Hunting for Body Snatchers

Seeing communist propaganda everywhere in Hollywood, the FBI helped drive America’s Red Scare

It was a dark period in modern American history. It saw treason charges against thousands in the entertainment industry, including Shirley Temple, Lucille Ball, Judy Holliday, Charlie Chaplin, Zero Mostel and the creator of Mr. Magoo, John Hubley. Hundreds of talents of the age, like Chaplin, directors Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin, or writers Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz and Herbert Biberman, were forced into exile or denied the right to work under their own names, with scenarist Dalton Trumbo receiving two Academy Awards under aliases. Edward G. Robinson, Lloyd Bridges, Sterling Hayden and Lee J. Cobb were permitted employment only after humiliating public recantations of their beliefs and connections. Former leftists, including director Elia Kazan, writer Budd Schulberg and composer David Raksin, willingly named names in a witch hunt seeking to ferret out those with suspect political beliefs. John Garfield and boxer/actor Canada Lee, who died of heart attacks just before their scheduled testimonies in front of a House of Representatives committee, had their early deaths attributed to the strain of defending themselves from accusations of treason. European exiles who sought shelter in Hollywood, including Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, fled to safer countries after coming under suspicion of being communist agents.

It was the post–World War Two Red Scare, now often remembered as the product of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which included first-term congressman Richard Nixon. But investigations of the entertainment industry actually ran from the 1920s to the early ’60s, when the blacklist of leftists in the film industry was broken by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger announcing that Dalton Trumbo had written the screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus. President-elect John F. Kennedy crossing a right-wing picket line to see Spartacus effectively ended the blacklist, heralding a resurgence of American liberalism. No more would “Stalin’s little red devils” and “fellow-travellers” be hounded from their jobs by a right-wing social hysteria.

The Red Scare has been the subject of many studies. With such an extensive body of literature, one approaches a new book on the subject with skepticism. How much more illumination can be applied to the topic? But J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by University of Waterloo academic John Sbardellati does not disappoint, casting new light on the subject by arguing for the centrality of Hoover’s role in the Hollywood inquisition.

The Red Scare did not spring up overnight as a result of the post–World War Two resurgence of communism, the “loss” of China or fears of nuclear Armageddon fostered by atomic spies and Russia’s 1949 acquisition of the atomic bomb. Sbardellati traces it back to the October Revolution and other European social upheavals during and following World War One. He notes that when Hoover joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1917, the FBI’s actions were governed by such wartime legislation as the Immigration Act and the Sedition Act, followed shortly by the post-war Palmer Laws, which permitted deportation of suspected Reds to their homelands and set limits to political dissent. As Hoover rose in the FBI, its surveillance extended to such suspect groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. He was not operating at an ideological extreme. Sbardellati observes that “Hoover’s fears were America’s fears,” although Hooverism “greatly intensified this traditional American insecurity.” As a counter-subversive, Hoover led an FBI plagued by thoughts of conspiracies and the likening of leftist ideology to a disease that inevitably would spread unless rooted out.

As early as 1920, Hoover believed that film was a powerful educational medium tailor-made for spreading a leftist message in order to build a mass movement. Alarmed at the audiences attracted by films made by left-leaning groups, the FBI maintained a discreet, behind-the-scenes role in monitoring such activities, while local police raided screenings of leftist films. As early as 1922, the FBI began to investigate a “Parlor Bolsheviki” operating in Los Angeles, following a reception hosted by Charlie Chaplin for the Communist Party leader William Z. Foster. Hoover beefed up the Los Angeles bureau of the FBI, monitoring the industry for radical activities and communist propaganda.

The FBI’s interests in cinema coincided with rising concerns on the part of the public that film had a negative effect on the general population. The 1920s and early ’30s saw increased pressures from church and nativist groups concerned about sex scandals like the Fatty Arbuckle manslaughter trials, as well as the growing influence and power of the foreign-born. In an effort to stave off piecemeal censorship, the film industry instituted voluntary self-censorship under the leadership of former postmaster-general Will Hays. Enforcement of this was ineffective until the predominantly Jewish-owned studios responded to pressure from anti-Semitic Catholic elements (such as Motion Picture Herald publisher Martin Quigley) to establish the Production Code Administration, which effectively censored all movies. The PCA is usually regarded today as a self-regulatory system devoted to banning expressions of sexuality, but, as PCA head Joseph Breen declared at the time, “Communist propaganda is banned from the screen.”

Sbardellati describes through case studies how leftist content was purged from films, and notes that leftist activity in the film industry was more evident in labour struggles than in film content. It was the period of unionization, most notably in the struggle between the communist-led Screen Writer’s Guild and the rightist Screen Playwrights Guild for the right to represent all screenwriters. Despite red-baiting tactics by the SPG, the SWG won a 1938 secret ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board and was declared the sole bargaining agent for writers. The five-year struggle between the SWG and SPG coincided with the Popular Front period, in which the Communist Party decided to cooperate with the broader liberal sector to combat fascism. Once the Spanish Civil War started, notes Sbardellati, Hollywood “served as a vanguard for antifascism … until the Popular Front was torn asunder by the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.”

Leading these activities was the Hollywood Anti-Fascist League, which encouraged the production of political films, such as the Spanish Civil War drama Blockade in 1938. The PCA attempted to muzzle such efforts, removing all reference to who the actual combatants were in this film. Since the Catholic church at the time saw the Spanish Civil War as less one between democracy and fascism than between Catholicism and communism, Martin Quigley led a crusade against the “growing acceptance … of radical propaganda on the screen … especially amongst our Semetic [sic] brethren.” Quigley’s cry was taken up before the Wheeler Committee, a Senate investigation of Hollywood composed mainly of isolationists. Senator Gerald P. Nye charged that dangerous propaganda was being disseminated by Hollywood studios led by Jews. Studio moguls testified that such films were only a tiny minority of those produced. Convened in the fall of 1941, the Wheeler Committee’s position became untenable with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it ceased operations the next day.

American entry into World War Two increased FBI concerns about communists in Hollywood, even as the United States was allied with Soviet Russia. Spurred by the film Mission to Moscow, which was made in 1943 at the behest of the Roosevelt government to portray America’s new Soviet partner favourably, the Los Angeles office of the FBI reported on the communist infiltration of cinema, in part through the actions of the foreign-born and their children, who carried with them an “instinctive racial affinity inherited from European social life” that was deemed un-American. Reports to Hoover emphasized the foreign origins of industry members. But as Sbardellati points out, the Communist Party in America was in a very poor position to influence even liberals. The Nazi-Soviet Pact alienated Communist allies when the party abandoned the cause of Spain. Subsequent alliances with liberal anti-war groups to form the communist-led American Peace Mobilization collapsed after the German invasion of Russia, which resulted in the APM renaming itself the American People’s Mobilization for Victory over Fascism. Such volte-face manoeuvres isolated communists from the rest of the left. Says Sbardellati, “Most liberals would never fully trust their former comrades again.”

Nevertheless, the FBI feared that the alliance between the U.S. and the USSR allowed communist subversives to work through Hollywood labour unions and creative artists to promote the party line. The FBI prepared a lengthy report on propaganda pictures. Some of these analyses were based on script content, but many called films propaganda if any of the cast or crew had connections to organizations considered communist fronts. So Mission to Moscow was politically suspect in part because star Walter Huston appeared in a Salute to Russia rally at the Shrine Auditorium in 1942. If Mission to Moscow was Soviet propaganda, it was remarkably ineffective, since it engendered a critical public debate about its whitewash of Soviet history; it was also a box-office flop. But the film heightened concerns within the FBI about communist influence.

There was no evidence, of course, that a communist or sympathizer working on a film made that film a piece of propaganda. And even if that could be demonstrated, there was no way to prove that it had any effect on the public. Nevertheless, anti-communists were provoked to act. In 1944, rightists launched the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, led by Sam Wood as president, Walt Disney as vice-president and an executive that included Ayn Rand and Lela E. Rogers (Ginger’s mother). The organization’s founding was fuelled by a dispute between the gangster-dominated International Association of Theatre and Stage Employees (whose leaders had been bribed by studio moguls to maintain labour peace) and the more radical Congress of Studio Unions over union jurisdiction in the industry. IATSE leaders attacked the CSU by red-baiting. Militantly anti-union MPA members took this as a sign of an imminent communist takeover. Under MPA auspices, Ayn Rand wrote the Screen Guide for Americans, which claimed that the world order was a clash between individualism and collectivism. Any casual reference to collective behaviour or a negative reference to wealth or profit, or any positive reference to the common man, was firm evidence that a film was promoting anti–Americanism. The FBI adopted Rand’s system to determine if films contained communist propaganda.

America entered a golden age of the social problem film with works such as The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and Crossfire in 1947. While reports from the Los Angeles office of the FBI still tended to regard films as subversive based on the personnel working on them, Hoover’s application of the Rand formula determined that many films were communist propaganda due to their depictions of the seamy side of American society or critical views of the wealthy. These included Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, characterized by an FBI analyst as “a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture.” Crossfire was condemned for its critique of anti-Semitism. Said an FBI agent, “there is nothing that is anti-capitalistic about it in any way that I could see, but it is propaganda for race tolerance.” As such, it was a useful tool for communists to smear America.

The HUAC became a standing committee of the House of Representatives in 1945. With Republicans taking control of the committee soon after, it focused completely on Hollywood. There it found an ally in the MPA, where self-styled industry “experts” on communism testified about the imminent communist takeover. Hoover testified before the committee in March 1947, and proposed that HUAC’s function was public exposure while the FBI’s was intelligence-gathering on the Red Menace. Previously, Hoover instructed the FBI to keep itself at a distance from HUAC for fear that the committee’s amateurism would damage the anti-communist cause. The FBI now provided HUAC with dossiers on Hollywood radicals and agreed to make FBI intelligence more available. But HUAC’s desire to make headlines was at odds with Hoover’s desire for discretion, making the alliance a shaky one.

This cooperation was essential to HUAC’s high water mark, when the group of screenwriters known as the “Hollywood Ten” was summoned to testify in 1947. Each of the Ten refused to answer whether they were then, or had been, members of the Communist Party, standing on their First Amendment rights. The confrontational attitudes of the Hollywood Ten, intended to expose HUAC as a threat to civil liberties, instead made the Ten look bellicose and evasive, diminishing their public support. When counsel for HUAC produced evidence provided by the FBI that the Ten indeed had been party members, resistance to the committee’s investigations collapsed. When the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress, industry representatives announced that the Ten were fired, and that no studio would knowingly employ a communist. The blacklist began.

Hoover did not consider this a victory, being unconvinced that the industry would be sufficiently vigilant. As one FBI agent noted of movie moguls, “in my opinion 90% of the Jewish people are not actively fighting Communism.” The FBI increased its surveillance of the content of Hollywood films and began an internal debate about whether it should routinely vet scripts of planned productions. Hoover resisted, fearing that the FBI would be seen as censoring thought. He did allow extraordinary actions in some cases. For example, the FBI clandestinely obtained the script to communist director/screenwriter Abraham Polonsky’s film Force of Evil and tapped Polonsky’s phone. Polonsky was not to work again for nearly 20 years.

Although the FBI never gained control over film content during the 1950s, Sbardellati avers that the industry internalized much of Hoover’s world view. Hoover used metaphors of communism as a contagion, or “a malignant growth which is nurtured in darkness.” He portrayed communism as a threat to American social norms and institutions. Invasion of the Body Snatchers portrays aliens replacing community members one by one, turning individuals into collectivized robots. In My Son John or I Was a Communist for the FBI, communist agents penetrate American educational institutions, and in The Fountainhead, communism is seen as violating sexual norms, all in the service of indoctrination. Hoover considered Christianity as a bulwark against the spread of socialism, and the 1950s became a golden age of often overtly ideological religious epics. The Ten Commandments began with a prologue in which director Cecil B. DeMille informed the audience that all of human history has been a struggle between freedom and slavery, casting the tale of the Israelite and the Egyptian as anticipating the struggle between the free world and communism.

While no single person was responsible for the Red Scare, Sbardellati outlines the interplay of Hoover’s actions with the social and institutional trends of America in the early 20th century showing how the FBI director both influenced events and was shaped by them in this indispensable volume on the subject.