In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
This time, the time of my seventh offering in my limited series of film observations, I thought I would sharply swerve into the far-right lane and dabble in what I have frivolously and unimaginatively decided to call right-wing noir. Seriously right-wing noir. There may be no such animal but there are films that do proffer a political tone, that attempt to inform, or, possibly, to confuse those wallowing in the centre of political thought: One of these choice exposés is the Gordon Douglas directed 1951 film, I Was A Communist For the FBI (which subsequently generated a radio series) and a second is a John Wayne Movie that may not quite fit the noir mould but has its own duke-it-out charm, or harm, the Edward Ludwig helmed 1952 effort, Big Jim McLain. As you can tell by the years of release, both films landed smack dab in the heyday of Senator Joe McCarthy, his second wave House Un-American Activities Committee assault on Communism, his interrogation/bashing of such Hollywood luminaries as Orson Welles and Lucille Ball, as well as writers, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett. By 1954, America had temporarily come to its senses and the Senate censured McCarthy by a vote of 67-22 for “conduct contrary to Senatorial tradition.”
It is hard to imagine that same level of accountability happening in today’s political divide.
That last sentence by the way is a poor attempt at humor.
I will also include a few thoughts on a third film, 1949’s The Red Menace. It fits more securely into the noir genre than Big Jim McLain, but because I succumbed to the temptation to have a little fun with John Wayne (whose movies I totally admire and enjoy regardless of what his political inclinations might have been), a third film with more noirish credibility seemed appropriate.
Seriously Right-Wing Noir: I Was a Communist for the FBI
As this film begins, we are up to our belly button in the narrative. The FBI is tracking a communist agitator, Gerhardt Heisler, as he travels around the country proselytizing, organizing. His next destination: Pittsburgh.
The main protagonist in I Was A Communist for the FBI, a title incidentally which pretty much gives away the theme, has already immersed himself in his duplicitous mission as the movie begins. He is in deep undercover mode. Based on a series of Saturday Evening Post interviews with Matt Cvetic, the film attempts to replicate Cvetic’s immersion into Pittsburgh’s Communist underground. By the time we meet Cvevic, stolidly portrayed by Frank Lovejoy, often a supporting actor who seemed to revel in playing hard-ass characters, he had been at his task awhile. Matt Cvevic is a pariah within his own large family. At one point early on we are witness to a family gathering and the awful strain that Cvevic’s assumed political leanings have placed on his family.
There are compensations for Cvevic. Or, at least, for his Lovejoyian doppelganger. One is his dalliance with Dorothy Hart, an actress with not a particularly lengthy film pedigree but who managed a range of interesting roles including Howard Duff’s girlfriend, Ruth Morrison in one of the great noirs, The Naked City, and her final role as the tenth movie Jane to Lex Barker’s lean interpretation of Tarzan in the 1952 jungle delight, Tarzan’s Savage Fury.
In I was a Communist for the FBI, her character is somewhat deceitful, a communist version of a femme fatale. She does it quite well.
Hollywood had little appeal to the “luminous” Ms. Hart. She is quoted as follows: “Acting wasn’t enough. I felt some of the movies were mediocre. I wanted to do something important with my life, so I began working with the American Association for the United Nations. It was very, very fulfilling. I’ll never regret having given up Hollywood for it. “
There were other fine cinematic moments for Lovejoy during his career. He supported Bogart in Nick Ray’s brilliant 1950 mystery drama, In a Lonely Place, and a couple of years later, starred in a tidy little thriller noir, The Hitch-hiker, a film directed by Ida Lupino.
Seriously Right-Wing Noir: Big Jim McLain
As noted above, Big Jim McLain is not really a film noir. More a bit of a hybrid. However, purist definitions aside, it is a black and white film, which counts for something although there are a number of excellent noir filmed in color.
Events in BJM mostly happen in the daytime in Hawaii. The bad guys are “commies” and HUAC investigators, Big Jim (John Wayne), and his sidekick, Mal Baxter, (played by James Arness, who, I should note, appeared with Wayne in a handful of other films (Island in the Sky, Hondo, and The Sea Chase) before becoming his definitive character, Marshall Matt Dillon, in the long running television series, Gunsmoke,) are deployed to Honolulu to seek them out.
While engaged in that worthy activity, Big Jim get romantically entangled with the fetching Nancy Olson who is employed by a suspected Communist medical practitioner. In some respects this romantic entanglement occupies a significant portion of the film. Wayne and Olson appear to be having a rare old time throughout, ostensibly making a movie but also makin’ whoopee.
Of course, there are some exquisite noirish moments in Big Jim McLain, and if they challenge the popular definitions, who’s to complain.
One set piece is quite entertaining. As Big Jim seeks out a communist, he encounters Veda Ann Borg, his quarry’s landlady. Borg almost always was consigned to play delightful and brassy types. She outdoes herself in this film and provides some of the film’s best moments. Politically, she was somewhat to the left of the Duke, as was Nancy Olson (both women were democrats), but clearly Borg was having fun in this film.
During their investigation, Big Jim goes to the famous leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai to interview a reformed communist, Mrs. Namaka, played by actress Soo Yong.
She sees her career as a nurse serving the leper colony as penance for her years as a red. This scene includes a beautiful baby, born to leper parents. Mrs. Namaka explains that infants are taken away at birth (though the parents are allowed to see their child through glass), Some months later, the children, all the newborns, are sent away to be adopted.
There are other absorbing minutes in the film, not the least of which is the appearance of one of the major communist party members, an elegant if sinister fellow played by Alan Napier who years later would gain more fame as Alfred, butler to Adam West, aka Bruce Wayne aka secretly TV’s Batman.
As is my habit, I will leave the conclusion of the film to the viewer. But don’t be surprised if these nefarious commies have up their sleeves an epidemic that they want to spread. And also don’t be surprised if the producers pull out as many patriotic stops as possible as the movie winds up.
I will mention an odd fact that, for a more successful worldwide distribution, the producers changed the films name from Big Jim McLean to…wait for it…Marijuana.
Seriously Right-Wing Noir: The Red Menace
The Red Menace was a quickly made programmer. It aligned nicely, if a tad excessively, with the post-war resurgence of HUAA. It starts in a bleak noirish manner, a couple in a car speeding through the night,
pausing for gas, afraid that the world they are fleeing is about to squash them…and then the voice-over and we go back in time, a Veteran of WW 2, the male half of the fleeing duo, complaining to a Government agency that a real estate scam has cleaned him out.
From there, the pace quickens. He gets targeted, taken to a communist bar (yeah, I know, but there it was) and then somewhat seduced by a fervent, young, and literate communist beauty played by Barbra Fuller.
The Vet, played by Robert Rockwell, is probably best known as Mr. Boynton, Eve Arden’s fellow teacher in the classic comedy series, Our Miss Brooks.
There are a few quite interesting sub-narratives in the film. One of the characters, Sam, is black and seems to be the key propagandist. He is a friend of a communist poet, who dies. Sam’s loyalty to the party changes after the death of his friend. Draft headline for the Toilers, the Communist’s news organ, starts out as “Decadent psycho poet a suicide.” and becomes, “Dead Poet a Hero.”
Bosley Crowther’s review from 1949 accurately describes a great deal of the characters in the story:
“There is Mollie O’Flaherty, for instance, a “party girl” in more ways than one,
who believes in Marxist doctrine because of her impoverished youth. She is in love with Henry Solomon, a revolutionary poet and intellectual. There is Sam Wright, a Negro student who works for The Toilers, the party newspaper, whose notion is that communism will improve conditions for his race. There is also Nina Petrovka, a sad-eyed European refugee who got into the party because her father was a Communist. All of them soon are disillusioned by the intolerance and brutality that they see in the operations of the party and their leaders and, in one way or another, they break out. The most effective demonstration of charges against the Communists that the film provides is the disclosure of how the party allegedly abuses and intimidates those members who endeavour to break away. And for this, at least, the picture has a certain validity. But its credibility is diminished by the fustian representation of the leadership, played with villainous expressions by Lester Luther and
Betty Lou Gerson. In the roles of the discontented members, Robert Rockwell as the ex-GI and Hanne Axman as the refugee are moderate, and Duke Williams is effective as the Negro boy, but the rest are specious and over-zealous. And they all speak much more than they act, for the script is a complex of speeches with dramatic action virtually nil. “
Betty Lou Gerson, incidentally, is most well known as the voice of Cruella de Vil, the villainess in Disney’s The One Hundred and One Dalmations.
The Red Menace ends quaintly in a small Texas town (a town incidentally which when googled, appears to not exist…if it ever did.)
The hero, Bill and the heroine, Nina, stop over in Talbot and throw themselves on the mercy of Law Enforcement and Government and heroine. They encounter the folksiest sheriff you’d ever want to meet. He asks them to tell him their story and to take their time because, “You know there’s lots of things we ain’t got here in Talbot but time ain’t one of them.” We have a “thing” where I live called the Slow Islands Movement. The imaginary town of Talbot, Texas, would fit right in.
Some Final Thoughts:
Film is an excellent vehicle to educate. It is also most certainly an excellent vehicle to entertain. It is also, sadly, sometimes a weapon. These three films in my view manage, in varying degrees, to serve to educate, to almost succeed in entertaining, and absolutely could, in the wrong hands, or the wrong eyes, whose ever hands or eyes those might be, but I am thinking of the easily led and manipulated, that these films might become weapons of, shall we say, mass hallucination. But I guess that is one of the functions of film, to hallucinate us, treat us to others ways of being…
About the Author
Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia. He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards. In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
During the pandemic, his poetry appeared in four poetry anthologies.
He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.
For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog www.engleson.ca
Bill, you certainly educate and entertain. These films most certainly played into the era’s propaganda or at the very least served as warnings against the Red Scare. Fear of communism thrives today in modern news entertainment propaganda. I’m a proponent of critical thinking and watching films such as these is good exercise. I sent you a long message to share the novella I’m editing because it is about a red spy from the UP. Thanks for the noir appreciation!
This is very true: “Film is an excellent vehicle to educate. It is also most certainly an excellent vehicle to entertain. It is also, sadly, sometimes a weapon.”
It continues to be true in today’s world, too, only the propaganda shoe seems to be on the other foot these days.
This is another fine examination of (history) thru the lens of film. Great presentation!
I like your movie posts, Bill. I’m able to separate the man from the movies so I’m a big John Wayne fan. And even though it was pretty heavy-handed, I liked Big Jim McLain (despite the fact they paired him with a love interest young enough to be his daughter). It was interesting to learn it’s title for international release. I have to think that the producers thought that no one outside of the US would be interested in the topic so they plopped a lurid title onto the movie in an attempt to lure people in?
I don’t disagree that movies could be seen as ‘weapons’ by definition, but propaganda movies have been around forever (and many of them (Casablanca comes immediately to mind) are quite good stories) and putting a movie like Big Jim McLain aside, isn’t every screenwriter and director going to bring part of themselves and their opinions to their work? And it’s not just old movies, but I’ve read that the Pentagon approved the scripts to Top Gun and Wayne’s Green Berets, and George Lucas has mentioned that the Star Wars movies reflected his opinions about the Vietnam war. I guess I’m not sure that I think ‘propaganda’ movies are any worse than some TV dramas or any network news show when it comes to being a weapon of mass hallucination.
This was very good It really shows how Hollywood reflects and amplifies the attitude of the masses. Fun
Laugh! It just makes sense
Excellent observations and takes on these films. I hadn’t heard of any of them but they certainly sound heavy-handed. I couldn’t help but think how directors, etc. might take current events and write similarly-obvious agendas into them.