Andrew Feffer: Review of John Sbardellati's "J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War" (Cornell University Press, 2012)


Andrew Feffer is associate professor of history and co-director of film studies at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

One of the big questions in the history of Hollywood is: what difference did the blacklist make? Did the purging by the studios of hundreds of suspected Communists in the 1950s change the character of American film? Or was Tinsel Town’s drift toward vacuous entertainment the inevitable product of America’s post-war prosperity, of consumerism, suburban tract housing, automobile culture, drive-ins and teenage demographics?

Historian John Sbardellati approaches this question through the movie theater’s back door, opened, so to speak, by an unwelcome member of the audience, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who obsessed about the political messages he believed were creeping across the silver screen. Hoover became preoccupied with the “injection” of left-wing propaganda into film first in the early 1920s and then again at the beginning of WWII, as the federal Office of War Information (OWI) encouraged Hollywood to present a favorable image of the Soviet Union, our ally as of December 1941. Once the United States entered the war in full force in 1942, Hoover ordered the Bureau to conduct surveillance of films and filmmakers deemed overly enthusiastic about the Soviet experiment.

Thus began a troubled relationship with the movies that lasted until the end of the 1950s. As we know from other histories of FBI surveillance, from several recent Hoover biographies, and from the ongoing release of previously classified documents (many available on-line), the FBI director’s paranoia about Communist and other left-wing “infiltration” into American politics and culture knew no bounds. Such was the case with his interest in Hollywood.

At first, the Bureau focused on films that indeed emerged out of the Popular Front, the coalition of left-wing, Communist and liberal activism that led American reform movements during the Great Depression. Few American films promoted a substantially socialist perspective, even in the depths of the depression in the mid-1930s when the American left enjoyed great popularity. Instead, the broadly left-liberal “cultural front” of that period shifted American cinema toward a “democratic modernism” that built screen stories and characters around realistic portrayals of ordinary Americans. This “laboring of American culture” in Hollywood, as Sbardellati puts it (following historian Michael Denning), created a legacy of “social problem films” like Black Fury (1935), Dead End (1937) and Crossfire (1947). There was no “radical Hollywood” during this period, yet “some Hollywood movies provided glimpses of radical thought, moments of social critique, and appeals for reform.”

The few overtly political messages Communists in Hollywood managed to get up on the screen tended to be compromised by studio concerns about box-office revenue. Meanwhile, the industry’s system of self-censorship, established in a series of production codes, prevented overt reference to the class conflicts unfolding in American industrial cities and towns. Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration at the height of its power in the late 1930s, strongly resisted any negative portrayals of industrial management, bankers and the rich. When he was done with Michael Curtiz’s Black Fury, a sympathetic treatment of labor’s role in the Coal Wars that ravaged mining communities in the 1920s and 30s, Breen had turned the film into a criticism of labor agitation that tempered public anger at the coal companies.

Once the United States entered the war, Hollywood’s depiction of Communism superficially changed with the appearance of films boosting our strategic alliance, such as Mission to Moscow (1943), North Star (1943), and Action in the North Atlantic (1943). At this point, Hoover became alarmed that filmmakers represented our newly acquired Soviet ally too positively. Mission to Moscow, based on the best-selling tract by former American ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph Davies, especially vexed the FBI director. Though it is true that the film (also directed by Curtiz) baldly misrepresented Stalin’s show trials and polished up the grim reality of Soviet life, Mission to Moscow (endorsed by the OWI) did little more than recognize Soviet sacrifices in the struggle against fascism, barely laying on more propaganda than similar films about “plucky” British endurance of the blitz, such as Mrs. Miniver, the previous year’s winner of six Oscars. Yet, Hoover and the Bureau fretted that Davies’ and Curtiz’s cheerleading would promote Communist Party recruitment in the United States.

It was not just Popular Front films like Mission to Moscow that set off Bureau alarm bells, however. Among the films the FBI considered dangerous were Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1947) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which the Bureau considered “decidedly socialist in nature.” Bureau analysts assigned to review films after the war complained that William Wyler’s Best Years of Our Lives, which swept the 1946 Oscars and was widely praised for its sensitive treatment of the travails of returning veterans, “portrayed the upper class in a bad light” when the GI played by Dana Andrews loses his seat on an airplane to a cigar-smoking businessman. The Bureau condemned perennial holiday favorite It’s a Wonderful Life for its “rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers” by making the Lionel Barrymore character, a financier ruthlessly taking over a small town from traditional savings and loan institutions, “the most hated man in the picture.” Indeed, Hoover and his Hollywood informants tended to see Communist propaganda in the most implausible places, even innocent comedies like Buck Privates Come Home (1947), in which Abbott and Costello play veterans who smuggle a French war orphan into the United States. Prompted by the fact that a suspected member of the Communist Party co-wrote the script, the Bureau concluded that the film made “the audience unnecessarily class conscious.”

Sbardellati’s study, based on a strong familiarity with FBI archives and declassified documents, brings several new perspectives to the history of the Hollywood Red Scare. First, the culture of anti-communism that Hoover spearheaded emerged long before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) started browbeating Hollywood writers (1947) or Senator Joe McCarthy waved his ever-growing list of alleged Communists in the State Department (1950), the points at which most people believe the anti-communist witch hunt we misleadingly call “McCarthyism” started. Thus, like a growing number of historians, Sbardellati recognizes the Red Scare began before the start of the Cold War, at a time when our Soviet allies posed no geo-political threat to the United States.

Second, at the heart of Sbardellati’s study is the argument that, contrary to conventional assumptions, the post-war Red Scare more or less began in Hoover’s office, certainly as far as the persecution of Hollywood Communists and liberals was concerned. Thus, HUAC (the focus of most histories of this sordid episode in American cultural history) was “more follower than leader.” Unfocused and inconsistent latecomers to the Hollywood witch-hunt, the congressional anti-communists were largely steered from behind the scenes by Hoover, whose interest in Hollywood production was far more carefully thought through and planned than historians have allowed. This is not an entirely new argument, though some of the characters (notably Hoover and his Special Agent in Charge of the Hollywood investigation, Richard Hood) have been brought out of the shadows by Sbardelatti’s research.

Moreover, Hoover was mainly driven by moral and political concerns that were very similar to those of production code enforcers like Will Hays, Breen, and the Catholic Legion of Decency. HUAC’s blacklist, in this version of the history, well served Hoover’s need for cinematic rectification, and effectively ended the “democratic modernism” Sbardellati admires in pre-blacklist American films: “The purging of left-wing artists brought an end to a brief, though vibrant period of filmmaking in which liberal reform and social criticism from the left found its way onto America’s screens.” Thus, “the Red Scare in Hollywood was about the movies after all” (3) and not just about politicians grabbing the spotlight from Hollywood stars or about just getting rid of Hollywood reds. Here Sbardellati takes a bold, if incomplete and implausible, step in an entirely new direction, by contending that the Hollywood Red Scare’s guiding ideology also can be traced back to the FBI director, whose obsessive preoccupation over America’s moral purity and his desire that more Americans adhere to a set of values centered on Christianity and the family drove his insistence on the surveillance and persecution of liberals as well as Communists in Hollywood. Rather than McCarthyism, Sbardellati suggests that we should perhaps be talking about “Hooverism” at the core of the “countersubversive tradition” that triumphed after the war.

Yet, even on Sbardellati’s own evidence, the case for “Hooverism” is not especially convincing. There are too many characters and too many arguments in the plot of this book to trace the Hollywood Red Scare back to J. Edgar’s office. To be sure, the FBI censorship campaign (and it was nothing less than that) was a “very thorough operation,” compiling between 1942 and 1958 a huge number of files on people and organizations. And it had its desired effect. The information in FBI files (including stolen documents and illegal wiretap transcripts) enabled HUAC to entrap the Hollywood Ten (the initial group of blacklistees) into lying to Congress about their party membership (and thus forcing them to jail). And the power to threaten studio personnel made the blacklist, initiated by the studios under pressure from conservative politicians, possible. In part because of that threat the number of “social problem” films coming out of Hollywood dwindled in the 1950s.

And what of the other players? One has to remember that HUAC and other Congressional and governmental agencies acted on their own scripts that responded to broader shifts in American political culture affecting box office revenues as well as social geography and demographics. Many of these trends were indeed political, and here I think Sbardellati is right to emphasize the intention to block inconvenient truths from reaching the silver screen. But one could also say that such intentions originated in the Production Code Administration in the 1930s or the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) both of which figure prominently in Sbardelatti’s account.

Speaking of which, did J. Edgar go to the movies? From this study, it is not at all clear that he did. According to Sbardellati, the FBI director depended on his agents and informants (many of them from the MPA) for their “intelligence” on film content. One wishes this book did more to make the case that it was Hoover’s own perspective shaping the content of American film. Or that it did a more thorough analysis of what that cinematic perspective was and used Hoover’s experiences with movies to reconstruct its genealogy. That will have to wait for another book about J. Edgar going to the movies.

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