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Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies

"Radical Hollywood" is a disheartening book, especially for those who share its authors' firmly left-wing convictions -- and given its flaws, no one else is likely to be reading it.

“Radical Hollywood” is a disheartening book, especially for those who share its authors’ firmly left-wing convictions — and given its flaws, no one else is likely to be reading it. Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, who previously collaborated on a collection of interviews with blacklisted filmmakers in “Tender Comrades,” have a much more ambitious goal here. “The following pages seek to capture the rich texture of the lives of … Hollywoodites named in congressional hearings during the late 1940s and early 1950s as ‘subversive,'” they write in their introduction. Unfortunately, they make that attempt in a text crippled by an insular point of view and some truly dreadful prose.

There’s no question that Buhle and Wagner have assembled a wealth of intriguing material. They provide short biographies of virtually every left-of-center screenwriter, from the obscure (John Bright, Donald Ogden Stewart) to the well-known (Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker), with scattered mentions of disaffected directors like Edgar Ulmer and liberal stars like Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. They describe the plots (and subversive subtexts) of numerous films, from “The Public Enemy” to “High Noon.” They consider technical advances in moviemaking by such cameramen “notoriously close to the Left” as Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe. They analyze film commentary and theory formulated in the radical journals “New Theater and Film” and “Hollywood Quarterly.” They chronicle the battle to gain union recognition for the Screen Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Conference of Studio Unions. They trace the growth of independent production companies. It’s frustrating to see so much fascinating information so poorly presented.

The easy conclusion — that the authors simply attempted too much — is, I think, incorrect. Recent years have seen the publication of many memoirs by blacklist victims, several Hollywood labor histories, and quite a lot of astute critical commentary on movies’ covert messages. Still, there’s definitely space on the shelf for a comprehensive portrait of Tinseltown’s left-wing counterculture during the years between the beginning of the Depression and the second round of hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951. As Buhle and Wagner note, the image promoted by HUAC of Hollywood rife with scheming communists was “wildly exaggerated but not entirely false.”

Progressives of every stripe in the movie business did indeed meet in groups to discuss how films could be made more adult and realistic, hold fundraisers for political causes, and join unions to improve their working conditions. They also socialized together, competed for jobs, and had affairs with each others’ spouses. There was a “rich texture” to these radical lives, and Buhle and Wagner capture enough of its complex fabric to make their book a valuable reference tool.

But not, alas, an engrossing read. The authors have an almost unfailingly leaden way with words. It’s bad enough that the text abounds with such clunky sentences as, “Life moved ahead with typical American land-boomer self-promotion, radiating along with a vast moral hypocrisy a most amazing ‘insubstantiality,’ a lostness between past and future.” Even more irritating and troubling is their habit of introducing each new character with a shorthand ID: “Hungarian-Jewish director George Cukor,” “southern-born Jewish Lillian Hellmann,” “future blacklistee Lee Gold and future friendly witness Isobel Lennart,” or (my personal favorite) “near-future friendly witness David Lang.”

These ethnically and ideologically reductive tags have a Stalinist whiff that undercuts the writers’ efforts to avoid doctrinaire leftism. For all their blunt criticism of dogmatic CP cultural commissar V.J. Jerome or declarations like “if FBI infiltrators … had devised Party policies from 1947 on they could not have done any worse than the group around John Howard Lawson,” Buhle and Wagner too often display American radicals’ traditional weakness for inflated, self-congratulatory rhetoric. They cogently and persuasively analyze film noir as “a genre that seemed to thrive on political and personal disappointment.” They then feel constrained to eulogize these moody, low-budget shockers as “the most single important mass-artistic achievement of the American left in the twentieth century, both a response to artistic possibility and an alternative to the retreat into the accommodationist political aesthetic.”

This off-putting prose is not just a stylistic shortcoming; it indicates the authors’ more fundamental problem. They’re unable to break free from didactic terminology to convey the liberating appeal of radical ideas to a general public. Their aspirations are populist, their execution relentlessly academic. Their book badly needs a human touch, and it’s maddening to read the cryptic asides throughout that suggest Buhle and Wagner know a lot more than they say. What makes director Edward Dmytryk “shrewdly self-promoting”? Why was the feat of writing, producing, and directing “All the King’s Men” Robert Rossen’s “triumph and very likely his corruption”? And what makes “Martin Luther” “a final artistic compromise in a life of careful compromises” for director Irving Pichel?

Answers to these questions would have made palpable the conflicts people faced as they tried to satisfy both their personal ambitions and their political consciences, but the capsule biographies are too sketchy to provide them.

It probably seems unfair to ask the writers both to be more intimate and to step back and provide a more critical perspective. But it’s not as perverse as it seems. Buhle and Wagner are so immersed in the ingrown world of Red Hollywood that they a) assume everyone knows as much about its inhabitants as they do, and b) can’t assess its successes and failures in language comprehensible to anyone outside the select circle of true believers. These two failures mean that they don’t bring this long-gone society of idealists to life for a new generation of readers.

Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.