This is part three of an ongoing series about why Hollywood and American cinema in general is awful trash.
By now everyone is pretty much on the same page with me regarding film history and how American motion pictures used to be relatively progressive. As I’ve previously written, for several years beginning around the time of Hitler’s ascent to power and ending at the close of World War II, the Communist Party USA promoted a political program known as the Popular Front that called for building anti-fascist alliances with liberals and socialists.
For those of you who are confused, there used to be a Communist Party and Socialist Party in America that fought each other for working class votes. Then Harry Truman and Joe McCarthy began a Second Red Scare that threw it all to the wind and caused progressive causes to be set back for a decade.
The obvious counterfactual to McCarthyism is what would have been, in history and stuff, if there had never been a blacklist? Would America have been swifter in passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had Henry Wallace rather than Truman been the vice president that took over when FDR died? Could there have been a functional United Nations Security Council, made up of America, England, France, China, and the Soviet Union, to oversee the postwar decolonization project rather than the needless carnage we call the Cold War?
These questions are almost impossible to answer because of the multiple different variables in each instance which would not be kept in proper alignment under another scenario, meaning — and you may need to re-read that prior sentence — it is almost certain the New Deal coalition of Northern liberals and Southern Dixiecrats would have collapsed under Wallace’s ultra-progressive leadership, while the Security Council probably would have been plagued by the problems relating to having Winston Churchill and Joe Stalin agreeing on something other than how deeply they hated each other.
But when it comes to Communist-influenced cinema, the counterfactual is surprisingly easy and much more concrete because, surprise, there actually were several Western European democracies that were not absorbed into the Eastern Bloc nor subjected to the internal repression of McCarthyism, meaning these countries had vibrant and powerful Communist parties that produced multiple members of parliament in the postwar elections.
Italy and France, to cite the major examples, had Communists come so close to the levers of power that the newborn CIA rigged their elections to keep them out of the hot seat. Historian Enzo Traverso writes in his Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914–1945:
The Spanish Civil War[1936-39] assumed a decisive symbolic dimension by drawing new frontiers and clarifying positions. The triangle between liberalism, Communism and fascism that had been in place since the end of the Great War, with the various systems of alliance that followed from it and the possibility, for a large part of the intelligentsia, of confining themselves to a neutral observer position, was now reduced to a single confrontation between fascism and antifascism. The choice became unavoidable. And the presence of many European writers in Spain, on both sides of the front, clearly shows the polarization of the intellectual field. The European civil war involved the militarization of politics and produced a deep metamorphosis in the world of culture: the transition from intellectual to fighter.” This transformation of writers and other artists thereby transformed the works of they produced into agit-prop.
Now before moving forward, it’s worth pointing out a few things about Soviet cinema. First, let’s be clear, films from the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union were quite often terrible. There is a bit of a novelty in looking at those movies and seeing how they made longwinded cartoons preaching in support of, rather than opposed to, the march of the Bolsheviki, but that doesn’t change how crappy those movies can be.
Putting aside a few brilliant artists who were able to work around the censors and brief windows of time when there would be a relaxing of standards, such as de-Stalinization and Prague Spring 1968, these movies were atrocious.
Second, even when Soviet movies were not awful, they still were technologically hindered, meaning that the Reds were not capable of making a Star Wars in 1977 (the year George Lucas’s first film was released) because they were way behind the times in special effects.
Third, Russians were always trying to outdo Hollywood, such as when they made a 7+ hour adaptation of War and Peace, spread out over four installments, to rebuke the 3 1/2 hour version directed by King Vidor in 1956 with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda (eat that slice of Pravda, Peter Jackson).
Fourth, the state-mandated “socialist realism” in all works of art, an appalling, clunky, and ham-handed vision of reality, derided all other visions of representation as “cosmopolitan bourgeois Western-influenced deviancy.” As such, you will not find me defending any Soviet films here (though admittedly the Cubans and Yugoslavs did some neat stuff, but that was because Che, Castro, and Tito were a whole different story).
William Blum offers a great summary of the crucial 1948 election in his book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II:
The PCI [Communists] and PSI [Socialists] united to form the Popular Democratic Front and in February won municipal elections in Pescara with a 10 percent increase in their vote over 1946. The Christian Democrats ran a poor second. The prospect of the left winning control of the Italian government loomed larger than ever before. It was at this point that the US began to train its big economic and political guns upon the Italian people. All the good ol’ Yankee know-how, all the Madison Avenue savvy in the art of swaying public opinion, all the Hollywood razzmatazz would be brought to bear on the “target market”. Pressing domestic needs in Italy, such as agricultural and economic reform, the absence of which produced abysmal extremes of wealth and poverty, were not to be the issues of the day. The lines of battle would be drawn around the question of “democracy” vs. “communism” (the idea of “capitalism” remaining discreetly to one side). The fact that the Communists had been the single most active anti-fascist group in Italy during the war, undergoing ruthless persecution, while the Christian Democrat government of 1948 and other electoral opponents on the right were riddled through with collaborators, monarchists and plain unreconstructed fascists … this too would be ignored; indeed, turned around. It was now a matter of Communist “dictatorship” vs. their adversaries’ love of “freedom”: this was presumed a priori.”
In the midst of all this came Italian Neorealism, a development in world cinema that is now seen as perhaps as significant as the coming of sound two decades prior. Neorealism, indebted to the Jean Renoir’s moody aesthetic, told stories of the working class poor using nonprofessional actors on location in cities and towns rather than on sound stages.
It was the complete opposite of the pageantry being released at the same time by Warners, MGM, or Fox. Whereas there’s no place like home in The Wizard of Oz, home is a miserable place and your life is shit in films like The Bicycle Thief.
This does not necessarily mean there is a direct link between the neorealist films and the Communists. But the trend does demonstrate what was possible in Western cinema when Communists and Socialists were being given their rights of participation in the democratic system.