When Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage in May, he cited Will & Grace as the single-most important driving force in transforming public opinion on the subject. In so doing he actually confirmed the long-standing fear of conservatives—that a coterie of Hollywood elites had undertaken an invidious and utterly successfully propaganda campaign, and had transmuted the cultural majority into a minority. Set aside the substance of the matter and consider the process of it—that is, think of it from the conservative point of view, if you don’t happen to be one. Imagine that large chunks of your entertainment mocked your values and even transformed once-uncontroversial beliefs of yours into a kind of bigotry that might be greeted with revulsion.
You’d probably be angry, too.
The fear of just such a campaign hung over the film industry from the outset. Hollywood was founded by Jewish immigrants who lived in terror that their Jewishness would make conservative America suspect them of abusing their cultural power. The moguls ostentatiously cloaked themselves in Americanism, snuffing out any hint that the images they projected in towns across America would unsettle the culture.
They were Establishmentarian in their politics rather than radical. The studio chiefs embraced the Republican presidents of the twenties; many supported Franklin Roosevelt and then backed Dwight Eisenhower. Their actors, and especially their writers, leaned left, including a small but organized Communist faction. But the moguls wielded ruthless control over their own studios. When Upton Sinclair waged a populist campaign for governor of California in 1934, as Ron Brownstein recalls in his 1990 political history of Hollywood, the studios bombarded him with a mass propaganda campaign. They distributed statewide phony “newsreels” of contrasting interviews with supporters of Sinclair and his Republican opponent, Frank Merriam. The latter were upstanding Californians, and the former “shabby, disheveled foreigners with thick accents, threatening vagrants in crowded boxcars rushing toward California to milk Sinclair’s socialist paradise.” The studios employed for these roles actors from films like Wild Boys of the Road.
In the forties, a faction of Hollywood conservatives formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Its purported role was to suppress the phantasmal threat that Communists would “pervert this powerful medium into an instrument for the dissemination of un-American ideas and beliefs.” In reality, the Alliance wanted to organize the moguls as a reactionary business organization. It distributed to studios a Screen Guide for Americans, instructing them, in minute detail, how to apply ideological filters to their movies. To write its guide, the Alliance hired a Russian-immigrant screenwriter with deep ties to the Hollywood right—Ayn Rand. Her youthful brush with communism had left Rand with, among other things, a formative belief in the power of culture as a medium of propaganda.
The Screen Guide warned that Communists operate not through open advocacy but by slipping subtle messages into their scripts. “Their purpose,” the Screen Guide wrote of Communists, “is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting nonpolitical movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories.” Their primary method, according to the Screen Guide, was by portraying the rich in a negative light. It warned the studios not to permit negative portrayals of industrialists. “Don’t spit in your own face or, worse, pay miserable little rats to do it. You, as a motion-picture producer, are an industrialist.” It likewise warned them not to “deify ‘the common man’ ”: “if anyone is classified as ‘common’ … It then means he has no outstanding abilities, no outstanding virtues, no outstanding intelligence.”
The studios never fully embraced Rand’s vision of the film industry as a united front of industrialist class solidarity. But, for fear of inciting charges of communism, they did carefully limit themselves to culturally inoffensive themes. This is the period conservatives are thinking of when they gaze out at a cultural landscape they once ruled, and in which they have become strangers. As Tony Soprano famously asked, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper?” (Cooper, as it happens, was a prominent supporter of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.)
By the fifties, the studio system was disintegrating, as had the moguls’ blunt control. The Alliance’s Screen Guide is interesting as an alternative vision of how the industry might have developed had the moguls maintained their grip and fashioned their medium into an instrument of ideological and political self-interest. Liberals may have come to view film as a hated propaganda organ, like Fox News. In this alternative world, greedy Muppet studio-seizing tycoon Tex Richman might instead be benevolent, overtaxed small-businessman Tex Jobcreator.
Instead, control of film (and the new medium of television) passed into the hands of people who reinforced, rather than censored, the left-leaning proclivities of their creative staff. Since the sixties, Hollywood has become an almost uniformly Democratic industry. A 1990 survey by University of Texas professor David Prindle compared the political inclinations of “Hollywood opinion leaders” with Americans as a whole. Ninety-seven percent of the Hollywood sample believed “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” compared with 53 percent of Americans as a whole. Sixty-eight percent of the Hollywood contingent, but only 12 percent of the country at large, supported gay rights.