Culture Workers of Cold War Hollywood

Culture Workers of Cold War Hollywood

An Army of Phantoms:
American Movies and the Making of the Cold War

by J. Hoberman
The New Press, 2011, 432 pp.

From High Noon to The Ten Commandments, from low-budget horror films like Them! to noir melodramas like Panic in the Streets, Hollywood was a key arena for the giant U-turn in American politics that took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Long-time Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman offers his new book as a “chronicle of American politics” from 1946 to 1956, “filtered through the prism of Hollywood movies—their scenarios, backstories, and reception.”

Hoberman’s focus is not on the biggest movies, or the best, but rather on the “movies that best crystallize, address, symptomize, or exploit their historical moment.” With a nod to Horkheimer and Adorno, he considers the people who made movies to have been “politically aware culture workers.” During the Second World War, Hollywood had joined the Left’s fight against fascism, the fight for democracy and equality. Then, with the coming of the Cold War, “Hollywood accepted a new mission and assigned itself a role…in the new war—both in terms of movies made and careers unmade.”

The blacklist throws a shadow over everything here, following the House Un-American Activities Committee’s first hearings in Hollywood in 1947. It’s been the subject of many other books, of course, most notably Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, on the friendly witnesses and the reasons they gave for cooperating. But Hoberman goes much deeper into the tremendous effect the blacklist had on American films—for example, High Noon.

High Noon (1952) remains the most celebrated of all Hollywood Westerns, and also the highest-ranked Western on the American Film Institute list of the greatest films of all time. It’s also the ultimate blacklist movie: an allegory about a town’s refusal to stand up against the bad guys, where the cowardly town seems like Hollywood and the bad guys could remind you of HUAC. Hoberman calls it “a pessimistic film in its view of human nature,” because it expresses “contempt for both bourgeoisie and salt of the earth alike.” The end is nothing if not bitter: after saving the town, the marshal, Gary Cooper, tosses his badge in the dust.

Carl Foreman, the writer on High Noon, was working at home on the script when he received his subpoena from HUAC. By the time shooting began—September 1951—three cast members had also been subpoenaed: Lloyd Bridges, the deputy marshal; Howard Chamberlain, the hotel clerk who dislikes the marshal; and Virginia Farmer, one of the frightened women in town. Foreman was named as a communist on national television by Martin Berkeley, who named 152 names that day. Foreman told the committee he was no longer a communist but, when asked to name names, took the Fifth. Blacklisted, he moved to En...

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