Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s Red Hollywood
Red Hollywood has its exclusive theatrical run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” a series curated by Thom Andersen and featuring additional films related to the blacklist, runs August 15 to 21, also at the Film Society.
Of the many edifying pleasures of Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s Red Hollywood, the first and most striking is the notion that anything like a “Red Hollywood” existed in the first place. The 1996 essay-documentary details the phenomenon: during the 1940s and ’50s, numerous Communist (and Communist-sympathizing) filmmakers were making ideologically charged contributions to Hollywood cinema. Andersen and Burch’s illustrated history deploys clips from over 50 different films written and directed by victims of the Hollywood blacklist to describe a corpus of politically and socially engaged filmmaking that is nearly inconceivable in today’s industry. Previously shown in New York in a different form as part of a 2005 Andersen retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives, and in a new edit this past spring at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real, Red Hollywood returns for a week-long theatrical run. Here are a few of the films quoted and discussed within the film.
The Sound of Fury (50)
One of several crime pictures mentioned in Red Hollywood, Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!) is also one of the bleakest. In Andersen and Burch’s reading, Endfield’s film presents crime as the result of social and material forces rather than any natural inclination towards wrongdoing. But this summary only scrapes the surface of the film’s incendiary politics. Sound of Fury draws its power from a dialectic struck between two characters: Howard, a family man who reluctantly enters a life of crime after weeks of unemployment, and Gil, a popular journalist who writes sensationalistic accounts of Howard’s crimes. The class gulf between their two worlds, which allows Gil to condemn Howard thoughtlessly from a comfortable vantage point, leads to moral catastrophe. In a pessimistic update to Fritz Lang’s already bitter prewar precursor Fury (36), a mob of angry townspeople, riled up by Gil’s stories, drags Howard from his cell and murders him in the street. Howard has been condemned twice—by a society that offers him no legal opportunity to provide for his family, and by an upper-middle-class man who denounces his tabloid victim as a “monster” without considering his material circumstances.
The Sound of Fury spells these ideas out fairly directly through the superfluous character of an enlightened European professor who acts as a mouthpiece for all social commentary. But that character’s redundancy is perhaps only felt so keenly because of the power and efficacy of the rest of the film. Working with DP Guy Roe (Armored Car Robbery), Endfield shrouds every scene in shadows, making for a consistently noxious atmosphere of guilt and paranoia. When the vigilante mob arrives to murder Howard, they appear as an undifferentiated mass of barely illuminated faces—the homogenized result of Gil’s blaring one-note denouncements. What’s most compelling about Sound of Fury finally is how potently it registers the tremendous cost of not understanding, or refusing to understand. As Gil, shocked into silence, stands listening to the sounds of Howard’s savage public execution, the insanity—and the horrible ease—of passing judgment in ignorance is felt vividly in the film’s perceptively class-conscious drama.
Tender Comrade (43)
In 1947, HUAC attacked Tender Comrade as an “example of Communist subversion” for its “espousal of communal living,” as Red Hollywood describes it. Written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Edward Dmytryk, today its communal theme seems less threatening and ambitious than innocuous and even patriotic. Presented in Red Hollywood as one of many films investigating the experiences of modern women, Comrade concerns the lives of four World War II army wives who decide to cohabitate in order to save money. The film is partly couched as a tribute to homefront perseverance—the drama partly centered on how the women can best honor the work of their enlisted husbands.
Trumbo’s script drops the occasional hint that America is approaching dark times: “He died for a good thing, don’t let them swindle you out of it.” Throughout, the women toss around a number of ambiguously political statements, the most frequent being a mention of how they run their home “like a democracy.” Dmytryk and Trumbo don’t elaborate greatly on the experience of communal living outside of one or two minor squabbles easily resolved by vote. Comrade is most effective when depicting what the communal situation replaces: a traditional husband-wife relationship. The opening scene of Jo and her husband’s reunion, shot as a twilight reverie, is more captivating than nearly anything that follows. For a film denounced as Communist subversion, Tender Comrade today looks like one that actually enforces certain aspects of the status quo.
Intruder in the Dust (49)
Adapted from the Faulkner novel by Ben Maddow, Intruder in the Dust is the only film presented in Red Hollywood as a subject of controversy among party members. While intended to address anti-black racism, Intruder was rebuked by Communist critic V.J. Jerome, who argued that it posited “lynchings are [mainly] the problem of a few right-thinking, educated, better-class whites.” Although Paul Jarrico, producer of Salt of the Earth, presents a counterargument in the documentary, it’s hard not to agree with Jerome. Intruder begins with Lucas Beauchamp, a black man living in the rural South, being falsely accused and arrested for the murder of a white man. Only Chick, a young white boy, believes Lucas’ claims of innocence, and he and his uncle attempt to exonerate Lucas before a lynch mob can break into the jail.
With its “wrong man” plot and frequent scenes of nighttime snooping, Intruder translates seamlessly from Faulkner’s novel into a genuine Southern Gothic film noir, its best moments prefiguring The Night of the Hunter in their swampy atmospherics. But the glimmers of subversion in the story are quickly overshadowed by the whodunit. And despite the constant specter of lynching, whenever the issue of racism is broached, it’s presented as, above all, a test of white people’s moral sense. In the final moments of the film, Chick and his Uncle reduce Lucas to “the keeper of [their] conscience,” with little done to problematize this statement. That said, Juano Hernández’s performance as Lucas somewhat undermines the liberalism of these conclusions. Radiating a palpable indifference to the concerns and feelings of the white protagonists, one gets the feeling that he will carry on perfectly fine without them.
Salt of the Earth (54)
During the blacklist, a number of filmmakers decided to band together and form their own company: the Independent Productions Corporation. The experiment was unfortunately short-lived thanks to pressure from the major studios, which prevented their work from being shown anywhere outside New York. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman, written by Michael Wilson, and produced by Paul Jarrico, Salt of the Earth follows a labor strike by predominantly Chicano miners over poor safety conditions, all the way through to their eventual, hard-won success. Their triumph lies not only in victory over white, corporate interests, but also in the feminist renegotiation of the balance of power within their own community. Initially, the miners treat their wives’ demands as insignificant in the greater scheme of things, fighting against their oppressors while reproducing sexist structures in their own homes. It’s only when the men find no other option than to cede the picket line to their wives that the power dynamics of the community begin to shift. Roles are reversed: the women prove themselves just as able, if not more, to hold and organize a picket line, while the men discover the difficulty of housework and childcare.
While this all has the makings of a pedagogical lesson, Salt never succumbs to simple banner-waving, no doubt in part due to the naturalism of its performances and setting. The neorealist film was partially shot on location in New Mexico with a cast of mostly nonprofessional actors, the majority of them actual miners. Even at its most stylized, as when Biberman intercuts a wife’s childbirth with the beating of her husband by cops, the effect is always to better ground the audience in the reality of the characters’ struggles, never to sensationalize. At the end, when the protagonist’s husband recognizes the error of his sexism, it’s not out of some spontaneous revelation or appeal to an abstract standard of morality and justice, but rather a position that has formed slowly and organically over the course of the film through experience and discussion. That’s what makes Salt of the Earth the most radical film of the lot: it’s not just a denunciation of sexism, racism and corporatism, but a sensitive, rousing illustration of the process of overcoming them.