Review: ‘When Hollywood was Right: How movie stars, studio moguls and big business remade American politics’ by Donald T Critchlow

5th November 2013
Cambridge University Press

Donald Critchlow describes the history of Hollywood from a political perspective, a conservative Republican one. Hollywood hasn’t always been a liberal place; in the first half of the twentieth century the Republican party was very strong among actors and studio bosses. This is the story of the vacitudes of fate that took the Hollywood Right from repeated decline to success between the 30’s and 80’s. The political careers of key players such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Cecil B DeMille, Barry Goldwater, and supporters like John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are interwoven in this account pf the changing fortunes of the Republican party not just in Hollywood, but in California as a whole.

I can’t say I have a great interest in American politics since I’m generally suspicious of politicians, but I enjoyed this book. Covering more than half a century of global upheaval and change, and how that change affected a subset of voters and politicians in one part of America, was interesting reading material.

Like an anthropological study of a remote tribe.

The material is presented in six dense and heavily footnoted chapters, however the author manages to walk the line between popular and academic history. He does this without resorting either to political polemic or attention grabbing sensationalism, although the title suggestion that Hollywood politics changed the political scene in the US seems pure hyperbole based on the success of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. On the evidence presented by the author all that can really be said is that these two got their start in politics by being involved in the conservative Republican party in California, and that they probably wouldn’t have got so far without the assisstance of the Hollywood rightwingers.

The causes and consequences of the HUAC investigations in to communism in Hollywood are dealt with in depth and extensively. The subject of the ‘witchhunts’ and the Hollywood Ten is an emotive one. Understanding the personlities involved, their backgrounds and personal motivations on all sides, and the consequences for all those involved, not just those blacklisted, tells a fuller story.

History is never a simple A to B narrative, to tell the complete story you have to tell it from all viewpoints. Critchlow has tried to do that here, and by focussing on one group over a long period of time, their changing views, how others viewed them and readily acknowledging that the individuals concerned were not an humogenous group but individuals acting for their own purposes, he almost succeeds.

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