The Screen Is Red: Hollywood, Communism, and the Cold War (Web Exclusive)
by Bernard F. Dick. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 282 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.00.

Reviewed by Larry Ceplair

By my count, this is Professor Dick’s sixteenth book on Hollywood. Biographies and studio histories comprise the bulk of this work. This is his second foray into its radical politics (Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten appeared in 1988). I am not sure what he meant by that title, but the “screen” he examines in his current book is not even remotely “red.” Indeed, the percentage of movies that could generously be classified as even “red-tinged” or allegorically “red” is very, very small. On the other hand, “the Hollywood Ten” accurately foretold what was coming, whereas this subtitle is too narrow. In this book, Dick surveys a wide range of politically tinged films, some of them neither pink nor Cold War, many of them reflecting nuclear weapons, which would have existed even if there had not been a United States–Soviet conflict. Finally, this book is anything but a critical study.

In the introduction, Dick informs readers that it is his intent to “tell the story of the culture that formed a generation’s political conscience and fueled its suspicion of a technology capable of world annihilation.” He does not, however, actually tell the story of any culture. Instead, he has written twenty-one short essays, which comprise a narrative review of a wispily connected body of films and two television shows, 1930 to the present. He does not present a thesis; there are no summations of the chapters; and the conclusion is banal: “The Red screen has had more than its share of skeletons; The Americans and Allegiance have finally given them flesh.” Nevertheless, the synopses and analyses of the films he discusses are quite good, and he includes sufficient historical summaries to place the discussions in an historical, albeit not a cultural, context. In short, The Screen Is Red is an eccentric review of movies, most made during the Cold War, that have caught Dick’s attention.

The organization of the chapters is odd. It begins chronologically but then veers into themes. As a result, there are some curious placements and choices. In his chapter “Alfred Hitchcock and Cold War Espionage,” Dick does not present a convincing case that Hitchcock’s espionage films were, per se, or even tangentially, “Cold War” films. And he locates this chapter between his chapter on the Cold War in Western Europe and his chapter on John Wayne.

In his opening chapter, “The Road Not Taken,” Dick reviews a motley collection of pre–World War II films, ranging from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Miss V from Moscow, all of which, in his mind, illustrated, in various ways, Hollywood’s take on authoritarian systems.

The chapter titled “The Red Sextet,” his only bow to conventionality, looks at the most notorious of the pro-Soviet war films, including Song of Russia, The North Star, and Mission to Moscow.

Instead of continuing that chronological thread, to show how, year by year, the Cold War changed the nature of the portrayal of the Soviet Union, Dick turns his attention to movies about nuclear weapons: “Calling Dr. Death.” He follows that chapter with one about nuclearized entities: “Creatures from the Id.” It is enjoyable to read about Them!, The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, Attack of the Giant Leeches, etc. But a strange digression occurs when Dick arrives at Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He slides into a discussion of this and several other films unrelated to creatures to make a comment about subtext and metaphor in On the Waterfront and The Robe, but it is not a topic he develops, here or elsewhere.

We then are taken to movies about interplanetary travel (mainly to Mars) and encounters between space aliens and earthlings, followed by doomsday scenario films (albeit he withholds discussion of the two most famous doomsday films, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, until the end of the book) and films about the People’s Republic of China.

A strange juxtaposition occurs in the next chapter, “Better Dead than Red,” where an overlong discussion of My Son John, a domestic anticommunist movie, is followed by a very short discussion of Satan Never Sleeps, a film about the Chinese Civil War. Though both films were directed by Leo McCarey, they do not fit comfortably together. It is not clear why My Son John merited a chapter all of its own, instead of being placed in the following chapter, “Commies, Commies, Everywhere.”

Dick then jumps from the chapter on spies, “Microfilm Mania,” focusing on Pickup on South Street, to a chapter discussing The Manchurian Candidate. He then turns back to postwar anticommunist spy-ring movies, “Curtain Up!”

Three of the remaining chapters focus on individuals: Elia Kazan/Edward Dmytryk, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Wayne. The chapter on Kazan/Dmytryk, “Walking a Tightrope,” is an oddity. It begins with a description of Kazan’s April 1952 informing testimony to the Committee on Un-American Activities then segues to a discussion of Edward Dmytryk’s April 1952 decision to reappear before the committee, this time as a friendly witness. It then switches to a discussion of Kazan’s 1953 film, Man on a Tightrope. And it concludes with a comparison of their post-testimony work. The problem is that Dmytryk did not direct any anticommunist films.

Elia Kazan's Man on a Tightrope

Dick also covers films about the Korean War, communism in Western Europe, and liberals under duress (Storm Center, The Front, Guilty by Suspicion).

The concluding chapter, “After Such Knowledge,” fails to tie together the foregoing threads. It begins with a provocative statement: “Cold war movies inspired fear.” But it might have been more accurate to state that they intended to inspire fear. The question for an author of a book of this type is: “Did they, in fact, do so?” Dick then claims that the Cold War has not lost its appeal, but he is able to cite only two movies (Red Dawn and One of the Hollywood Ten [not released]) and two television shows (the highly regarded cable series The Americans and the short-lived network series Allegiance) that have addressed it during the last four decades.

Dick commits a number of errors, chief among them his contention (followed by a lengthy exegesis) that Dalton Trumbo contributed to the script of Rocketship X-M. Geoffrey Homes was the pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring, not vice versa. The Unfriendly Nineteen included one producer, Adrian Scott. The blacklist ended for Trumbo not when Otto Preminger hired him, but when Preminger told The New York Times, in January 1960, that Trumbo would receive screen credit for Exodus. Larry Parks named names in an executive session not, as Dick implies, in an open session. The Thirteen Colonies were not governed by the Articles of Confederation for most of the War for Independence. And Guilty by Suspicion was not the first film to dramatize the Committee on Un-American Activities’s investigation of the movie industry.  

Larry Ceplair is the author or co-author of numerous books, including, most recently, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical (University Press of Kentucky).

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1