Ron Briley - Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies (review) - Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34:1 Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 34.1 (2004) 91-92

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies. The New Press, 2002. 460 pages; $29.95.

Sympathetic to the Left

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, building upon the ideas introduced in their biography of leftist screenwriter and film director Abraham Polonsky, assert that many classical Hollywood studio films produced between the early 1930s and late 1940s, before implementation of the blacklist, constitute a body of work reflecting the progressive values of radical screenwriters often associated with the Communist Party. The authors, focusing upon such genres as the Western, gangster, horror, family, combat, and woman's films, argue that Hollywood screenwriters on the left were able to successfully incorporate into studio-era films storylines celebrating the triumph of common working people over the upper class and exploitive capitalist values. In developing this thesis, Buhle and Wagner, who are obviously sympathetic to the left, appear to support the accusations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and anti-communist cultural critics who maintain that Hollywood communists posed a subversive threat through their influence over film content.

Indeed, Buhle and Wagner reserve their harshest criticism for Hollywood liberals rather than right-wing politicians and cultural figures. Radical Hollywood refutes the claim of studio executives and liberals that leftist screenwriters failed to control the means of production within the studio system and, thus, were unable to inoculate their political messages into the films upon which they worked. Buhle and Wagner, seeking to empower the screenwriters, such as Howard Lawson, Michael Wilson, and John Bright, upon whom Radical Hollywood focuses its narrative, insist that Hollywood's progressive writers were able to insert their politics into cinema. The authors, however, do acknowledge that studio executives often grafted Hollywood endings onto films, somewhat negating the issues of race, gender, and class raised by the writers.

Also, Buhle and Wagner insist that the Hollywood left was not comprised of hack artists who blindly followed the Communist Party line articulated by officials on the East Coast. In publications such as the Hollywood Quarterly, leftists in the film industry, along with academics, sought to articulate a film aesthetic which would incorporate more complex political ideas into popular film. In their political activities as well as film work, Hollywood communists supported the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, unionism, and antifascism as embodiments of the popular front.

In addition, Buhle and Wagner disagree with film scholars such as Larry May who argue that New Deal progressive themes disappeared from Hollywood films during wartime. Instead, Radical Hollywood argues that World War II cinema, with its emphasis upon the contribution of common people to the war effort, "marked not the simple eclipse but the filmic coming-of-age of New Deal themes" (p. 205). Perceiving the war as a reactionary cultural period only seems apparent in hindsight with the Cold War and McCarthyism.

The cultural possibilities of the Hollywood left culminated in the film noir features of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as writers about to be banished from Hollywood employed the darkness and crime themes of noir to comment upon the "deeper issues of moral erosion and individual alienation in the midst of postwar prosperity" (p. 324).

Radical Hollywood is a provocative book. The leftist proclivities of Buhle and Wagner will infuriate some readers. For example, in their discussion of Mission to Moscow (1943), the authors recognize the film's failure to question the Stalinist purges and show trials. Nevertheless, they observe that critics of Hollywood politics ignored such an acclaimed film as Gone With the Wind (1939), which "would be hard to beat as historic justification of a system vastly more widespread, brutal, and lasting than Stalinism" (p. 240). In establishing the connection between communist writers and films championing the common people, Buhle and Wagner tend to dismiss the notion that, as Gordon Wood suggests in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, concepts of the ordinary citizen demanding equal treatment with that of a more aristocratic element lie at the heart of the American experience. [End Page 91] As Buhle and Wagner propose, perhaps the greatest contribution of this volume is to encourage readers to rediscover the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s in order to reach their own conclusions regarding the political implications of classical Hollywood cinema.

Sandia Preparatory School
Albuquerque, New Mexico

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