Film Review: Red Hollywood

Documentary examines the impact Communist filmmakers had on Hollywood through film clips and interviews.

Produced in 1996, Red Hollywood is receiving a one-week theatrical run in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center series "Red Hollywood and the Blacklist." With excerpts from 53 movies and interviews with four screenwriters, the documentary functions today as a sort of "Blacklist for Dummies."

Directors Thom Andersen, a professor at CalArts who directed Los Angeles Plays Itself, and Noël Burch, a critic who wrote Theory of Film Practice, provide almost no political or social context for their documentary. Red Hollywood simply assembles clips from movies, loosely tied together under chapter headings like "Hate," "Sexes," "Class" and "Crime."

The directors make no pretense at objectivity and little attempt at nuance. By limiting their examples to "filmwork created by the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist," they ignore a mainstream cinema that was considerably more complex than they are willing to admit.

Andersen and Burch don't follow their own rules anyway, including clips from such Red-baiting movies as Big Jim McLain. It's easy to make fun of obvious targets, but during the same period Hollywood produced many mainstream leftist movies that are ignored here. The Marx Brothers satirized fascism in Duck Soup, King Vidor (Our Daily Bread) and John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath) spoke up for socialism, and even Charlie Chaplin waved the red flag in Modern Times.

For the most part, Red Hollywood focuses on how Communist and fellow-traveler screenwriters and directors tried to slip leftist messages into largely forgettable B-movies like Quicksand and Smash-Up, as well as the occasional big-budget feature like Woman of the Year. That means clip after clip of earnest speeches about the dignity of workers, foreigners, minorities, how we all want a living wage and a decent place to live.

Mashed together, the clips can seem hopelessly naive and misguided. They are accompanied by statements from four blacklisted screenwriters that often veer into recriminations or lectures.

The worst aspect of Red Hollywood today is its voiceover narration, a pretentious blend of academic jargon and unsupported value judgments. Marked Woman, a punchy Warner Bros. melodrama about prostitutes, becomes a "tacit reassertion of group identity." They Drive by Night, an effective but cheap and downbeat film noir, is included because it "fiercely castigated the most sacred institutions of American life."

You can argue interpretations, but not facts. When the narration claims that 1944's None Shall Escape was the only film of its time to allude to the Holocaust, where does that leave Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be, with its "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt"?

The Blacklist was a terrible wrong, not just for Hollywood but for the country as a whole. Red Hollywood takes a party-line approach to the subject, one that champions bad movies because they say the right things while ignoring more nuanced works that can't be pigeonholed so easily.

Click here for cast & crew information.