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Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist Reading the Hollywood Reds

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A Bifocal View of Hollywood during the Blacklist Period

Film as Propaganda and Allegory

We have seen that a comparatively small but important group of postwar American films have been interpreted as Hollywood's response to the Red Scare. But what produced this consensus view of postwar American cinema? Along with the appearance of the earliest histories of the blacklist and the memoirs of blacklisted writers, as well as the industry's belated recognition of those writers' contributions, a third aspect of American film culture of this period fostered the impression that Cold War-era cinema was fertile territory for the exploration of political subtexts: the introduction of film criticism into the academy. Although this aspect was not specific to blacklist film scholarship, it was nonetheless a crucial element in establishing a framework within which this reading formation could develop and flourish.

As Dana Polan and others have pointed out, there is a long history of academic interest in film as a particular type of cultural artifact. But it was not until the 1970s that universities began awarding doctorates in film studies as a distinct and autonomous discipline. As the field developed professional organizations dedicated to film studies, academic journals turned away from evaluation and increasingly turned to the study of film theory and criticism. As David Bordwell notes, film criticism was an outgrowth of film reviewing by professional journalists, but the meaning of a work supplanted its aesthetic worth as the chief object of inquiry. "Now the author of a film book," writes Bordwell, "was apt to be an academic, whose professional career required publications bearing a scholarly imprimatur. In sum, the academicization of film publishing created an expanding institutional base for interpretive criticism." Not surprisingly, blacklist interpretations became more common as a result of this change. As film scholars combed through films of the 1950s for their implicit and symptomatic meanings, the field came to accept the premise that certain films, and even entire genres, allegorized the political tensions around the HUAC investigations and U.S. foreign policy.

Rather than trying to answer the question of what these Cold War-era films mean, this book asks how they came to mean. In this chapter I more closely examine the two particular strategies film critics employed in identifying specific examples of American cinema as commentary on the era's anti-Communist politics. On one hand, some critics, either explicitly or implicitly, describe the cycle of anti-Communist films produced between 1948 and 1958 as a type of propaganda. Although most critics acknowledge that Hollywood made these films to curry favor with investigative bodies like HUAC, the cycle contains an overt, polemical address to viewers that illustrates the potential threat Communist infiltration posed to the American way of life. This cycle of anti-Communist films contained its own ideological contradictions, however, partly because of Hollywood's reliance on established storytelling formulas. On the other hand, many critics also point out that films produced outside this cycle of anti-Communist propaganda sometimes found indirect ways to comment on the politics of the period. Most of these critics implicitly identify allegory as the means by which this commentary is offered. In its simplest dictionary definition, an allegory is "a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation." By this logic, blacklist allegories thematize the evils of political repression and the abrogation of civil liberties.

Rather than simply taking these two interpretive strategies at face value, I argue that they should be contextualized within a much broader understanding of propaganda and allegory as specific communicative acts. How, for example, is propaganda defined and how does this definition differentiate it from a more general sense that cinema functions within a structure of social, cultural, and political ideologies? Likewise, how does cinema "code" its representations in such a way that they can be interpreted as blacklist allegory? How do these blacklist allegories fit within a larger conception of allegory as a genre of literary or cinematic texts? This chapter's aim, then, is to situate blacklist criticism within an understanding of propaganda and allegory as rhetorical modes.

A Metacritical Approach to Framing Blacklist Film Interpretations

One of the chief inspirations for this book is David Bordwell's Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Bordwell's book proved to be quite controversial when it was first published in 1989. Because Bordwell disentangled and diagnosed the rhetorical strategies, reasoning routines, and interpretive protocols used by academic film scholars, some prominent critics believed that he was calling the entire practice of interpretation into question. More than that, Bordwell also identified several institutional pressures that seemed to favor film interpretation over other kinds of intellectual inquiry within the field. These included the pressure to publish felt by junior faculty in tenure-track positions, the "one film = one article" convention that developed among prominent journals in the field, and the conflation of interpretive practice with theorizing about cinema that encouraged critics to use single films as ways of explicating or complicating theoretical premises. These factors, among others, created a kind of "perfect storm" of interpretation across the discipline. With a text in hand and a widely shared set of tools to analyze it, virtually anyone could produce a publishable "reading" of a particular film title.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that Making Meaning rejects film interpretation tout court. I say this both because Bordwell takes pains to emphasize he is not offering an outright rejection of interpretation and because Bordwell himself makes interpretive claims in some of his other books. In the last chapter of Making Meaning Bordwell acknowledges that innovative schemas for interpretation have played a genuinely salutary function within film studies as a discipline: "Many exemplars deserve our praise because they have introduced conceptual schemes that reorient our understanding. They have activated neglected cues, offered new categories, suggested fresh semantic fields, and widened our rhetorical resources. Innovative frames of reference have heightened our awareness of what can be noticed and appreciated in artworks." Although Bordwell praises certain kinds of interpretation in Making Meaning, he also calls attention to the drawbacks of ordinary-rather than innovative-film criticism. One such drawback is the fact that the veridical status of most interpretive claims is indeterminate. Says Bordwell, "Contemporary criticism, in aiming to interpret everything it can find, has usually set itself against theoretical principle by refusing to stipulate when something will not count as a valid interpretive move or as an instance of meaning."

By highlighting both the windfalls and pitfalls of film criticism, Bordwell provides a set of criteria for evaluating stronger interpretations over weaker ones. If a reading of a film seems facile or unenlightening, perhaps it is because the critic has indulged an overfamiliar interpretive heuristic or because the critic generalizes too quickly about a film's characterizations or formal properties. Most film scholars seem to acknowledge that the discipline is awash with weak interpretations of films. Making Meaning allows us to identify and catalog specific ways in which readings of films go horribly awry.

Making Meaning also proves quite useful for understanding blacklist and Cold War interpretations. Early in his book, Bordwell draws an important distinction between comprehension and interpretation. On one hand, comprehension involves the viewer's or critic's construction of referential and explicit meanings that are cued by the formal properties of the film. Referential meanings are built up by the viewer in the process of constructing the film's fictional world and the events of the story. Explicit meanings are a literal construal of a film's meaning, the message or "point" of the story that the film overtly communicates. Interpretation, on the other hand, involves the viewer's or critic's construction of a text's implicit and symptomatic meanings. Implicit meanings are covert or symbolic and are typically expressed as themes that the film critic explicates in reading the film. Symptomatic meanings are repressed, unspoken meanings in a text that critics extract by uncovering structuring absences within the work, which are then traced back to economic, political, or ideological factors.

The two main critical lenses used in blacklist and Cold War interpretations correlate with these processes of comprehension and interpretation. The postwar cycle of anti-Communist propaganda films, for example, fall under the concept of critical comprehension insofar as propaganda depends on an overt, didactic appeal to spectators. By identifying this cycle as propaganda, film critics acknowledge that the referential dimensions of these texts involve characterizations and story events that depict Communist Party members as duplicitous, subversive, and criminal agents of the Kremlin. The explicit message of these films is that Communists pose a dangerous threat to U.S. security. In contrast, films seen as blacklist or Cold War allegories fall under the concept of interpretation. In revealing the allegorical dimensions of these films, critics must "decode" meanings that are disguised through particular figurations, such as synecdoche and personification. Because these allegorical meanings are seen as expressions of their creators' political discontent, these readings, more often than not, seek to explicate implicit meanings of such films.

Pulling Back the Iron Curtain: Postwar Anti-Communist Propaganda

Despite important differences in their form and their overall aims, propaganda and allegory share one important characteristic, namely their didactic function. Although they communicate in a less direct manner, allegories traditionally have functioned as a form of moral instruction and educational tool. Not surprisingly, fable and parable are cognate terms for allegory, further indicating this shared propensity for conveying moral lessons. This sense of allegory as a didactic form dates back at least to the time of the ancient Greeks. Aesop, a Greek slave who lived about six hundred years before Christ, is credited with writing a number of popular fables that have been collected, translated, and revised in several guises all the way up to the present day. Indeed, the notion of "Aesop language" has long been associated with allegorical forms of expression intended to evade political censorship and would play an important role in the Smith Act prosecution of Communist Party leadership in 1949. This didactic function of allegory would hold until the early nineteenth century when romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge self-consciously rejected allegory in favor of symbolism, which was viewed as a more organic deployment of figurative language.

Like allegory, propaganda is a discursive form distinguished from other types of communicative acts on the basis of its didactic intent. Unlike allegory, however, propaganda's polemical qualities are much more overt and more explicitly directed toward social instruction and political persuasion. More important, the term propaganda also functions pejoratively. Used in a present-day context, propaganda usually refers to discourse that advances a position on the basis of misstatement, distortion, and untruth.

The idea that propaganda is a derogatory term is largely a twentieth-century invention. As J. Michael Sproule points out, this modern conception of propaganda derives from Progressive efforts in the 1910s and 1920s to analyze the dissemination of public information in search of nationalist or political bias. Describing the change in public understanding of propaganda augured by World War I, Sproule writes, "Before the war, propaganda, if it had any meaning for an ordinary American, signified chiefly the spreading of self-interested opinions through publicity. Under the influence of anti-German exposés, however, the term by 1915 had begun to take on more sinister connotations of manipulations and half-truths secretly sowed by society's avowed enemies." According to Sproule, the negative connotations of propaganda were promulgated through the emergence of specific institutions created to combat foreign propaganda and root it out of the public sphere. These institutions include Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information, which sought to counter the dark shadow of German propaganda and, thus, build support for America's entry into World War I, and the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937 and charged with thwarting the efforts of "special interests to monopolize the channels of public communication." Along with these institutions, prominent public intellectuals like Walter Lippman, Gilbert Seldes, and John Dewey also contributed to the pejorative understanding of propaganda as self-interested expression colored by bias and untruth.

During the late 1930s the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) not only strove to uncover the most egregious examples of propaganda in the public marketplace but also sought to educate citizens about the best methods to detect propagandistic material. For example, in a November 1937 bulletin published by the IPA, Clyde R. Miller identified "seven common propaganda devices" that readers of the bulletin should watch for. Although Miller's schema was widely criticized for its oversimplification and logical fallacies, it nonetheless guided public understanding of propaganda analysis as a useful primer. Indeed, although there is no specific evidence that later film critics employed this framework in their treatment of anti-Communist films, the fact that many reviews call attention to these devices suggests that the wide circulation of Miller's ideas contributed to a common fund of knowledge about the way propaganda operated. Among the devices highlighted by Miller were the following:

1. Name-calling-the propagandist applies such bad names as "fascist" or "communist" to the opponent to stimulate hate and fear.

2. Glittering generalities-"the propagandist identifies his program with virtue by use of 'virtue words,'" such as truth, freedom, justice.

3. Transfer-"the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige from something we respect and revere [often church and nation] to something he would have us accept."

4. Testimonial-to bolster an idea or plan by using a statement from someone recognized by the public.

5. Plain folks-when members of society's political or social elite court the public by appearing to be just ordinary folks and therefore wise and good.

6. Card stacking-the propagandist relies upon half-truths, distractions, and omissions, using "under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts."

7. Bandwagon-the propagandist works to make us "follow the crowd, to accept the propagandist's program en masse."

The ability to detect propaganda qua propaganda proves to be one of the most important traits of analysis. By its very nature, propaganda does not advertise its rhetorical appeals but rather conceals them under the guise of public information. For this reason discourse only achieves the status of propaganda when one recognizes its attempt at persuasion. Propaganda, thus, might be defined as a type of discourse that tries, but fails, to conceal its didactic intent. In contrast, undetected propaganda is received as mere information.

This understanding of propaganda as a form of failed rhetoric, though, is not shared by every political theorist who has attempted to define it. In the early 1960s Jacques Ellul argued that modern propaganda is an almost necessary aspect of governance in contemporary societies insofar as all modern political systems depend to a greater or lesser degree on some form of public participation. Drawing on broad psychological appeals, propaganda works by making individuals feel a sense of belonging within the body politic and helps them conform to broad cultural norms. For Ellul, modern propaganda emerged as a response to the disintegration of smaller social groups, such as the family, the village, or the church. It supports governance by helping to organize society and creating a national sense of cohesion.

Because Ellul focuses so strongly on the sociological and psychological dimensions of propaganda, the question of its truthfulness is more or less irrelevant to its functions. Propaganda is defined by its effectiveness and utility rather than its veridicality. Some propaganda is factually accurate; some propaganda is based on false facts; and some propaganda falls somewhere between these two poles-that is, it is based on factually accurate information but is deceptive in the way it is used. In the latter case propaganda is based on some piece of factual information but encourages individuals to draw obvious, if wrong, conclusions from it.

Ellul's conception of propaganda has been influential in some academic circles, but it has not been widely adopted in film studies. I believe that one reason for this is that Ellul's definition of propaganda overlaps significantly with post-Althusserian theories of ideology. Indeed, by developing an extremely capacious and multifaceted concept of propaganda, Ellul identifies several aspects of propaganda that later scholars are more likely to identify as ideological in their nature. For example, Ellul distinguishes between political propaganda and sociological propaganda, describing the latter as diffuse and spontaneous, not the result of deliberate actions: "It is rarely conveyed by catchwords or expressed intentions. Instead it is based on a general climate, an atmosphere that influences people imperceptibly without having the appearance of propaganda; it gets to man through his customs, through his unconscious habits. It creates new habits in him; it is a sort of persuasion from within. . . . Sociological propaganda produces a progressive adaptation to a certain order of things, a certain concept of human relations, which unconsciously molds individuals and makes them conform to society."

Because Ellul sees the circulation of specific ideologies as the output of propaganda, his conception does not square with modern usage of these terms. Consequently, contemporary film scholars seem reluctant to embrace his theory of propaganda for fear of muddling their own theories of film as an ideological form. Instead, most current film scholars rely on a commonsensical definition of propaganda as something significantly different from ideology. For example, discussing the postwar anti-Communist cycle, Thomas Doherty writes: "Ironically, then, while in self-conscious service to an (overt) political ideology, the anti-communist films failed to fulfill the traditional (covert) ideological function of American cinema. This peculiarity arises not from their anti-communist content as such-after all, Ninotchka has that-but by their failure to achieve the two different 'ideological' missions simultaneously: to be both 'Hollywood' and 'agit-prop.'" As Doherty's usage makes clear, propaganda is overt and self-consciously strives to be persuasive while ideology is covert and lacks a particular message. Propaganda is prone to failure if audiences recognize its rhetorical tactics too easily. In contrast, ideology maintains its epistemic status even when it is analyzed.

As a rule of thumb, Hollywood filmmakers generally avoided making films that could be identified as propagandistic. The reason was fairly simple: making propaganda films was bad for business since such product inevitably alienated a significant portion of the public put off by such overt polemicism. As Ruth Vasey points out, the major studios recognized that political messages in films have the potential to generate controversy. Such controversy sometimes leads to consumer boycotts or resistance from exhibitors. By staying politically neutral, Hollywood attempted to preserve an audience for its products that was as large as possible.

Warner Bros.' release of I Was a Communist for the FBI in 1951 illustrates some of the risks in making anti-Communist films for a mass audience. The production file for I Was a Communist contains several letters to Jack Warner showing the divisive effect the film had on viewers. A number of letters praise Warner for his bravery in throwing a spotlight on the scourge of Communism in the United States. Bernice Mertes wrote, "It takes courage to make such a picture as this. . . . You have blazed the trail with a fine picture that was not only educational, but superb entertainment as well." Similarly Nancy Olwine of Trotwood, Ohio, lauded Warner for making a magnificent movie, adding, "I hadn't realized how much power the Communist party had in the United States until I saw this picture."

Yet an almost equal number of letters were extremely negative. Jack D. Zeldes of Galesburg, Illinois, attacked the film for misrepresenting basic legal principles: "My suggestion: When you are making a motion picture which involves Constitutional rights, please keep a copy of the Constitution handy. Any United States Senator or Representative will furnish Warner Brothers, or any citizen, a copy of the Constitution free of charge." Several other letters criticized I Was a Communist for its anti-Semitism, holding Warner himself personally responsible for whipping up hatred against Jewish people. In a protest from "a Jew to a fellow Jew," Julius Newman of Roxbury, Massachusetts, wrote, "What the hell are you trying to prove or do? I demand that this dangerous, rotten, + libelous bit of propaganda be withdrawn immediately before some Jewish mother somewhere, gets her son's cracked skull for Mother's Day." These polarized responses illustrate the problem that propaganda films had from a market perspective. Although it is impossible to measure the number of people who decided not to go to I Was a Communist on the basis of such comments, one might surmise that such negative word of mouth essentially cut the film's potential audience in half.

This perception was reflected in contemporaneous discussions of the anti-Communist cycle. In 1956 Dorothy B. Jones observed, "With a few exceptions, these films were not good motion pictures as judged by one of the industry's own criteria-box office success." Jones goes further, though, noting that studios continued to make these films despite their poor financial prospects. The reason Hollywood continued to place these losing bets had much more to do with response to external pressures than to the studios' usual development process. After the initial flurry of anti-Communist films made in 1948 and 1949 as a direct response to the HUAC investigations, their production slackened in 1950 and 1951. HUAC's return to Hollywood, though, led to renewed interest in anti-Communist projects in 1952, a year that saw the release of some thirteen films in the cycle. According to Jones, this number constitutes about 37 percent of the total number of anti-Communist films produced in the eight-year period covered in her study. Yet the cycle remained unpopular, as evidenced by Paramount president Barney Balaban's comments after the premiere of My Son John (1952). When an executive from a rival studio showered Leo McCarey's fervid family melodrama with praise, Balaban responded, "I'm glad you feel that way. I wish you had made it."

Jones doesn't mention it, but this anti-Communist cycle also failed on another important criterion for success: critical response. Although most films expect their share of bad reviews, there is some evidence that the negative response received by most anti-Communist films affected the distribution patterns for later entries in the cycle. In an item in the Indianapolis Star, Harold Heffernan noted that producers John Wayne and Robert Fellows opened Big Jim McLain in every key city in the United States before it went on to New York, hoping to avoid, or at least delay, the kind of critical lambasting that My Son John received. By saving New York until last, Wayne and Fellows tried to reap the benefits of the film's appeal to middle America before that appeal could be tainted by eastern elite tastemakers.

Additionally, anti-Communist propaganda films also faced challenges in international markets. Such overt partisan politics invited censorship from other countries when a film's political line ran counter to a nation's official foreign policy positions. As Gordon Mirams, censor of cinematograph films in New Zealand, explained in a letter to Warner Bros. distribution offices in Auckland, the New Zealand government expressed concern about the implication that criminal actions depicted in I Was a Communist for the FBI were performed under "direct instructions or guidance from the Kremlin, from Stalin, or from Moscow." Mirams added that "the Censor's official position here confers on him a special responsibility to take careful note of any references (whether in action, dialogue or commentary) as might conceivably be the subject of diplomatic protest or controversy and a consequent source of embarrassment to the Government."

I Was a Communist for the FBI was not alone in ri