McCarthy as Auteur

by Nora Sayre. Dial, $17.95.
I HAVE MY DOUBTS about sociological studies of the cinema; on certain days I even have doubts about sociology. Running Time, Nora Sayre’s new, slender book, examines the American films of the fifties to show how they reflected the temper of that Cold War decade, in which McCarthyism and the fear of Communist infiltration and atomic war with Russia were, apparently, the prime movers of the American psyche. The movies, in implicit as well as explicit ways, presumably mirrored these fears and, by giving them concrete forms, intensified and perpetuated them.
In her “Prelude,” Miss Sayre discusses the political and social background of the Cold War years, when “some Americans thought that they should shave their dogs and cats to prevent their fur from becoming radioactive”; when the chairman of the Washington State Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities (how’s that for a title?) declared, “If someone insists that there is discrimination against Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist”; when someone, regrettably unidentified by Miss Sayre, referred to “all those fags in striped pants who lost China for us.” It was the time when “many mistook Adlai Stevenson’s literacy for ultraliberalism,” when naming names before the various committees was a guarantee of reemployment at the expense of other people’s livelihoods and safety, and when the “undesirables” were not even given the real reasons for not being rehired.
Miss Sayre proposes to scrutinize the effect of all this (and more) on the films of those frightening and frightened years; hence her punning title, Running Time, which ordinarily refers to the ninety or so minutes of an average film’s duration, but which for some actors, writers, and directors meant a time of trembling and the loss of up to fifteen years of their working lives. And for the general run of movies it meant a great lowering of quality owing to intimidation from without and cowardice within.
But already in this “Prelude,” Miss Sayre sounds an ominous note that will queer her entire enterprise. Sensibly, she writes, “Each decade tends to disown or trash Its predecessor,” yet her own writing about the fifties from the vantage point of the eighties does not make her ironies any less patronizing, or her superiority any less relative. Then, after telling us that the experiences of the blacklisted will be the subject of her next book, she states her present purpose as “to re-examine the movies that had been used as weapons against them, and also to see how the social climate had affected the ensuing chapters of American film making.” But, she adds, “the aesthetics of film absorbs me as much as history does.”
This is asking for trouble. If you are going to write the sociopolitical history of a movie decade, you cannot also afford the luxury of aesthetic analyses and evaluations—certainly not in a book this short—without inviting upon yourself the twin plagues of superficiality and inconsistency of outlook. Miss Sayre’s gaze is unfocused indeed. She sums up the period as, among other things, “a time when Ferdinand the Bull was denounced as left-wing propaganda because the bull refused to fight the matador,” and also as a time “when boned girdles seemed mandatory for very young women.” Now, the attacks on Ferdinand are germane to the matter of Running Time, but it is not clear what those girdles have to do with it. Do they indicate that middle America was highly puritanical then? That women were being victimized by men or by male girdle manufacturers? Or something more profoundly political or metaphysical than I can decipher? Or is it that Miss Sayre is merely woolor whalebone-gathering as she goes along?
Her premise follows: “Since it was also a time when fictions and delusions were accepted as facts, some of the movies may be almost as informative as the FBI’s files—and probably more accurate about the mentalities of many Americans who were amused or repelled or touched or unnerved by what they saw on the screen.” This makes me skeptical. First, was there ever a time when fictions and delusions were not accepted as facts by hordes of moviegoers? Second, though the movies may tell us something about the mentalities of those who were “touched or unnerved” by them, i.e., who believed their fictions and delusions, they tell us nothing about those who were “amused or repelled” by them, who ridiculed their sentimental pieties and scorned their alarmist falsifications. Hence the limitations of the sociological approach: it may reveal something about what common minds think, but what can it tell us about the thought processes of even slightly uncommon ones?
The first proper chapter, “Recoiling from Liberalism,” summarizes Hollywood’s attitudes in the forties, when anti-Semitism was occasionally dealt with in gingerly fashion, yet even a film as outspoken as was Crossfire about other types of racism “carefully omit[ted | any reference to black people.” Still, pleas for fairness to blacks such as Pinky and Home of the Brave were made at the same time, though they elicited considerable animosity: a Texas theater owner was jailed and fined for showing Pinky a scant three days. And it was also the time of Louis B. Mayer’s disapproval of his own studio’s vastly superior Intruder in the Dust, because its black protagonist was “too uppity” and didn’t remove his hat in the presence of white people.
Chapter Two, “The Perils of Patriotism,” considers two of the major proSoviet films of the war period, Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia, and has a good, and rather too easy, time demolishing both. Miss Sayre is amusing about all those portentously revolving globes in the former, and about the message of the latter: “that scorching the earth was a tuneful procedure, also that Russia would be saved by the harmonies of Tchaikovsky.” But why does she barely mention (and misquote the title of) an equally important, equally pro-Stalin, and almost equally absurd film, North Star? Could it be out of friendship for Lillian Hellman (Miss Sayre doesn’t name that name), who wrote the embarrassing screenplay? At any rate, Miss Sayre pertinently remarks that “almost no one wrote more passionately patriotic movies than American Communists did in wartime.” And she does have juicy bits of information (though she seldom credits her sources)—e.g., about Ginger Rogers’s mother serving as script-scrutinizer for RKO and detecting “Communist inspiration in a comic line [by Clifford Odets] that implied that it was a crime not to be a success.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER, “Penance and Assault,” addresses the book’s main subject specifically; it is, however, the only one that does so. It takes up many of those quickies and cheapies Hollywood made in a “ritual of atonement and appeasement.” Playing on all of middle America’s fears and relating them to communism, these films may have been the most “dismal creations [ever] launched as a form of public relations.” Miss Sayre points out a host of amusing details—e.g., that the B-movie actors were so undistinguished and so poorly directed that it was hard to tell the bad guys from the good ones, but that if a woman’s slip straps showed through her blouse, you could be sure there was something terribly wrong with her—“in this context, it meant treason.”
Luckily, we had the FBI protecting us, as we were told in Walk East on Beacon, followed by a shot of agents opening our mail. The most invidious of these films may have been My Son John, in which John’s communism and implied homosexuality (the Production Code forbade explicitness on this subject) are blamed on his intellectualism and college education. The young Communist is anti-Christian and anti-family, and “even his way of smoking seems deceitful.” Yet his mother—played by our beloved Helen Hayes, with writing and direction by our beloved Leo McCarey (“a particularly friendly witness before the Committee”)—loves this effete and errant son more than she does his siblings, “her two ‘fighting halfbacks’ in Korea, who are ‘fighting on God’s side.’ ” Even though the parents are meant to be ideal characters with whom we empathize, “the violent, threatening father—an American Legionnaire who . . . hits the son on the head with the family Bible” and “the hysterically possessive mother” “appear to us as figures from a moldy textbook on male homosexuality.”
Sayre quotes judiciously: “The producer of The [sic] Arch of Triumph worried that there were too many references to refugees . . . Jack Warner cut the lines ‘Your father is a banker’ and ‘my father lives over a grocery store’ . . . [from] Humoresque, and the use of the word ‘labor’ created problems in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” But in the next chapter, “The Private Sector,” in which she tries to link anti-communism to the treatment of personal and social problems, she has a hard time convincing me that the fundamental stupidities of the period were politically motivated: “The fact that most of our films, like our culture, became apolitical was a political statement in itself,” she writes. One has to be very careful about such sweeping statements. Most American films are apolitical to this day; consider only how late, skimpy, and superficial was the treatment of Vietnam in our recent, presumably sophisticated, cinema. Watergate has figured in only one major film, All the President’s Men; Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, in none. We are still not very far removed from Hollywood’s glorious heyday, when politics was relegated to royal marriages in Ruritania and murderous intrigues involving Chinese generals and burnoosed sheiks.
In “The Private Sector,” Sayre deals mostly with family problems. Protest has a highly personal nature in these movies. It comes mostly from young people who, although family life is made to look repulsive, do not want to leave home; rather, they want more love from their parents. There is a good deal of non-communication between fathers and sons (daughters are generally ignored), yet a manly hug can often solve everything. Juvenile delinquents are just crazy, and delinquency is never seen as related to poverty. There is enormous faith in psychiatry, though the ultimate solution is always simply more “caring,” a formula of “desperate liberalism.” For drug addiction (never caused by economic conditions) as for the atrophying of sex in marriage, the prescription is always “love,” which begins to sound distastefully medicinal. And this love is interpreted peculiarly: monstrously mismatched couples must cleave together to achieve salvation.
Though Miss Sayre scores some facile laughs off all this benightedness and primitivism, it too survives, although it is somewhat less pullulating in today’s Hollywood. Moreover, there is a core of truth under the oversimplification: caring and love are needed as much as social reform. The problem with these movies is to a considerable degree their simplistic artlessness, which, however, is a matter of style and only marginally relevant to Miss Sayre’s sociopolitical theme. Thus, no matter how right she is—for example, in tracing the way adultery of even the most pardonable sort had to be atoned for by intemperate suffering of those involved (as in From Here to Eternity or Tea and Sympathy, before the filming of which the Legion of Decency suggested the death of the Deborah Kerr character)—all that this shows is how strict official morality was then, and may easily become again. It does not prove anything about the impact of McCarthyism on the movies.
Perhaps the most interesting— though, again, rather irrelevant—part of this chapter concerns the avoidance of the issue of homosexuality, male and female, in such films as All About Eve, Tea and Sympathy, and Compulsion, in the last of which the “brilliance” of the young killers (modeled on Loeb and Leopold) was anti-intellectually blamed for the warping of their psyches. Matters become a bit more to the point when Miss Sayre documents the naive and repressive treatment of office politics in films such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which upward mobility is discouraged. But Miss Sayre is again barely tangential when she regales us at some length with her attitudes, then and now, toward James Dean and Marlon Brando, the first of whom she could identify herself with, the second not. Into this chapter Sayre brings also Cecil B. DeMille, the notorious Communist-baiter, and his biblical spectaculars, and argues (a trifle shakily) that they too subserved an anti-Communist ideology. She is much better—though less relevant—demonstrating their prurience, it being easier to lower a woman’s neckline or slit her skirts “in an evangelical context.” And she is particularly good at tracing some of the nonpolitical idiocies surrounding these films, as when she quotes a producer’s request to Graham Greene for a revision on Ben-Hur: “You see, we find a sort of anticlimax after the Crucifixion.” Again, it is wonderful to be reminded of DeMille’s God’s command to Moses: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet!”
There follows a short but highly appropriate chapter about the making of On the Waterfront, showing how corrupt union leaders, both in Hollywood and among the longshoremen, tried to stop the film from being made, or at least to shift the blame from very real racketeering to imaginary communism. Sayre relates how Arthur Miller was forced out of the project, and how Budd Schulberg, the scenarist, and Elia Kazan, the director, used the film as a veiled vindication of their naming names, so that the most effective sociopolitical film of the period was, paradoxically, an impassioned defense of informers—a piece of reactionary propaganda.
In “Unglaring Exceptions,” Miss Sayre talks about the feeble efforts to make liberal or radical films even at this time, and discusses both more daring but artistically inferior efforts, such as Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth, and more accomplished films that fudged or flubbed their political content, such as High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Paths of Glory. Her claims for Sam Fuller as an anarchist seem to me too lofty; it is the shrillness and ineptitude of his films that make their conventional message appear quirkier and more quizzical than it actually is.
PERHAPS THE MOST ambitious chapter is “Watch the Skies,” in which the author tries to read science-fiction and monster movies as political allegories of the Cold War, the Korean War, and Americans’ dread of one another. Some of the parallels between Martians and Russians, between mutants or other monsters and Communist infiltrators, are apt and telling, though hardly novel. Even here, however, she forces her arguments: much of present-day sci-fi and horror filmmaking is no different from that of the fifties. Most interesting are such peripheral insights as those into the language of these films. In one of them, Edmund Gwenn, as a scientist (and scientists, qua intellectuals, almost always play into the hands of the enemy), “uses verbs like ‘fortify,’ to which a virile officer retorts, ‘Why can’t we all speak English?'
In the “Coda,” Miss Sayre waxes overoptimistic when she argues that films like Lolita and Dr. Strangelove ushered in a brave new cinematic world that put an end to the pusillanimity of the fifties. Lolita was actually a well-nigh total edulcoration of the novel that turned the twelve-year-old nymphet into a strapping girl of sixteen; and Strangelove, whose sometimes sophomoric satire was nevertheless bracing and provocative, had all too little influence on the films that followed. One sentence in the “Coda” sums up, almost inadvertently, the problem—in the fifties as it is today: “Perhaps the producers thought that racial hatred or sexual uncertainty would be too upsetting for a mass market audience, which might be curious about a ‘new’ or‘controversial’subject but would recoil if the material landed too close to home.” That is it, in essence. In American movies, with rare exceptions, it is always running time: one takes a step or two forward in a daring direction, then runs like hell backward into oversimplification, distortion, and cliché.
Finally, there is the question of Miss Sayre’s style. She tries very hard to be breezy and jocular, and does succeed some of the time. Often, however, the jokes misfire. Herewith a working witticism: “Men who are depressed by their jobs may go on binges; the next day’s hangover reveals an extraordinary amount of stubble on the chin—as though whiskey were a hair stimulant.” Now for one that fails: “Daughters [as opposed to sons] didn’t devour much footage, unless they stayed out too late—as though the hymen might dissolve at midnight.” Still, despite such japes, which bring the prose to a screeching halt, despite the irrelevancies, despite even its questionableness as social and political history, Running Time is not without its incidental, intellectually titillating pleasures.