McCarthyism in Hollywood (Part Two)


i was a communist for th efbiOne of the most visible consequences that emerged out of the McCarthy era was the increase in anti - communist pictures; the juxtaposition of such films in comparison to those of the Second World War provides evidence of just how much Soviet relations had faltered. The production of such movies can be read as a reflection of the hold that HUAC had over the country. Doherty says that they were ‘essentially protection payments in 35mm’ (Doherty, 2005:23), meaning they acted as assurances to HUAC that the Hollywood industry too were committed to fighting the red menace and fending off the risk of further investigations. Interestingly, the aforementioned picture Ninotchka was re-released after the war's end in order to both get HUAC off MGM’s back and to ‘cash in on the growing Red Scare that was engulfing the United States’ (Shaw, 2007: 24). Freedland remarks upon the fear that was inherent in the screenwriting process, saying that the studios were self- censoring to the extent that every time an executive looked at a script ‘they did so with one eye cast over his shoulder just in case a secretary in the next room was actually a spy for the committee' (2009: 19). In the time between 1947 and the second round of investigations in 1951, McCarthy’s debut as senator did nothing but ‘strengthen the hand of the new HUAC chairman John S. Wood’ (Robins, 1998: 293). Consequently, a great many of 1950s Hollywood productions were created in the shadow of the Red Scare that was gripping America - this was to continue until the 1960s.

There are even links to be made between such films, the scholarly debates surrounding the era in which they were made as well as certain primary documents. According to Adams, a sequence in the picture A Foreign Affair (Wilder, 1948), a film about the de-nazification of Germany can be read as a metaphor for the behaviour of the Soviets. In the film, a Nazi woman living through occupied Berlin asks: “Do you know what it was like to be a woman when the Russians came in?”. The implications of such a statement are obvious when considering George Kennan’s famous 'long telegram' of 1946, a document that analysed Soviet behaviour - which portrayed the Soviet government as: ‘A rapist... a cruel masculine authority’ (Costigliola, 1997: 1310). Adams argues that this refers to Russian brutality in Eastern Europe in which ‘the rape symbol seemed a fitting one for Russia' (1994:140). No matter how subtle, messages that degraded the Soviets found their way into film; in this instance such a stance even took precedence over the vilification of Nazi Germany.

mccarthyism in hollywood a foreign affair billy wilder

Another film, I Was A Communist for the FBI (Douglas, 1951) was amongst the more explicit anti-Soviet pictures that were produced. It apparently fit comfortably within the way the ‘perceived communist threat in the U.S was routinely and frequently being portrayed in political and media rhetoric at the time’(Arnold, 2013:88). It was based upon the true story of Matt Cvetic who infiltrated the communist party while a member of the FBI; naturally the studios made the most of this fact. Leab describes the promotion of the picture as one that ‘contributed to the furthering of Cvetic’s image as a fearless and self-sacrificing folk hero knowledgeably fighting the red menace' (Leab, 2000:91). Even if the real Matt Cvetic was nothing like the clean cut hero he was portrayed as in the picture; it appeared to matter little to Warner Brothers. Herzberg states that it was during the era of the Cold War when the ‘FBI agent of the movies got his renaissance on screen’ (Herzberg, 2007: 139), while Sherman says that films presented the idea that ‘the integrity of our government isn’t in question; the FBI and HUAC were above reproach' (Sherman, 2009: 50).

Not only did the film therefore bend historical truth but it even supported the theory that the Civil Rights Movement was seen as a communist conspiracy. I Was a Communist for the FBI puts blame for the 1943 race riots in Detroit upon the Soviets: “When the blacks died, they did not know that their death warrants were signed in Moscow” proclaims Cvetic. The patriotism of the film was clear, the last shot of the whole picture; a statue of Abraham Lincoln, reinforced the notion of so many of these films: American ideologies were going to prevail over the communist threat. Taking into account that the picture was a fictionalised account of true events, it seems remarkable that it was nominated for best documentary at the 24th Academy Awards - the emergence of HUAC appeared to even bring with it a sense of unfair bias. Freedland says that this was indeed the case, that the Academy had ‘ways of showing they were on the right side too...they awarded Oscars to people who had no right to them, in accordance with their decision not to give awards to anyone who refused to co-operate with HUAC' (Freedland: 398).

I Was a Communist for the FBI simply acted as an ‘unpleasant example of Warner Brothers' shameless sycophancy towards HUAC.’ (Frank, 1997:150) and was just one of over 50 films that were made for the specific purpose of attacking communism and thus appeasing the committee. The way that these pieces of propaganda painted extremely generic ‘good vs bad’ portrayals of Americans in comparison to Communists was akin to the way that the party itself was demonised by McCarthy. Schrecker argues that such a stereotyped portrayal of American communism was adopted since more nuanced and complex representations would ‘get little attention’ (Schrecker, 1999: 121), the evil version that the senator was expressing was much more ‘easy to sell’. Fraser describes the various ways in which communists were presented on screen at this time, one of them included the portrayal of their religion: ‘movies repeatedly held communists atheism as proof and explanation of their evil' (2009:51). Similarly, McCarthy himself stated that America was engaged in an all-out battle ‘between communistic atheism and Christianity’ (1950).

It was the science fiction genre however, in which directors and screenwriters were most able to express their creativity and portray the red menace as a concept that was of such a danger that it could be equated to that of an alien threat capable of bringing down America. There is an almost uniform agreement among film scholars that one of the reasons for the rise in science fiction in this period was due to the hysteria that stemmed out of the political atmosphere within America. For example Hendershot says that ‘It is a commonplace idea that many popular U.S science fiction films released during the fifties portrayed communism as a monstrous threat’ (2003: 52). Put simply, the overriding theme of extraterrestrial invaders threatening the well-being of modern America within science fiction films of the era was used to reflect and mirror the way that communism was perceived to have endangered society. Jameson claims that such films ‘testified to a genuine collective paranoia of the Cold War period as well as the fantasies of influence and subversion’ (1992: 131) while O’Donnell agrees that ‘science fiction films presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a Soviet invasion of America’(2003: 169). Such pictures do not constitute propaganda since they were much more elusive than films such as I Was a Communist for the FBI, but the genre to which they belonged allowed them to portray historic events such as the Cold War without directly confronting it. Belton says that such films captured the decades greatest fears: ‘The fear of the bomb and fear of a communist takeover - but they did so without the crude tactics of the more flagrantly political films that merely restaged the HUAC hearings’ (1994: 246).

Invasion of the body Snatchers communism

One of the most notable of these pictures, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Siegel, 1956) can be analysed as a reflection of life in 1950s America. Read inside its historical context, the themes of conformity and the portrayal of the aliens takes on a whole new meaning than it otherwise would have had it been made within a different decade. Grant argues that it indeed ‘tapped into the cultural zeitgeist as deeply as any other movie of the era’ (2010: 62). Its plot revolves around a small fictional California town called Santa Mira which comes under invasion from extraterrestrial ‘pod people’ that replace and duplicate the humans, these new ‘humans’ are identical to their counterparts but are devoid of individuality and set out to hunt the normal humans that remain. Pratt says that the film itself ‘provides remarkable insights into the ways that texts both mirror and represent cultural trends and issues,’ (2001: 31). Invasion of the Body Snatchers achieves this by displacing the perceived threat of Red Menace onto these ‘pod people.’ As Sobchack has argued, ‘it is natural to see the pods as standing for the idea of communism which gradually takes possession of a normal person, leaving him outwardly unchanged but transformed within’ (2001: 122).

Again, the content of the film shares parallels with certain primary sources of the time. Attorney Howard McGrath’s claim that communists were: 'Everywhere... in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners and in private businesses' (1950) is akin to that of the omnipresence of the ‘pod people’ within the picture, the menace of which is increased by the fact that they have an identical appearance to that of the Americans they have replaced. This was of course why McCarthy viewed the domestic communist as such a threat; in a 1950 speech he said that if democracy was destroyed, it would not be because of enemies from the outside, but ‘rather because of enemies from within' (1950). Therefore, the concept of the aliens threatening small town America was mirrored in the film as something that wasn’t easily noticeable, which in the era of McCarthyism was what made communism even more dangerous. As Seed argues, 'the feature of truly paranoid narratives lies in the virtual impossibility of distinguishing simulation from original’ (1999: 134). McCarthy’s fear that domestic communism posed a threat because of the inability to distinguish ‘normal’ from ‘subversive’ without some form of interrogation is fully realised within the film; the audience, like McCarthy and HUAC themselves, is forced to scrutinise the film and differentiate the normal humans from the identical impostors. 

Grant argues that the ‘pod people’ exist to simply ‘spread their kind’ (2010: 63), Hoover himself commented that there were always communists ‘ready and willing to do the party’s work, these are the people who infiltrate and corrupt various spheres of American life’ (1947). It can be said that the film depicts aliens, and thus communist subversives as a group of people that are not only large in numbers infesting all aspects of society, but are also determined to force others to think the way that they do. At one point in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a doctor likens the events that are occurring to that of a “malignant disease spreading through the whole country”, similarly Ostherr claims that in the 1950s, ‘metaphors of disease were frequently employed in interpretations of alien invasion as communist allegory' (2005: 94). It is more than valid therefore, to regard the film as one that presents the concept of ‘rightest fears about the invisible spread of communism,’ (Luhr, 2012: 71) by depicting an extraterrestrial threat as a cold, heartless and formidable presence within American society which would have been a recognisable description for many audiences in 1956.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers communismAlthough as argued, Invasion of the Body Snatchers can be clearly read as an anti- communist film, Huygens argues that ‘Siegel’s film offers itself both to right wing and left wing interpretations’ (2009: 47). Although this approach seems incredibly paradoxical, it can definitely be argued that the film too criticises McCarthyism itself, especially bearing in mind that it appeared in cinemas after Edward R Murrow’s televised attacks upon the senator which meant that ‘space opened for Hollywood to challenge aspects of the Cold War consensus’ (Shaw, 2010: 25). This approach has received considerably less coverage, yet when considering that Gregory claimed that the film itself acted as ‘a cry of frustrated warning against the conformity of society’ (1972: 3), it is easy to read the film as a comment on the way that Americans under the guise of McCarthyism, were uniformly forced to shed their individuality and free thought during the period so to avoid the risk of the blacklist. Such an approach requires a great deal of imagination on the part of the audience, but Krutnik argues that this was a characteristic of films written by the Hollywood left. They were disguised commentaries because ‘allegorical expression was especially prevalent during times of political repression since the disguised nature of allegory allows it to communicate political dissent in a manner that circumvents censorship’ (2007: 6).

Matthews says that in such a society as was prevalent in the 1950s, any individualism was in fact a ‘liability’ (2007: 42), Hinton likewise claims that ‘many Americans at the time did not want to stick out or appear to be different from what was considered normal’ (2007: 31). What constituted ‘normal’ during this time appeared to be acting according to the political, cultural and social norms that emerged out of the ‘blandness’ of the Eisenhower administration; the witch hunts themselves created a generation of ordinary citizens that responded to the anti-communist fervour by ‘reining in their political activities, curbing their talk and keeping their thoughts to themselves...Americans had been cowed into silence and basic freedoms of thought, expression and association had languished’ (Fried, 1995: 75).

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all of the ‘pod people’ act in a way that can be related to such a reading; they all act in a uniformly bland manner, have no personality and blindly follow the task of hunting down free thinking humans. Buhl states that with this reading, the process of the pods taking over humanity ‘metaphorically represents the burgeoning suburban conformism that offered quiet complacency with McCarthyism’ (2003: 126). In the world that the film presents, there is no space for individualism, nor is there a toleration for free thought; the pods themselves are depicted as ‘snitches’ who cry out vindictively when they see a normal human which acts as a criticism of friendly witnesses. In the shadow of the blacklist and HUAC that was engulfing society this seems incredibly pertinent; by showing a society in which its citizens become willing to turn on each other in the blink of an eye, in which the only way to escape persecution is to sacrifice individuality in favour of groupthink, Invasion of the Body Snatchers attacks the way in which McCarthyism attacked the autonomy of American citizens. The content and confused politics of the picture no doubt stemmed out of the ‘production and of the pressures placed on everyone involved by HUAC’s notorious presence in Hollywood in the 1950s’ (Buhl, 2003: 74).


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