Communists in the Movie Industry?

‘Hollywood Divided’ examines the infamous Screen Directors Guild meeting

Nov. 7, 2016
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hollywooddivided

Hollywood was on trial during the McCarthy era, accused by Congress and the FBI of harboring Communists bent on using the cinema to convey subversive messages to the American public. One of the most infamous incidents during this period was the October 1950 meeting of the Screen Directors Guild at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The agenda: a proposal to remove Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the Guild’s president for opposing Cecil B. DeMille’s push for a mandatory “loyalty oath” from all members, swearing they were not members of the Communist Party.

In Hollywood Divided, a slender volume from the University Press of Kentucky’s Screen Classics series, Kevin Brianton sets out to set the record straight. It’s not so much that the big picture painted of the Guild meeting in most accounts is wrong—DeMille really was thwarted and Mankiewicz retained his post. But the details given in the story, some of them at least, start to shrivel under the cold light of scrutiny. The facts as sorted by Brianton, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, give less heroic roles to Mankiewicz and director John Ford than in standard accounts, and paint DeMille as a bit less villainous.

“The myth of the SDG meeting did not arise from an overarching conspiracy,” Brianton writes, but from common problems in historical writing: an error is misidentified early on as true and becomes embedded in the record and repeated over and again—and then there is the tendency of participants in important events to make a good story better.

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