May 30, 2005

Hollywood's Politics:

My cover story in The American Conservative's new June 20th edition (now available to electronic subscribers) explains the convoluted and sometimes surprising politics of the movie industry. Here's an excerpt:

Keep in mind that Hollywood's relationship with the outside world is tenuous. It's a self-absorbed community and its politics are for show, serving functions within the industry that aren't always obvious to outsiders. Today's liberal monoculture is in large part an outgrowth of the compromise resolution to the ancient struggle between studio executives and screenwriters that culminated in the endlessly discussed but little understood blacklist of Marxists in the 1950s.

One of the blacklist's main roots has disappeared down the memory hole because it doesn't the burnish the heroic image created to flatter the Communist victims.

A 1919 theatre strike won the playwrights of the Dramatists Guild the right to retain copyright in their works. To this day, dramatists own their plays and merely license them to producers. Further, they have the right to approve or reject the cast, director, and any proposed changes in the dialogue. Contractually, a playwright is a rugged individualist, an Ayn Rand hero.

With the introduction of the talkies in 1927, Hollywood began importing trainloads of New York dramatists. Salaries were generous and the climate superb, but the dramatists found the collaborative nature of moviemaking frustrating, even demeaning. Screenwriters were employees in a vast factory, which owned their creations. The studios could, and generally would, have other hired hacks radically rewrite each script, all under the intrusive supervision of some mogul's half-literate brother-in-law.

In the 1930s, Hollywood's Communist Party, under the command of its charismatic commissar, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, improbably but enthusiastically championed the intellectual property rights of script-writers. The ink-stained wretches thought the Marxist concept of "alienation" described their plight. They felt just like the once psychologically fulfilled hand-craftsmen forced into becoming dispossessed factory drones who cannot recognize their creativity in their employer's output.

Insanely ironic as it seems now, many screenwriters became Communists because they despised the movie business' need for cooperation. How turning command of the entire economy over to a dictatorship would restore the unfettered joys of individual craftsmanship was a little fuzzy, but, hey, if you couldn't trust Stalin, whom could you trust?

The possibility of studios blacklisting writers first surfaced in the 1930s when the moguls' cartel turned aside the leftist screenwriters' push to align themselves with the Dramatists League by threatening to fire union supporters. "It wouldn't be a blacklist because it would all be done over the telephone," Jack Warner explained.

Decades later, after the formal Blacklist era, this labor-management conflict was eventually resolved by a tacit compromise. The blacklisted writers were elevated in the collective memory to the role of martyrs. Their leftism (but not their Stalinism, which was conveniently forgotten) was enshrined as the appropriate ideology of all respectable movie folk.

In return, the producers damn well hung on to their property rights in screenplays.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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