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Red Hollywood    cover photo

Red Hollywood 2013 (orig. 1995)

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Thom Andersen
Directed by Thom Andersen and Noel Burch
DVD , color, 88 min.

Jr. High - General Adult
Film, Hollywood Blacklist, Communist Party of the United State of America, United States History

Date Entered: 12/11/2014

Reviewed by Christopher Lewis, American University Library, American University

After years of anticipation, Thom Andersen’s remarkable Los Angeles Plays Itself finally had its official release on DVD this Fall and has received wide acclaim. To add to the delight is the release of one of Andersen’s earlier films, Red Hollywood (1995), a collaborative work made with film critic Noel Burch. Red Hollywood is a visual essay built on the films written and/or directed by several of the individuals who were blacklisted as members of the American Communist Party from the late forties through the fifties. As is stated at the opening, this film isn’t about the politics or martyrdom of the individuals involved but rather a study of the social content in their films as a reflection of the era. In addition to the film clips there are also interviews with four blacklistees, Abraham Polonsky, Paul Jerrico, Ring Lardner Jr., and Arthur Levitt, and an incisive narration binding it together.

With a mix of well-known, lesser-known, and now forgotten films, Andersen and Burch cover many angles of the strange intertwined relationship between the U.S. government, the motion picture industry, and American society. Key events discussed include: the reaction of Congress to rumors that hidden subversive content was being inserted in films; the surge in communist party growth in the U.S. in relation to the Spanish Civil War; the sympathetic view of the Soviet Union in wartime films and the abrupt-about face after the war; corporate America’s collective fear of empowering women; and the Right’s “know-nothing creed” of American anti-communism that stirred up the Cold War on the heels of WWII. All of this history and more is illustrated with 49 films that span from the mid-30s to the 1969 coda, a scene from Polonsky’s Tell them Willie Boy is Here. According to the narration, the evidence that communist propaganda crept into Hollywood films of the era is flimsy at best. However there is no denying that a group of creative and socially conscious artists, who happened to be members of the American Communist Party, did play an important role in raising awareness of the social problems of the day. Anti-war statements, racial and class disparity, anti-Semitism, workers’ rights, women’s rights, crime, and poverty were all themes addressed by the filmmakers. While all of these are mainstream topics today, at the time they represented courageous breaks from orthodoxy. Conversely, one might also pause to consider how rare it is for any modern Hollywood film to make a meaningful statement on a serious social issue.

The overall narrative has a good pace and the variety of clips liven it up and the interviews provide good color without a pall of bitterness or anger. Production values are superb. The filmmakers' deep knowledge of film history has yielded a bounty of poignant moments from lesser-known films and these will likely lead to further research on the part of the motivated viewer. For example, Quicksand starring Mickey Rooney, among several others, is now on this reviewer’s list.

Much has been written and filmed about the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and the Blacklist but there is no other work that so beautifully constructs a history of the era with the source materials the way this film does. On college campuses and in high schools this film should be a cherished addition for teaching about social problems of the 20th Century, the history of cinema, the McCarthy era, and the roots of the Cold War.