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How Conservative Hollywood Became a Liberal Town

A History of Hollywood's Political Past

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How Conservative Hollywood Became a Liberal Town

When the Hollywood sign was originally erected in 1923 it was built to spell 'Hollywoodland' as an advertisement to help sell property. The 'land' was removed in 1949 and the sign was renovated in 1977.

Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images
While it may seem as though Hollywood has always been liberal, it hasn’t. Very few people today realize that at one point in the development of American cinema, conservatives ruled the movie-making industry.

Santa Monica College Professor Larry Ceplair, co-author of "The Inquisition in Hollywood," wrote that during the ‘20s and ‘30s, most studio heads were conservative Republicans who spent millions of dollars to block union and guild organizing. Likewise, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Moving Picture Machine Operators and the Screen Actors Guild were all headed by conservatives, as well.

Hollywood Scandals and Censorship
In the early 1920s, a series of scandals rocked Hollywood. According to authors Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, silent film star Mary Pickford divorced her first husband in 1921, so that she could marry the attractive Douglas Fairbanks. Later that year, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused (but later acquitted) of raping and murdering a young actress during a wild party. In 1922, after director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, the public learned of his lurid love affairs with some of Hollywood’s best-known actresses. The final straw came in 1923, when Wallace Reid, a ruggedly handsome actor, died of a morphine overdose.

In themselves, these incidents were a cause for sensation, but taken together, studio bosses worried they would be accused of promoting immorality and self-indulgence. As it was, a number of protest groups had successfully lobbied Washington and the federal government was looking to impose censorship guidelines on the studios. Rather than losing control of their product and face the involvement of the government, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American (MPPDA) hired Warren Harding’s Republican postmaster general, Will Hays, to address the problem.

The Hays Code
In their book, Film History: An Introduction, Thompson and Bordwell say Hays appealed to the studios to remove objectionable content from their films and in 1927, he gave them a list of material to avoid, called the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list. It covered most sexual immorality and the depiction of crime activity. Nevertheless, by the early 1930s, many of the items on Hays’ list were being ignored and with Democrats controlling Washington, it seemed more likely than ever that a censorship law would be implemented. In 1933, Hays pushed the film industry to adopt the Production Code, which explicitly forbid depictions of crime methodology, sexual perversion. Films that abided by the code received a seal of approval. Although the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known helped the industry avoid stiffer censorship at the national level, it began to erode in the late 40s and early ‘50s.

Hollywood & the House Un-American Activities Committee
Although it was not considered un-American to sympathize with the Soviets during the 1930s or during World War II, when they were American allies, it was considered un-American when the war was over. In 1947, Hollywood intellectuals who had been sympathetic to the communist cause during those early years found themselves being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about their “communist activities.” Ceplair points out that the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals provided the committee with names of so-called "subversives." Members of the alliance testified before the committee as "friendly” witnesses. Other “friendlies,” such as Jack Warner of Warner Bros. and actors Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan and Robert Taylor either fingered others as “communists” or expressed concern over liberal content in their scripts.

After a four-year suspension of the committee ended in 1952, former communists and soviet sympathizers such as actors Sterling Hayden and Edward G. Robinson kept themselves out of trouble by naming others. Most of the people named were script-writers. Ten of them, who testified as “unfriendly” witnesses became known as the“Hollywood Ten” and were blacklisted – effectively ending their careers. Ceplair notes that following the hearings, guilds and unions purged liberals, radicals and leftists from their ranks, and over the next 10 years, the outrage slowly began to dissipate.
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