Raising the Curtain: Hollywood and American Politics, 1920-60

Over the course of the twentieth century, Hollywood movies and entertainers within the industry have impacted national politics, influenced cultural constructions of American identity, and affected social change. The industry has shaped and has been shaped by local, state, national, and international political pressures, decisions, and negotiations. This article focuses on how political priorities within Hollywood have changed over time and how the broader political environment has impacted film production, industry structures, and opportunities for celebrity political activism. While definitions of “politics” can vary, this article focuses on individual involvement with the political process, the construction of political ideology and the creation of national identity through film, propaganda efforts, the shifting political priorities of the industry, and the impact of local and national politics on motion picture productions and business structures.

The Birth of Hollywood changed the face of entertainment forever. Through accelerating westward expansion at the turn of the twentieth century, fuelled by optimism and hope for the future, Hollywood officially became part of Los Angeles in 1910 after being founded by Harvey Wilcox. Directors and actors moved there due to the climate, lack of taxes, and freedom from patents issued by Thomas Edison’s Motion Pictures Patents Company.  The first movie studio, the Nestor Film Company, was established in Hollywood in 1911. This fired the starting pistol on a gold rush that would take place over the next two decades. During World War I, Jack Warner premiered My Four Years in Germany in 1917. Its anti-German sentiment proved a major commercial success, placing Warner Brothers at the top table of American film producers. Other major studios recognised today, such as Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, emerged during the 1920s, and by the end of the decade there were twenty Hollywood studios producing around 800 movies per year. This was achieved through the ‘Fordian’ production line model with a modular format that enabled high volume production, providing the foundations for a proto-studio system. As a result, there emerged a de facto monopoly over film production from Hollywood, with the major studios producing over 90 per cent of fiction titles in the United States by 1929. Warner Brothers alone was producing eighty films a year in 1929, to combat the widespread economic and social decline associated with the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Depression.

In 1925, buoyed by financial success and moral support from United Artists, (an independent investment firm founded by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Charlie Chaplin and Mark Pickford) the potential for talking pictures was recognised by Warner Brothers. This led to a $3 million investment in Vitaphone technology to synchronise sound and image, resulting in the seminal 1927 Jazz Singer as the first ‘talkie’, starring Al Jolson. With the development of ‘talkies’, four hundred cinemas were wired for sound in 1927, and by 1930 silent films were almost obsolete. Simultaneously, Hollywood continued to expand as an urban centre on the West Coast, with the population increasing from 30,000 in 1919, to 130,000 by 1925. In 1923, the iconic Hollywood sign was erected. It first read ‘Hollywoodland’, but lost the suffix in 1949.

The connection between politics and Hollywood has been there since the beginning. Critically, silver-screen productions drove the shift toward a modern, consumer society. What emerged was the first American art form: the motion picture. Initially flourishing in immigrant-based urban centers, silent films emerged as a political, cultural, and economic tool for a growing class of American workers and new immigrants. Censorship campaigns and labor struggles permeated the industry from its inception and shaped its long-term development. In the form of the movie studio there developed an economic powerhouse, pioneering use of new technology, in-house control of production and distribution, along with the acquisition of theatre chains – heralding in the Golden Age of Hollywood

The infiltration of Hollywood by organised crime was an underbelly to the glamour of the movie industry during the twentieth century. For example, the mobster mogul, John ‘Handsome Johnny’ Roselli was a Chicago Mafia boss, a murderer and racketeer who moved to Hollywood in 1924 and was subsequently involved in the extortion of movie studios. Particularly notable was his involvement in a plan to exploit the Trade Union International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, positioning the mafia’s own people in positions of power, with the scheme set to threaten studios with union strikes if protection money was not paid. The ploy achieved profound success amongst the ‘big four’ studios: with Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and MGM each paying $50,000 to avoid such union action. Moreover, the boss of Columbia studios, John Cohn, gained control of the movie producing company through funding provided by organised crime. In 1950, the U.S. Senate convened a high-profile committee to investigate the growing problem of organised crime in America. Popularly known as the Kefauver Committee, its findings included admissions of the FBI’s failure to combat countrywide mob activity, leading to more than 70 local crime commissions to combat Mafia at local level, and a nationwide Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act. Proceedings were televised to more than 30 million viewers. As part of these proceedings, many notable figures provided testimonies, including: Mickey Cohen, Frank Costello and Jake ‘Greasy Thumb’ Guzik, while Frank Sinatra admitted to acquaintances with Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and the Fischetti Brothers. This reveals the interwoven nature of organised crime into the very economic and organisational fabric of Hollywood, casting a shadow over a newly emerging industry that was symbolic of American values and culture.

While the legend of Hollywood prioritizes the glamour, wealth, and fame of its most famous occupants, Hollywood is also a community where people lived, worked and engaged in internal political debates over the New Deal and unionization during the 1930s, anti-Communism and progressive grassroots politics during the 1940s and 1950s, and the social and cultural movements of the 1960s. Labor battles during the New Deal era emerged from the gruelling working conditions of the studio system, in which very few workers attained the glamorous life that lived in the minds of moviegoers across the country. The organization of trade guilds during the 1930s faced bitter controversies from studio executives. Within the trade guilds themselves, especially in the more radical and articulate Screenwriters Guild, intense political debates surfaced about labor policies, civil rights, and the merits of capitalism. The political debates of the 1930s laid the seeds for the anti-communist “inquisition” of the postwar period. World War II provided an opportunity for explicit politicization of the industry as it joined the government in a massive campaign to teach wartime behavior, raise money, and promote a particular wartime ideology. In the aftermath of war, Hollywood films and personalities both upheld and challenged the Cold War framework of the post–World War II period through cultural productions. The breakdown of the studio system and rise of a new ratings system gave activists a more prominent voice in challenging political and cultural hierarchies, and the “New Hollywood” that emerged as a result brought both the countercultural revolution and the New Right agenda to the screen. While productions reflected shifting political contexts, they also played a role in shaping American identity – promoting a more democratic view of American citizenry. Collaboration between the government, corporations, and Hollywood gave motion pictures and its stars the responsibility of conveying the “American Way”, while also infusing the political process with production skills and publicities strategies from Hollywood studios themselves. The studio system emerged as a powerful cultural force that influenced American identity and the political process itself.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 politicized Hollywood workers and productions to new degrees. Intense and volatile debates over the unionization of motion picture industry workers wages throughout the industry during Roosevelt’s New Deal administration and immediately after World War II. Hollywood, as a place where people worked and lived, attracted artists and intellectuals from Europe and New York City, was ultimately a beacon for radical political activity. The Screen Writers Guild, in particular, attracted communists, socialists, progressives, and liberals to assert the rights of writers in the frequently oppressive confines of the studio system. Within the guilds, members debated the political strategies of the union to gain power, legitimacy, and national recognition. Within the studio systems, guilds faced off against studio executives in battles to gain creative and financial recognition for their artistic contributions. Outside the studios, in the broader context of the political mobilization of Communist, progressive, and socialist parties within Hollywood, cultural productions led to political support for the Popular Front during the 1930s. As the cultural power of Hollywood grew during the 1930s, so too did concerns about the political uses of entertainment for propaganda purposes. The “Inquisition in Hollywood” of the postwar period began with the internal labor struggles during the 1930s. Films also played a role in how Americans understood the role of the working class during and after the New Deal. The debates about labor had a long-term legacy in film productions, as movies about the working class frequently contradicted the broader liberal promotion of individualism and the participatory place of the working class in American democracy, through its portrayals of workers as apathetic, troubled, and anti-social.

During World War II, the motion picture emerged as a powerful weapon of war as it helped to mobilize the home front, taught ‘proper’ wartime behavior, motivated troops, attacked enemies with “black propaganda,” and dramatized to the world the intense ideological and military struggles in which the United States and its allies were entangled. Hollywood involvement in the international conflict began years before the official declaration of war, with the impact of negotiations within the Roosevelt administration during the 1930s having a significant impact on foreign box office turnouts in fascist regimes abroad. As studios severed ties with the Nazi regime abroad, they also ignited controversy at home as films began to blatantly attack fascism. With the outbreak of war, the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Bureau of Motion Pictures reorganised financing of wartime entertainment in the tradition of Will Hays and the Motion Picture Production Code. Moreover, new types of civic activism developed during the World War II propaganda campaign. For example, the renowned columnist and actress, Hedda Hopper promoted an isolationist and conservative agenda, at times working against the pressures exerted by the OWI, while Ross (2017) provides a nuanced insight into how a Jewish attorney organised a counter-spy ring to foil Nazi threats against Los Angeles, including prominent Jews in Hollywood.

Rooted in the labor struggles during the 1930s, the national anti-Communist crusade tore apart the motion picture industry in the postwar period and ushered in an era of conservatism that shaped onscreen productions and quieted radical and progressive political grassroots activism. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a right-wing conservative group, was established in opposition to what they felt was the liberal and progressive directions of World War II propaganda, and collaborated with the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to “expose cinematic Communism.” The Cold War brought internal divides within the Hollywood political community as writers, actors, directors, and producers renounced their liberal activism and informed on their friends and colleagues in an effort to save their professional careers. The Cold War also impacted the onscreen productions, as a slew of anti-Communist movies sought to show viewers the evil and subversive nature of Communism. Hollywood became a vehicle for combating Communism globally. The FBI, the Office of Information Agency, and the Department of Defense wanted to capitalise on and ultimately control the power of propaganda to spread democracy and train civilians and soldiers in the Cold War ideology. Simultaneously, this cultural power of entertainers and film during the Cold War period opened up new opportunities for liberal celebrities to “upstage” and challenge Cold War conventions. One of the most controversial and public debates about the influence of Hollywood in politics centred around the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into the Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry. For instance, the unfriendly witnesses, who came to be known as the ‘Hollywood Ten’, refused to answer committee questions about their alleged membership in the Communist Party, citing protection under the guarantees of the First Amendment. The tensions, controversies, and debates about the consequences of political activism for those involved with radical politics, particularly on the left, are revealed through these events. The silver screen as a political tool, whether to promote Communism or anti-Communism during the Cold War becomes focalised.

Interestingly, Hollywood styles, structures, and personalities can be seen to have transformed political structures. In particular, policy making strategies as well as the composition and strategies of political parties at local, state, and national levels. Connections between Hollywood and the political arena have permeated the industry in a variety of ways since the early twentieth century. Within the framework of twentieth century film history, the impact of Hollywood on American social, political, economic, and cultural structures is profound. The industry began as a tool for labor leaders to preach unionism and a cultural product popular among workers and immigrants in urban centers. The popularization of the industry among the middle and, eventually, upper-class public brought dramatic changes in conceptions of Americanism as the screen emerged as a powerful tool for national unity.

Written by Jack Bennett 


Brownell, Kathryn Cramer and Emilie Raymond, ‘Hollywood and Politics’, Oxford Bibliographies, July 12, 2018, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199791286/obo-9780199791286-0195.xml.  

Giglio, Ernest. Here’s Looking at You: Hollywood, Film and Politics. 4th ed. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 

Ross, Steven. Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shape American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

Ross, Steven, ed. Movies and American Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. 

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