Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: "When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics," Donald T. Critchlow

Title: When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics
Author: Donald T. Critchlow
Pages: Hardcover, 235 
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Release: October 21, 2013

Examining the history of conservatism and the Republican Party in Hollywood has become en vogue in the 2010s. Steven J. Ross detailed the overall history of both the liberal and conservative elements of Hollywood through the present era in his definitive study of the topic, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2012). Biographies of individual figures, such as Scott Eyman's Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Jennifer Frost's Hedda Hopper's Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (New York University Press, 2011), spend substantial pages on the fascinating political dealings of their subjects.

Now Cambridge University Press, perhaps not to be shown up by their Oxbridge rival, releases Donald T. Critchlow's When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics. A slim volume, Critchlow's book focuses on the period from the 1940s to the first presidential election of actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan in 1980. Having a narrower scope -- one party, four decades -- should in theory make for a finer-tuned argument. Unfortunately, the end product is not as strong as it should be given Critchlow's history as a scholar.

Critchlow's argument is that a small but committed group of conservative leaders in Hollywood, including major actors and studio heads, boosted the California Republican Party back into strength following World War II before it ultimately faded again against the strength of the Democrats' numbers in the state. From the 1940s through the 1960s, the California GOP didn't merely cultivate homegrown talent like local friend-to-the-stars Richard Nixon and actor and former Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan. The state became a major player in national Republican politics, deciding primaries (like the doomed Goldwater campaign of 1964), holding the Chief Justice seat on the Supreme Court (former governor Earl Warren), raising untold sums of cash for candidates nationwide, sending William Knowland and George Murphy to the U.S. Senate, and helping a local Los Angeles-area politician named Dick Nixon rise to the Oval Office. The greatest achievement, of course, was the election of one of Hollywood's own, Ronald Reagan, something the older Hollywood figures who were active in the party's early resurgence could have only imagined.

Most of the first third of When Hollywood Was Right focuses on the most notoriously political episode of the industry's history, that being the HUAC hearings and subsequent blacklisting scandal of the 1940s and 1950s. This period must be gone through in-depth in order to set up the rise of the anti-communist faction in Hollywood and how it reshaped the major players in town. And Critchlow absolutely goes into great detail -- often too much, as he sometimes gets off track by spending more time on communists and less time on explaining their connection to Hollywood conservatism. Critchlow seems to want to write a history of blacklisting -- and he should -- but it weighs the book too much in that direction.

Critchlow devotes much time to the tactics developed and used by conservatives in Hollywood to support their candidates. Studio heads used their own resources to produce and air partisan documentaries. Republican celebrities participated in telethons and massive public rallies, travelled around California and the country to speak to local committees, and offered one-on-one media training to both candidates and elected officials, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Hollywood Republicans developed what we now know as "smear" commercials, using their talents as screenwriters and cinematographers to develop compelling, emotional content to sway voters by scaring them away from Democratic candidates. The entire concept of theatrical staging of party conventions and major platform speeches was developed by Hollywood Republicans, with their tactics soon being mimicked by Democratic leaders as well. These are the most fascinating insider stories, and more anecdotes of their nature would be welcome.

After all of their initial success, however, the Republicans of Hollywood still had one simple but huge disadvantage -- numbers. Democratic affiliations in the state increased by a 2-to-1 margin over the decades, particularly as more and more migrants arrived from the east and the liberal northern part of the state grew. The Republicans could only compete for so long. Their celebrity endorsements mattered less and less as the GOP stars, many known from the silent film and western eras, aged out of relevance. The general push to the left in the country in the 1960s meant that conservative Hollywood's successes could only last so long. The election of Reagan to the presidency, as exciting as it was for Republicans in the entertainment industry, was their last hurrah.

Critchlow, being the excellent scholar of American conservatism that he is, provides the user with endless trivia bits, detailed footnotes, long suggested reading lists, and other additional material. The problem is that there is far too much of it. There are often cases where entire paragraphs are nothing but celebrity names -- which would be okay once or twice in a book, but he repeats the same lists over and over. He also has a tendency to continually reintroduce the same figures, even using the same language, and his timeline gets jumpy here and there.

When Hollywood Was Right has the makings of a fascinating book, and Critchlow is the scholar to write it. Unfortunately, it never quite gets there in terms of sustaining its argument, engaging the reader, and most of all, achieving the right balance of details versus analysis. There is too much focus on listing every name and date and not enough on weaving a compelling story. Still, the book is interesting enough for fans of insider drama in both entertainment and politics that it is worth reading for those groups.

Cambridge University Press provided a complimentary copy of the book for review purposes.

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