Michael's Reviews > Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s

Hollywood Party by K. Lloyd Billingsley
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Jun 24, 2012

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bookshelves: media-studies, popular-history, politics
Recommended to Michael by: Serendipity
Recommended for: American historians, film historians, poli sci students

I read this shortly before I entered grad school, so it got a bit of a pass, since my critical faculties weren't yet as developed. It is better than one might expect for a popular work pushing a political agenda, and some good points are raised in terms of the "usual" story presented in mass media regarding the Hollywood Blacklist and/or "McCarthy era." While academic historians may be more careful, it is not uncommon in the mainstream to hear McCarthy’s name connected with the Hollywood Seven (he was in no way involved in that case), or to hear generalizations about how the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hounded people for information, imprisoned them and prevented them for working for decades, with the blame going to people like Elia Kazan, who “named names” and betrayed his fellow artists. This version of the story is, of course, ridiculously oversimplified, and Billingsley’s intention is to complicate it for us.

Billingsley’s thesis is pretty well summarized in his subtitle: Cold War-era concerns about Communists in Hollywood were justified because the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) had, in fact, infiltrated heavily into the industry and established a great deal of control before the Second World War. This is not simply a right-wing conspiracy theory, it is certainly true that the Communist International (Comintern) had a budget for propaganda in the United States, and that by the 1930s, they had shifted strategy away from efforts at mass recruitment and toward a more limited “vanguard” approach that would influence American popular attitudes in a more subtle manner. Billingsley finds that the efforts were most successful in the Writers’ Guild and more limited among actors and directors, particularly during the period of the “Popular Front,” when Comintern policy was to make common cause with progressive, socialist, and left-liberal organizations and individuals, with especial focus on combating the spread of fascism. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 brought this to an end, with only the most die-hard Communists willing to support a movement that whitewashed the betrayal of Poland and reversed its line on Hitler. The CPUSA rapidly lost power, but fought a rear-guard action to retain as much influence as it could on American mass media.

As far as this, the alternative narrative Billingsley proposes is reasonable enough. In some of the details, however, he leans a little too far to the other side, and seems to use his sources questionably in places. He quotes extensively from Kazan’s memoirs in support of his argument that his actions were not “betrayals” of decent people, but rather were reasonable actions against people who had acted against Kazan, but he ignores passages in which Kazan denies that organizations like “the Group” were Communist fronts and insists that many types of people joined. For Billingsley, a great many organizations are front groups, simply because they supported Popular Front causes and included a few Communist Party members (guilt by association). Similarly, his use of the term “blacklist” and his assertion that these were introduced by the Communist Party to Hollywood seems questionable at times. He cites archival sources to claim that the Communists were able to “blacklist” Leni Riefenstahl and prevent her from working in Hollywood, but it is unclear from his citation that she actually wanted to, or that the source confirmed that this was done, or merely talked about between Communist Party members. In order for a blacklist to be effective, the holders of the list must actually have the power to deny jobs, and it is not always clear that this was so.

Ultimately Billingsley’s book is too imprecise to be completely convincing, but it's worth a look for those who are interested in the period. Certainly for those with no knowledge of the actual power of the Comintern and the early CPUSA will find much here of interest, but for specialists there will be little new, and the book’s primary appeal is its accessibility and sensational subject matter.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2003 – Finished Reading
June 24, 2012 – Shelved
June 24, 2012 – Shelved as: media-studies
June 24, 2012 – Shelved as: popular-history
June 24, 2012 – Shelved as: politics

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