The Film Colony's Long Romance With the Left

By Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh

Encounter. 309 pp. $25.95

Nobody likes snitches. That's why half a century after the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated communists in Hollywood -- an inquiry that led to the studio blacklists -- emotions still run high. That's also why some film artists protested when the talented director Elia Kazan, who named names, was given a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Awards.

In "Red Star Over Hollywood," Ronald Radosh (author of "The Rosenberg File") and Allis Radosh (author of "Persia Campbell: Portrait of a Consumer Activist") examine the communists' influence in Hollywood during the 1930s, '40s and '50s and show how the Reds took marching orders from Moscow while sneakily using liberals to advance their agenda. The fair-weather left-liberal alliance crumbled with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, reformed after Germany attacked the Soviet Union, then fell apart for good after World War II and during the ensuing Cold War.

The authors have meticulously researched the era -- too meticulously, in fact. In the book's first half, they mention so many different people (besides the usual suspects of Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Kazan, et al.) in so many crisscrossing encounters that it all blurs: A is introduced to B at C's Malibu mansion, where D headed communist study groups in the kitchen while E formed a cell on the pool deck with X, Y and Z. The Radoshes name too many names. By the time they're done, it seems there are only three degrees of separation between every Hollywood commie and "Uncle" Joe Stalin. The book bogs down in mind-numbing detail.

There's no question the party had a rigid agenda. Budd Schulberg, whose father was Paramount's production head, joined but then bolted when party hacks criticized a rough outline for his first novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?" Kazan, who joined the party, had a similar experience. As he was prepping to direct "Viva Zapata!," the hacks complained that the revolutionary position wasn't presented sympathetically enough in the script. Kazan used his memory of that experience to rationalize his decision to name names: He wasn't just protecting his career but, to the Radoshes, heroically fighting "the CP's influence in the arts." Kazan (and the Radoshes) can rationalize till they're blue in the face, but it doesn't change a thing. People don't like snitches -- not the little boy who tells on the girl at the next desk who has drawn a picture of the teacher sprouting devil's horns; not the mobster who rats on his boss to stay out of prison; and not former communists who named names to stay out of prison and continue collecting fat Hollywood paychecks.

So the authors reframe the blacklist and the naming-names debate. "Of course, it is right to condemn the blacklist," they conclude. "It was wrong to deprive artists of their livelihood because of their political views. But" -- but! -- "its most malicious contribution to postwar history was to obscure forever the truth about Communism in Hollywood." Hey, the Cold War's over.

Still, the authors evince odd affection for those who were blacklisted. They mention that some HUAC members were anti-Semites and note rather gleefully that when HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas was later indicted for fraud, he took the Fifth like those he investigated and wound up working the prison yard detail alongside Lardner. The Radoshes write with gusto and admiration about Trumbo, who, after emerging from prison, immediately contacted some B-movie indie producers and went right back to work, albeit at a reduced salary. They also tell of those who fled to Europe, where they integrated into the film industries. Some writers even found employment on a British TV series, "Robin Hood," which sold "in both England and the United States, and ran for four years, providing the blacklisted Reds a delicious opportunity to create scripts about taking from the rich to give to the poor." In fact, these parts of the book are far livelier than the dull recitation of communist intrigue.

Then there are the blacklisted artists who got financing from a CP-controlled union to make the 1954 "Salt of the Earth." The film never was distributed because of a nationwide projectionists' boycott. Lest you think the projectionists were being good patriots, their union was under the thumb of Chicago mob chiefs who regularly shook down Hollywood studio chiefs for labor peace (something the authors don't go into). In fact, the mob probably wielded more influence than the poor overrated Reds. Call it "Black Hand Over Hollywood."

The authors leave no doubt that many leftist film artists were subjected to numbing internal criticism and had to grovel before fellow party members. Then again, many liberals and ex-Reds had to grovel in similar fashion before HUAC. Humphrey Bogart, who came to the Hollywood 10's defense, afterward found himself under such fierce attack that he issued a series of humiliating public denials that he was a communist. The Radoshes write, "Bogart and most of the [Committee for the First Amendment] delegation were equally repelled by HUAC and the Hollywood Reds, and they left the nation's capital feeling that the groups deserved each other." No doubt. But the Reds, unlike HUAC, couldn't have kept Bogie from working.

Orson Welles once said (though not in this book) that the terrible thing about the blacklists is that people named names not to save their lives but their swimming pools. It's something the Radoshes don't get.