Review: 2016 Rollins Book Prize Winner

Hollywood Riots: Violent Crowds and Progressive Politics in American Film (2016). By Doug Dibbern. I.B. Tauris, 205 pp.

A few years before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) conducted its witch-hunt to ferret out alleged communists in the Hollywood film industry—it held hearings in 1947 and 1951—there had been violent, racially-motivated disturbances in Los Angeles known as the Zoot Suit Riots (1943). There had also been brutal clashes between striking union workers and studio strikebreakers in the film industry (1945-47). According to film scholar Doug Dibbern (NYU), these instances of civil strife inspired a raft of independently produced Leftist “message movies” that featured violent crowds unleashed by a cynical press in order to promote fear, enforce social conformity, and bolster the new and more deeply repressive social order that emerged in the United States after the Second World War.

In his book, Hollywood Riots, Dibbern has identified a cycle of sixteen films made between 1949 and 1951 “in which mass violence is paramount and in which the causes of the violence are explained by the power of reactionary newsmongers to incite angry mobs that persecute minority victims” (17). Dibbern rightly sees these films as the allegorical means by which progressive filmmakers fought the blacklist and the conservative daily newspapers of that era, i.e., forces promoting political paranoia that valorized discrimination and inflamed public opinion against organized labor, minorities, radicals, and dissidents of all kinds.

Much has been written about the shameful period that Lillian Hellman called “scoundrel time,” but until Dibbern’s superb study appeared, no one seems to have noticed, much less written about, the valiant rearguard action that had been waged by progressive filmmakers on America’s movie screens as America veered sharply to the political Right at mid-century.

Dibbern divides his book into three parts. In Part I (“Postwar Anxieties, Independent Aspirations: Political Filmmaking and the Economics of the film Industry”), Dibbern provides historical context behind the cycle of mob violence-themed films he is examining by delineating the economic factors that gave rise to independent film production, as well as the political factors that virtually destroyed the American Left in the late 1940s. In Part II (“Incendiary Ideologies, Reactionary Crowds”), Dibbern analyzes the political role played by L.A. metropolitan dailies, weeklies, and monthlies in shaping popular opinion and inciting mob violence. In Part III (“Creative Artists, Activists Historians”), Dibbern narrows his focus in order to examine and explicate the four most representative films in the mob violence cycle: Joseph Losey’s The Lawless (1950); Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) and The Sound of Fury (1950), and The Well (1951), directed by Russell Rouse and Leo Popkin. Dibbern concludes his book by discussing the decay of progressive filmmaking: “By the end of the 1950s, the political factors that gave rise to the movies of mob violence had dissipated. The blacklist eventually came to an end, but its victims were no longer [Communist] Party members… [Los Angeles] was now a one-union town. The Civil Rights movement was gaining steam: race riots and lynchings seemed like they might have become a thing of the past … The movies of mob violence themselves disappeared from critical consciousness” (160).

Concise, well-organized, meticulously researched, and written with the utmost clarity, Hollywood Riots tells a fascinating story well-grounded in political science, economics, social history, and film theory; it constitutes a valuable contribution to American film studies. Published some months before the election of Donald Trump, Hollywood Riots also seems to have taken on greater relevance of late. In today’s racially charged and divisive political climate, marked by civil unrest, red-baiting and increasingly shrill appeals to patriotism—ginned up by reactionary elements of the nation’s press and abetted by a rabble-rousing Chief Executive—a study of the media manipulation of popular opinion—and the progressive filmmakers who stood in opposition—offers instructive lessons from dark days not so long past.

Bob Niemi

St. Michael’s College

 

 

 

 

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