My son has been poisoned!

David Bromwich

  • An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War by J. Hoberman
    New Press, 383 pp, £21.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 59558 005 4

‘They’re not going to stop,’ Joe McCarthy said of the Communists. ‘It’s right here with us now. Unless we make sure there’s no infiltration of our government, then just as certain as you sit there, in the period of our lives you will see a Red world.’ So began the 1954 Senate hearings on subversive influence in the army. But those hearings turned out to be McCarthy’s last crusade; in a formal and spectacular sense, his career ended when Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer and counsel for the army, replied to the ascription of Communist connections to a young lawyer on his staff: ‘Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.’ McCarthyism had been launched in Wheeling, West Virginia only four years earlier, in the speech where the senator claimed to have the names of 205 Communists employed by the State Department. No one then could have predicted his hold would break so soon. Yet the time of the fear lasted longer than the investigations; in Hollywood, perhaps, longest of all.

An Army of Phantoms is an energetic and adventurous book, in a curious hybrid genre; scholarly, even encyclopedic, yet written occasionally in a style akin to the Hush-Hush columns of L.A. Confidential:

November 16 [1943], six thousand rally at the Shrine Auditorium to celebrate the tenth anniversary of US-Soviet relations, complete with a speech by Olivia de Havilland … The next day, John Wayne learns that the Selective Service board has extended his 3-A deferment. Hot dog! The star celebrates Thanksgiving Day by carving turkeys at the canteen, even as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin meet in Tehran to plan the US invasion of Europe.

The stereoscopic mix of world and Hollywood requires a fair number of ‘even as’ constructions. Yet the book has a generous plan and keeps up a lively pace. Hoberman interprets his chosen films as works of commercial art and as symptoms of a popular culture sealed off like a sickroom. This goes for political movies like I Married a Communist and The Red Danube but also for many others (Westerns, biblical epics, space invader fantasies, dramas of teenage rampage) which Hoberman takes to be in some manner allegories of the Cold War. Aesthetic, commercial and cultural contexts are held in solution, with exactly what aim is not always clear. In a few cases the specimens offer a diagnosis of the world they spring from. The book closes with an account of Kazan and Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd: an instructive parable, Hoberman thinks, because it exhibits an enemy no longer traceable to a foreign source. A Face in the Crowd tells of the rise of a country singer and cracker-barrel politician, Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, of his authentic talent and the authenticity merchants who sell him, of his contempt for his audience and the self-contempt that grows with his facility at pleasing the people.

A Face in the Crowd comes from 1957: a post-McCarthy production, in which the ‘sponsors’ of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith in the performance of his life) could be shown as creators and manipulators of a home-grown political evil. The early pages of An Army of Phantoms take us back to a different era and almost a different country. During the last two years of the Second World War, Americans knew they were good, and the enemy was obvious: Hitler and Japan. Self-confidence and collective self-love warmed the popular culture in the narrow margin after the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad, but before Stalin moved on Eastern Europe, before Russia exploded its own atom bomb, before the Hiss, Bentley, Fuchs and Rosenberg cases sowed a suspicion that there were agents everywhere.

Hoberman often writes history by compiling lists, but the lists themselves are interesting. For example: Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, James Wong Howe, Dudley Nichols, Clifford Odets, Robert Rossen, John Garfield, Charlie Chaplin and Leo McCarey all attended a reception in July 1943 for the Soviet director and administrator Mikhail Kalatozov. At that time Russian and American propaganda methods dovetailed nicely, and everyone seemed to approve of the results. ‘If you have something worthwhile to say, dress it in the glittering robes of entertainment,’ Darryl Zanuck had declared a few years before. ‘No producer who is worthy of the name will reject entertainment, and without entertainment no propaganda film is worth a dime.’ This was the time of the pro-Soviet political memoir Mission to Moscow by the American ambassador Joseph E. Davies. It quickly became a film dedicated to the good of mutual understanding, Davies played with avuncular benignity by Walter Huston, and the film introduced by Davies himself.

The movies actually written by Communists in the late 1930s (the harvest years of the Hollywood CP, after the ‘fair seed-time’ of the Popular Front) are almost all unwatchable. Murray Kempton in Part of Our Time entertained himself by naming some of them: They Shall Have Music, I Stole a Million, Army Girl, The Kid from Kokomo, Mama Runs Wild, Tenth Avenue Kid. One can think of exceptions (Angels with Dirty Faces, for instance), but the trend is clear. ‘There was hardly a scriptwriter among the Communists,’ Kempton judged, ‘who came to witness the trial of Albert Maltz who had not sold himself and betrayed the revolution with his typewriter to make a living every day he worked in Hollywood.’ Yet propaganda without the shame of prostitution did somehow seem possible in the climate of 1943. Proof of the benefits of the mixing of aesthetics and politics was naturally postponed to the end of the war.

Hoberman places the German surrender at Stalingrad close to the release of Song of Russia, a movie about the invasion as experienced by ordinary Russians. Again, there was nothing peculiar then about such a treatment and such a title. Robert Rossen, the most gifted member of the far left milieu, was advised about this time to join the Communist Party as a career move: ‘You will meet big people.’ By the end of that year, David Platt, the Daily Worker’s movie reviewer (a witness frequently summoned by Hoberman for counterpoint), announced that ‘never before in the history of the screen have there been so many forward-looking people in positions of responsibility as in Hollywood.’ ‘Forward-looking’ and ‘progressive’ in the late 1940s were the understood euphemisms for ‘Communist’. They attained their apogee in the 1948 third party campaign of Henry Wallace, an operation managed by ‘very, very progressive people’.

Not only the threat of Soviet rivalry but the emergence of facts about Stalin’s tyranny destroyed a mood of comity based on expediency and fiction. Another circumstance was no less important. The new president, Truman, seeking bipartisan approval after the war, felt the need to secure his standing against the patriotic fervour of Republicans, so he went one better by going one worse. On 21 March 1947 he issued Executive Order 9835. This created the Federal Employee Loyalty and Security Program, a decision, as Truman’s White House counsel Clark Clifford later admitted, driven by the prospect of the 1948 election and not by any security menace: ‘We did not believe there was a real problem. A problem was being manufactured.’ Truman himself, in private correspondence, said much the same. Nevertheless, a domestic purge was in this way instituted, the device of a Democrat to pre-empt the opposite party, and one that would have tremendous effects on the national mood. It marked the beginning of the Cold War in domestic politics. Truman’s loyalty programme would eventually trigger more than 500 dismissals and more than 2600 resignations, losses that weakened the mental power and competence of the civil service for decades to come. It took Eisenhower, a less anxious president, to revoke the order in April 1953.

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