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