, sought to take the steam out of this effort by naming Breen his chief censor in December 1933. Breen, however, still needed to shore up his power. Over the next several months Breen and Quigley used the Legion of Decency to press for the termination of the producer jury system and the creation of a new internal censoring body, the Production Code Administration, with Breen as director. In the summer of 1934, the PCA was empowered by the agreement that studios had to submit scripts for approval before production and that completed films would require the PCA seal of approval before the MPPDA would distribute them. Breen and Quigley had scored a coup.

Photo (partial)
by F.J. Sbardellati

John Sbardellati is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Waterloo