Book review – The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60

Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-60. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003 

The Inquisition in Hollywood probably belongs on the History shelves more than it does on the Cinema Studies shelves. However, that should not deter people with a serious interest in film and film culture from ploughing through its lengthy account of American politics from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and how they impacted on the film community in Hollywood. The result is a damming account of the Red Menace era where screenwriters were blacklisted, having been falsely accused of indoctrinating cinema with Communist propaganda.

Authors Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund provide an extraordinarily detailed account of Hollywood’s political activism and its suppression from the events leading up to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild just after the Great Depression all the way up to the end of the infamous Blacklist era. Originally published in 1979, this 500 plus page edition comes with a new preface, the afterword from the 1983 edition and 7 appendices. The only thing missing is a list of acronyms, which would have been a highly useful reference in a book that makes mention of so many political institutions and organisations.

The Inquisition in Hollywood identifies radical political activism during the 1930s in Hollywood initially as a result of the screenwriters’ battles with the studio system to become unionised and to improve their status from the bottom of the food chain in terms of pay and conditions. Ceplair and Englund are clearly very sympathetic towards writers and make sure the reader is aware that the average writer was far more intelligent and talented than the average actor, writer or producer and yet they were given next to no artistic recognition and pay that did not reflect their crucial contribution to filmmaking. Ceplair and Englund do point out that the struggles of the writers was in no way different from the struggles of other groups of undervalued and underpaid workers throughout the USA, but by being part of Hollywood their activism drew far more attention to themselves than any other group of workers.

The key organisation that resulted from the screenwriters’ efforts to become unionised was the much encumbered Screen Writers Guild who although rife with internal conflict resulted in producing a highly politicised left wing who began to look beyond their own problems to tackle bigger economic, social and political problems both nationally and internationally. It is the plight of this left wing faction and their fight against racism and fascism that is the focus of The inquisition in Hollywood. In particular Ceplair and Englund explore the role of the Communist party and the difference between people who were actually members of the party and people who were labelled Communist simply because they shared the same values, which was predominantly a hatred of fascism.

Discussions on the role and the perceived role of Communism in America fill up many pages in The inquisition in Hollywood. Ceplair and Englund findings reveal that the members of the American Communist Party shared very little in common with European Bolshevism and more to do with traditional American radicalism where fighting for workers rights and attacking racism were seen as intensely patriotic acts. Ceplair and Englund do acknowledge that many members of the Communist Party were extremely naïve about the reality of what was happening internationally in the name of Communism, especially in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, so many screenwriters were attracted to the Communist party because it was initially the only collective organisation actively doing anything in the fight against fascism both internationally and nationally. Other liberal and non-Communist leftist organisations were also happy to work with the Communists, up until a point, for these same reasons.

One of the reasons that Ceplair and Englund do very little analysis of actual films (apart from the fact that they are historians and not from a cinema studies background) is because the Communists completely lacked the power to impact in what went into screenplays. The only exception to this ironically was during World War II when the patriotic radical screenwriters were encouraged by studio executives to promote their anti-fascist platform in their screenplays to ‘educate’ the American people about what it was they were supposedly fighting against. This makes their victimisation even more repugnant as the charges brought against them of subversion and sabotage were completely without any basis in fact.

Ultimately the systematic vilification, then blacklisting and ultimately jail sentencing of Communists and radicals appears to be completely economically motivated by political and social elites such as the House of Un-American Activities Committee. The US Government, heads of industry (including Hollywood studio executives), conservative social organisations and other groups wielding power did not want unions, reform or equality to occur as it threatened their power base. Although after World War II the American Communist party had lost most of its standing due to in-fighting, the embarrassment of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the growing animosity from other leftist organisations, anti-Communist sentiment had successfully penetrated the American psyche. Anybody associated with the Communist party, which the House of Un-American Activities Committee ensured was anybody who shared progressive causes, could then be labelled a ‘Red’ and therefore would be regarded as subversive and a threat to the American way of life.

The Inquisition in Hollywood remains an important text, particularly as we are entrenched in a new era of dominant conservative doctrine where people or organisations that question government are accused of being unpatriotic or hostile. If there are lessons that progressive groups can learn from the plight of groups such as the American Communist Party (who by no means escape Ceplair and Englund’s criticisms) it is that to successfully promote values of freedom and equality, organisations must avoid blind adherence to ideological doctrine, must provoke adequate defences and rebuttals to criticism and must be open to internal differences of opinion.

The Inquisition in Hollywood is not light reading as its purpose is to carefully document events rather than provide brief summaries that a more accessible book may have done. There seems to be almost endless detail and Ceplair and Englund are at pains to make mention of every single committee, political organisation and internal faction to guarantee that The Inquisition in Hollywood is a thoroughly comprehensive text that will stand up to scrutiny and be as relevant today as it was when first published over 20 years ago. 

Originally appeared here on Screening the Past Issue 18, 2005

© Thomas Caldwell, 2002