I have a serious problem with some books about Hollywood politics and the "blacklist" era of c.1947-1965. That many talented (and even mediocre) motion picture actors, directors, screenwriters, and other filmmakers were unofficially banished from the American movie industry for several years because of their alleged Communist sympathies was a travesty of American justice and fair play. Yet some of those blacklisted, and some of their defenders in the popular and academic media, seem to imply that their persecution by the U.S. government and the motion picture industry somehow validated many or all of their political beliefs and activities - including support of an American Communist Party that was always under control of Stalinists and slavishly adhered to the Soviet line, and which was (unknown to most of its members and sympathizers) a center for Soviet espionage against the United States. For a rather extreme example of this attitude, see HOLLYWOOD RED: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF LESTER COLE, one of the celebrated "Hollywood Ten" group of filmmakers who served federal prison time for their refusal in 1947 to answer questions in hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA). However wrong-headed these people may have been in their faith in Marxist philosophy and the Soviet workers' paradise, they didn't deserve to lose their livelihoods simply because they held those political views.
So I approach books like RADICAL HOLLYWOOD with some trepidation, and it was apparent from the first few pages that the authors were very sympathetic to the victims of the blacklist. The authors' approach to their subjects is distinctly from the port side, and they strive to categorize virtually all the filmmakers they mention in some leftist political context - "left-wingers" (but not necessarily Party members), "collaborating non-Communist [ally]" (speaking of screenwriter Dudley Nichols), "left-leaning," "Marxist bohemian," "left-sponsored antifascist[s]" (the Three Stooges!), "New Dealers," "notoriously close to the Left," "friendly witness" (one who agreed to answer questions for the HCUA at some point - including Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk -- and thus earned varying degrees of enmity from many leftists), and so forth. Moreover, they concentrate on filmmakers - mainly screenwriters, some quite well-known and others rather obscure today - who contributed to films of the 1930s, `40s, and early `50s, and try to demonstrate how these people managed to make or influence movies that reflected their left-liberal political sympathies, even in the face of opposition from studio heads, the Hays Office (the industry's self-censorship arm), and powerful interests outside of Hollywood.
The usual historical consensus on Hollywood leftists has been that the corporate, collaborative nature of most American film-making in this era largely negated any attempts by the left to insert "Communist propaganda" into the industry's products. Leftist screenwriters might create the scripts, but they didn't actually shoot the film, act out their lines, or enjoy the privilege of "final cut" that was essentially restricted to the studio chiefs and producers. Nonetheless, Buhle and Wagner make a good case for screenwriters working left-liberal social and political themes into a large number of films, especially in the period 1935-1947. Beginning in 1935, the international Communist movement, controlled largely by the USSR and facing the growth of fascism in Europe, turned away from stressing Marxist ideological purity and toward collaborating with the non-Communist left in an anti-fascist "Popular Front." Though the "messages" were at times very subtle, the "propaganda" - opposition to lynching, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, and fascism; an awareness of gender discrimination and class differences; and a general support for the Roosevelt administration's New Deal programs and (in 1940-45) the anti-Fascist U.S. war effort - was hardly reflective of exclusively Communist views. The only blatantly "Communist" themes were found in the sympathetic treatment of that gallant ally, the Soviet Union, in a handful of American wartime films - e.g., "Mission to Moscow," "Song of Russia," "The North Star" -- that were sanctioned and encouraged by the U.S. government.
The post-war backlash against the Hollywood left stemmed not just from right-wing fears of cinematic subversion, but also from within the industry itself. Before the war, "left wingers," including many Communists, were instrumental in organizing the Screen Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Screen Directors Guild (among other film industry unions). As the American political right enjoyed a post-war, post-Roosevelt resurgence and a general anti-labor sentiment prevailed, a climate of payback developed in Hollywood. As an anti-Soviet foreign policy grew hand-in-hand with a domestic anti-Communist fervor (embraced by both major political parties), American Communists and other leftists - including many who had been associated with the Party only during the Popular Front era - found themselves caught up in a witch hunt and barred from earning a livelihood in Hollywood. There were a number of personal hardships and tragedies among the blacklistees, though a surprising number continued to find employment in other media, in Europe, and (mainly for writers) "under the table" with sympathetic filmmakers or by selling scripts through "fronts" (other writers who were not blacklisted). Buhle and Wagner argue that, despite the persecution of the Hollywood left, their messages continued to get through on the screen, especially in the post-war "film noir" genre and in other genre films, often in low-budget "B" movies.
Even if one is suspicious of the leftist orientation of the authors, RADICAL HOLLYWOOD is a very informative book about leftist screenwriters and the films that they made (or at least influenced) in the studio era. In the end, efforts by Hollywood Communists to inject Party propaganda into mainstream American movies were half-hearted at best, and Party members were often at odds about exactly what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it. The writers (including the much larger number of non-Communists working in the industry) were as much concerned about getting a fair payday from their studio employers as they were about promoting liberal ideas. At times, Buhle and Wagner seem to strain to demonstrate the ideological content they detect in a great many films (from routine oaters like "Pals of the Saddle" to the classic post-war "issue" films like "Crossfire" and "Intruder in the Dust"), but their take on the more obscure films is seldom dull or unreasonable. The writing is a bit stuffy in places but generally flows well. One can detect a few errors in the book about casting (John Garfield did not appear in "Action in the North Atlantic"; Michael Ansara played Cochise in the "Broken Arrow" TV series, a role that had been played by Jeff Chandler, not James Stewart, in the film version) but these don't lessen the overall interest of the book.
RADICAL HOLLYWOOD is a serviceable supplement to such basic works as Ceplair and Englund's THE INQUISITION IN HOLLYWOOD and THE HOLLYWOOD WRITERS' WARS by Nancy Lynn Schwartz and Sheila Schwartz. Just as a compendium of politically significant/themed/influenced films from the studio era, it's an interesting read for movie buffs.