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

John Sbardellati

Between 1942 and 1958, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI conducted a sweeping investigation of the motion picture industry to expose Hollywood's alleged subversion of "the American Way" through its depiction of social problems, class differences, and alternative political ideologies.

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.

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