The fallout from a political scrimmage can last a long time. One example was the confrontation in 1947 between a Congressional committee claiming to represent beleaguered Americanism and the yet more beleaguered of Hollywood’s left wing: at issue, protecting the Saturday matinee from surreptitious agitprop – itself something of an oxymoron. A number of writers and performers were outed as Communists and some (the Hollywood Ten) cited for Contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison. Others were blacklisted by studio executives fearful of public reaction at the box office. Even after a generation which had seen 10 million or more innocent bystanders murdered by ideologydriven despotism, this episode became an iconic reference for political victimization: it can still kindle outrage, and not only at Tribeca dinner parties or Hollywood award ceremonies. As for the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, he never seems to run out of biographers – the latest by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner (reviewed in the TLS of June 1, 2012).
As John Sbardellati tells us here perhaps too often, Hoover’s hostility towards Communism dated from his entry into government service under President Harding and only increased with age. Yet, for the most part, the FBI’s role seems to have been to hold a watching brief on likely Communists in Hollywood, rather than make an attempt to assess or curb their ability to influence the movies themselves. There were, in any case, plenty of amateur censors around to detect politically charged double entendres without help from the G-men. Ginger Rogers’s mother, one of the most contentious of them, detected such a cunning hint of communitarianism when her daughter’s dialogue encouraged people to “share and share alike”. Apart from the nuance police, however, Communists had plenty of enemies among liberals and socialists, whom they called “social fascists” and worse at various twists of the party line. Although he resented Congressional inquisitors trespassing on his turf, it was Hoover who possessed a database of identified party members which was vital to committee plans to purge Communists from access to film production.
Sbardellati deserves credit for the energy with which he has tackled a mountain of FBI documentation – and also commiseration: those familiar with the Bureau’s communications know it to be a foreign tongue only deceptively reminiscent of English and usually employed to say no more than is required to forestall a reply. According to the jacket, his book began as a PhD dissertation, and it shows some of the scar tissue often acquired on that academic obstacle course. For research itself can get out of control and sometimes even confound the scholarship it is supposed to nourish, particularly when faced with something like the Bureau’s archives. Many of the carefully preserved exhibits there are reports and alarms from unidentified and probably uninformed “informants” – an unanalysed litter of gossip and trivia whose preservation is owed to Hoover’s Stakhanovite demand that his team pile up overtime in order to show their dedication. Taking them too seriously can distract one’s attention from something more promising.
To take one example, the author makes only a passing reference to the Hollywood visit of Otto Katz, who, using the pseudonym André Simone, was welcomed by movie society as a veteran of anti-Fascist resistance. Katz was a colleague of Willi Munzenberg, the inventor of “front organizations” (he called them “idiots’ clubs”) and the leading Comintern activist in Europe. It would have been interesting to know how the Bureau followed up this episode. Welcome also would be more attention to the attempt by the Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz to find some wriggle room within the doctrinaire restraints which the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) put on its literary cadres. Hoover and Andrei Zdhanov, founder of the Cominform for the dissemination of Soviet propaganda, seemed to agree on one thing: art can be a weapon in the ideological struggle. Hoover aimed to disarm it and Zdhanov meant to use it. Maltz had gingerly raised the question of whether one had to bow to this dilemma; the party’s ideologists quickly set him straight.
A monograph is a special kind of scholarly exercise: it normally addresses a narrow subject and produces limited conclusions appropriate to it, rather than exports its insights to larger issues, what Sbardellati might call other “discourse”. It seems, therefore, rather going too far to argue, as he does, that Hoover’s anti-Communist crusade “brought to an end a brief, though vibrant, period of filmmaking in which liberal reform and social criticism from the left found its way onto American screens”. After all, a vast assortment of influences tempered popular culture during these Cold War years in America – 10 million servicemen re-entering civilian life, revelations of Soviet espionage, unprecedented economic growth and wealth accumulation which changed public attitudes towards leisure and work, the relentless growth of the mass media – to name only a few. Whatever Hoover’s many bureaucratic sins, it is a stretch to indict him for Doris Day’s escapist comedies or Annette Funicello’s beach parties.
While it is a commonplace to say that movies can manipulate public taste, moreover, it is well to remember that the businessmen who make them go to great lengths and with grim determination to find out what the moviegoer wants, and then to give it to him: they would regard it as a sin against commercial piety to impose their views on an audience who will not pay to hear them. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies once again raises the question whether the book editor has gone the way of the iceman and the typesetter. Writing a book, even a short one, is not easy, and the result is seldom perfect. Publishers once shared some responsibility for the product they offered to the public, and helped authors when they patently needed it, as here, to iron out tangled arguments, unintended solecisms, varying standards for citations and similar infelicities. Reader and author alike will profit from the return of those who work at the margins in publishing: they have been missed.