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Left vs. right in the Hollywood film industry

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Edward G. Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy

Conventional wisdom has it that the Hollywood film industry has always been a bastion of the political left, a claim that was probably perpetuated by the FBI, which as early as 1918 dispatched secret agents to Los Angeles to maintain close surveillance over suspected radicals. The notion that Hollywood was a nest of leftists was reinforced by the so-called Red Scare during the Cold War.

The fact of the matter is that Hollywood has had a longer history of conservatism than liberalism, argues movie historian Steven J. Ross in Hollywood Left and Right (Oxford University Press), a fine book that debunks this myth once and for all.

Politics has been part and parcel of Hollywood since its rise as America’s movie capital.

During the silent era, Charlie Chaplin became the first major star to use movies for political ends. But in the main, actors stayed clear of politics, fearing that such activities would alienate audiences or jeopardize their careers.

Louis B. Mayer, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive, had no such qualms. As Ross puts it, “Mayer was responsible for bringing the Republican party to Hollywood and Hollywood to the Republican party.”

The onset of the Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president prompted many actors to become politically active. Yet stars who strayed too far from the mainstream were blacklisted.

The dissolution of the studio system in the late 1940s encouraged still more actors to speak their minds on a wide range of issues. But the Cold War emboldened right-wing actors.

Ross tracks the evolution of politics in Hollywood by focusing on actors and studio moguls who reflected the left/right divide. The first, second and third chapters are on Chaplin, Mayer and Edward G. Robinson, while the remaining chapters focus on George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To Ross, Chaplin – who was often mistakenly identified as Jewish – was an important figure who represented “the evolving intersection of movie stars, politics and celebrity culture.”

As fascism spread its tentacles across Europe, he joined forces with Orson Welles, Robinson, Melvyn Douglas and other like-minded liberals to denounce Nazi Germany and the economic injustice at home.

Chaplin’s biting feature film, The Dictator, a parody on Adolf Hitler and his regime, was almost never made because Hollywood’s self-censorship board, the Production Code Administration (PCA), prohibited filmmakers from attacking or mocking foreign governments.

Indeed, the PCA tried to halt production of Warner Brothers’ Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first explicit anti-Nazi film to emerge from Hollywood.

According to Ross, Mayer – a Jew from Ukraine whose parents went to Canada before immigrating to the United States – was finely attuned to conservative political causes and passed on his knowledge to the Republicans.

“Being Jewish and coming from poverty, he felt a desperate need to be recognized as a success,” he says. “What better proof could there be than being accepted by the party of the wealthy WASP establishment and then moving up in its ranks?”

When his business interests clashed with Jewish interests, Mayer always chose the former. Warner Brothers closed its office in Germany in 1934, but Mayer refused to follow suit. And on the eve of World War II, he invited 10 leading Nazi newspaper editors to his movie lot.

As he grew older, Mayer moved further to the right, coming out in support of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Imagine how miffed Mayer must have been when a liberal, Dore Schary, replaced him at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mayer’s polar opposite, Robinson, was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Romania. Affected by the scourge of antisemitism in his native land, Robinson was committed to eradicating social injustice and participated in progressive causes.

Robinson, whom Ross describes as a left liberal, issued denunciations of Nazi Germany, assisted German Jewish refugees and demanded equality for African-Americans. In response, reactionaries fired off a torrent of antisemitic letters branding him as “stinking Yiddish riff-raff.”

Once one of Hollywood’s best-paid performers, he paid dearly for his political beliefs after being accused of associating with Communists.

Although this accusation was patently false, Robinson’s career ground to a halt. The only offers he received were minor roles, at greatly reduced pay scales. The marquee director, Cecil B. DeMille, handed him a plum role in The Ten Commandments, but three years elapsed before he was offered another major role.

In profiling Robinson and other notable figures, Ross writes with authority and panache, proving his case that conservatism has usually trumped liberalism in Hollywood.

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