From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.1, Winter 1955, pp.10-14.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
THE MOTION picture is the youngest art form and the most popular one. In 1952 – the latest year for which statistics are available on the movie industry – an average of 55,000,000 people went to see a movie each week in the United States. Some 32,000 motion picture theaters were in operation. In the two-year period of 1951 and 1952, 1,000 closed down, mainly due to competition from television. Production was the lowest in six years; only about 400 feature films being released. Yet the industry continued to make money, the gross yearly take amounting to $1.2 billion. To keep business from slumping still further, Hollywood launched a big campaign in 1952 under the slogan, “Movies are better than ever.” Are they? Recalling films like those of Charles Chaplin or The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice And Men, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc., we are tempted to doubt that claim.
Of course, most Hollywood movies – movies everywhere for that matter – were never genuine works of art, and the double feature further encouraged the production of grade B and C pictures in America, since the theater owner or manager, even if he happens to be “independent” from trusts like Loew, Inc. or MGM, is forced to show a grade B or C picture with almost every grade A picture he gets, movies being rented in package deals.
But considering grade A films alone, we notice that they certainly have not become more meaningful if we compare today’s best American movies to the best of the era before the witch hunt, the witch hunt that was to charge the cultural atmosphere of America with hatred, fear, suspicion and cowardliness, the temporary triumph of anti-intellectual forces.
A few good American movies still appear despite this situation. After all, a surprisingly large number of quality pictures appeared even in Germany under Hitler. But the German films avoided the issues of the time. German script writers escaped into the past or created stories without any social or political significance. There were a few exceptions – very few indeed. Reality was too dangerous a field. America’s present political situation is not the same; American fascism is far from victorious; but the danger it represents cannot be overlooked, and in the movie industry the witch hunt has cast such a dark shadow that the parallel between Holilywood and the German studios of 1933 is impressive.
American movies, too, avoid social and political issues more than they once did. In the rare cases where they do touch such themes, they are careful not to stir the ire of the ruling class, not to leave the safe ground of class collaboration. On The Waterfront is an example of this (although it.briefly hints at connections between gangsters and a powerful, unidentified person). Viva Zapata was an exception, but it dealt with a revolutionary movement of more than forty years ago and outside the US.
The motion picture is an art form like the drama or painting. It does not follow that every motion picture is a work of art, any more than every play or every painting; yet despite the complexity of its creation, a motion picture can be a work of art like a painting, a drama, a novel. When do we call a motion picture a work of art? What is our main criterion in determining its value?
If a motion picture is to be a work of art it must have more than technical smoothness, a clever plot and brilliant actors: It has to be sincere. If the script writer expresss his own real feelings, emotions and ideas without being censored, the groundwork for a valuable movie is laid – even if his ideas don’t happen to be Marxist. It would be at least sectarian and perhaps worse to condemn every picture that does not correspond to our ideology. Of course, we do not in the least renounce our ideas, come what may, and never cease preparing for the socialist tomorrow. Marxist analysis is our key to interpreting and changing the world. But that should not prevent us from admiring genuine works of art that express a different ideology. We also admire the masterworks of medieval painters and sculptors without believing in Catholicism. Why? Not for their craftsmanship alone. Mainly for the sincere feeling they express. Their emotion is not faked.
This does not signify that a Marxist compromises with religion in his esthetic appreciation of such works of art. It simply means that in medieval times ideology knew no other form of expression outside the religious one. The artists, too, grew up in those forms and utilized them to mirror the life of their times. From our vantage point we can look through the religious form, grasping the essence of life it embodies and feeling it as the “sincerity” of the artist. Thus we are able to appreciate even those artists of our day who are unable to transcend religion such as Rouault, a modern religious painter of genius.
It is no coincidence that we do not see any genuine work of art defending the decaying capitalism of our time as such. It is no coincidence that the script, writers of the better pictures, insofar as they deal with problems of our time, try to find a way out without glorifying capitalism, even if they compromise with it and cling to impossible illusions. Nor is it a coincidence that most of the anti-communist pictures are bad pictures.
When a movie inspired by Marxism comes along, we rejoice, and justly so. But while this is not so uncommon in Europe’s movie production, it rarely happens in today’s USA. It is something if an American picture attempts to sincerely grapple with reality. Even if the conclusions are unrealistic and bear the mark of class-collaborationism, they do not completely spoil the picture where they honestly represent an actual stage of the author’s thinking. On the other hand, the pseudo-Marxist pictures cut to the pattern ordered by the Stalinist bureaucrats of the USSR falsify history, lack sincerity and have no artistic value. Sergei Eisenstein, it is true, tried to express himself as much as possible despite the dictatorship. He produced some outstanding pictures even under Stalin – and lost favor with the dictator.
I prefer a sincere non-Marxist movie that attempts to solve or at least to indicate some of the riddles and miseries of our time, to a dishonest product of the Kremlin’s propaganda kitchen falsely labeled “Marxist” by both the Stalinists and the imperialists. In the Jong run, the sincere non-Marxist picture will contribute more to making people think, and thereby contribute more to the cause of genuine, Marxist socialism, than any caricature of Marxism. We Marxists welcome any book, play or movie that stimulates thinking. And we condemn any attempt to prevent’ people from doing so, any attempt at mental tutelage, the deliberate hiding of the truth.
A recent picture, A Star Is Born, shows certain aspects of Hollywood quite realistically, much more honestly than many other movies dealing with this theme. But such films are exceptional and by no means present the complete picture.
Hollywood is an artificial world of dreams and despair. The people who work in the big studios easily lose contact with the reality that faces other people. Moreover, their thinking is shaped to a large extent by business, not by artistic considerations – by the rules of film moguls who, in their turn, frequently depend on the big banks much more than the theatrical producers on Broadway do. A tight system of self-censorship has been set up by the movie industry itself in order to prevent its pictures from being attacked by anybody – churches, women’s clubs, veterans’ organizations, state and municipal censors, etc.
The Breen Office is the particularly narrow-minded organ of this self-censorship. (It even condemned the witty but harmless comedy The Moon Is Blue because it hinted at sexual questions.) Its aim is to make Hollywood’s pictures “non-controversial.” A serious picture that is non-controversial tends to be insignificant. The Breen Office dislikes significant pictures, but does not prevent the production of smutty, sadistic or horror films. The sadistic and horror pictures win its stamp of approval; the smutty ones are produced outside the range of its censorship by smaller firms and shown in special theaters.
The Breen Office does what fit can to prevent the American motion picture from giving a realistic account of the small and big worries faced by the average American in his daily existence. This becomes obvious when we see the realistic pictures produced in Italy, France and a few other European countries. Those who are always afraid of hurting somebody’s feelings will hardly engage in bold deeds. And that certainly goes for Hollywood.
The general witch-hunt atmosphere has, of course, increased the movie producers’ reluctance to approve anything that contains social criticism. The result is a frantic search for non-controversial stories with box-office appeal. And since censorship and the witch hunt do not encourage inventiveness and creative moods, Hollywood frequently digs up old plots, remaking successful movies of the past (The Jazz Singer, Living it Up [based upon Nothing Sacred]. Quo Vadis, Rose-Marie, A Star Is Born, etc.), especially French movies (The Raven, The Blue Veil, Human Desire [based upon La Bête Humaine], Flame and the Flesh [based upon Naples Au Baiser De Feu] etc.) and watering them down inevitably. This sterile rehashing and stealing of stories thai were already used for motion pictures is significant.
Lavish technicolor musicals make up a high percentage of current production. There is no reason why we should oppose purely entertaining pictures, screen biographies of famous artists and similar productions for which a legitimate demand exists. They, too, can and should be good pictures, like An American In Paris, Singing In The Rain, The Jolson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story. But when too many of them appear, something is wrong. The big studios simply want to get away from today’s issues.
Another avenue of evading realism is offered in science-fiction: a combination of childish “science” and horrors (The Neanderthal Man, Cat Women of the Moon, Them).
It has been pointed out that the average American movie corresponds to the intellectual level of a twelve-or thirteen-year-old adolescent.
Hollywood has an even more subtle method for skipping the social question: American pictures often solve complicated human problems through pseudo-psychoanalysis. Human problems are treated as purely individual and superficial disturbances without social implications. We recognize psychoanalysis as one of the great scientific discoveries of modern times; but we do not isolate the individual from his social situation. (The benefits of psychoanalysis are difficult for workers to obtain because of the time and exorbitant fees involved. This very fact confirms the importance of the social factor in both causing and healing neuroses!) Capitalist society submits the individual to tremendous daily pressures. Tens and even hundreds of thousands break under the strain. Hollywood wants to hush this “unpleasantness.” Social pressures are taboo.
It would be quite wrong to think that Americans have no gift for social or political satire. Even if we consider Chaplin an Englishman, although he belongs to the history of American movies, films like Nothing Sacred, The Senator Was Indiscreet, Born Yesterday, and others bear witness to the satirical talent of Americans. But political or social satire has become almost extinct in Hollywood.
It is well known that those who have submitted to moral servitude hate those who are unwilling to so degrade themselves. The very existence of upright persons is a constant reproach to the cowards and opportunists who have capitulated to conformism and thought control. That is why the Hollywood moguls, second-rate actors, columnists and innumerable parasites of the show business all hate Charles Chaplin, who never made concessions to the imperialist hysteria, never renounced his integrity as an artist, and who has given us masterpieces like The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight. Chaplin, the greatest genius of the motion picture, is the man who more than anybody else made American movies famous from Iceland to India. Yet Hollywood never awarded him its famous “Oscar.” The reactionaries have tried to boycott his pictures, to slander him. They suppressed Monsieur Verdoux in this country. Chaplin has been exiled ... The exile of the talented Orson Welles is a voluntary one, but he too is unpopular in Hollywood because of his artistic convictions and frankness.
The biggest Hollywood “purge” took place several years ago when Stalinists and radicals were expelled from the studios. However, it didn’t spell the end of Hollywood’s boycott tactics, which are directed not only against political non-conformists, but also against several non-political personalities who have refused to abdicate their artistic conscience, to compromise with the studio bosses, to flatter the columnists, and who do not belong to the film world’s “smart set.” The columnists hardly ever criticize a “star” who is on good terms with his studio. They never praise an actor who refuses to obey every studio dictate. Nor are they much interested in drawing the public’s and the studios’ attention to an artist who is not sufficiently recognized by the Hollywood moguls. What did the columnists ever do for Albert Bassermann, one of the finest dramatic actors? This great artist was used by Hollywood as a feature player for small parts only.
The producers of second- or third-rate movies affirm: “The public does not want ‘intellectual’ pictures. It wants tear-jerkers, light entertainment and adventure.” It is true that a need for light entertainment exists. But light entertainment does not have to be trashy; and as for serious pictures, it just isn’t true that they don’t pay if they are good. Most of the better pictures have been successful, or would have been were it not for the organized sabotage of reactionary pressure groups. Besides, the public’s taste is not static. It can be educated. If the public is offered a great number of better movies, it will finally reject the trash it is so often offered at present.
A few Hollywood producers believe in quality pictures (Kazan, Huston, Kramer, Preminger; independents like Hugo Haas). Why do men like Kazan still get the green light from time to time? A sizeable part of the public ask for adult pictures. Millions of Americans see countless second- or third-rate movies at home on their television screen. When they go to a theater, they want to see a picture that is worth their money. Hence the studios not only have to defend themselves against their competitors; they also have to defend the prestige of the motion picture as such, to attract the crowds, to prove they can do things that television can’t.
The big studios therefore favor production of a small quota of quality pictures and some colossal ones (like Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Egyptian, De Mille’s Ten Commandments). For the super-duper productions the Bible provides a wealth of stories with the advantage of spectacular costume, dramatic situations – and approval by all the defenders of bourgeois society. Making a biblical or another religious film is considered meritorious and box-office, too ...
Several quality pictures are film versions of famous plays (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Julius Caesar, Carmen Jones, etc.) or remarkable novels (The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Carrie, A Place in the Sun [based on An American Tragedy], Intruder in the Dust, From Here to Eternity, The High and the Mighty, The Caine Mutiny, etc.). Some cinematographic adaptations were satisfactory or excellent, while in other cases Hollywood took the bite out of the novels it brought to the screen. Occasionally the spectacular is combined with good taste, a good original story and good acting (Hans Christian Anderson). On the other hand, the independent producers have created a few masterpieces on a small budget (Little Fugitive, Pick-Up, and above all Salt of the Earth).
It is true that a realistic picture can be filmed in a studio if the right spirit prevails. It is equally true, however, that producers and directors who haven’t left the synthetic world of Hollywood for many years tend to forget what a realistic picture looks like. The birth of the realistic school of Italian movies was facilitated by the fact that after World War II, Italian movie makers did not have well-equipped studios and enormous funds. They went out into real life, filming on location, mingling with the people, creating pictures about their experiences, sorrows, fears and modest heroism. In France, too, producers, directors, actors live much closer to the people than their colleagues do in Hollywood – Beverly Hills. France has big movie studios but no Hollywood ... American producers generally cling to artificial plaster-and-wood cities in the studios, to the artificial people of Hollywood, filming on location only when they make a Western or an exotic picture. And when they film abroad because it’s cheaper, they take the Hollywood spirit with them.
Social realism necessitates at least a willingness to observe people and their living conditions. When Kazan made On the Waterfront he went to Hoboken and filmed Budd Schulberg’s longshore story on location. The picture leaves out some important aspects of the struggle on the waterfront and has a class-collaborationist tendency; but filmed on location (with an able cast) it nonetheless conveys a realistic impression and is superior in this respect to many other American movies.
When American producers and screen writers have to deal with social questions in their more ambitious ventures, they tend to play them down, trying to present class conflicts as mere conflicts between individuals. However, around 1950 Hollywood decided it would be useful to demonstrate that American Negroes now have a better chance to gain equality, to overcome prejudice and social handicaps. Several movies about the Negro question quickly followed each other. Even if they generally tried to prove that in the end democracy is victorious and justice prevails, they could not avoid describing real-life segregation, cruelty, hatred. At least this important social problem was no longer ignored in Hollywood. It is indeed an interesting fact that in contemporary America the increasingly prominent Negro question could not be indefinitely hushed up by the studio bosses. Some American movies have shown exceptional understanding of minority problems and the class struggle in the US (No Way Out and the union-made Salt of the Earth); but those treats are miraculous rarities at present.
Similarly, Hollywood has touched on police brutality and corruption in recent years, pitting the “good” cop against the “bad” cop (Rogue Cop). Of course the “good” cops are cut to the usual Hollywood pattern that requires them to defeat the “bad” ones, but in the process some fair examples are presented of the sadists and crooks who make the “guardians of the law” such hated figures in the eyes of working people, especially the minority groupings.
One of Hollywood’s tactics, aimed at making up for its reluctance to face real-life problems, for its ensuing lack of interesting stories, is the introduction of new optical and technological devices to generate thrills more sensational than television programs: 3-D, Cinerama (which is still a mere curiosity and an extremely expensive process), Cinemascope, and now Vista Vision.
We do not oppose technical progress – if it is real progress. For certain types of pictures, Cinemascope and other devices are useful. When artistic feeling and Cinemascope unite in making a picture whose “star” is the landscape or a city (Three Coins in a Fountain), the result is gratifying indeed. But on the whole, the value of a motion picture is determined much more by an idea, a story, a cast, than by technical improvements. And beautiful camerawork is possible even in black and white and without special gadgets. The latter cannot replace either artistic inspiration or a sound story.
Cinemascope could help in the improvement of non-fiction pictures on nature, geography, architecture, etc. Yet such pictures are not numerous in America. Hollywood does not actually believe in movies as a popular means of instruction. Walt Disney is one of the rare pioneers who have engaged in the production of first-rate pictures on nature.
Hollywood produces many pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist pictures and very few that even mildly criticize Big Business. The Hollywood crowd ignore the worker’s viewpoint. In American movies the worker too often appears as a caricature or as an honored friend of the industrialist. The poor, their homes, their troubles are not shown, although there are millions of them. The capitalist is not an exploiter – in Hollywood’s movies; he is a patriot, a servant of the community, an incarnation of industrial progress. The “bad” capitalist is an exception, and the “good” capitalist promptly ousts the parasite (Executive Suite).
Capitalism uses the movies as a means of ideological propaganda. The big studios are closely linked to the capitalist network that dominates America. In the capitalist camp, the Catholic Church is the most active ideological force. It has become far more influential than the percentage of Catholics in America’s population would warrant. An authoritarian, totalitarian organization, it invades every mass medium – the press, TV, radio, and the movies. The Church knows how important motion pictures are in captivating the masses. It systematically tries to influence the studios and individual performers, and its efforts are overwhelmingly successful. No other religious denomination can boast of as many pictures disseminating its views and dedicated to its glorification.
Even in Schulberg-Kazan’s On the Waterfront, a Catholic priest plays a heroic role, although the picture was not made by Catholics. The Catholic directors, writers, actors, and actresses in Hollywood are organized in the Christopher Society, an order of laymen (headed by a priest), struggling for the triumph of Catholic thought in the arts and public life. (Bing Crosby is one of the prominent members of the Christophers.)
What has labor got to counteract the reactionary propaganda? The union leaders still believe in outmoded propaganda and defense methods. They don’t seem concerned over the fact that America hardly ever gets a glimpse of labor’s viewpoint. There are no dailies sponsored by the labor movement except one, and the capitalist dailies like to distort the facts or cover them up. With the outlawing of the Communist Party, the growth of McCarthyism, and the anti-labor drive, the reactionary offensive gains in momentum. Isn’t it about time to start planning labor’s counter-offensive?
Labor’s case should be put before the American people, especially before the move backward layers of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. They should understand the struggle of organized labor.
The unions have considerable funds. Union-sponsored movie-production would be one of the most effective means of spreading the outlook of the American worker. Pictures about the reality of present-day America, the problems and life of the American proletariat would appeal to millions of Americans (for it is not true that the people do not like to see pictures dealing with real-life problems).
A few years ago, the ILGWU made a full-length feature With These Hands. It was a class-collaborationist movie and certainly not a brilliant one. But it was a beginning. Then, in 1953, the International Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers produced Salt of the Earth, filmed on location in New Mexico despite enormous difficulties – one of the finest social pictures ever made. And if a relatively small (and persecuted) union like the IUMMSW was able to do this, it is obvious that mighty federations like the CIO, the AFL, the United Mine Workers and the Railroad Brotherhoods could set up production of movies that would revolutionize the American motion picture and seriously challenge Hollywood. They could do it if they wanted to, if they were aware of the opportunity and necessity. And in order to make them aware of the issue, the vanguard in the unions should popularize the idea until the union leaders can no longer ignore it.
If the unions went into movie production on a large scale, they would attract talented young artists who don’t get a chance in Hollywood, as well as experienced veterans of the movie industry who have been witch-hunted or are simply disgusted with the way things are run in Hollywood. America is full of talent. It is one of the decisive tasks of our time to mobilize this talent for the fight against the witch hunt, fascism and obscurantism; not by opposing capitalist thought-control with another brand of thought-control, but by respecting and defending the freedom of artistic creation, of expression and thought. The great majority of true artists will not be on the side of reaction if they are given a fair opportunity to freely express their feelings.
On Sept. 1, 1954, the N.Y. Herald Tribune reported: “Samuel Goldwyn, who has often complained about the lack of creative writing talent in Hollywood, established ... an award of $1,000 to be given annually for the best creative writing submitted in a competition ...” It’s not lack of talent, but lack of freedom of expression that has sterilized the scriptwriters’ brains. Awards will not change this. The unions should provide the better writers with the freedom they don’t get in Hollywood, and thereby destroy the power of the Breen Office. This would spell a boom for sincere writers who have something to say. Hollywood could keep the others, the pro-capitalist hacks and those who re-hash the same old plots for the hundredth time.
Trotsky pointed out that the movies draw the workers away from churches and bars. Let us make sure that motion pictures do not serve as just another means of intoxicating and dulling the mind, but as an instrument of enlightenment, helping the people to live more consciously.
Last updated on: 2 April 2009