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Hollywood Party; How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s

Hollywood Party; How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s

5.0 1
by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, Lloyd Billingsley, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley

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In the fall of 1997 some of the biggest names in show business filled the Motion Picture Academy theater in Beverly Hills for Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, a lavish production worthy of an Oscar telecast. In song, film, and live performances by stars such as Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey, and John Lithgow, the audience relived a time some fifty years before,


In the fall of 1997 some of the biggest names in show business filled the Motion Picture Academy theater in Beverly Hills for Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, a lavish production worthy of an Oscar telecast. In song, film, and live performances by stars such as Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey, and John Lithgow, the audience relived a time some fifty years before, when, as the story has always been told, courageous writers and actors stood firm against a witch-hunt and blacklist that wrecked lives and destroyed careers. Left untold that night, and ignored in books and films for more than half a century, was a story not so politically correct but vastly more complex and dramatic.

In Hollywood Party the complete story finally emerges, backdropped by the great upheavals of our time and with all the elements of a thriller—wrenching plot twists, intrigue, betrayal, violence, corruption, misguided passion, and lost idealism. Using long neglected information from public records, the personal files of key players, and recent revelations from Soviet archives, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley uncovers the Communist Party's strategic plan for taking control of the movie industry during its golden age, a plan that came perilously close to success. He shows how the Party dominated the politics of the movie industry during the 1930s and 1940s, raising vast sums of money from unwitting liberals and conscripting industry luminaries into supporting Stalinist causes.

In riveting detail, the shameful truth unfolds: Communist writers, actors, and directors, wealthy beyond the dreams of most Americans, posture as proletarian wage slaves as they try to influence the content of movies. From the days of the Popular Front through the Nazi-Soviet Pact and beyond World War II, they remain faithful to a regime whose brutality rivaled that of Hitler's Nazis.

Their plans for control of the industry a shambles by the mid-1950s, the Party nonetheless succeeded in shaping the popular memory of those days. By chronicling what has been left on the cutting-room floor, from "back story" to aftermath, Hollywood Party changes those perceptions forever.

"Mr. Billingsley's book is the best exploration I've seen of the Hollywood blacklist and the Communist Party's role in that conflict. Hollywood Party covers it all with insight, meticulous research, and some wry perceptions."

—Charlton Heston

"For years we've been treated to the left-wing version of the Hollywood blacklist. Now Lloyd Billingsley has provided us with the rest of the story."

—David Horowitz, author of Radical Son

"Now the whole story can be told; the blacklist was never black and white after all, but can only be depicted accurately in shades of gray. From this day forward, no future backstage history of Hollywood can be called complete without taking into account the evidence that Lloyd Billingsley has uncovered."

—Gary McVey, film curator, former director of the Los Angeles International Film Festival

"Hollywood Party is an absolutely captivating achievement."

—Richard Grenier, columnist and author of Capturing the Culture

About the Author

Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is the editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. He has served as California correspondent for the Spectator (London) and written for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. He currently divides his time between Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Southern California.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Breaks new ground.
Jonathan Foreman
...[I]t feels like an article that has been stretched, flattened, and teased into a very thin skein.
National Review

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.27(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.34(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Communism, Communists, and Cinema

WORKERS OF THE WORLD, arise, you have nothing to lose but your chains. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The dictatorship of the proletariat ruling over a class-less society, based not on the blind forces of the market but on scientific socialism. Progressing onward and upward, abolishing ignorance, oppression, poverty, injustice, and disease, until the state itself withers away, leaving humankind in a pristine, pre-Edenic condition of pure Communism ... forever.

    Such was the vision—biblical in force, with the lowly and down-trodden rising up to displace the powerful—prophesied by the German political philosopher and socialist Karl Marx. Marx believed that the Communist ideal would first become reality in a modern, industrial nation—in Germany, France, or even America. In fact, it took shape in a backward, mostly agricultural country, the largest on Earth and, as it turned out, an ideal base for the most significant mass movement of the twentieth century.

    In Vladimir Lenin's design, Communism would achieve a "new man" and would replace the exploited bourgeois relic of the past. In this utopian vision, the state would fade away, but in reality the state came to wield more power over its citizens than any other regime in history. In theory society might be classless, but in practice it was the most rigid class system ever conceived, a dictatorship over, not of, the proletariat.

    Lenin died in 1924, and by the end of the1920s, the reins of the revolutionary state had passed to the man who would be the impresario for all Communist Party activity over the next three decades. This man was a character no scriptwriter could invent, but from the beginning he fit the category of a "heavy," and he remained a towering figure throughout the Party's involvement in the Hollywood studios.

    Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, a Georgian seminary student who had never held a legitimate job, converted to Marxism and became a professional revolutionary. Around the turn of the century, he took part in hold-ups ("expropriations," the Bolsheviks called them) and often escaped from custody, disappearing into the underground. Standing five-foot-four and speaking Russian with a heavy Georgian accent, in 1910 he took the name Stalin, or "man of steel." Once in power he lived up to the name and methodically eliminated potential rivals, many of whom had played more important roles in the revolution than he. He sent Leon Trotsky, who had once referred to Stalin as "our party's outstanding mediocrity," into exile. Stalin remained true to Leninist principles by using terror as a means of policy.

    Marxist dogma called for the collectivization of agriculture, which Stalin set out to accomplish by any means necessary, whatever the cost in human life. He engineered a man-made famine in Ukraine, during which more than 5 million peasants died at the rate of 25,000 a day—a rate higher than in World War I, when 6,000 soldiers perished daily. Hitler killed his enemies, but Stalin eliminated his friends and associates as well as "enemies of the people." The three-step process was "arrest, try, shoot"; the purges claimed Lev Kamenev, head of the Red Army, and Grigory Zinoviev of the Party's Central Committee. As Vladimir Pozner, for years the Soviets' primary apologist in America, explained, "There were no dissidents; they were shot before they ever came close to dissenting." As one account had it, Stalin's execution squads worked day and night, but the shots were drowned out by the noise of the machines that were excavating new mass graves. By the end of the 1930s, the purges had claimed 10 million victims, a number greater than that of the Nazi holocaust victims, but only about one-quarter of the final death tally.

    With their penchant for secrecy and their closed society, the Soviets were able to conceal most of their crimes. Those who broke the story of the Ukraine famine were called liars, while Walter Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer for his stories that covered up the atrocity. Duranty and other defenders of the regime justified the action by saying, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Others went beyond that position.

    Bertolt Brecht, a German Communist and dramatist who practically invented the propaganda play, had traveled to America, where Communist Party cultural officials such as V. J. Jerome helped him stage his works. Marxist scholar Sidney Hook, who had come to know Brecht in Berlin, asked him about the purges. Brecht maintained that it was the Soviet Party that counted. "As for them," he said of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and the other purge victims, "the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to be shot."

    The industrialization of the Soviet Union proved more of a success, not because of Stalinist policy but in spite of it. A burst of industrialization and modernization in the Soviet Union took place during the Great Depression in America, when one-fourth of American workers could not find jobs, and people, their stomachs gnawing with hunger, scavenged for food in garbage cans. For many, the Depression seemed to provide evidence that capitalism, as the Communists so confidently proclaimed, was doomed and that the scientific socialism practiced in the USSR was indeed the wave of the future. Americans began to visit this great new experiment, touching off a wave of adulation for the Soviet Union and its leader, who was now considered the living embodiment of socialism and was known throughout his own vast domains as "Father," "the Sun," "Wise Leader," "Immortal Genius," "Great Helmsman," and "Unbending Commander." As Soviet historian Dmitri Volkogonov has noted, Stalin was "a great actor" and played the roles of commander, prophet, and statesman to the hilt. His performance drew rave reviews in America.

    "One must not make a god of Stalin, he was too valuable for that," wrote American journalist Anna Louise Strong, a headstrong Nebraskan who edited Moscow News, an English-language Soviet publication, and whose writings on the USSR were widely publicized in the United States. The most memorable phrase, however, came from one of Strong's colleagues, who would soon find himself stationed on Communist Party supply lines that led to Hollywood.

    Lincoln Steffens, born in San Francisco in 1866 and educated at the University of California, had pioneered the muckraking school of journalism, exposing corruption in American business and government in such articles as "Shame of the Cities." His widely influential Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens found fans in Hollywood, including actor James Cagney. A one-time admirer of Mussolini and his Fascist regime, Steffens did as much as any American to swing the idealistic youth of the thirties toward what Max Eastman called the "pro-Soviet parade." Steffens told Marxist scholar Sidney Hook that his own motive for supporting Communism was emotional, that he had given up trying to think things out and simply "felt" that the Communists were right.

    After visiting the Soviet Union, Steffens proclaimed the much-quoted line for which he is most remembered: "I have been over into the future and it works." He inspired thousands of others to step into the future for themselves. When the Americans arrived, the Soviets gladly led them on carefully staged tours, complete with fake building fronts, like those on Hollywood sets, that the Russians had used to convince the czar that all was well when it wasn't. The American visitors included screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg, son of mogul B. P. Schulberg, who made the trip and came away impressed, and writer Maurice Rapf, son of Metro Goldwyn Mayer executive Harry Rapf, whose tour of the USSR was sponsored by the National Student League. On his tour Rapf met fellow screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., like him an impressionable young man, open to new ideas.

    These pilgrims, like thousands of others, had made their first contact with Communism not in the USSR but through Communism's outreach campaigns in the United States. In 1919 the Soviets had established the Communist International, known as the Comintern, to control the national Communist parties outside of Russia, including the one in the United States. The Comintern selected Party leaders, set Party strategy, disciplined wayward members, and funded Party operations. The Communist Party of the United States not only accepted Moscow's control—no records exist of them disobeying an order—but actively sought it.

    "The Communist movement was psychologically a movement of political colonists determined to place the world, or as much of it as possible, country by country, under the sway of their government in Moscow," wrote Ben Gitlow, who ran for vice president as a Communist in 1924 and 1928. "We were volunteer members of a militarized colonial service, pledged to carry out the decisions of our supreme rulers resident at Moscow anywhere in the world but particularly in the land we were colonizing for Communism, the United States."

    The joke that the Communist Party was like the Brooklyn Bridge—suspended by cables—originated with the Party organizers themselves. "Moscow gold," as Party men called it, subsidized between one-third and one-half of Party operations, providing the American Communists with an infrastructure, including daily newspapers on both coasts, far beyond what their membership could hope to support. Russian-born Morris Childs, a graduate of the International Lenin School in Moscow and a former Daily Worker editor, headed the Communist Party apparatus in Chicago and came to be regarded by the Soviets as the American foreign minister. During a twenty-year period, Morris and his brother Jack transported $28 million in Soviet subsidies for the American Communist Party.

    Soviet money meant Soviet control, and even for high-placed officials, policy came from Moscow and was to be obeyed without question. Morris Childs himself had been assigned to Chicago by Comintern official Gerhart Eisler, who would later play a role in Hollywood's political intrigue. That intrigue began as a result of a change in tactics following a shift of the Communist Party line, which was diligently followed.

    "If the Party says you're going to China, you'll be on the next train or boat to China," Childs later explained. "If the Party tells you to climb a flagpole at midnight and hoist a banner saying `Power to the Peasants,' you'll scrape your balls climbing that flagpole at midnight. If the party tells you to quit and go underground, at that instant you're underground." In that underground, as decoded Soviet intelligence transmissions have revealed, Soviet agents referred to American, Mexican, and Canadian Communists as zemlyaki, "compatriots" or "fellow-countrymen," direct confirmation of Soviet control. Those who resisted that control or attempted to pursue an independent policy quickly found themselves purged.

    While some on America's homegrown Left urged evolution and ballots, the Bolsheviks had burst from the gates preaching revolution and bullets. The Communists made no appreciable inroads into American society until they softened their line. Instead of preaching class hatred and violent revolution, they adopted the strategy of the popular front, camouflaging class struggle with populist pieties and co-opting liberals to their causes. Instead of assaulting from without, both the open and secret Party members would bore from within.

    Marxist-Leninist doctrine taught that industrial workers were the key to the revolutionary transformation of society. Not surprisingly, then, the Party sought to champion the workers of the world. The Party played a leading role in protesting American unemployment, a condition that had led many to join the Party itself. By the late 1930s, a quarter of the total membership of the Congress of Industrial Organization's (CIO) members were in unions led by Communists. Harold Ware, a Communist farm-policy specialist, worked for the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Lee Pressman, lead counsel for the CIO, was a Communist who belonged to the Ware group. Another member of the Ware group was John Abt, chief counsel for the Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the Senate Education and Labor Committee.

    Nathan Witt, a secret Communist and former member of the Ware group, became the first secretary and a staff director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In that powerful federal post he hired many secret Communists, leading the NLRB to tilt toward the Communist-dominated CIO. Edwin S. Smith, one of the first NLRB commissioners, also became a close ally of the Communist Party, and after departing that post under pressure, he became a professional lobbyist for the Soviet Union.

    "The curiosity is not that there were undoubtedly many Reds that made government their vocation," wrote "Man from U.N.C.L.E." actor Robert Vaughn years later in a study of blacklisting, "but that the entire Communist Party was not on the federal payroll." For Eugene Lyons, former Party member, this was not much of an exaggeration.

    "Never before—or since—had all areas of American society been so deeply penetrated by a foreign nation and a foreign ideology," wrote Lyons. "Never before had the country's thinking, official policies, education, arts, and moral attitudes been so profoundly affected by the agents, sympathizers, and unwitting puppets of a distant dictatorship."

    The Communist Party enjoyed great success with "front groups," organizations they controlled without that control being publicly recognized. One of the major front groups, the League of American Writers, had been an outgrowth of the American Writer's Congress, an affiliate of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, headquartered in Moscow. During the 1930s, at the height of its success, the League even managed to enlist Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President of the United States.

    But the Communist Party had visions of something bigger. The founders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were fascinated with the cinema because they recognized that it allowed limitless alteration of reality, the very goal that they were attempting to achieve in real life. "Communists must always consider that of all the arts the motion picture is the most important," said Lenin, who sent cinema trains into the Russian countryside during the 1920s. As he explained in his 1936 address to the Commissariat for Cinematography, Stalin too was fascinated by cinema's endless possibilities, at home and abroad. "The cinema is not only a vital agitprop device for the education and political indoctrination of the workers," Stalin said, "but also a fluent channel through which to reach the minds and shape the desires of people everywhere."

    In 1926, Sergei Eisenstein, the USSR's premier cinéaste, made The Battleship Potemkin, a film about a sailors' mutiny. The Soviets used the movie as part of their labor organizing efforts. Joseph Goebbels praised the picture and said it should be the model for Nazi cinema. French actor Yves Montand, who was born to Communist Italian parents who fled to France from Mussolini's Fascist regime, said it was the dramatic Potemkin, not the turgid Das Kapital, that stirred his loyalties to Marxism and the USSR.

    The American Communist Party's early cinematic efforts with groups such as Frontier Films produced some documentaries of interest, but, despite praise for such movies in the Daily Worker, none of them captured the interest of America's moviegoing public. Even during hard times, doubtless partly because of them, Americans lined up and plunked down their money for the certified magic that Hollywood served up. In 1933, at the nadir of the Depression, impoverished New Yorkers paid $89,931 in four days to see King Kong, at the time a record draw for an indoor attraction. Party cultural officials, eager as Stalin to influence people "everywhere," duly took notice of Hollywood's clout.

    Hollywood was adapting the American dream, in which all men are created equal, into the view that all people's dreams should be created equal. Not long after the American film industry was established, Hollywood's entries were written large in the household books of virtually every nation outside the Soviet Union, and even Stalin enjoyed American gangster movies.

    The implications of such influence were staggering to those who were seeking to extend this major mass movement of their time. Stalin reportedly claimed that he could easily convert the world to Communism if he controlled the American movie industry.

    "One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda," wrote Comintern boss Willie Muenzenberg, "is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them."

    There, in the starkest terms, was the "back story" as the Communists saw it. A more daunting task could hardly be imagined, but based on their successes in controlling unions and entering other areas from within the New Deal, it was, in their minds, an entirely achievable goal. By the mid-1930s the tectonic shifts of history, and certainly the social and political conditions of the time, were all favorable to the Party, which was then moving from triumph to triumph. Hollywood loomed as one of its easier targets.

What People are Saying About This

David Horowitz
For years we've been treated to the left-wing version of the Hollywood blacklist. Now Lloyd Billingsley has provided us with the rest of the story.
— Author of Radical Son
Richard Grenier
Hollywood Party is an absolutely captivating achievement.
— Columnist and author of Capturing the Culture

Meet the Author

Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley is the editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. Formerly the California correspondent for the London Spectator, he has written for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Daily News, and San Francisco Chronicle. He divides his time between Sacramento, the Bay Area, and Southern California.

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Hollywood Party; How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading the book I was very impressed by the author's research. I could not help feel pity for those honest people of Democratic Socialist (Sweden)ideals,which there were many in the 1930's, who had their careers runied because they got too close to the Communist Party and did not see in time that it was no better than the Nazis they professed to despise. Edward G. Robinson was one of these people who tired to repair his reputation for the rest of his life. Katherine Hepburn along with other numerous intellectuals of the time espoused the ethos that Marxism was no different than Catholism as an ideal which preached social justice. Although the argument does contain a certain degree of logic it fails to see the Soviet System for what it was - exactly as Ronald Reagan described it AN EVIL EMPIRE. The human rights abuses occuring under Stalin were well known even during these years and many Ulltra Liberals of the time overlooked them. Much like the Hollywood Stars of recent years all too often overlooked human right abuses in Cuba, Nicaragua, the former USSR. This books biggest contribution was to forever shatter the myth that the Hollywood Ten were innocent victims of a witch hunt. It also transports the reader back in time when even educated Americans like Edward G. Robinson & Katherine Hepburn were far more politically Naive than today.