J Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Sbardellati

Those tinged with alien ways did not even have to be intentionally disloyal, for they naturally carried with them an ‘instinctive racial affinity inherited from European social life’ that, revolutionary or not, was deemed as un-American.”

“No one of foreign extraction was above suspicion.”

“If we herd all the reds and Communists into concentration camps, outlaw two-thirds of the movies … the problem would be solved.” Gerald L.K. Smith, founder of the America First Party


I’m not a fan of Clint Eastwood-directed films, but I am a fan of Leonardo Dicaprio, and that convinced me to watch the newly released DVD J. Edgar Hoover. When I finished the film, I thought how proud J. Edgar would be at this exquisitely crafted piece of propaganda (apart from the scene when he dresses in his mother’s clothes). This is a film that makes you almost shed a tear for one of the most toxic and powerful individuals in the history of America. I realised I needed an antidote; it was a perfect time to turn to the book, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Sbardellati. While this book, from Cornell University Press, can be a bit of a dry read at times, nonetheless, it’s lining up as the MINDBLOWING read of the year. As a film freak with a special interest in noir, I’d known, of course, about the impact of blacklisting and the HUAC hearings on the film industry, but J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies (and what a marvellous title that is) reveals just how paranoid, insidious and destructive the FBI’s surveillance of Hollywood was.

Sbardellati argues that “the dark period in Hollywood history” which included the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) hearings signaled the “convergence” of HUAC with the FBI, and the book spends considerable time showing that “whereas the containment of Communism in the international arena began in earnest after the Second World War,” in actuality, Hoover had had his sights on Hollywood decades earlier and that the origins of the Cold War are to be found in Hoover’s policies towards, and designs against, what he considered ‘radicalism’ in Hollywood. Tracing Hoover’s career, the book follows his “meteoric” rise to power from the position of clerk within the Bureau of Investigation in 1917 to his appointment as director of the bureau in 1924. With his hallmark zestful  “xenophobia and antiradicalism” Hoover’s “personality” shaped policy, so we see him early in his career establishing the “setting of strict legal limits to allowable political dissent” with the deportation of subversives through his Radical Division. Hoover, apparently compared Communism to a “disease.

The communist hopes to implant his red virus  and to secure a deadly culture which will spread to others.

The problem with a ‘disease’ is that anyone can, in theory, ‘catch it,’ and that is exactly how Hoover viewed Communism. If, for example, you saw what he considered to be a ‘radical’ film…wait for it… try It’s a Wonderful Life, (the film “discredits bankers” and also attempts to “magnify the problems of the so-called common man,“) then the entire audience was exposed to some sort of mind control/infiltration and were receiving Communist indoctrination. According to Hoover, just having lunch with a Communist made you a suspect. That sort of thinking of infectious proximity extends to the Domino Theory, and we all know where that led….

With Hoover, virus infiltration extended even to the bathroom and a phobia of germs. Hoover: 

had his toilet in northwest Washington built on a platform to protect him from the menace of micro-organic invasion.

The author emphasises that to Hoover, “Communists were very much like germs,” and that “he identified political radicalism with filth and licentiousness, neither of which ever failed to arouse in him almost hysterical loathing.” So with that equating of germs with Communism, it should come as no surprise that Hoover obsessed about stamping out Reds. But what’s so phenomenal here are the extraordinary lengths he went to in his war against those he considered as against his interpretation of the so-called American way of life. Detailed here are the ways the FBI got their hands on scripts (the agents found it difficult taking notes in a dark cinema), maintained a secret list of subversive films, and wire tapped suspects. The author reveals Hoover’s often convoluted and illogical treatment of suspects; for example, if studio heads didn’t cooperate, they were simply naive, interested in box office success, or “politically blind” whereas if directors and stars refused to cooperate, they were Reds.  This, of course, signifies class distinctions and protections–and interestingly, Hoover perceived any mention of class differences in film as just more evidence of the Communist grip on Hollywood.

Various committees established to regulate the movie business are examined–including the MPA (Motion Picture Alliance). Some time is also spent on the 1943 film Mission to Moscow. Hoover saw the film as “an ominous indicator of the Communist grip on movieland,” and while the film, based on a book written by former Soviet ambassador Davies, rather ludicrously and tragically whitewashes Stalin’s Purges down to the trial of a few  “operatives of a dangerous Nazi fifth column,” (one historian argues that over a million were executed during the Purges),  Hoover seems to ignore that the film was part of national policy and that “the Roosevelt administration, through both the Office of War Information and Davies himself, had a hand in the production of the film.” In fact the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures considered the film ” a magnificent contribution,”  and while the film is progaganda, it’s propaganda organised with the seal of approval of Roosevelt.

Hollywood films whitewashed British imperialism just as much as they whitewashed Stalin’s purges. The impetus for such propaganda stemmed not from Communist partisans or imperialist advocates but from the U.S. government’s Office of War Information (OWI) and the chief purpose was building support for the war by presenting it as a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil.

In a sense, Hoover was partially correct; some filmmakers thought that films were the perfect medium for raising consciousness of various societal problems within America. But to Hoover, any examination of America’s social problems signaled the spread of Communism and the harbinger of revolution, and so instead of film being a very natural medium for examining social problems or even differences in political ideologies, the issue of content became the battleground. Hoover was appalled by marvellous films such as Sahara and Cross-Fire which advocated improved race relations, and so, through film, the control of Hollywood became a battleground for control of American culture.

There’s almost a sense of insanity when two other interesting personalities emerge in the book: Lela Rogers (the mother of Ginger Rogers) and Ayn Rand. And it’s with these two that we see some additional nuttiness: screen mother Lela Rogers also seemed to see Communists everywhere, and she had problems with the line “share and share alike” in Tender Comrades a film which starred her daughter. Particularly interesting here is Ayn Rand’s incredibly toxic influence on the FBI and the manual she wrote for the MPA Screen Guide for Americans. Largely ignored by Hollywood but taken seriously by the FBI, Rand’s guide includes various ‘dos‘ and ‘don’ts’ with as emphasis on individualism and American exceptionalism: “America is the land of the uncommon man.”

 And finally, I have to mention an incident recorded in the book when Eric Johnston, President of the motion Picture Association of America was called to testify by HUAC:

Sensitive to charges of subversion in Hollywood films, in 1946, Johnston informed screenwriters: We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath, we’ll have no more Tobacco Roads, we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as villain.

At the HUAC hearings, Johnston “offered a direct rebuttal to Hoover’s charges of Communist infiltration in the industry and subversion of the screen.” He pointed out something that most people seem to have overlooked …. Hollywood films were “welcomed everywhere except Communist countries.” Simple, logical and direct, but this statement served only to incense the FBI and cement a seedy relationship between HUAC and the FBI, and thus began the FBI’s “black bag jobs–bureau code for  break-ins and covert surveillance operations.”

J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies is an astonishing and relevant book. In spite of its occasional dryness, the book is clearly the result of a passionate interest, and in these times of increased surveillance with dissent viewed as a matter of national security, it’s a remarkably prescient read. If back in the 1920s, someone had given Hoover a soap box and steered him to the nearest park to deliver his rants to the occasional bystander, then some of the information revealed in the book would have seemed almost funny, but when one considers the limitless power Hoover wielded and the lives he damaged during his long career (here’s looking at you, John Garfield), well there’s a lesson to be learned here in today’s troubled America. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies is lining up as one of my reads-of-the-year.

 For the G-men it was always about the movies

Review copy courtesy of the publisher.



Filed under Non Fiction, Sbardellati John

16 responses to “J Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War by John Sbardellati

  1. Brian Joseph

    Thanks for the very informative review.

    As a student of American history I too am interested in Hoover and his malevolence.I know just a little bit about the attacks on the film industry. It sounds like this book would really fills in the gaps.

    Hoover was such an interesting but chilling character. It is not really surprising that a person and the organization that he led would target the movies. Sadly, throughout history dictators and other such oppressive types always target the arts, often for irrational reasons.

  2. We missed that movie. Sounds like we didn’t really miss anything. I’d like to know more about him. This book sounds more like the go but I’m guessing it’s a long one … I probably should focus on some of the good Aussie biographies if I’m going to read bios. But, still … Hoover …

    • Gummie: The film is well done just as long as you’re up for a whitewash. There’s one scene that shows him ranting about former agent Purvis but with no further exploration of that, and the film doesn’t touch the shadier aspects of FBI behaviour towards let’s say the so-called Ma Barker gang. There were a couple of scenes that I loved. For example, one scene shows how the public had admiration for gangsters. Hoover recognised this and saw it as a problem. So there are two back to back scenes of 2 films–one of gangsters and then the film G-men, so we see that Hoover was very proactive when it came to film and the image of the FBI.

      The book also touches on the pro FBI propaganda films made in Hollywood: I was a Communist for the FBI, for example.

      • Thanks for this Guy … I won’t completely wipe it off the possible list then.

        I was going to say that it’s interesting that Di Caprio has played two men (Hughes and Hoover – both HHs!) with some apparent obsessive tendencies. Hmm, not saying that says anything about DiCaprio but they’re “interesting” men to get your acting teeth into it seems.

  3. Very interesting post. Fanatism is always bordering craziness, isn’t it. Here it sounds like full blown paranoia. . I’m glad you mentioned Ayn Rand. I once thought I should read her but then only recently I read other dubious things about her and think I can do withouth.
    Thanks for this

    • Rand was born in Russia and the revolution ruined her family fortunes, so she had real cause to hate communism. Her testimony at HUAC is really off the wall and at one point she stated in all seriousness that Russian people NEVER smile. I’m no fan of Rand and after I read this I really wasn’t.

  4. Fascinating post. It’s not a book I’ll read but I really enjoyed reading your review. It’s very informative and it’s something I’m aware of but I don’t know the details. (The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy has this chase for communists in the background)

    I’m always surprised that such insane people manage to have so much power. What’s wrong with our democraties for it to happen?

    • I have that Kennedy book.

      Hoover really could have used some time on the couch (a saying that he needed therapy). One of the points that the book made is that Hoover didn’t give people credit for being able to make their own opinions. Exposure to a film–no matter how slanted–did not mean that someone would automatically be turned into a Red. I found it fascinating that he ignored national policy when it came to the Soviets. What was his opinion of Roosevelt?

      It’s unfortunate that someone was not given the benefit of the doubt when it came to a change in political thinking. Vera Caspary, for example, briefly belonged to the Communist Party until she came to a parting of the ways with Stalin (as many people did).

  5. leroyhunter

    Great stuff Guy. Sounds like a fascinating book. I’ve been considering Tim Wiener’s full history of the FBI. As has been said, Hoover is an extraordinary figure, even before you get to all the stuff that is hinted or assumed about his private life. The true extent of the power he wielded and his influence on American political life is staggering.

    I was hoping for good things from the Eastwood / Di Caprio film but it sounded like the worst of all worlds, and boring to boot. I’ll probably catch it on DVD / download at some stage.

    • I have a bio here of Hoover that I’ll get to some day, and yes, it’s incredible to think that this one man held such unchecked power. The film shows his dislike for the Kennedys and the feeling seemed to be mutual. I’d known, of course, about McCarthyism and the HUAC hearings but I had no idea that Hoover had had his sights on Hollywood back in the 20s.

      The book’s title is marvellously ironic because one cannot imagine Hoover going to the cinema and enjoying himself with a choc ice or a tub of popcorn–unless he was watching something like I was a Communist for the FBI, for example. And while he ‘went’ to the movies, it was repressive trip. He was intensely aware of the FBI’s image.

      The film was well done and I enjoyed it even though I took it with a huge grain of salt. The best thing was the way it showed the intensely loyal relationships he had with a couple of like-minded people.

  6. Fine post. Regarding the film, what would you expect of Clint, he of the empty chair routine?

    You said: “That sort of thinking of infectious proximity extends to the Domino Theory, and we all know where that led…”

    Sadly, we don’t all know where that led. Vietnam is still a black hole in the American political consciousness. If you doubt it, simply compare the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the the brouhaha over WMD.

    Hoover was really bad news!!

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