One of the great absurdities of U.S. history has been the disparity between the oceans of tears shed for the people who ended up on the Hollywood blacklist and the cold indifference to the fate of the millions of victims of the Stalinist regime they so cheerfully supported. The whole “Have you no decency?” schtick was never anything but a pose. The people who struck the pose and invented the crime of “McCarthyism,” knew very well that the witches were real. Communists were hardly a rare commodity in Hollywood once upon a time, any more than they were in the rest of the country. The time in question was the 1930’s and Communism was all the rage among moralistic poseurs of all stripes. As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his The Thirties,
In 1931, protests were made in Parliament against a broadcast by a Cambridge economist, Mr. Maurice Dobb, on the ground that he was a Marxist; now the difficulty would be to find an economist employed in any university who was not one.
The same could be said, not only of economists in academia and celebrities in Hollywood, but of the stalwarts in several other professions, including journalism, as anyone can easily confirm by leafing through a few of the major intellectual journals for, say, 1934. In the days before “McCarthyism” was invented, the fact was notorious, and hardly worth raising an eyebrow about. An interesting artifact of the time appeared in the February 1940 issue of the American Mercury, which was no longer edited by the great H. L. Mencken, but still retained something of the style and flavor of the original. It came in the form of an article by William Bledsoe, former editor of Screen Guild Magazine, entitled Revolution Came to Hollywood. Far from being a vicious, red-baiting diatribe, it was written entirely in the old Mercury tradition, poking fun at another batch of Menckian “morons” who had been thoroughly duped (and fleeced) by the clever Bolsheviks. As Bledsoe put it:
Nothing since the advent of the talkies struck Hollywood quite so hard as the news of the Soviet-Nazi pacts. Mingled with cries of pain were the strains of a big belly laugh. Certain glamour boys and girls, famous writers and directors were on their knees at the shrine of the crossed hammer-and-sickle when the bombshell fell. It hit them like a dropped option. They were still staggered when the Red invasion of Poland exploded around their ears, and the panic was completed by Russia’s assault on Finland. Only in the breasts of the most devout can traces of the Stalinist faith still linger. It may still be alive in Lionel Stander, Frances Farmer, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, Gale Sondergaard, Lief Erikson, J. Edward Bromberg, Sylvia Sidney, Ella Winter, and a few others – but by the time these words reach print even they may be among the apostates. The fact is that the Hollywood Revolution is fading out. The goofiest era in cinema legend – a compound of high ideals and low I.Q.’s; party lines and just parties; noble slogans and ignoble political rackets – is about washed up. Before it goes down the drain, a respectful obituary over the remains is in order.
And Bledsoe proceed to provide one, describing a time in which,
Hundreds of the Hollywood talent crowd enrolled in formal study classes where party teachers gave instruction in the Stalinist parody of Karl Marx and Lenin. Marxist jargon filled the air, and experts on dialog became experts on dialectics. Glamour girls burgeoned forth as authorities on Revolutionary Theory and Practice. It was fun for an unregenerate infidel like myself to watch the new evangelism.
By all means, read the whole thing. Bledsoe provides plenty of detail about how the Party not only duped, but thoroughly fleeced, the heroes of the silver screen. It’s all quite hilarious, really, unless you happen to be reading a copy of the Gulag Archipelago at the same time. That takes some of the fun out of it. The thought of Stalin’s 25 million victims, shot or starved and tortured to death in the camps, has a marked tendency to dampen the deep sympathy one would normally feel for his Hollywood collaborators.