'Red Hollywood': Film Review

Courtesy of The Cinema Guild
Clip-based doc about Communist themes in the movies is dry but useful

Thom Andersen and Noel Burch aren't scared of the reds

A useful mini-seminar on the legacy of Communists in the film industry, Red Hollywood largely skips the familiar dramas about McCarthyism and blacklists in order to chronicle the ways those who HUAC hounded shaped the worldview of movies both obscure and celebrated. A 1996 video project by Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) and Noel Burch that was recently polished up and re-edited, it is a perfect fit for the Film Society's series of work made by blacklisted filmmakers, though its drily didactic tone will limit theatrical appeal elsewhere. For students of political and cinematic history, though, it's a godsend.

In some ways, this evidence-heavy film — composed exclusively of clips from scores of movies and of interviews with four blacklisted filmmakers — justifies the fears of those who tried to bully pinkos out of the industry. Here we have evidence of the ways they were dramatizing their beliefs, both the broadly humanitarian ones (women and minorities deserve not to be forced into the few roles society has carved out for them) and the specific, as with pre-WWII films that took a then-unpopular pro-war stance.

Narration by Billy Woodberry (who sounds like he's reading from a grad-school paper) corrals the clips into themes, showing how both genre and message movies addressed issues of class, race, and labor. Though it offhandedly dismisses a famous Billy Wilder assertion that only two members of the Hollywood Ten had creative talent, it isn't out to prove him wrong. We see films of varying artistic merit, and occasionally witness weak moments even in respected careers: A clip from Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair, whose screenwriter Alfred Levitt is interviewed here, may work in its dramatic context but features a housewife delivering an almost laughably preachy monologue. (Fortunately, she's off-camera, and reaction shots of the "boy" in the title bring the scene to life.)

Though it offers a couple of quick, tantalizing examples of stars (Susan Hayward, John Garfield) whose onscreen performances resonated with the politics in the screenplays they were performing, it does so only when this jibes with the theme under discussion. On many of these subjects, the Reds are easily shown to have been on the right side of history. On some of the others — class, for instance, which has often bubbled up into America's consciousness only to be silenced by the class which can afford the loudest free speech — they remain ahead of the curve.

Directors-Screenwriters: Thom Andersen, Noel Burch

Editor: Thor Moser

No rating, 112 minutes

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