Referring to the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, Billy Wilder famously snarked, “Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly.” Thom Andersen, with a dose of good humour, framed his film Red Hollywood (1996) around this quote, tackling the supposed communist infiltration of Hollywood. Setting the stage for what led to the blacklisting, Andersen establishes an atmosphere of fear that had descended on the United States post-1945. Fueling the fires of conflict, no idea resonated deeper than the paranoia that another war was around the corner. Red Hollywood incorporates interviews with the Hollywood Ten but focuses primarily on the content and aesthetics of the films they made — disputing Wilder’s flippant dismissal and suggesting that there was no sinister plot to turn America red.
During World War II, the values and support of communism aligned with American ideals. But post-war, a new enemy was needed. As the narrator says, “And Hollywood took up the right wing line that another war was inevitable.” Fear makes people rush to judgement to vilify the other, and perhaps most crucially, to give up personal freedoms and ideals. The desire to restore the illusion of being safe pushes people to extremes — to the point where ideas that feel threatening become a direct threat.
The beauty of Andersen’s work is that he is able to parse through the hyperbole of rhetoric in order to reach the truth of the matter. Those who were prosecuting the Hollywood Ten never had a convincing argument against them. As Ayn Rand took the stage at the House of Un-American Activities, she used the film Song of Russia (1944) as an example of communist infiltration of Hollywood. The film, with glorifying songs and smiling Russian peasants (much of her argument hinged on the fact that Russians, in fact, never smile) was proof that something sinister was going on in Hollywoodland. Her argument fell flat, most of the committee fully aware films like that were the side-effect of Russian allyship during the war. The Hollywood Ten were not punished for their subversive ideas, but rather their unwillingness to give up their rights as American citizens.
As far as difficult ideas, Song of Russia is transparent propaganda to rile support and little more. Andersen’s work actually favours dangerous ideas, as he pins out moments of subversion that are truly potent for their confrontation of norms. Using an example from the comedy Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), he shows how Paul Jarrico’s writing poked holes in the American Dream. Painting a comical and absurd take on domesticity and capitalism, Ginger Rogers imagines her life as a housewife in an oversized dollhouse, with endlessly replicating babies and a husband who keeps screaming the word “millions.” The vision of the idealized American way of life is summed up by artificiality, alienation and a general sense that fulfillment is measured by accumulation of wealth. The overall effect of this rampant capital-balanced worth is a life without fulfillment, as the bar is raised with each milestone achieved. The value of the individual overtakes the crowd, but ironically, at the cost of personal identity.
This criticism of capitalist accumulation was one of the predominant ideas in the work of the Hollywood Ten, present in works ranging from lighthearted comedies to hardened crime pictures. In particular, Andersen contextualizes crime pictures, suggesting that they were among the most potent tools against the status quo and that contemporary filmmakers have lost touch with the genre. Focusing in on the poetic works of Abraham Polonsky, a still unheralded masterpiece of film noir, Force of Evil (1948), comes into focus. Polonsky contextualizes the film, describing Garfield’s Joe Morse who can only do wrong because the circumstances of capitalism and crime dictate a cyclical trap of wrongdoing. “All films about crime are about capitalism. ‘Cause capitalism is about crime,” Polonsky says. “Quote unquote morally speaking.”
Currently being honoured with a retrospective at the RIDM, Andersen’s cool and measured voice emerges as a through-line in his career. Stripped of hubris, Red Hollywood showcases the artistry of the Hollywood Ten, as well as the value of their dissent. Forever politically minded, Andersen highlights popular cinema as a tool for dismantling ideological bias. His work does not showcase the Hollywood Ten as martyrs for a cause, but rather as people who stood for what they believed. Andersen is critical of them as he is critical of the right-wing ideology — poorly articulated ideas, regardless of political affiliation, become fair-game. He never argued that there were no “dangerous” ideas in these films, only that the worth of their dissent far out-did the stripping of their dignity and rights. The value of Red Hollywood, as is the value of Los Angeles Plays Itself, lies in stripping away Hollywood’s mythology and laying it bare.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.