J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War

John Sbardellati
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies
    Book Description:

    Between 1942 and 1958, J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a sweeping and sustained investigation of the motion picture industry to expose Hollywood's alleged subversion of "the American Way" through its depiction of social problems, class differences, and alternative political ideologies. FBI informants (their names still redacted today) reported to Hoover's G-men on screenplays and screenings of such films as Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), noting that "this picture deliberately maligned the upper class attempting to show that people who had money were mean and despicable characters." The FBI's anxiety over this film was not unique; it extended to a wide range of popular and critical successes, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Crossfire (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954).

    In J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies, John Sbardellati provides a new consideration of Hollywood's history and the post-World War II Red Scare. In addition to governmental intrusion into the creative process, he details the efforts of left-wing filmmakers to use the medium to bring social problems to light and the campaigns of their colleagues on the political right, through such organizations as the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, to prevent dissemination of "un-American" ideas and beliefs.

    Sbardellati argues that the attack on Hollywood drew its motivation from a sincerely held fear that film content endangered national security by fostering a culture that would be at best apathetic to the Cold War struggle, or, at its worst, conducive to communism at home. Those who took part in Hollywood's Cold War struggle, whether on the left or right, shared one common trait: a belief that the movies could serve as engines for social change. This strongly held assumption explains why the stakes were so high and, ultimately, why Hollywood became one of the most important ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6421-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: HOLLYWOOD’S RED SCARE
    (pp. 1-8)

    Henry F. Potter is the resident scrooge of Bedford Falls. A greedy slumlord, Mr. Potter is a powerful shareholder in Bailey Bros. Building & Loan Association. When the Depression of 1929 reaches Bedford Falls, Potter selfishly schemes to entrap more townspeople in his sties. But the Building & Loan is run by George Bailey, a man who sacrifices individual success for the sake of the community. Unwilling to profit from the misery of others, George stifles Potter’s plot by launching Bailey Park, an affordable alternative to Potter’s slums. George’s concern for his working-class neighbors—the town “rabble” in Potter’s eyes—is nothing...

    (pp. 9-40)

    The idea that Hollywood could be subversive is as old as the industry itself. The culture wars at the turn of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of mass amusements as a challenge to a Victorian America grounded in distinct class and gender divisions, especially in the realm of entertainment. This Protestant culture faced the challenge of new immigrants, many of them Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. As the forces of urbanization and industrialization transformed the nation, a mass society emerged and, along with it, a mass culture. Starting with nickelodeons in ethnic communities and spreading to...

    (pp. 41-68)

    Historian Eric Hobsbawm envisions the grand alliance of the Second World War as “a moment of historical paradox in the relations of capitalism and communism, placed, for most of the century—except for the brief period of antifascism—in a posture of irreconcilable antagonism.”¹ It is no surprise, therefore, that despite a dramatic increase in American goodwill toward the Soviets, largely a product of the valiant efforts of the Russians against the Nazi foe, roughly a third of all Americans continued to distrust the Soviet ally.² The Roosevelt administration sought to promote goodwill, but within the administration fears and doubts...

    (pp. 69-105)

    The year is 1945; the great struggle has finally ended in victory. Three of democracy’s heroes return to their small hometown only to find a new struggle awaits. Readjusting to civilian life is much harder than they had ever expected. Homer Parrish has survived the war, but at the cost of losing both his hands. He must now learn to get by with his prosthetic “hooks.” Fred Derry, a U.S. Air Force captain during the war, comes back to his less glamorous job as a “soda jerk” for what used to be a small-town drugstore but is now just another...

    (pp. 106-130)

    By 1947 the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its anti-Communist allies viewed Hollywood as the central battleground in the domestic cold war. In order to wage this cultural struggle successfully, disparate anti-Communist forces would need to form a more tightly knit network. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals would play a key role within this network, but the secret for success owed to the ability of the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee to overcome a previously fractious relationship. Eventually, the FBI’s desire to find an outlet for its intelligence on the Communist situation in...

  9. 5 THE 1947 HUAC TRIALS
    (pp. 131-158)

    The show began on Monday, October 20, 1947. Microphones and loudspeakers amplified the air, floodlights swung from the majestic chandeliers, and lawmen steered the crowd of hundreds eager to get a glimpse of Gary Cooper or Robert Montgomery. Such was the atmosphere as the House Committee on Un-American Activities ushered in its most publicized investigation to date with its hearings on Communist infiltration in Hollywood. “It has been launched with that ineffable touch of showmanship which the naïve Easterner associates with a Hollywood premiere,” the New York Times reported, “lacking only in orchids, evening dress and searchlights crisscrossing the evening...

  10. 6 ROLLBACK
    (pp. 159-183)

    Though it is impossible to take measure of the films that were not made due to the stifling of dissent in the early Cold War, we can take note of a new cycle of movies that explicitly sought to explain the stakes of this conflict. Since most of these films focused on the domestic threat of Communism, it is more accurate to dub these red scare movies rather than Cold War movies.¹ As these films all appeared after the 1947 trials—that is after HUAC, and especially Richard Nixon, continually questioned why Hollywood had not made any anti-Communist pictures—it...

    (pp. 184-196)

    As the 1940s drew to a close, the Cold War intensified. The “twin shocks” of 1949—the Soviet detonation of the atomic bomb and the “fall” of China to Mao Zedong’s Communists—heightened fears of the red menace at home and abroad. In February 1950, Joseph McCarthy began his anti-Communist rampage with his Wheeling, West Virginia, speech in which he boldly claimed to have in his possession a lengthy list of Communists in the State Department. The senator from Wisconsin frequently changed the length of said list, but his sensational allegations only grew more frightening after war erupted in Korea...

    (pp. 197-208)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 209-246)
  14. Index
    (pp. 247-256)