Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story behind America's Favorite Movies


Radical Hollywood is the first comprehensive history of the Hollywood Left. From the dawn of sound movies to the early 1950s, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner trace the political and personal lives of the screenwriters, actors, directors, and producers on the Left and the often decisive impact of their work upon American film’s Golden Age.

Full of rich anecdotes, biographical detail, and explorations of movies well known, unjustly forgotten, and delightfully bizarre, the book is “an ...

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Radical Hollywood is the first comprehensive history of the Hollywood Left. From the dawn of sound movies to the early 1950s, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner trace the political and personal lives of the screenwriters, actors, directors, and producers on the Left and the often decisive impact of their work upon American film’s Golden Age.

Full of rich anecdotes, biographical detail, and explorations of movies well known, unjustly forgotten, and delightfully bizarre, the book is “an intelligent, well argued and absorbing examination of how politics and art can make startling and often strange bedfellows” (Publishers Weekly). Featuring an insert of rare film stills, Radical Hollywood relates the story behind the story of films in such genres as crime, women’s films, family cinema, war, animation, and, particularly, film noir.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Spectacularly informative." —National Review

"A highly readable, affectionate history that invites a new appreciation of our most distinctly American cultural creations." —Z Magazine

"A bounty of fun facts about a flood of movies from the 1930s and 1940s." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Publishers Weekly
Hollywood and politics have always had a complicated relationship that changes decade by decade (seen as too liberal last year, Tinseltown is now being courted by Beltway bigwigs to produce patriotic entertainment), and this groundbreaking account of leftist influence in Hollywood from the 1920s to the '50s is an intelligent, well argued and absorbing examination of how politics and art can make startling and often strange bedfellows. Buhle and Wagner (A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left) mix exhaustive research and political acumen to produce a detailed analysis of progressive politics in the work of writers, producers, directors and actors. While the book is generously studded with often startling examples (e.g., the 1940s Hopalong Cassidy films written by Michael Wilson were replete with leftist political messages), its real force derives from the authors' astute and judicious untangling of the complicated webs of relationships, politics and economics that produced some of the most important films and genres of the period. From the anticapitalist themes of gangster films such as 1931's Public Enemy and the explicit and, for its time, shocking antilynching message that screenwriter Hugo Butler inserted in Mickey Rooney's 1938 Huckleberry Finn to the underlying class-struggle implications of film noir and the proletarian subtext of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Buhle and Wagner examine not only the political beliefs of the artists but the ever-shifting political contexts in which they functioned. This is one of the few complete and cohesive histories of the history of progressives in Hollywood and is an important contribution to the literature of film and politics. B&w photos. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In the Thirties and Forties a generation of actors and screenwriters shaped by the Great Depression, the New Deal, the Soviet Union, the rise of fascism, and the new militancy of labor unions looked to Hollywood as the ideal way to reach the masses. An assortment of leftists, hard-line Communists, and fellow travelers worked on scripts in all genres. Though only bits and pieces of leftist ideology may be discerned in the completed films, much of it hardly radical by today's standards, Buhle (American civilization, Brown Univ.) and Wagner (former political editor of the Arizona Republic) contend that it was in the film noir genre that these radicals made their lasting impact on American films. They describe the hard-bitten, cynical, world-weary noir films and the contributions of future blacklisted like Abraham Polonsky, Albert Maltz, and Dalton Trumbo. Owing to the lack of first-person narratives, the authors struggle but are unable to bring this era to life. Also, the discussion of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Casablanca is superficial, rarely revealing more than previous evaluations. To fully understand the radical era and how it led to the blacklist, this work should be supplemented by titles like Buhle and Patrick McGilligan's Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, Walter Bernstein's Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist, and Robert Vaughn's Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. This effort is an appropriate supplemental purchase for large public and academic film collections. (Index not seen.) Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Terrific material on Hollywood resisters, marred by imprecision and excess. Buhle (American Civilization/Brown Univ.) and journalist Wagner attempt to "capture the rich texture of the lives of those ... Hollywoodites named in congressional hearings during the late 1940s and early 1950s as ‘subversive.' " Co-author of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist (1997), Buhle knows his subject and reveals it in his extensive background on leftist golden-era screenwriters and players like Michael Wilson and John Howard Lawson, who were affected by blacklisting. Also interesting is the ongoing analysis of how film genres like fantasy, noir, and westerns were reshaped by their left-leaning writers and actors. But these two strong elements, though the focus of the narrative, are regularly obscured by profuse side information and commentary that generates contentiousness rather than illumination. For example, most people are identified in terms of their relation to the cause: "left-leaning screenwriter (later semi-friendly witness) Melvin Levy"; "French Catholic radical critic Andre Bazin"; etc. Perceived opponents are dismissed; Catholicism is negatively conservative; and the Judeo-Christian tradition offers only "reaffirmation of the social order." Anachronistic modern-day lingo applied to historical figures (for example, the description of Depression-era screenwriter John Bright's wife, Josefina Fierro, as "the leading Chicana of the Left") compromises overall believability. Also aggravating are the authors' many questionable assertions presented as fact: that no later film of Katharine Hepburn's approached the accomplishments of left-wing-written Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (howabout The African Queen?); that Hollywood drove Clifford Odets's self-opinion so low that "giving names was only one more self-abasement" (an excuse?); that Warner Bros. required a "happy ending" for its films (what about White Heat?). Such comments don't diminish the authors' good intentions, just their trustworthiness. So crammed that it belies navigation and so committed to its cause that it erodes believability: a text that provides ample background but limited enjoyment. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565847187
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 5/1/2002
  • Pages: 460
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Buhle is a retired senior lecturer in the American studies department at Brown University. He is a co-author, with Dave Wagner, of Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies and the editor of Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, Studs Terkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaptation, and A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, all published by The New Press. Buhle is the founder of the Oral History of the American Left archive at New York University and a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of the American Left. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has continued actively producing books of comic art, including Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land and Bohemians: A Graphic History.

Dave Wagner is a journalist and critic who lives in Tempe, Arizona. He was a contributor to Tender Comrades, co-author of A Very Dangerous Citizen, and has contributed to several film journals. He was political editor at the Arizona Republic from 1993 to 2000.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Screenwriter's Fate

    VETERAN WRITER W. R. BURNETT was on hand in 1930 for the Los Angeles premiere of the pace-setting crime drama Little Caesar, but as the credits were announced, he stirred in his seat, deeply frustrated. Proud studio officials introduced actors, director, and cinematographer onstage and finally—almost as an afterthought—the ultimate literary source. The emcee reportedly quipped, "there always has to be a writer," to which an embittered Burnett claims that he stage-whispered, "Screw you!" Burnett's description of a primal incident at the birth of sound film, demonstrating the indignity of the writer's trade, sidesteps one crucial element. Burnett was actually the novelist and not even the more important half of the film's two-man screenwriting team. His characteristic disrespect for the actual script ("it wasn't very good") typified the ways in which the ostensibly ignored and abused novelist remained still a head taller than the screenwriters. Conspicuously unmentioned at the same opening, their absence subtly suggested that perhaps there didn't really need to be that kind of writer at all.

    Francis Faragoh, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, had taken over the script from a failed first attempt at adaptation and rewritten it from top to bottom, slicing away larger and larger parts of the novel to give the screen version what turned out to be its genre-creating credibility. A former theatrical avant-gardist hailed by The New York Times for his achievements, Faragoh was to experience ups and downstypical of the screenwriter's Hollywood, including prestigious assignments in some of the first color films to enduring family favorites. Unionism and left-wing politics, scarcely in his mind when he left New York, nevertheless shaped his studio career, his social and personal life. Faragoh offers a picture-perfect example of the truism that radical screenwriters were not born but made. Little Caesar also fairly presented for the first time the curious contradiction that the crime story along with women's films offered the right genre for the early exploration of social discontent and the subtle evasion of political censorship by the skilled writer.

    In the beginning, with the slow rise of silent film and sudden emergence of producer-merchandisers in giant studios, the writer's job had been truly a mystery. Directors and important actors often composed the film plots as they went along, seeking to avoid repetition of details from some earlier movie while providing essentially the same package of saleable entertainment. Writers first broke in as "captionists," toiling for the studios to develop dialogue through explanatory sentences or "intertitles," and then eventually the plots. As film stories began to become more complex, around 1910, story departments were set up with two main purposes: to analyze material submitted for possible use, and to monitor (or mine) sources like Broadway theater, slick magazine fiction, and best-selling novels for ideas. The increasing difficulty of outright plagiarism, always a quietly happy notion in Hollywood, propelled studio executives to import proven talent. Except for European exiles, the outsiders were mostly New Yorkers.

    But hardly radical ones. The sudden spurt of studio growth around 1920 created a demand for more writers—limited to those willing (with the rarest exceptions) to toe the political line. During the "new era" of apparently limitless capitalism (but also of the so-called Soviet Menace), the diversion of the masses' minds from social change to personal escape was openly discussed, and not only in the business or Marxist press but as a ready fact of life. It was as common a topic as scientific management ("Taylorism") or expanded overseas sales of American commodities generally. The steady stream of anti-Bolshevist or antiunion movies seldom drew big audiences, but writers were expected to celebrate the society of abundance even while drawing upon exotic themes, exploiting star appeal with sexual innuendo, and reproaching certain kinds of evildoers.

    From a more value-neutral viewpoint, movie production also reorganized along lines already adopted by the makers of automobiles, steel, chemicals, and other commodities rationalized for domestic and international sales. Studio insiders set themselves to the task, complicated by the continuing chaos of the market and by the predilection of rising moguls, to staff their operations with relatives. Contemporary automobile makers if not the machine-tool makers who supplied the parts also had to please the public's current fantasies, even to create them. But there was a difference: Henry Ford and his competitors rarely had to bring in the equivalent of a noted playwright or novelist and then domesticate his or her creative energy. That was the rub, all around. The sound era once more multiplied the demand for writers, this time tenfold, virtually overnight. It also heightened the natural tensions between creative impulses and business practice at the historical moment of capitalist breakdown.

    The global movie industry had already faced political and artistic challenges unknown in America. After the First World War, when the French lost their short-lived monopoly on world film production outside the United States (where French films were also heavily distributed), there arose in virtually every film capital from Moscow to Rome to Berlin a new generation of filmmakers whose political allegiances were solidly on the left. They were antiwar as a matter of course, in the wake of the recent horrors, and committed to telling stories of the vast urban populations at a time when censors and conservatives suppressed tales of crime and hunger as insults to national character. And so it was that a new, worldwide popular art with progressive political shading emerged, not only deeply rooted in the century's rapidly developing electromechanical technology but also in the social relations of the emerging industrial-urban population alongside social movements that were most closely identified with that population.

     Back in the United States, themes of sympathy for the worthy poor and ridicule for authority had managed to find their way to the silent screen, usually in the guise of the heavily gendered melodrama or the antic Keystone Kops styles, but also in the artistic and overwhelmingly popular "Little Tramp" pictures. With fitting symbolism, the formation of United Artists in 1919 by Charles Chaplin and his star-colleagues Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mary Pickford signaled the first of many efforts to defend creative control as well as distribution and profits from the effects of monopolization (more properly, oligopolization). UA succeeded—but only for its own small production team, spurring limited-scale "artistic" production in later decades. At the "Poverty Row" end of undercapitalized studios, independents grew up almost as fast as they collapsed, and were replaced by fresh contenders without offering serious competition to the mainstream. The giants themselves waxed stronger or weaker, merged and even sometimes collapsed. But they never lost confidence or overall control of the market until the late 1940s, when unexpected weaknesses found them at their most overgrown.

    What Abraham Polonsky observed at the end of the century had been true almost from the beginning, that radicals and serious artists had dreamed endlessly of escaping the studio system. Some did. But major filmmaking took place almost exclusively within it at least through the Second World War. Scatterings of insurgents had to find their way within the maze and monopolies, not even to make peace with the less abusive sections of it but simply to create a workable niche for themselves and their friends. With genius suitable to the rapidly evolving medium, capable of creating a serious as well as brilliantly humorous cinema, the talented writers, along with their acting, directing, producing, and technical counterparts, needed the studios. Their talent for subverting the conservative standards of Hollywood film, usually deployed only within very limited ways until the close of the 1930s and even beyond, found expression in subtleties that managed to evade censors and critics alike.

    These needs were likely to come together, in the short run, in sometimes highly curious ways, under the radar of political censorship but verging on the radar screen for censorship of other kinds. Neither crime films nor women's films allowed glimpses of a better world. But rebellious criminals gave audiences license for their outrage at the consequences of the economic collapse, and rebellious women gave female viewers in particular the psychic reinforcement that many craved. Studio assignments found radicalized writers more than prepared to turn in lively scripts on these subjects.

    The studios were fortunate in another, closely related sense. By the last few years of silent films, Broadway had entered a lush moment along with the lively neighborhood and college theaters. Plenty of talent was available for the asking, and more on the way with the invention of the stage musical thanks to the concatenation of a sophisticated audience, talented actors, flourishing producers, and a circle of mostly Jewish lyricists and composers. And here we might take a first glance at a curious contradiction from within the consolidating studio system: that the rank and file of the opposition developed deep within the entertainment business at large and frequently from the most unexpected comers. Not a single genre would appear less susceptible to radical intervention than the musical, and no one—neither studio chiefs nor the musical artisans themselves—suspected just how progressive-minded these young men were to become or how heavily they would pay for it.

      To commence with a single and improbable example: Ira Gershwin, who would host the anti-blacklist Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) meetings of Hollywood progressives in 1947, emerged as a major popular composer during the 1920s with Broadway hits in collaboration with his more famous brother, George. Ira's film credits stretched from Shall We Dance (1937) to Funny Face (1957). In 1929, former businessman Yip Harburg—who had been on hand in that famous moment when the first piano was delivered to the Gershwin family flat—began writing lyrics with the encouragement of his lifelong pal Ira, who effectively prepared Yip for future collaborators and film-score writers. By 1932, Yip had a hit show and had written to fellow future blacklistee Jay Gorney's shtetl-inflected melancholy tune the ultimate radicalizing musical statement of the Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" After various ups and (mostly) downs in Hollywood, Harburg recast the structure of a collapsing musical production through his songs, effectively realizing The Wizard of Oz (1939). He personally put the age-old radical "rainbow sign" into the movies, a feature absent from Oz's Populist literary original.

    To take another fascinating if less spectacular example of the unexpected species of insurgent musical talent, sometime Broadway actor and stage manager Edward Eliscu, who worked with future Hollywood giant (and blacklistee) Sidney Buchman in Adirondacks summer entertainment, also began writing lyrics with some success during the late 1920s. The Depression's crushing effect on Broadway and a fortuitous call from Hollywood offered him a new setting; according to his testimony, he came West without a single self-conscious political impulse. Inside of a year, his songs, along with the gag routines of leftish Henry Myers and a young Joseph Mankiewicz, marked the hilariously anti-Establishment Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Diplomaniacs (1933). Thereafter, Eliscu accommodated his skills to Eddie Cantor (himself soon to be an ardent actor-unionist and outspoken antifascist) in routine studio work.

    Like Eliscu's intimate friend Mortimer Offner, a boyhood pal of Hungarian-Jewish director George Cukor and a frequent early screenwriter for Katharine Hepburn, and like his writing mentor, Francis Faragoh, Eliscu was gaining maturity. Buchman, Gorney, Harburg, Eliscu, Offner, and Faragoh would all go on the blacklist not so much for their deep political attachments—only Faragoh gained any prominence in Communist Party circles or even seems to have belonged for an extended period—as for their personal experiences and their loyalty to one another as Jews and as progressives in an uncertain America.

    Hollywood of the early 1930s did not by any means rely wholly upon the training grounds that theater supplied, but it could not have come up with prestigious writers otherwise, or easily filled what Marxists might properly label the "reserve army of mental labor." In the depth of the Depression, studios had on staff something like eight hundred writers, full- or part-time, including lyricists. The story departments also employed within and outside the studios hundreds of "screen readers" of potential film-worthy material, men and a scattering of women from all backgrounds, intellectuals who (with left-wing guidance) eventually formed their own militant union but also often turned their jobs into stepping-stones writing scripts.

    Actor-director Irving Pichel, one of the studio insiders who could rightly be called a cinematic theoretician, observed later that the emergence of sound at first seemed to set back film innovation a notch or two. Studio heads, who never lost their low regard for the former caption writers, saw themselves taking full advantage of the availability of theatrical plays by having it both ways. Now that they possessed ready-made scripts for sound production, they immediately sought to simplify movies into "screen plays," minimizing the expenses and trouble of increasingly sophisticated camera work that had been more and more skillfully realized in silent film; meanwhile, they could ignore the intentions of the playwrights as well, ordering rewrites according to formula.

    These self-serving assumptions turned out to be doubly false. Audiences demanded and got steadily advancing innovations in technique and narrative, while writers insisted upon the point (without the personal prestige or power to drive it home) that film always began with the story. Studio executives, accepting these realities, nevertheless sought once more to make the best of the situation, subordinating nearly every creative impulse to their own authority.

    Formulas came quickly to the sound era, especially as mostly newer film stars were recognized and merchandised through feature after predictable feature, much as earlier stars had been in the silents. In the standard narrative woven by film historians, one cycle of films after another follows in the Golden Age, influenced by the trends of censorship and by the technical integration of the narrative film process, even more by what the studios took to be passing audience fads. At first inspiring dozens of imitations and then exhausting a genre from sheer popular weariness, such cycles simultaneously demanded the birth of new subgenres. Most of the successful writers who were not stuck in the low-budget "series" (like Westerns) followed the trends by virtue of the projects assigned them.

    This narrative, repeated so often and so usefully to describe the thinking of studio execs and the films of the most famous Hollywood stars, is less adequate to explain the fuller scope of film production and of screenwriting. The gangster film, for instance, no longer at its apex after the middle-to-late 1930s, never really goes away. Like other styles or models, its elements survive in more complex or sophisticated films; but in reduced form, the gangster film simultaneously sinks into the B genres with endless variations. Likewise, what has been described as the "comedian comedy" predominant in the early 1930s, based upon a vaudeville style of stage action breaking up a thin plot rather than the plot becoming the basis for comedy (as in more sophisticated comedy-drama ascendant in the later 1930s), returns and actually reaches new heights of production during wartime, when low-budget films are turned out at an all-time rapid clip.

    The same could also be said of other major genres, from the melodramatic women's film to that all-time B staple, the cowboys. In the usual succession of developments, formula comes to film production, then creative expression, then still more creative expression, and then a lot more formula until television takes over almost all of it, except for the most violent and salacious of the lower genres. Even there, the humblest film spinoff requires a writer.


Excerpted from RADICAL HOLLYWOOD by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Copyright © 2002 by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

1 The Screenwriter's Fate 1
2 The New Deal, the Rise of the Hollywood Left, and the Jewish Question 56
3 Genre Realized: The Radical World of the B Film 111
4 Success, but at Any Price? The New Deal Film and the Marketing of the Popular Front 154
5 War on Two (or Three) Fronts 202
6 Film Commentary and Theory in Midpassage 261
7 Politics and Mythology of Film Art - The Noir Era 321
8 To the Bitter End 369
Epilogue 437
Index 449
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