YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hollywood's fellow travelers

Red Star Over Hollywood The Film Colony's Long Romance With the Left Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh Encounter Books: 310 pp., $25.95

October 23, 2005|David M. Oshinsky | David M. Oshinsky is the George Littlefield professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of several books, including "A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy."

IN 1946, Time magazine observed that many movie stars, "horrified at the thought of being considered bloated capitalists, favor leftish causes." There was a message here that too many celebrities -- a dozen or so were named -- had moved beyond the political mainstream and that a price would have to be paid. The following year, a House committee began an investigation of communism in the film industry, the effects of which linger in Hollywood to this day. Old scores were settled, former friends became lifetime enemies and those who defied the committee were packed off to jail. A blacklist quickly circulated, denying work to hundreds of "Reds" and their sympathizers, loosely defined.

How does Hollywood choose to remember this dark episode in its history? Very selectively, to be sure. A host of movies have appeared -- "The Way We Were," "The Front," "Guilt by Suspicion," "Fellow Traveler," "The Majestic" -- with the same basic script: Cold War America was a nation in the grip of hysteria. Cynical, Red-hunting politicians had singled out Hollywood to generate maximum publicity for themselves. The people they targeted were most often harmless dreamers with some vague past connection to the political left. Although a handful did buckle under the pressure of the blacklist, most stayed true to their ideals by refusing to answer the committee's questions or by lecturing their inquisitors about the true meaning of Americanism. These were the heroes, and this version of events has been bolstered by a flood of memoirs and histories, the most influential being Lillian Hellman's "Scoundrel Time" and Victor S. Navasky's "Naming Names."

But not all scholars agree with this scenario: Over the years, some have laid part of the blame at the feet of Communists in the movie industry; their work, however, when not debunked as a smear against the innocent, has largely been ignored.

This may be about to change. In 1983, Ronald Radosh co-wrote "The Rosenberg File," an account of the 1950s atomic-spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, based largely on FBI reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The book's main conclusion -- that Julius Rosenberg ran a key espionage ring for Stalinist Russia -- enraged large parts of the American left. (That Radosh turned out to be correct made it that much worse.) More recently, he and others have emphasized the slavish devotion of American Communists to Moscow in the years just before and during World War II -- a devotion that turned dozens of party members into Soviet spies.

Radosh, then, has been trolling these waters for years. His views are largely anathema in the history profession, where left-wing legends die hard. His latest effort, "Red Star Over Hollywood," co-written with his wife, Allis, is a first-rate, if occasionally overheated, account of moviemaking's long-term love affair with the left. Anchored mainly in the 1930s and 1940s, the book deals with the likes of James Cagney, Elia Kazan and the Hollywood Ten -- not with the politics of outspoken contemporary figures such as Tim Robbins, Barbra Streisand and Michael Moore.

The misery of the Great Depression triggered a left-wing tilt among artists, writers and performers. Then came World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union joined in opposing Nazi Germany. Against this backdrop, the American Communist Party portrayed itself as an independent organization devoted to world peace and economic justice. It thrived as never before.

Penetrating Hollywood, the Radoshes note, was a major Communist goal. Lenin himself had described the motion picture as the ideal outlet for political propaganda, and movies were now the leading form of popular culture in the United States. Those who worked in the stratified, dictatorial world of the Hollywood studios were seen as ideal recruits for the movement -- powerless folk keenly aware of the lopsided distribution of wealth. What the American Communist Party offered was a sense of shared values, a whiff of equality in a wildly unequal town. "I found myself collecting Party dues from Dalton Trumbo and other famous writers," a fellow member noted. "Dalton was making five thousand dollars a week but we were comrades.... I was welcome at the 'red table' at MGM where all the left-wingers ate."

For a time, American Communists attracted the support of some of Hollywood's best, including screenwriters Albert Maltz, Maurice Rapf, Hellman, Budd Schulberg and Ring Lardner Jr. -- all products of elite Eastern colleges. Rapf's father, Harry, was a prominent MGM producer; Schulberg's father, B.P., headed production at Paramount Studios. "With a tennis court adjoining our house and with the Pacific for a swimming pool ... ours was not exactly a proletarian or Marxist background," the younger Schulberg recalled.

Los Angeles Times Articles