On the Conservatives of Classic Hollywood

Cecil B DeMille, delegate to 1944 Republican National Convention

March 20, 1854 was the day the Republican Party was founded (at any rate, it’s the day it was named).

While there hasn’t been much to celebrate about that organization in quite some time, it seemed an appropriate day to point out an interesting historical fact, one that I doubt few people are aware of. They are likely not aware of it because the GOP’s spin-machine tends to be more effective than the left’s at controlling the terms of debate, and it’s been that way since the dawn of the Reagan presidency — almost forty years. The veil that covers our topic can be summarized by a phrase we’ve heard ad nauseam for decades: “Liberal Hollywood”.

The way Republicans have been taught to spin it (when it suits their interests), you’d think that: A) contemporary Hollywood had no Republicans, which is not true, though they are nowadays the minority in the industry; and B) Hollywood has always been left wing, which is so untrue as to be risible. “Liberal Hollywood” as a thing might be dated to 1972, the year of the McGovern candidacy, the year when Frank Sinatra, a lifelong Democrat, left his party and became a Republican in protest — foreshadowing of what was to come in the country, if not in Hollywood. In that year of 1972 the Democrats, in the view of many, swung hard left, with its anti-war platform, its civil rights agenda, its support for environmentalism, feminism, and so forth. A new generation of creatives in the movie industry largely embraced this movement (we wrote a little about that moment here).

What gets lost in all this jabber about how liberal Hollywood is, is what it what was swinging away from. For most of its previous history, in spite of its important role as America’s dream factory, Hollywood had also been a place of censorship, racism, sexism, materialism, and even political persecution. The latter aspect climaxed in the 1950s with the Hollywood Blacklist, and surely that period has to have been the biggest factor in making Republicans personae non grata in the film colony, to the extent that they are, which is debatable. Anyway, surely it’s got to be better being a “Hollywood Liberal” than a Hollywood Fascist? Was Joseph McCarthy a Fascist? (He was).

I’m not claiming all Hollywood Republicans (or all Republicans in general) were or are Fascists. I’m suggesting an explanation as to why Hollywood people turned away from the GOP back in the 1960s and ’70s. And actually the point I’d make about Hollywood party politics in this post is that in general, the usual words we use to describe political affiliations are too strong, both “liberal” and “conservative”. We are talking about showfolk. For the most part, if they were people of principle, they’d have gone into other lines of work. Their drive is to make art, yes, but with the goal of being Rich and Famous. They pay a lot of lip service at Oscar time to noble motives, but it usually strikes this observer at any rate as laughably disingenuous when they do so.

So…”Hollywood Liberal” tends to be a misnomer. Or rather Hollywood culture is “liberal’ in the classical sense , not in the sense in which contemporary Americans use it politically or when they refer to Hollywood. Hollywood’s one defining attribute as an industry, like all industries, is a devotion to earning money. All other principles are subordinate to that. It may release a few feel-good message pictures a year just to be able to say that they did, but only cautious ones, and at any rate that is not the primary mission of the town. They do so as a kind of sacrifice to the gods, to atone for the thousands of appalling cow pies that are their ordinary stock in trade: the ocean of pornography and blood spectacle that comes out of their spigot on a daily basis. Hollywood has much to answer for as the primary celebrant of violence in our society, and the sexual objectification of women, and the continued purveying of stereotypes. Yes, the town is socially liberal – anything goes, and that’s great. If anything, I’m fully on board for that. But the claim that the town is “leftist” is preposterous. The Hollywood movie business is the most effective propaganda machine ever devised. So if it was truly to devoted to some left-wing agenda, wouldn’t we have socialized medicine by now, Equal Rights Amendment would have passed, and pot would have been legalized four decades ago etc etc. If Hollywood was so powerfully liberal?

And if “Hollywood Liberal” isn’t so liberal, it’s also probably true that Hollywood’s conservatives are not so conservative. Naturally, the leadership of the town (i.e., studio heads) were responsible for the worst of the industry’s Puritanism and its Persecutions. And plenty in the movie colony (of both parties) proved cowardly when push came to shove during the Blacklist. It’s easy, very easy to judge them, but I look around and see no shortage of such cowardice NOWADAYS, so I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect everyone to have behaved like angels back then either. But I began being interested in this aspect of show people when I was writing my book No Applause. A lot of contemporary people, scholars and such, tend to make their point of interest, politically, the White Rats, and the folks at the bottom of the ladder whose names we don’t know. But the White Rats failed. No one one wants to STAY at the bottom of the ladder. They want to be (repeat after me) RICH and FAMOUS. So, show people, by and large are NOT left wing, at least not so much. They want to PARTY, sure. But if, for example, you offer to take away a large portion of their assets in order to distribute it to the poor, see how “liberal” they remain.

So there are actually plenty of Republicans in Hollywood right now, although it’s difficult to sift out the ones who WERE Republicans and are now sitting out the neo-Fascism of the Trump iteration of the party (I hope it’s most of them). Republicans are certainly a minority in Hollywood, but they are not rare. (Google it, you will find that many surprising Hollywood celebrities are, or have been Republicans).

But back in the day, when it was a much gentler, more understandable and defensible choice to make, there were many MORE Republicans in Hollywood, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were the majority during the classic era. As someone from New England, who has lived in New York for half his life, I have seen something of the positive side of Republicanism. Up here in the Northeast corner, we grow moderate ones, ones whose vision of utopia is about thrift, individualism, and opportunity, and less about intolerance and exclusion. And this is what I imagine most of the historical Hollywood Republicans were like — a certain interpretation of the American Dream (which after all, they were living embodiments of). Some of them were nasty pieces of work, no doubt. And some, let us say, did not think about things too deeply. But it would be far, far too much to demonize them as a category as monsters. They weren’t.

I know I’ll keep adding to this list, but some of the most important Republican stars included Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, William Holden, Raymond Massey, W.C. Fields, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell,  Walter Pidgeon, Adolphe Menjou, Helen Hayes, Fred MacMurray, June Haver, Jeanette MacDonald, Margaret Hamilton, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond,  Mickey Rooney, Ann Miller, Ethel Merman, Gene Tierney, Jane Russell, Jane Powell, Jane Wyman (lotta Janes), Laraine Day, June Allyson, John Wayne (of course), Andy Devine, Jennifer Jones, Jeanne CrainDonna Reed, Rhonda Fleming, Yvonne de Carlo, Shirley Jones, Jack Webb, Robert CummingsGlenn Ford, Charlton Heston (another of course), Efrem Zimablist Jr. Some more minor ones I happened to notice include Michael O’SheaAnita Louise, Virginia Grey, Corinne Griffith, Frank Craven, Marie Windsor, Audrey and Jayne Meadows, Lynn Bari, Joanne Dru, Vera Ralston, and Tippi Hedren.

Pearl Bailey and Nat King Cole were also Republicans (the GOP was once, if no longer, the Party of Lincoln, after all).

Some conservative actors went much farther in their devotion, to the point of serving. Ronald Reagan became a Governor and then a President (driven by his own Lady MacBeth, the former Nancy Davis), George Murphy became a Senator, Robert Montgomery was an adviser to Eisenhower and Nixon, Shirley Temple became an ambassador under Republican administrations. Writer Clare Booth Luce (The Women) became an important leader within the party, and also an ambassador for Republican presidents). Playwright/screenwriter Morrie Ryskind, collaborator of George S. Kaufman and the Marx Brothers, became a Republican activist. And let us not forget former actors Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell, who became powerfully destructive conservative commentators.

Naturally the moguls were Republicans. These included: Cecil B. DeMille (see image above), Walt Disney, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Jack Warner. Famous Republican directors included Frank Capra, Sam Wood, and Leo McCarey.  McCarey, of course, became pretty rabid towards the end of his career, with stuff like My Son John (1952) and Satan Never Sleeps (1962).

As I say, I’m not here to celebrate or endorse everything these guys ever did, only to point out the interesting and true fact that Hollywood is not, nor has it ever been, all as “liberal” as everyone tries to pretend is. So stop saying it is!

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