Why the movies avoid Communism
“We come from Bulgaria,” says Annina Brandel, a newlywed played by Joy Page. She is addressing Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, in the 1942 film Casablanca.
“Things are very bad there, monsieur,” Annina explains. “The devil has the people by the throat. Jan and I do not want our children to grow up in such a country.”
The trouble is, they have no money, and Annina contemplates sex with Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, to gain a visa. Annina asks Rick if the captain is trustworthy and if her “bad thing” would be all right if she kept it locked in her heart.
“Go back to Bulgaria,” Rick says, but then he rigs the roulette table so Jan wins and the couple can escape to America. That is where many others in Rick’s American Café want to go.
Things may be bad in Bulgaria, where the devil has the people by the throat, but viewers get no information about the country, neutral at the outset of World War II following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 but joining the Axis powers in March of 1941. The omission of such material is not surprising because the elusive “letters of transit” were a total fabrication. But beyond Casablanca, movie fans will be hard pressed to find anything on Bulgaria, particularly its experience as a member of the Soviet Bloc.
Bulgarians, however, should not feel singled out because the American movie industry showed little interest in movies about life under Communism, even though the equivalent of the heroic Victor Laszlo existed in all those regimes. The dearth of such movies is understandable, given what went on the early days of Hollywood.
Comintern boss Willie Muenzenberg wrote that “One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda, is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them.” During the 1930s the Party launched a two-pronged offensive, in the back lot unions and so-called talent guilds. Their various front groups enjoyed great success and as Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) explained, the Party was the “only game in town.”
Things got rough during the Hitler-Stalin pact, when screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of General Andrew Jackson argues against an alliance with Britain, “a country that’s already licked.” After Stalin attacked his ally in 1941, the Party recovered and became the most jingoistic group in town. In wartime movies North Star and Song of Russia, Party scribes portrayed the USSR as a land of joyous, well-fed workers who loved their masters. The 1943 Mission to Moscow, starring Walter Huston, went so far as to whitewash Stalin’s show trials of the 1930s.
After the war, Stalin signaled through the Duclos declaration that the USA was now the enemy. The conflict between democratic and Party-controlled unions erupted into violence at every major studio. International Alliance leader Roy Brewer teamed with fellow liberal Democrat Ronald Reagan to turn back the Party forces.
An investigation of Comintern activist Gerhart Eisler, whose brother Hanns (“Comintern March”), was a film composer, brought federal snoops to the dream factories. The ensuing hearings in 1947 yielded more heat than light. Then followed the Czech coup, the persecution of writers and artists, resurgent Soviet anti-Semitism, and the Slansky trial. In a new round of hearings in the early 1950s, key figures such as Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men) and Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) turned against the Party.
By 1956, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin, the Hollywood Party lay in ruins but during the 1960s Trumbo and other Communist writers were “virtually deified,” as Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley) put it. The prevailing narrative became the “Hollywood blacklist,” sanitized of all references to Stalin or the Communist Party’s actual record in the studios.
Hollywood entered its period of anti-anti-communism, and in these conditions, movies about actual life under Communism were not likely to emerge. One exception was the 1982 Night Crossing, from the Disney Studios, based on an actual escape from East Germany in a hot-air balloon. In The Killing Fields (1984) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) viewers do not see the Khmer Rouge committing atrocities or the USSR quashing the “Prague Spring,” just as they had put down the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Long after the Cold War ended the American film industry avoided life under Communism and put out hagiography such as Trumbo (2015), about the Stalinist screenwriter who stuck with the CPUSA during the Hitler-Stalin Pact. On the other hand, last year’s Bridge of Spies, about the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, actually showed the Berlin Wall under construction and Communist troops firing on people attempting to flee. Given the record, that wasn’t much, but it hinted that Hollywood blacklisting of Communist reality might come to an end some day. There is no shortage of compelling stories from the Cold War.
In Bulgaria, for example, things were very bad and Stalinist boss Todor Zhivkov had the people by the throat. Defector Georgi Markov, a Victor Laszlo type, was the scourge of the Communist regime, but in 1978 Markov was killed by a poison pellet shot from an umbrella. The case remains unsolved but the prime suspects include Todor Zhivkov and the KGB. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, movie fans “might like a story like that.”
California writer Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.