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New Wars, Old Politics: An Activist Reviews Hollywood Then and Now

February 16, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

Years ago, Philip Dunne remembers, movies were strictly entertainment, an outing with a girl on Sunday in New York. Then came the 1930s and 1940s. Hollywood people divided into ideological camps, left and right, even in the commissary at 20th Century Fox where Dunne worked as a screenwriter, an associate of Darryl F. Zanuck and a director.

The connection between movies and politics really hit him when the right wing started attacking "Grapes of Wrath," a powerful statement about poverty and the Depression. "I got a telegram from director John Ford, who was in New York for the opening, saying, "Give me an excuse for having made this picture."

Dunne wired back just two words: "The picture.'

Dunne, in a 1986 interview, had no sooner agreed that Hollywood isn't as political today as it was in the '40s--or at least that the product isn't as political--than he thought of "Rambo" and what it says about war. He changed his mind.

No matter what you could accuse Hollywood of years ago, "you still had the idea that war was a bad thing," Dunne said, reflecting on both his life in the film business and on his activism, a role described by movie critic Andrew Sarris as an "old-fashioned Bill-of-Rights and freedom-of-speech liberal."

King Vidor's film, "The Big Parade," about World War I, never romanticized war; its title was more or less satirical, Dunne said. "All Quiet on the Western Front" showed that "beauty and truth are the inevitable casualties of war." During World War II, there were gung-ho, flag-waving, send-the-Marines films but even then, one of the heroes was inevitably killed. In contrast, "Rambo" features an orgy of killing and stirs what Dunne called "a mindless bellicosity" in its audience.

"You never before had a glorification of war to this extent. There was always a problem. War wasn't good." Altering attitudes toward war is "a very strong political statement," Dunne said. "Unfortunately it seems to be right in tune with a good deal of the feeling today."

Dunne, 78 this month, has been active in Hollywood and in Democratic politics in California for decades. He arrived in California in 1930 and soon was working for Zanuck at Fox. He was the screenwriter for "How Green Was My Valley," "Pinky" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," among others, and directed "Prince of Players," "Blue Denim" and "Ten North Frederick," adapted from the John O'Hara novel.

Dunne may well have inherited a concern with politics and precision with language from his father, Finley Peter Dunne, creator of the fictional Mr. Dooley, a turn-of-the-century commentator with opinions on "ivrything." His father was a purist who had "a deep suspicion of all politicians," Dunne said. "But he wasn't annoyed when I took up an active political life. He rather liked it."

Dunne doesn't think "a career in movies qualifies you particularly well for high office" except in the public-relations sense; he was once jolted to find himself called "the hidden boss of California politics" by columnist Drew Pearson. A founder of liberal Americans for Democratic Action, Dunne was also in the thick of the fight against Hollywood's blacklist that drove out of the business--or underground--those who were, or had ever been, or who only may have been, members of the Communist Party.

Although not a blacklist target himself, Dunne believed that "if anybody is a victim of a witch hunt, then everybody becomes a potential victim."

"It was a despicable time," he added. The frustrations after World War II created a witch-hunt mentality that gripped the government and the movie industry. "We'd won the war. We talked about one world. And we had the United Nations. We had defeated the monster. Hitler was buried and the whole thing had been won and yet . . . .

"And yet, there was another monster." How much of a monster the Soviet Union may have been then wasn't really defined but it was an unpalatable dictatorship, to which a splinter group of Americans adhered.

Ronald Reagan, who frequently talked about how he defeated the communist menace in Hollywood, was actually using the accusations to build himself politically, Dunne said. That so-called menace "never existed," he said. "At the time the blacklist started there was still a fairly strong, viable, actual Communist Party in Hollywood. In the 1930s it had been much stronger because it was part of the Popular Front (against fascism). By the 1940s, it was much diminished but it still did exist. So to some extent it wasn't entirely a straw man . . . . But according to Reagan they were about to take over Hollywood. This of course was not true at all. There was no way they could have taken over this amorphous, headless monster that is the movie industry."

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