Remembering When Hollywood Was Radical

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Paula Rabinowitz

Radical Hollywood:
The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies
by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner
New York: The New Press, 2002), $28.95

A Very Dangerous Citizen:
Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and The Hollywood Left
by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), $27.50.

WIDELY ADMIRED FOR his multifaceted publications about the history of United States radicalism, Paul Buhle has also long been an important advocate for taking popular culture seriously. Along with co-author Dave Wagner, a journalist and film critic and friend from grad school, he has combined these two abiding interests to unveil the secret story of the Hollywood Left during the 1930s, 1940s and Cold War years.

A Very Dangerous Citizen surveys the many careers and fewer movies and novels of Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, best known for the film noir he wrote and directed, “Force of Evil” (1948), based on Ira Wolfert’s radical novel “Tucker’s People” (1943).

Buhle and Wagner cover Polonsky’s rise from the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx to a stature in Hollywood as a “film artist” and Communist activist that earned him the label of “a very dangerous citizen” by a Congressman during the witch hunt. In subsequent years, Polonsky wrote for television under a pseudonym before making something of a comeback in the 1960s.

Radical Hollywood is more encompassing. Covering forty years of Hollywood politics and film production, it focuses on the many actors, directors, producers and screenwriters variously drawn to Communist ideas and activities.

Buhle and Wagner discuss not just the obvious “political” films by well-known radicals, such as the Hollywood Ten, but also delve into radical subtexts hidden “behind the scenes” by left-wing scriptwriters in B-movies like “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” (1942) or the serialized “Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1940).

Using new materials gleaned from interviews and archives, the authors offer daring perspectives on family film, crime film, women’s films, films about war, film noir, and even animation. It turns out even Lassie was a radical.

Criminal Capitalism

Abraham Polonsky melded trashy genre cliches to political critique, symbolically dramatizing capitalism as a criminal system. At the end of “Force of Evil,” long-underrated radical actor John Garfield, playing corrupt mob lawyer Joe Morse, stumbles down the rocky garbage-strewn bank of the Hudson River under that gleaming symbol of modernism, the George Washington Bridge, to find his brother’s corpse crumpled underneath its looming steel girders.

Thomas Gomez’s Leo Morse ran a small-time numbers racket, a family operation whose neurotic employees he loyally keeps on payroll, bailing them out of jail after the occasional busts. He consistently refused his Wall Street lawyer brother’s offer to go in with his boss in a citywide racket that promised big money, preferring to remain a small fry.

But the new system for “policy,” as the numbers racket is called, demands a large-scale corporate monopoly with no place for sentimentality. The rackets cover the waterfront and everything else in between.

Sculpting Ira Wolfert’s sprawling 1943 novel, Tucker’s People, into a tight 88- minute film, Polonsky made efficient use of the twin cultural vehicles for exposing capitalism’s corruption inherited from the 1930s literary left — proletarian fiction and the gangster film — to push the limits of film noir’s uneasiness with post-war America into overtly political critique. It’s a great B-movie; but he never got to repeat its near-perfect melding of plot, dialogue, camera work and location shooting.

Polonsky’s smart film outlined the contours of a world saturated by corruption. The rackets are so widespread that ending them may entail total annihilation. Which is precisely the message of “Force of Evil”’s assistant director Robert Aldrich’s 1955 campy directorial conclusion to a decade of noir, “Kiss Me Deadly.”

In the form of the blacklist, itself a kind of industrial racket, the system’s brutality also devastated Hollywood leftists like Polonsky, encompassing the leading roles Gerald Horne details in Class Struggle in Hollywood — moguls, mobsters, stars, reds and trade unionists — who also include a new brand of intellectual, the screen writer-director, like Polonsky.

Policy, a kind of violent double of the increasingly bureaucratized system, served as a ready symbol of social disintegration. Highly organized and thoroughly violent, the rackets came to stand for all manner of politics in the pulp modernism of post-war America. Invisible except through the curvaceous figure of the gun moll’s satin chemise hidden under her thick fur coat, this Force of Evil invaded the psychic economy of urban life. If Polonsky never did anything in his long and varied life, this gem, inspiring Martin Scorsese’s work, would be enough.

Extending the Metaphor

Paul Buhle and David Wagner argue, however, in their contextual biography, that Polonsky deserves to be known for much more: A victim of the blacklist, he nevertheless survived to pen a few novels and many pseudonymous television scripts before returning to directing other counter-genre movies such as the 1969 anti-Western “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.”

By taking policy as the central metaphor for capitalism, Polonsky implied that Hollywood itself, as a major industry connecting finance capital, creative artists and regular movie-watching citizens, was itself a racket — and this before things got really hot.

Five years after “Force of Evil” was released — and a lifetime in the annals of the Hollywood Left — fellow member of the Hollywood Ten, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, recently released from prison, considered how such violent film noirs as Roaul Walsh’s 1949 “White Heat,” in which the crazed gangster Jimmy Cagney murders with a kind of brazen psychotic glee, produced a fascist soldier mentality in its viewers.

As an emblem of Hollywood’s ideological effort, he dissects Cagney’s role in “White Heat” through what we now call reader-response. He notes that he saw the movie “as an inmate of a federal prison, enjoying the Saturday night film-showing with my fellow-prisoners.”

“There are many decent well-intentioned people in prison,” he goes on in Film in the Battle of Ideas, “many who recognize that the forces which drove them to vice or crime are inherent in our present social system. Related to this partial understanding is a deep bitterness, a feeling that the individual has no chance in a jungle society unless he adopts that way of the jungle.” (23)

For Lawson, with whom Polonsky had disagreed publicly over the CPUSA censure of Albert Maltz, writing after his release from prison for refusing to name names, Hollywood films are performing the cultural work of glorifying war and fascism.

Film In the Battle of Ideas “appeared as the Korean War was ending and attempts to account for the emergence of the crime film — a genre, he argues, designed to reinforce the sense of “mass-man” as “dangerous,” an “instinctive, irrational” follower of mob rule, epitomized by Fritz Lang’s 1936 film “Fury.”

American Civilizaton

A year after “White Heat” opened, C.L.R. James launched his study of American Civilization. This unfinished meditation on the culture and politics of a nation that was about to deport him included a close examination of the “popular arts and modern society.”

Here James focused on many of the novels and screenplays written within the milieu of Radical Hollywood that Buhle and Wagner catalogue in their massive encyclopedia of plotlines forming “The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies.” For James, film and all mass art must “satisfy . . . the individual seeking individuality in a mechanized, socialized society, where his life is ordered and restricted at every turn.”

The gangster offers a momentary way out of this racket through “an esthetic compensation of free individuals who go out into the world and settle their problems by free activity and individualistic methods. In these perpetual isolated wars free individuals are pitted against free individuals, live grandly and boldly. What they want, they go for. Gangsters get what they want, trying it for a while, then are killed.

“In the end `crime does not pay’ but for an hour and a half highly skilled actors and huge organization of production and distribution have given to many millions a sense of active living, and in the bloodshed, the violence, the freedom from restraint to allow pent-up feelings free play, they have released the bitterness, hate, fear and sadism which simmer just below the surface.” (127)

James, like Polonsky’s conflicted Joe Morse, offers a more nuanced reading of the sadism of the crime film than Lawson; his subtle approach to the value of popular culture has influenced Buhle and Wagner.

A product of the highly organized mode of production typical of the rackets — Hollywood’s studio system — the gangster film deconstructs momentarily the very means of its own production, allowing the lone gunman a chance to lash out against the system itself.

Here the swindle becomes so pervasive that the rackets depicted merely reinforce the larger racket invisibly producing the images through skilled actors, screenwriters, directors and crew members. But here’s the gambit, the double cross — they’re all radicals!

A Radical Anti-Racket?

Buhle and Wagner find leftists — which for them encompasses a broad array of political identities from Communist Party membership through fellow travelers to Progressive Party endorsements to petition-signing liberals to just plain partying with some of the above — almost everywhere in Hollywood.

In a way, Polonsky remains the central hero of the much larger Radical Hollywood, because this story, too, is about committed artists fighting against the capitalist “racket” on all fronts. They organized subversion from within, creating an anti-racket that, like gangsters in the Prohibition-era city, countered the power of the state and its sanctioned monopolies, using the studios’ resources in judo-like fashion against them.

On the one hand, Radical Hollywood defied the constrictions of the moguls, bankers and production code, and so produced an alternative to the purely commercialized puffery ascribed to the fantasyland of movies. On the other, Buhle and Wagner document such widespread influence by radicals that popular culture, and movies in particular, cannot be viewed as anything but a hotbed of radicalism.

In Buhle and Wagner’s breathless account every actor, screenwriter, director, novelist, cameraman, who was vaguely connected to any progressive cause could be counted on to infuse at least a drop of left-wing ideology — anti-racism, anti-capitalism, feminism, anti-fascism — into even the most trivial genre picture.

It turns out, paradoxically, HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee, the notorious Congressional witchhunting committee –ed.) was right; all those hours spent hanging out at Saturday matinees or watching televised Hollywood reruns and Hopalong Cassidy episodes throughout the 1950s really did turn the 1960s generation into radicals!

Buhle and Wagner, like C.L.R. James, suggest that audiences, far more savvy than Lawson would have them, see through the guise of Hollywood fluff. Movie-goers are in on the caper; they gain pleasure from their vantage point as doubly removed, yet deeply enmeshed through identification and projection, with the films’ labor intensive process as well as their cathartic sex and violence.

Dangerous Citizen and White Collar

Like other left-wing critics, however, James also sees modern man as dehumanized by war, brutalized by violence and alienated by a totalitarian vision of mechanized and ritualized conformity that is ultimately horrific.

This, according to Buhle and Wagner, is the theme of virtually all of Abraham Polonsky’s writings and films, a theme he crystallizes in the image of the lone man still managing to hold onto some shred of collective ideals in the face of utter alienation (see John Garfield in “Body and Soul”).

Yet (arguably, a word that Buhle and Wagner rely on constantly although it’s not often clear with whom they are arguing) Polonsky’s two great thematic obsessions — the symbiotic, yet conflictual, relationships between brothers and the erotic complications of adultery found in both “Force of Evil” and his 1951 novel A World Above — point to other, autobiographical, sources they don’t explore.

A Very Dangerous Citizen relies on Polonsky’s words — interviews and published and unpublished scripts, stories and so forth — to build a life history; but this is not a traditional psychological or literary biography that might seek to reveal the contradictory forces driving his life or art.

Instead, Polonsky stands in for all that Radical Hollywood might have become; Buhle and Wagner inform us that his “1940s films `Body and Soul’ (1947) and `Force of Evil’ (1948) quite simply embody the highest achievement of the American Left in cinema before the onset of repression.” (108)

With repression in full force, C. Wright Mills turned his attention to the legitimate organization man dressed in White Collar. “Brains, Inc.” focuses on the plight of intellectuals within contemporary America; Hollywood serves as his model.

Like hit men working for Murder, Inc., the increasingly rationalized underworld, writers and other artists find themselves locked into increasingly capitalized bureaucracies — Time, Inc. (darkly featured in Kenneth Fearing’s “The Big Clock”), Hollywood (sinisterly depicted in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”), and of course the rackets — the epitome of capitalism’s Force of Evil.

They are working as salary men and (occasionally) women, burnishing a product that depends on their ability to “make it new” yet keep it selling. Advertising copy, script doctoring and ghost writing — where “the writer merely fill(ing) an order” usually for uplifting jingles replaces autonomous freedom — becomes the hallmark of the post-Enlightenment intellectual’s status. (150)

The antinomies of post-war life, Mills argues — its horror-filled residue from the Holocaust and the atomic bomb — sent intellectuals to explore “such analysts of personal tragedy as Soren Kieregaard or such mirrors of hopeless bafflement as Kafka . . . Suffering the tremors of men who face defeat, they are worried and distraught, some only half aware of the condition, others so painfully aware that they must obscure their knowledge by rationalistic busy-work and many forms of self-deception.” (White Collar, 148)

Poular Front Echoes

Yet this is the very moment when Buhle and Wagner suggest that “arguably [there’s that word again] the only fully realized American `art film’ genre, noir” was produced. (Radical Hollywood, 321)

Caught within a web of self-deception or cynicism, intellectuals, trapped by the pervasive incorporation of modern daily life, wait like crooks holed up and hiding out from the heat; then, when the fix is in, they either turn stoolie, or in Polonsky’s case quietly worked with fronts, doctored scripts and waited for the thaw.

But in the meantime “the work continued where it had flourished in the first place — deep in the genres, virtually out of the sight of everyone except knowledgeable urban audiences. Many of the Left’s best screenwriters did their finest work here.” (RH 308)

What both these books emphasize is that popular culture, which posed the world as one increasingly out of control yet thoroughly organized, could easily be seen as endorsing a mild form of Popular Front communism. This was of course the contention at the heart of the HUAC hearings and Hollywood blacklist, and in their revisionist move, Buhle and Wagner’s point as well: Mid-century Hollywood was Radical Hollywood. Yet it could also be seen as promoting the ideology of fascism in its efforts to submerge collective action into a mob that celebrated mindless violence and bestiality.

Lawson’s reading of Hollywood as a shill for an American fascism echoed in the gangster’s organization, in turn, stood in for the administered life of white-collar America. By the mid-1950s, what had been going on in Hollywood among a small coterie of leftist writers, trade unionists and moguls and mobsters had spread throughout the nation — they was us — and audiences knew it. Polonsky had ushered in the sixties, it seems.

In short, popular culture is popular precisely because of its free-floating ability to be endlessly read and reread in all sorts of ways. As Buhle and Wagner point out, following Jonathan Munby’s dissection of the Hollywood gangster in Public Enemy, Public Heroes, the Hays Code and its internal censorship made writers adept at double entendres and multiple meanings.

Polonsky’s contradictory relationship to Hollywood genres and the Greek classics, on the one hand (a modernist story of the divided/fragmented individual), and Hollywood’s imbrication with the mob company unions and finance capital, on the other (another modernist story of blanketing control by modern state capitalism), meant that the crisis of the intellectual working for Brains, Inc., especially a screenwriter with Polonsky’s talents, was just another
part of the rackets.

This story resonated for all sorts of audiences, in both the plight of the individual artist caught between conflicting aesthetic concerns and the politics of anti-communism, on the one hand, and the economics of corporate Hollywood, on the other.

The field of the gangster that undergirded both Hollywood’s output and production process itself, as Gerald Horne makes clear, was a hallmark of modernist social relations and their lived experience and popular representation by working-class audiences, film workers, film artists alike.

This was true whether of the rackets, the mob (in its negative form understood as either emblematic of the worst of capitalism, communism or fascism depending on the read given) or the collective (as Buhle and Wagner find animating much of Radical Hollywood and the television shows, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Hopalong Cassidy” and “You Are There,” scripted by Polonsky). It’s modern times, after all.

As John Ford’s newsman in “The Man who Shot Liberty Valence” (not Frank Capra as Buhle and Wagner claim) said: “Print the Legend.” But first you gotta make it up.

These two ambitious books — wildly rampaging through the vast terrain of Hollywood’s scripts, in one case by delving deeply into the work of one screenwriter, in the other by ranging across hundreds of movie plots, seeking out the words of unfriendly, near friendly, reluctantly friendly, soon-to-be friendly and repentantly friendly witnesses — offer a celebration of America’s most pervasive cultural export: not foreign policy, but policy itself, the rackets of cliched genres, Hollywood’s own self-myth that it is America.

Works Cited:

Gerald Horne. Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

James, C.L.R. American Civilization. Ed. Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Lawson, John Howard. Film in the Battle of Ideas. New York: Masses and Mainstream, Inc., 1953.

Mills, C. Wright. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Wolfert, Ira. Tucker’s People. 1943. Rpt. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

ATC 104, May-June 2003