The Big Red One

Commie kissers: Red Hollywood chroniclers Dave Wagner and Paul Buhle
New Press

Glance at the cover of a recent Time and you'll learn that "Spider-Man Rules." Chirpy magazine prose and cross-promotional boilerplate at once, this is a prototypical new-Hollywood emanation: "news" verging on advertising copy that burnishes the bottom line of both sides. Accept it or be trampled. But beneath this impersonal juggernaut lies a cultural artifact with a much more interesting and humane vision. Once up a time, Stan Lee (a.k.a. Levine) imagined that masked superheroes could be not just in the city but of it, needy nerds who lived in Queens row houses and who couldn't get dates even after growing muscles. Inured by the simultaneous knowingness and naiveté of Entertainment Weekly-speak, we forget that there have been eras when creators of mass culture put their hearts rather than just their portfolios into their art.

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner's fascinating and exhaustive rewriting of the history of cinema's golden age, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America's Favorite Movies reminds us that such commitment is not as distant as we would perhaps think. Though recent books by Lary May (The Big Tomorrow) and James Naremore (More Than Night) cover industry politics and noir with comparable depth, Buhle and Wagner pull together so much so vigorously that theirs should become the definitive study of radical influence in Hollywood at midcentury. In weighing the film colony's often fashion-driven political commitment, the decidedly left-leaning authors admit that failures outnumbered successes. Yet they come not merely to celebrate this past but to learn from it as well. And they refuse to give up: If culture so thoroughly mainstream could offer well-meaning artists the opportunity to put their visions across, it might do so again.

Newsday columnist Murray Kempton once quipped that one line from John Howard Lawson's script for Algiers--"Come with me to the Casbah"--"may be considered the most permanent cultural contribution by a left-wing scriptwriter during the entire period." For him, such radicalism barely deserves to be called skin-deep: Their knowledge of Communism, he sneers, "was confined to a few bars of the 'Internationale.'" Buhle and Wagner disagree, but rather than wrenching radical meaning from every scene in which poor snarl at rich, they prove their case by pondering how radical struggles dyed the entire film industry. And so they cite the hiring battles between left-wing and company-backed stagehands' unions, and the poetics of early-Thirties Jewish writers who saw film scripts as a means to address both personal and political subjects.

And though they may disagree with Kempton in degree, these two critics (Buhle an academic, Wagner a journalist) do spend a good deal of time highlighting nuances in classic Hollywood. This search takes them from the antiwar imagery saturating early horror films like Frankenstein and The Black Cat to the working-class solidarity voiced by kids' films. Some of their conclusions feel novel: Who would have thought that Lassie Come Home and National Velvet, while hardly hotbeds of subversion, quite consciously celebrated the triumph of proletarian modesty over upper-class hauteur? Red-baiters later made much of the red tint to the wartime movie Mission to Moscow, featuring lovable Uncle Joe Stalin, but Radical Hollywood suggests that England's greatest detective may have been in on the plot. In the 1942 film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, the sleuth tells an uncomprehending Watson at the conclusion that "a wind is blowing from the East" that will transform the world.

The authors also trace the discussions through which militant writers negotiated an aesthetic of radical mass art even as the New Deal co-opted radicalism. A great many of these dramatists made compromises in the interest of getting heard, a call-it-dialectical process Buhle and Wagner outline lucidly. Readers of Aaron McGruder's controversial comic strip The Boondocks will find similar debates raging in 1940: How much can any insurgent artist challenge the expectations of his or her audience? How much compromise is too much? By so carefully and intelligibly rendering the arguments of all parties, and by grounding the various answers in a solid understanding of exactly what the industry allowed, Buhle and Wagner do what the best history does: show us the precise relevance of the past to anyone who wants to shake things up today.

The authors' decision to focus primarily on writers can be something of a weak point--it tends to privilege, as they say, one part of the viewing experience over all others. The distinctly urban styles of actors such as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, and especially noted lefty John Garfield conveyed meanings fully as political as any anti-fascist polemic. The same goes for musical scores that jumbled classical and popular, white and black, broadcasting unmistakable messages of racial solidarity. Listening so avidly for the dialogue can mean missing everything else onscreen.

But for anyone willing to trust the authors' sometimes dense reconstruction of Hollywood machinery, this book creates new contexts for viewing classic films. Buhle and Wagner aim to stimulate viewers to watch old favorites with new eyes and decide for themselves what they see. Time and again while going through this book, the reader will note yet another movie to rent and think about. For a film book, what better recommendation could there be?

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