Anthony Mann's (1907–1967) Strategic Air Command (1955) opens with Dutch Holland (James Stewart), a professional baseball player, being approached by his former commanding officer and asked to reenlist in the peacetime air force. "Where's the fire?" asks Dutch, who has done "his share" in two wars, seconded by a 1950s wife (June Allyson) who wants him at their home in the suburbs, not off on some far-flung base. But the thrust of the film is that it is Dutch's duty to get back in harness and maintain the peace against the ever-present (if rarely specified) Russian threat. The fetishist treatment of weapons of mass destruction, central to Stanley Kubrick's
(1928–1999) Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), begins here. Mann's camera ogles the lines and curves of the B-47 that Stewart (a real-life bomber pilot) gets to fly (with the new family of nuclear weapons, a B-47 with a crew of three carries the destructive power of the entire B-29 forces used in World War II). Dutch's eventual commitment to the Strategic Air Command seems to suggest that his plane is sexier than the starched, maternal Allyson.
At first, Hollywood reacted to the Cold War much like Dutch, when he was asked to stop playing ball and start practicing bomb runs. After years of turning out war propaganda, a policy the movies embraced before the government (e.g., Confessions of a Nazi Spy , Anatole Litvak, 1939), the studios felt they had done their "share" and believed that audiences wanted Technicolor musical escapism or film noir romantic agonies rather than more gray, grim, depressing privation-leads-to-victory stories. If anything, Hollywood needed to mop up after World War II, tracking down Nazi war criminals who might be infiltrating America ( The Stranger , Orson Welles, 1946) or reflecting on the situations of returning veterans who found their homeland not quite the paradise they thought they were fighting for. A wave of films, many made by people who would soon be facing HUAC, dealt with heroic black, Jewish, or even Nisei soldiers suffering from bigotry or racial assault, including murder: Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947), Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947), Home of the Brave (Mark Robson, 1949), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) by John Sturges (1911–1993). A decade before Strategic Air Command , Dana Andrews found his war record suited him for no peacetime employment and rendered him as obsolete as the fields of junked bombers in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) by William Wyler (1902–1981). Within a few years, films like this (another Oscar ® winner) would be seen as either suspect or anti-American.
The studios made anti-Nazi films from genuine conviction (in the case of Warner Bros.) and a patriotic urge to aid a national war effort; they made anti-Communist films at first because they were afraid not to. When HUAC resumed its hearings, Hollywood put into production a run of low-budget anti-Red quickies. A few odd films— My Son John (Leo McCarey, 1952) and Big Jim McLain (Edward Ludwig, 1952)—are sincere in their anti-Communism, if so bizarre in approach as to undermine their overt message. In the former, John (Robert Walker), a fey intellectual who drifts into Red circles, is so smothered by his mother (Helen Hayes) and literally Bible-bashed by his super-patriot father (Dean Jagger) that he seems as much a victim of all-American parentage as Jim Stark (James Dean) of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) or Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) of Psycho (1960). Jim McLain, an avatar of producer John Wayne (1907–1979), is a rare instance of blacklister as two-fisted action hero, an investigator out to round up a Red ring in Hawaii. The film's conclusion is that too many enemies of freedom are protected by the Fifth Amendment and that the Constitution ought to be changed—a proposal not even Joseph McCarthy dared to make.
These are films Hollywood needed to produce, but audiences were not that interested in seeing them then, and even social historians find them hard to see (let alone sit through) now. Some tackled the "problem" of making anti-Red propaganda by making the same old movies, but with notionally Communist villains. The espionage aspect of Pickup on South Street (1953) by Samuel Fuller (1912–1997) is so thin that the film could be redubbed for release in France (where there was a respectable, active Communist Party) with the bad guys turned into drug smugglers. Smooth Van Zandt (James Mason), "importer-exporter of government secrets" in North by Northwest (1959) by Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), is an epicene mastermind exactly like the traitor-for-an-unspecified-cause of The 39 Steps (1935). Other pictures, far more disposable, traded in trenchcoated sleaze and avant-la-lettre camp, and could as easily be coded attacks on homosexuality (a persistent theme), devil worship, big-time crime, seedpods from space, or child abuse rings: The Iron Curtain (William Wellman, 1948), The Red Menace (R. G. Springsteen, 1949), I Married a Communist (Robert Stevenson, 1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (Gordon Douglas, 1951), Red Planet Mars (Harry Horner, 1952), and Invasion USA (Alfred E. Green, 1952).
Dalton Trumbo had what might be considered the usual background for a studio writer in the 1930s and 1940s: a spell as a journalist, employment as a script reader for Warner Bros., critical success as an author (with the perhaps ill-timed antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun , 1939), a "good war record" of patriotic movies ( A Guy Named Joe , 1943; Thirty Seconds over Tokyo , 1944), a spell in the Pacific Theater as war correspondent, and a position as chairman of "Writers for Roosevelt." He was a founding member and sometime director of the Screen Writers Guild and a somewhat fractious sometime Communist (the CPUSA insisted that Trumbo's thirty-page memo on its failings in Hollywood be ignored and burned).
As the most successful and prolific of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo's credits were the most scrutinized for the taint of propaganda—which HUAC claimed to find in Tender Comrade (1943), a film about the wartime housing shortage in which the heroines' apartment sharing was deemed suspiciously collectivist, alerting star Ginger Rogers's mother (a prominent "friendly" witness) to Trumbo's hidden agenda. After serving his ten-month jail term for contempt of Congress, Trumbo was blacklisted in the industry but continued to write under pseudonyms. In 1956 the Academy Award ® for Best Motion Picture Story went to Robert Rich for The Brave One ; Rich did not collect the Oscar ® because he was merely a front for Trumbo. At the time, the King Brothers, the film's producers, hotly denied the rumor that Trumbo was the author, but the truth was generally known; in 1975 the Academy presented the statuette to the correct recipient.
Though Trumbo's fronted or pseudonymous credits still have not all been confirmed, he was active throughout his internal exile, often on interesting low-budget films like Joseph L. Lewis's Gun Crazy (1949) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Oddly, he worked on Otto Preminger's decidedly hawkish Cold War allegory The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) in which Gary Cooper's pioneer of aviation warfare claims "one day, half the world will be in ruins through bombing from the air; I want this country to be in the other half." Trumbo always credited Kirk Douglas—producer-star of Spartacus (1960)—with breaking the blacklist by giving him credit, though there seems to have been a race between Douglas and Preminger, who had Trumbo working on Exodus (1960), as to who would name him first.
When he came out of the cold, Trumbo worked less often, mixing expensive tosh like The Sandpiper (1965) and Hawaii (1966) with more interesting, smaller projects like Lonely Are the Brave (1962). He directed and wrote a 1971 film of Johnny Got His Gun , better timed for the anti-Vietnam mood but awkward where the book was precise, and he had a final "big" credit on Papillon (1973).
Tender Comrade (1943), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), Gun Crazy (1949), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Cook, Bruce. Dalton Trumbo . New York: Scribners, 1977.
Hanson, Peter. Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel: A Critical Survey and Filmography . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.
Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun . Lippincott, 1939.
With the Communist screenwriters, directors, and actors blacklisted, there was a real problem in making films about Communism. Those, like Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg (b. 1914), who had recanted former beliefs, "named names," or espoused the anti-Communist cause were still conflicted enough to want to avoid making films like My Son John . Kazan and Schulberg's On the Waterfront (1954) can be read as a personal validation: longshoreman Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) is convinced by an investigator for a government committee that turning informer
is sometimes the only honorable American course of action, even if it means being stigmatized in his community ("a pigeon for a pigeon," sobs a child as he tosses the murdered corpse of one of Terry's beloved pet birds at him). But On the Waterfront is about apolitical racketeering, and there is no suggestion that corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) has any Red affiliations. Those with long memories might recall that American Communists had devoted careers in labor activism to rooting out villains like Johnny, and that blacklisted director Jules Dassin had cast Cobb as a similar crook in the proletarian-themed truck-driving drama Thieves' Highway (1949).
This left the anti-Red films to no-name directors who took what they were given and knew no more about Communism than the average maker of two-week westerns knew about Indians. The Hollywood Red was liable to be a shifty-looking foreign character actor with beady eyes, a heavy accent, a grubby wardrobe, and a closeted but evident perverse sexuality (Thomas Gomez in I Married a Communist ). In this, he was hard to differentiate from the gangsters, psychopaths, and general troublemakers who appeared in everyday crime films like The Big Heat (1953) by Fritz Lang (1890–1976) or The Big Combo (1955) by Joseph H. Lewis (1907–2000). It is easy to rate the anti-Red cycle as a subgenre of a larger 1950s trend for films in which individuals find themselves targeted by vast, all-powerful conspiracies, which seem to be impossible to escape and are even inextricably intertwined with the power structure of normal society. Whether the villians are outlaws backed by corrupt politicians or the railroads in westerns, alien invaders in science fiction, adults in juvenile delinquency dramas (and even children's films like Roy Rowland's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T , 1953), or all-powerful crime cartels in gangster films, the menace feels the same; it could as easily represent an Americanism characterized by blacklisting and persecution as an external enemy intent on subverting and wrecking the capitalist way of life.
Some of the most memorable, effective films of the Cold War are open to interpretations from opposite ends of the political spectrum. High Noon (1952) by Fred Zinnemann (1907–1997), scripted by soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman and starring Motion Picture Alliance mainstay Gary Cooper (1901–1961), follows Sheriff Will Kane's attempts to rally the townsfolk against the outlaw coming in on the noon train to kill him and resume a reign of terror. Liberals can read this as an indictment of McCarthyism, with the disgusted and excluded hero finally tossing his badge of authority (a tin star) in the dirt and walking away (a gesture that especially angered John Wayne). But Will Kane could as easily represent Senator McCarthy's self-image: a lone voice against subversives whom the complacent, docile populace would rather ignore. Similarly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) by Don Siegel (1912–1991) features a town taken over by aliens who fit some of the Communist stereotypes (emotionless, subtle, single-minded) but who also act a lot like all-American blacklisters (small-town conformists, forming a lynch mob, pressuring folks to come over to their side).
The ultimate expression of this free-form paranoia is Kiss Me Deadly (1955) by Robert Aldrich (1918–1983), a deconstruction of Mickey Spillane's (b. 1918) anti-Red novel, in which "the mysterious they" who will do anything to possess "the great whatsit" could be anyone—Russian spies, American (or, worse, naturalized American) organized crime, bizarre sexual perverts, eternally duplicitous females, even mythological beings like Medusa and Cerberus. Aldrich's nebulous menace only serves to highlight his ambiguous hero, Spillane's Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), whose brutality, sadism, paranoia, and misogyny are faithfully transplanted from the page, with an added gloss of illiteracy, philistinism, car and pin-up fetishism ("va-va-voom!"), glowering humor-lessness, and "little boy lost" infantilism, making him a caricature of Cold Warrior masculinity. The film ends with