J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies

John Sbardellati

The FBI’s part in the anti-Red witch hunts in Hollywood has been under-reported, for the simple reason that Hoover’s FBI worked very hard to keep behind the scenes, supporting other groups with intelligence and analysis, rather than taking the lead role itself.

Many books have been written about the influence of Communists and other political progressives in Hollywood, and many more on the right-wing “counterattack.”

“Counter-attack” is the right word, for the groups that sought to “defend” Hollywood, and the national culture the movies reflected and helped to shape, saw progressive participation in Hollywood as nothing less than a threat to the American way of life.

From the Hays Commission to the Catholic Legion of Decency, from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) to HUAC, the task was always clear: defend America from the godless Reds.

Now, John Sbardellati has written the familiar story from a largely-unexamined perspective. In J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War, Sbardellati uses the agency’s own archives to bring clarity to the breadth and depth of the FBI’s role in the fight against Hollywood’s Red Menace.

The FBI’s part in the anti-Red witch hunts in Hollywood has been under-reported, for the simple reason that Hoover’s FBI worked very hard to keep behind the scenes, supporting other groups with intelligence and analysis, rather than taking the lead role itself.

From its start in the 1920’s through the general discrediting of the Red Scare by the end of the 1950’s, the FBI, and especially its chief, had a hand – sometimes both hands – in the constant battle of the forces of God, patriotism, and capitalism against the enemy ideologies that threatened their sway over American values and daily life.

Sbardellati’s central focus is the FBI’s largely secret role in this fight. After the initial Red Scare in the 1920′s, the FBI withdrew from public efforts to “cleanse” Hollywood, relying on others like the MPA to use FBI information to protect American values in an industry that all agreed was a major force in shaping public opinion.

– * –

Much of the book’s space is devoted to a familiar but useful summary of the context of the FBI’s influence. What makes Sbardellati’s contribution most valuable is the way that he weaves the FBI’s background role into the better known foreground campaign.

(For an insider’s look at the Hollywood Blacklist from the other side of the political fence, I recommend Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s engrossing Tender Comrades.)

This background role continued through the war years of the ’40′s and into the post-war HUAC hearings and the infamous “Hollywood Ten” trials. In the 1950′s, however, the FBI became more of an open player, with Hoover fostering a number of prominent if not very proficient “pro-FBI” movies, with titles like “I Was a Communist for the FBI.” This largely-ineffective publicity campaign ended after the 1959 James Stewart film, “The FBI Story.” Sbardellati writes, “How influential were these red scare films? One can detect the G-men‘s high hopes and dashed expectations for these movies throughout the FBI‘s files.”

However, by the mid-50′s all of the major studios and many of the independents had stopped producing “social content” movies, opting instead for safer — and much more profitable — films that were “pure entertainment.” For the next decade and a half, there would be far fewer films like “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Crossfire” and many more movies like “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Auntie Mame.”

– * –

The most interesting sections of the book elucidate Hoover’s personal passion to stop the Red tide from washing over the landscape of the idealized America he loved. Sbardellati includes not only official FBI memos and reports but Hoover’s public persona, most prominent in his later years, as America’s foremost anti-Communist.

“Hoover conjured up a spiritual battle between good law-abiding, god-fearing patriots and godless Communists,” writes Sbardellati, “whom he portrayed as sinister nemeses backed by fellow travelers and liberal dupes.”

Sbardellati writes that Hoover would often compare Communism to a disease, insisting that “the Communist hopes to implant his Red virus and to secure a deadly culture which will spread to others.”

Hoover, in his many speeches, interviews, and publications, along with Hollywood, presented audiences with a broader social definition of the red peril. … Hoover and Hollywood presented an expansive image of the danger, in which not only the American state, but the school, church, and family all were in jeopardy. The solution, Americans were told, lay in reinvigorating these social institutions and gearing them toward awareness of Communist treachery.

Hoover’s warnings about the threat to The American Way were gathered together into his 1958 best-seller, Masters of Deceit, in which Hoover lamented that the Red Menace had not yet been defeated.

Hoover’s unwavering opposition to social change, which he saw always as a communist plot against American values, extended into the 1960′s, during which he intrigued relentlessly against anti-war and civil rights activists like Martin Luther King.

In the end, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies successfully weaves the little-examined role of the FBI into the better-known story of the right’s long campaign to control the Hollywood dream factory — to keep the ‘good” dream alive, and to keep “bad” dreams at bay.


One thought on “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies

  1. Everybody has it backwards. There were just as many “Entertainment” films produced in the late 40s as there would be in the 50s (And relatively few social problem films in comparison)-and what about “Bad day at Black Rock”, “Blackboard Jungle”, “Giant” (Dealing in part with anti-Hispanic prejudice”, “The Jackie Robinson Story”, films dealing with police corruption like “Rogue Cop”, “Island in the Sun”, even “Love is a Many Spendored” Thing”, which dealt in part with ethnic identity. I think one saw more social issues in films in the 50s than in the 40s. The cup was at least half-full.

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