Andrew Feffer: Review of Steven J. Ross's "Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics" (Oxford, 2011)


Andrew Feffer is Associate Professor of History and Co-Director, Interdepartmental program in Film Studies at Union College.

Long before Rupert Murdoch used his media empire to sway his first election, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer put Hollywood’s shoulder to the wheel of American politics. A close friend and advisor of Herbert Hoover (and Hoover’s first overnight guest at the White House), Mayer actively mobilized friends and associates to bankroll a string of Republican politicos through the 1930s and 40s. Not satisfied with mere influence peddling however, Mayer also used the film industry’s cultural and technical resources to twist elections to the right, in one notorious instance producing and distributing a series of doctored newsreels that turned public opinion decisively against Socialist Upton Sinclair’s bid to become California governor in 1934. 

In this thoroughly absorbing account of Hollywood’s impact on American politics, Steven J. Ross argues that Mayer’s interventions were more typical than not.  We have been made accustomed to viewing Tinsel Town as a hotbed of radical and liberal agitation.  But in fact when measured more carefully over the hundred years of its history, the film industry’s political weight has leaned far more heavily to the Right than the Left. For every Jane Fonda, there has not only been a Louis B. Mayer (eulogized as “an ardent enemy of pseudo-liberals, Reds, and pinks” by one of his admirers), but also other studio execs the vast majority of whom ruthlessly protected their business interests by supporting Republicans for keeping taxes light, making regulations weak and turning a blind eye toward industry corruption. Like Mayer, whom actress Helen Hayes declared “[n]ot just evil, but the most evil man I have ever dealt with in my life,” studio bosses practiced a thoroughly unscrupulous political activism, even forcing their employees (most of whom were politically neutral) to contribute to conservative Republican political campaigns.

Additionally, and perhaps more ominously, Mayer and his politically connected executive assistant, Ida Koverman, mentored studio protégés such as actors Robert Montgomery and George Murphy to promote conservative positions in film industry unions; each served as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s. Ross argues that such political mentoring built a stable of celebrity spokespeople for right-wing causes before and after World War II.  It also paid off by “creating a leadership cadre that would influence the political direction of the industry and the nation in coming years.” Murphy went on to run successfully for the United States Senate in 1964, paving the way for Ronald Reagan to capture the governor’s mansion in Sacramento two years later. As Ross points out, Murphy guided Reagan from his early liberalism to his leadership of the new conservative insurgency in the 1960s and finally to the White House in 1980. Ross’s excellent treatment of Reagan’s political education puts it in the context of a broader film industry conservatism, filling in details absent from earlier works by Michael Rogin and Garry Wills.  

Ross does not neglect the Left’s contribution to Hollywood politics, but his examples tend to reinforce the conclusion that the film industry tended toward a solid and even extremist conservatism. The cases of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson confirm Ross’s picture of a Hollywood intolerant of even liberal dissent. Chaplin, a British citizen who supported radical causes and spoke out against a growing militarism in the United States and abroad, was run out of town (and the country) on the basis of spurious allegations about his patriotism and loyalty. Robinson, well known in the industry for contributing to and actively supporting anti-fascist organizations in the 1930s, found his career ruined in the 1940s and ‘50s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities which, with the collusion of the studios and the Screen Actors Guild (led at the time by FBI informer Reagan) vilified Robinson as a Communist sympathizer in Congressional hearings and the press.  Robinson never belonged to the Communist Party, despite his strong commitment to the struggle against fascism and to the preservation of civil liberties.

To be sure there were liberals in Hollywood and even radicals and Communists.  Writers, directors and actors joined the Communist Party and participated in front organizations during the 1930s in part because the industry engaged in unfair practices that pushed employees leftward, mainly into the trade union movement. One screenwriter noted that when Mayer with the support of other studio heads forced on employees a fifty-percent across-the-board pay cut, he “created more communists than Karl Marx.” That may have been an exaggeration, but certainly a couple of hundred film makers and technicians (out of tens of thousands who worked in the industry) joined in the Popular Front against fascism as the Depression ground on and authoritarianism at home and abroad grew uglier and more brutal.

But, as Ross argues convincingly, liberals and socialists in the film industry did not consolidate power as effectively as conservatives. To a great extent Hollywood’s conservative bent was determined by a popular preference for the Right over the Left.  Apparently, Chaplin’s mildly radical criticisms of industry in films such as Modern Times (1934) got him too far ahead of public opinion. But those same fans tolerated equally political, nationalist and even racist rhetoric from right-wing stars, like Montgomery, Murphy, fascist sympathizer Mary Pickford, and rabid anti-communist Adolph Menjou. We forget too easily how many Americans had favorable views of Hitler even in the late 1930s, and how readily they attacked stars like Chaplin for producing films like The Great Dictator (1940), accusing its director and star of joining a Jewish conspiracy to drive the United States to war. Referring to Chaplin’s rare appearance in a speaking role as the poor Jewish barber mistaken for the dictator Hynkle, Ross observes, “he opened his mouth and lost his fans.”

Ross has organized the book neatly and entertainingly around the political biographies of eight actors and one studio executive. The chapters on Harry Belafonte’s involvement in the civil rights movement and Jane Fonda’s opposition to the Vietnam War offer no revelations, but they are useful accounts of the effective but largely isolated activism of Hollywood’s most notorious leftists. Ross’s best chapter covers Warren Beatty’s pivotal role in George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, a disaster for the Democratic Party but an important watershed in the history of liberal politics. To his solid archival research, Ross adds exceptional interviews with Beatty’s political associates documenting the young actor’s importance as a party operative and reformer. As McGovern put it to Ross, “I wouldn’t have won the California primary and then the Democratic nomination without the efforts of Warren Beatty.”

This brings us to the book’s shortcomings. One might ask, why these particular actors (and this one studio exec) out of the dozens of Hollywood activists that have appeared throughout the decades? Why Mayer and not the Warner brothers? Why no directors or screenwriters? And why only one woman? Fonda is a good choice, especially given her notoriety. But the industry produced quite a few politically outspoken women of the Right and the Left. Surely Ross could have included one or two more of them, especially someone who like Fonda addressed the repeatedly pressing questions of gender equality. To some extent such limitations are a consequence of Ross’s choice to organize the book around individual political biographies. But some greater diversity certainly was possible. 

Another weakness of the book is more difficult to explain away. While he does an excellent job reconstructing these nine political lives, Ross less effectively advances our understanding of the broader currents of American cultural politics. By design this is not a heavily theorized book. But it draws conclusions that require a bit more analytic depth than Ross provides. According to Ross, Hollywood conservatives won out with a politics of “fear and reassurance” against a liberal politics of “hope and guilt,” a rather weak observation on the culture industry’s contribution to our political heritage. Equally weak is Ross’s assertion that conservative celebrities like Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded politically because they instinctively understood that Americans like to consume their politics from non-political sources such as Entertainment Tonight. Ross seems happy to leave it at that, even implausibly suggesting that such civic degradation helped create “a more engaged electorate.” 

Still, Ross convincingly argues his main point—that conservatives have ruled Tinsel Town far more consistently than liberals. And, the book is a thoroughly engaging read, something enlightening to take to the beach, with plenty of gossipy ammunition for cocktail party skirmishes over the corrupting influence of “Hollywood liberals.”

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