J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies

If you like classic movies, think how much better they could have been.

Imagine stronger social criticism, bolder characters, blunter endings.

Imagine what would have been had Hollywood not been censored.

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Dr. John Sbardellati

John Sbardellati, assistant professor of history at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, tells the story of the unofficial censorship of the movies in
J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of the Cold War, to be released May 8 by Cornell University Press.

Censorship is old as the movies. In Hollywood, censorship was not by “The Government.” Movies were not burned, theaters were not closed and scripts were not edited. But there was censorship, nonetheless. Censorship was the result of pressure by groups around the government, people who pulled the strings.

Originally, censorship was exercised by religious and veterans groups troubled by the immoral tone of the movies. As a result, Hollywood adopted the “Code” in the 1930’s, administered by the industry’s own Hays Office, which kept explicit sex off the screen and made sure that evil never triumphed at the end a movie.

In the 1940’s the censorship was directed against alleged Communist influence.

Sbardellati, a scholar of the cultural impact of the Red Scare and the McCarthy era, discusses the split between the right and the left in Hollywood. He shows how scripts were edited to eliminate suspected Communist themes---like sympathy for the workers and the poor and criticism of banks, lawyers, and businesses. For example, he examines the themes in Abraham Lincoln Polonsky’s “Force of Evil,” the tale of a powerful and corrupt lawyer and his relationship to the rackets in a poor immigrant neighborhood. Polonsky was later jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten.

Unexpected characters emerge from the book. Ronald Reagan as head of the Screen Actors Guild fought progressives in Hollywood. Russian born screenwriter Ayn Rand, a radical libertarian and atheist, wrote a handbook on enforcing anti-Communist standards in the movies. The work of great producers, directors, writers and actors, some blacklisted, other jailed for contempt of Congress, is examined.

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Ayn Rand testifies before the House Unamerican Activities Committee
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Ronald Reagan testifies before House Unamerican Activities Committee

To understand the impact of the censorship, I recommend “Out of the Past, Examining Film Noir,” a series of podcasts by Richard Edwards and Shannon Clute at
www.noircast.net. Your attention is directed to the podcasts on “On the Waterfront,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Force of Evil.”Click for directory.

Despite the snappy title,
J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies, the book says little about the FBI director. Sbardellati quotes reviews submitted by FBI agents who were assigned to the movie industry, all part of the rightwing move to squeeze the left out of Hollywood.

Sbardellati gives an objective view of what we would now call the religious right and the cultural wars of the 1940s and early 1950s. It’s a good read for lovers of classic movies and Cold War junkies.