by Henry Milner
Steven J. Ross, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.
New York: Oxford, 2012. 498 pages.
As I was editing Jeffrey Oberman’s analysis of Hollywood films (see p. 100), I noticed a book that had been gathering dust on my desk. Hollywood Left and Right presents case studies of ten politically active Hollywood figures, five liberals and five conservatives. Although I have long followed American politics, and seen a great many Hollywood movies, I learned a lot from this very well-written and engaging yet carefully researched book. Though he has nothing to say about other countries, Steven J. Ross, a film historian at the University of Southern California, confirms to us outside observers of the United States that American politics is indeed exceptional: nothing like this is to be found in comparable countries. Moreover, while it reinforced the prevailing impression that Hollywood is a liberal place, it drove home the point that it was the conservatives who put their involvement to greater political effect.
Ross starts in the early days, with Charlie Chaplin, still perhaps the greatest genius Hollywood has produced. Despite his immense success, Chaplin never strayed from his progressive beliefs, beliefs which, in part, caused him to have to leave the United States in the 1950s. In contrast, during the same period, Louis B. Mayer of MGM produced films that celebrated the status quo as he came to play a major role in the California Republican Party. Actor Edward G. Robinson shared Mayer’s eastern European Jewish background, yet espoused diametrically opposed political views, views that in the 1950s attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and ended his career.