In the opening titles, Red Hollywood (Tom Andersen and Noël Burch, 1996/2014) declares itself a compilation film. Compilation films are a form of historical and documentary practice, with roots in early Soviet cinema and propaganda films of the 1940s and 1950s, that assembles pre-existing material such as archival film, interviews and newsreels to produce a new discursive theme or idea.1 In the case of Red Hollywood, this is achieved through more than 50 films, clips and interviews that feature writers and directors, either blacklisted or charged as fellow travellers – those named by colleagues to save themselves during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trials that, from 1947, were held to root out a perceived infiltration of Hollywood by communists. Andersen and Burch’s film, though, is less propaganda than a form of “dialectical inquiry”2 about the societal forces that oppressed directors and writers of the time, while simultaneously advancing the wry argument that “it would be an injustice to those who were blacklisted to say they did nothing to deserve it” – a rebuttal to what Andersen refers to as a longstanding miscalculation, a kind of particular “American mythology” that favours the idea that those who were blacklisted should go down in history as innocent martyrs.3

As Andersen sees it, the oversight of the martyr stance, which has been equally adopted by those on the left and the right, is that we have to drop any claim that “the work of the blacklist victims has any distinction or distinctiveness”, or, even, “that blacklisted filmmakers left any permanent impression upon the screen or film culture”.4 In fact, Andersen and Burch’s film takes the position that blacklisted directors, actors and (especially) writers of the time were not only adeptly navigating and responding to the temperamental political climate and culture of US–Soviet relations from the period of the 1930s through to the early 1950s, but were also crafting a political leftist critique about the effects of capitalism, class and societal racism and sexism on the lives of everyday people through an array of social problem films, beginning in the late 1940s to the early 1950s, films that Andersen refers to as “film gris”, an offshoot of film noir with a leftist twist.5

Red Hollywood is divided into eight chapters, with thematic intertitles such as “War”, “Class”, “Sexes” and “Crime”. Its work of teaching contemporary viewers to see how blacklisted writers approached the social problems of their time develops through an understated dialectical inquiry, one that takes into account the social and political circumstances that helped shape the concerns of blacklisted writers and directors. For example, in the chapter on class, Andersen and Burch introduce the films of the late 1930s as a precursor to film gris. In this example, we are reminded that the 1930s were the years of the Great Depression in the US; the narrator, Billy Woodberry, offers that, during this time, “class solidarity was still an ideal and the homeless were not yet excluded”. The clip that accompanies this observation is taken from the film Dust Be My Destiny (Lewis Seiler, 1939), and follows a young couple walking around a quaint neighbourhood during the early morning, coming upon a milkman. They proceed to buy a bottle of milk with spare change, but the young man, Joe Bell (John Garfield), doesn’t quite have enough in his pocket to pay. No matter: the milkman happily offers the milk for free, resulting in a friendly conversation about the price of milk being taken up at the next board of directors meeting. It’s at this point that an intertitle in Andersen and Burch’s film announces “Guys who wake up later…”, and proceeds to show a boardroom of corporate suits, the owning class, who loudly discuss the viabilities of expansion versus shutting down factories in order to control the market and boost profits, lest they be considered a charity.

Later in this chapter, Andersen and Burch revisit the problem of class and poverty in blacklisted films from roughly ten years later; instead of a cooling down of radical messages in films in response to the HUAC hearings, some works – as the blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky reminisces in an interview – became even more explicitly radical. The example that Andersen and Burch use to illustrate this observation is taken from Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947), scripted by Polonsky. This film also features Garfield, himself a victim of the Hollywood blacklist,6 this time playing an angry young man named Charley Davis, whose family dinner is interrupted by a visit from a welfare worker wanting to conduct an interview with his mother. Her questions are too degrading and shameful for Charley to take, and in anger he asks the woman to get out of his house. This clip offers a sharp contrast to the 1930s young couple of Dust Be My Destiny that unashamedly converses with the milkman about being broke and poor.

Red Hollywood, as Andersen concedes, is by no means a definitive statement about the work produced by the blacklisted Hollywood left, but, rather, a “fugitive and ephemeral” body of work, beginning as a seed of an idea in 1986, which led to research grants to produce a preliminary study in video in 1995 and then an initial run in festivals – and, as Andersen says, “nowhere else”. This was accompanied by a book of essays published by Presses de la Sorbonne nouveau in French in 1995 – Les communistes de Hollywood: autre chose que des martyrs – a work that Andersen concedes as having been, in part, “excessively ignorant”. It was not until he had the opportunity to revisit and recontextualise the films for a 2000 Vienna International Film Festival retrospective on the victims of the Hollywood blacklist that he acknowledged the worthiness of the project.7 If anything, the sense of incompleteness of the Red Hollywood project is an acknowledgment that blacklisted films are a manifestation of their times, requiring a peeling back of layers to reveal a larger network of societal forces at work, and that they may never be complete.

 

Red Hollywood (1996/2014 USA 120 mins)

 

Prod. Co: Cinema Guild Dir: Thom Andersen, Noël Burch Scr: Thom Andersen, Noël Burch Phot: Christophe Bazille, Thor Moser Ed: Thom Andersen, Noël Burch, Encke King, Erik Whitmyre Music: Thor Moser Snd: Raegan Kelly, Jean-Claude Reboul, Scott Shelley Cast: Bill Woodberry

 

Endnotes:

  1. Annette Kuhn & Guy Westwell, “compilation film (anthology film)”, in A Dictionary of Film Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 92–3.
  2. Henri Lefebvre, “Marxism as Critical Knowledge”, in Critique of Everyday Life, Vol. 1: Introduction, trans. John Moore (London and New York: Verso, 2008), p. 148.
  3. Thom Andersen, “Afterword”, in “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era, Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, Peter Stanfield, eds. (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 2007), p. 265.
  4. Thom Andersen, “Blacklisted”, in Red Hollywood DVD booklet (New York: Cinema Guild, 2014), p. 16.
  5. Andersen, “Afterword”, p. 267.
  6. Bernard Weinraub, “Recalling John Garfield, Rugged Star KO’d by Fate”, The New York Times, 30 January 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/30/movies/recalling-john-garfield-rugged-star-ko-d-by-fate.html
  7. Andersen, “Afterword”, pp. 264–7.

About The Author

Sandra E. Lim currently lectures on Politics and Film at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She holds a PhD in Art and Design for the Moving Image, from the University of Brighton in the UK. Her writing on films and art can be found in the journals Screenworks and Reconstruction. Additionally, her moving image work is distributed by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) Toronto.