Here's what most people know about the clash between Washington, D.C., and Hollywood involving Communist influence over the film industry: the House Committee on Un-American Activities led an organized witch hunt against writers and actors with left-wing sympathies, creating an environment that led to a blacklist destroying many talented people's careers. But some insist this isn't the whole story. "It's a false parallel. Witch hunt!" wrote Molly Kazan, whose husband Elia testified before the committee, saved his career as a film director, and earned enmity from Hollywood liberals continuing to the present day. "The phrase would indicate that there are no Communists in the government, none in the big trade unions, none in the press, none in the arts.... No one who was in the Party and the left uses that phrase. They know better."
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley works to fill in some of the historical gaps with Hollywood Party. The information on the role of Communist (and Communist- sympathetic) screenwriters is not particularly revelatory to those familiar with the basic outlines of the story, although Billingsley pushes the Communist angle hard, noting the Party's lockstep support of Stalin and what might charitably be called his "policies," as well as the vicious backlash against any leftist who spoke out against the Communists. His chronicle of Communist efforts to control the studio workers' unions, however, illuminates a less glamorous but perhaps more substantial aspect of the story. Those in search of celebrity dirt will be mildly disappointed; there are several star-studded scenes, but mostly mild anecdotes on the level of Ronald Reagan's gradual realization that, as an SAG activist, he was being played for a dupe by the Reds. Unless, that is, Billingsley is writing about a Communist or a fellow traveler, in which case no personal quirk, from screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's penchant for working in his bathtub to Bertolt Brecht's lack of hygiene to left-wing journalist Ella Winter's mannishly short hair, is overlooked. -- Ron Hogan
From Publishers Weekly
The Soviet Union's demise, the release of spy-era files and the 50-year anniversary of the year in which Joseph McCarthy wielded lists of supposed Communists like so many sickles, has prompted new studies on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and Cold War politics. Examining accounts of movie industry unions, money trails between Russian Communists and American Communists, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and other groups' response to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and industry insider allegiances and betrayals, Billingsley throws a wet blanket on the gushing self-congratulation with which the entertainment world has memorialized the Hollywood Ten and the era of blacklisted writers and producers. The House Committee and the blacklist it spawned, he contends, were no simple versions of the Spanish Inquisition. Not everyone accused and even persecuted was innocent of the Communist label; not every Hollywood figure told the truth. Heroes and villains, he points out, were not nearly so clear-cut as movies, like the 1991 DeNiro feature, Guilty by Suspicion, and gala events like Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, a recreation of the HUAC hearings, would have us believe. On this point, Billingsley convinces, supplying what he calls "backstory" to subvert the assumption that the House Committee was pure sham. Filled with specific details of infiltrators and full-fledged activists, his study discloses veins of Communist influence within the studios of that era. But Billingsley also attempts to prove that a battle for control over movies themselves was nearly lost to Communist "seduction," and with this provocative charge, his argument falls apart. The stories he documents of director Edward Dmytryck, writer Dalton Trumbo and countless lesser players, who he accuses of championing themes that were consistent with the Party line, fail to add up to an underground movement to smuggle Communist ideology into American cinema. Its racy subtitle notwithstanding, this volume ultimately fails to provide a convincing picture of those dramatic times.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.