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The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies

by Paul Buhle & Dave Wagner

Pub Date: May 1st, 2002
ISBN: 1-56584-718-0
Publisher: New Press

Terrific material on Hollywood resisters, marred by imprecision and excess.

Buhle (American Civilization/Brown Univ.) and journalist Wagner attempt to “capture the rich texture of the lives of those . . . Hollywoodites named in congressional hearings during the late 1940s and early 1950s as ‘subversive.’ ” Co-author of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist (1997), Buhle knows his subject and reveals it in his extensive background on leftist golden-era screenwriters and players like Michael Wilson and John Howard Lawson, who were affected by blacklisting. Also interesting is the ongoing analysis of how film genres like fantasy, noir, and westerns were reshaped by their left-leaning writers and actors. But these two strong elements, though the focus of the narrative, are regularly obscured by profuse side information and commentary that generates contentiousness rather than illumination. For example, most people are identified in terms of their relation to the cause: “left-leaning screenwriter (later semi-friendly witness) Melvin Levy”; “French Catholic radical critic Andre Bazin”; etc. Perceived opponents are dismissed; Catholicism is negatively conservative; and the Judeo-Christian tradition offers only “reaffirmation of the social order.” Anachronistic modern-day lingo applied to historical figures (for example, the description of Depression-era screenwriter John Bright's wife, Josefina Fierro, as “the leading Chicana of the Left”) compromises overall believability. Also aggravating are the authors’ many questionable assertions presented as fact: that no later film of Katharine Hepburn's approached the accomplishments of left-wing-written Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (how about The African Queen?); that Hollywood drove Clifford Odets's self-opinion so low that “giving names was only one more self-abasement” (an excuse?); that Warner Bros. required a “happy ending” for its films (what about White Heat?). Such comments don't diminish the authors’ good intentions, just their trustworthiness.

So crammed that it belies navigation and so committed to its cause that it erodes believability: a text that provides ample background but limited enjoyment. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)