The Origins of Film Noir #1

Man in a maze of mirrors? Here comes Film Noir.
The origins of the film noir movement may be complex, but they are not beyond the scope of a few simple blog posts. Yes, the answers lie within a byzantine can of worms, but we can still sketch out what those origins are.

If you know the history of the 1930s, both in Europe and in the States, that's a start. Because from those places and most particularly, their politics, a shift towards a more paranoid state of mind began to infiltrate our lives.

We became aware of crime on a new scale, for a start, as inspired by the knowledge we gained of organized crime in the US, and on another level altogether, the political crimes of the Nazis and other fascist groups in Europe.

The paranoia was real as well, and as a final piece in the puzzle, it became embedded and hot-wired in every man woman and child, through the growth of Freudian imagery and analysis, something the movies were able to express perfectly.

The results cannot be denied, and however we define it, there sprang up around 1940 a strain of movies that later critics could identify as belonging to that wonderful category we now call film noir.
Some folks argue that politics and the movies should be kept as far apart as possible. Yet it seems likely that what was euphemistically called 'the union question' had some influence on the origins of film noir. The euphemistic aspect of the phrase 'the union question' is very definitely the word question, for which read problem

In 1934, when novelist Upton Sinclair stood as a Democrat for the post of Governor of California, he was not only planning to expand relief programmes, but also planning to nationalise the film industry, a policy which led him to be dubbed as a 'Bolshevik beast'. Back home in Germany, the Nazis too were planning to nationalise the film industry, and in 1933, offered the job of its leadership to Fritz Lang, even though he was of partial Jewish origin.

Unions, and the right to form them, were a key question in 1930s politics, and in the mid 1930s, the movie moguls were in on the act of discrediting these ideas, using the incredible powers of their new medium.

One newsreel, for example, pictured an ugly and poverty stricken mob as the announcer explained that crowds were waiting at the borders of California, set to rush in at the event of a Sinclair victory, but virtually no newspaper that reported on this picked up on the fact that the mob pictured was footage from another story. It sounds a little familiar; politicians whipping up a bit of xenophobic fervour around the US borders.

The First "Attack Ads" On the Screen

There was a certain irony to this presentation of fiction as fact (early example of fake news?) because when it came to the HUAC hearings of 1947, a common claim was that those under investigation had been using Hollywood to spread Communist propaganda.  While Communists might have wanted to use the movies to spread their message, there is no way they could have ever been able to do so, so tightly controlled and observed were the productions.

One of the best examples of this mish-mash of truth and fiction serving as propaganda came in 1951 with the film I Was a Communist for the FBI in which religious hatred and class antagonism are used to confuse working and middle class people.

When the Screen Actors Guild was founded in 1933, it was done so with good intentions, and with a view to improving on many of the working conditions actors suffered in the 1920s. And it so happened that throughout the 1930s there was a growing interest in labour issues, and this affected Hollywood too.  

The Guild’s aim was to deal with any potential and actual exploitation of actors in Hollywood who were being forced into oppressive contracts with the major movie studios that did not include restrictions on work hours or minimum rest periods, and sometimes had clauses that automatically renewed at the studios' discretion.

Many high-profile actors refused to join the SAG however. This changed when the producers made an agreement not to bid competitively for talent, and in 1937, it took only three weeks for SAG membership to go from around 80 members to more than 4,000.

The 1930s saw a surge in the popularity of crime films, the hero of which was often a loner against society.  This figure became the central character of film noir — but also became the central character in the HUAC hearings beginning in 1947.

In October 1947, many people  working in Hollywood were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was investigating Communist influence in the Hollywood labour unions. That also included Walt Disney, whose interesting testimony is linked above. Ten of those summoned, dubbed the "Hollywood Ten", refused to cooperate and were charged with contempt of Congress and sentenced to prison.

Several members of the SAG, led by Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly formed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) and flew to Washington, DC, in late October 1947 to show support for the Hollywood Ten.  

Several of the CFA's members, including Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and John Garfield later recanted, saying they had been "duped", not realising that some of the Ten were really in actual fact real life bona fide communists. We still see today that actors don't always make the most reliable witnesses when it comes to politics, and that they are easily swayed by agents, public opinion and any threat to their bankability.

The president of the SAG – future United States President Ronald Reagan – also known to the FBI as Confidential Informant "T-10", testified before the committee but never publicly named names.

Instead, according to an FBI memorandum in 1947:
"T-10 advised Special Agent [name deleted] that he has been made a member of a committee headed by Mayer, the purpose of which is allegedly is to 'purge' the motion-picture industry of Communist party members, which committee was an outgrowth of the Thomas committee hearings in Washington and subsequent meetings . . . He felt that lacking a definite stand on the part of the government, it would be very difficult for any committee of motion-picture people to conduct any type of cleansing of their own household".
And so it appears that the climate of fear which is so well portrayed in many of the film noir movies of the 1940s represents a reality as opposed to merely an entertainment — and the trouble with these type of things is that people begin to wonder when it will end. Politics was already in the movies, like it or not by 1947, as in that year, the Screen Actors Guild voted to force its officers to take a "non-communist" pledge. Easily done, but for non-Communists and Communist sympathisers alike, the question must have remained as to what was coming next.

On November 25 (the day after the full House approved the ten citations for contempt) in what has become known as the Waldorf Statement, Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), issued a press release:

"We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods."
None of those blacklisted were proven to advocate the overthrowing of the government — most of them simply had Marxist or socialist views. The Waldorf Statement still marked the beginning of the Hollywood blacklist that saw hundreds of people prevented from working in the film industry.

During the height of what is now referred to as McCarthyism, the Screen Writers Guild gave the studios the right to omit from the screen the name of any individual who had failed to clear his name before Congress. At a 1997 ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Blacklist, the Guild's president made this statement:

Only our sister union, Actors Equity Association, had the courage to stand behind its members and help them continue their creative lives in the theater. ... Unfortunately, there are no credits to restore, nor any other belated recognition that we can offer our members who were blacklisted. They could not work under assumed names or employ surrogates to front for them. An actor's work and his or her identity are inseparable. Screen Actors Guild's participation in tonight's event must stand as our testament to all those who suffered that, in the future, we will strongly support our members and work with them to assure their rights as defined and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
— Richard Masur, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist

Upton Sinclair at WIKIPEDIA

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