John Wayne: Communist Obsession

In the 1930s, John Wayne was neither involved in politics nor knew much about it.

“When we first made movies together,” Henry Fonda recalled years later, “the Duke couldn’t even spell politics.”

But shortly after he was elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), in the 1940s, Wayne said he began to be aware of the leftist movement in the industry. “Once you get sensitized to it,” he said, “you’d begin to be aware of cracks at our president, the flag, patriotism,” attitudes he described as “a kind of sneering.”

Wayne’s real involvement in political issues began during the Second World War, after being rejected for service in the Army. Enlistment was important to him; he even appealed to John Ford, then a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, for help, but to no avail. This rejection was a severe blow to his ego since most stars were drafted–and received tremendous publicity for it.

Wayne’s patriotic feelings were thus compounded by guilt over portraying military heroes, without participating in the actual fighting. His subsequent obsession with making inspirational war pictures stemmed from personal frustration at not having fought in any war.

Wayne’s contribution to the War effort, like that of other actors who were not drafted, was to make personal appearances in military camps. In 1944, he went on a three-month USO mission, entertaining soldiers in the Pacific bases and battle lines, from Brisbane Australia to the front on New Britain.  He visited wounded soldiers in hospitals during the day, and at night appeared in shows.

In a press conference he gave upon return, his message to the American public was “Write Letters.” “The boys are starved for news from home,” he explained, and “the biggest day in their lives over there is when the mailman hands them an envelope postmarked the United States.” The soldiers “are not thinking about any trouble at home because they are too busy fighting a war, but they do want to be sure they have something to say when they get back.”

World War II created a strange situation because the Soviet Union became, for the first time, a political ally of the United States. As a result, many Americans supported its policies and were openly pro-Soviet.  This relationship did not last long, however, and as soon as the War was over, the situation changed dramatically. Wayne said he became politically conscious at the end of WWII, when he became conscious of Communist infiltrations into the film industry.

Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals

In 1944, Wayne joined a group of actors, writers, and directors as a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA).  The group was established with the explicit goal of fighting the leftist movement in the movie colony. Among its founders were: Jim McGuiness, MGM’s production head (the organization started at an informal meeting in his house), Roy Brewer, the theatrical union leader, directors Leo McCarey and Sam Wood, and actors Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, and Adolphe Menjou, and screenwriters Borden Chase and Morrie Riskind.

MPA’s first president was director Sam Wood, who was followed by Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. Wayne became president in 1949, serving three terms, until 1952, during the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC).  Some claim that Wayne was forced to join the MPA to please his more conservative friends.

Studio executives warned Wayne that his affiliation would ruin his career. “You’re becoming a controversial figure,” they reportedly said, “It will kill you at the box office. You will hit the skids.” Ironically, a year after being elected as president of MPA, Wayne became the top box office attraction in America. Wayne said that those who warned him, “must have meant it would ruin me with the Moscow fan clubs,” because “when I became president of the Alliance, I was 32nd on the box office polls, but last year I’d skidded up near the top.” Wayne remained at the top in 1950 and 1952, and in 1953 he slipped to third place on the popularity polls.

HUAAC

The HUAAC had been in existence since the 1930s, when Martin Dies was its chairman.  Dies was convinced that the Communist Party was responsible for the propaganda which he thought appeared in “Fury” (1936), a socially conscious film against lynching; “Blockade” (1938), about the Spanish Civil War; and “Juarez” (1939), which dealt with the Mexican revolutionary leader, making allusions to the current political situation in Europe.  He also published articles on the order of “The Reds in Hollywood,” and “Is Communism Invading the Movies,” which contributed to the anti-Communist hysteria at the time.

During the War, the HUAAC was inactive–for obvious reasons. But on September 25, 1947, it renewed its investigations into the extent of Communist infiltration in Hollywood. The film industry was determined to demonstrate its political “cleanliness” even earlier.

The big studios regretted having produced such pro-Soviet movies as Warner’s Mission to Moscow” (1944), based on the career of U.S. ambassador Joseph E. Davies in Russia, or MGM’s Song of Russia” (also 1944), which described the Russian War effort with utmost admiration.

In 1948, Darryl Zanuck produced the prototypical anti-Communist picture, “The Iron Curtain,” the story of a clerk in the Russian Embassy in Canada, who exposed a Russian spy network. It did not matter that this and other movies, such as “The Red Menace,” “The Red Danube,” and “The Woman on Pier Thirteen” (originally titled “I Married a Communist”) were panned by the critics, failed at the box-office, and were banned from release in some European countries.

The political hysteria in Hollywood reached unprecedented dimensions and has been well documented in several books. It got to the point where Lela Rogers, Ginger’s mother and vice president at RKO, was asked to examine all screenplays for questionable content; she was proud to declare that she found a line in Tender Comrade” (1943), which stated: “share and share alike, that’s the meaning of democracy.”

Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the screenplay, later became one of the Hollywood Ten. The “Friendly Witnesses” of HUAAC included many Hollywood celebrities, such as Gary Cooper, who reportedly condemned Communism, because “it was not on the level,” whatever that meant. Or Adolphe Menjou, whose credo was that Communism could be expressed by players “by a look, by an inflection, by a change in the voice.”

Ayn Rand’s booklet, “Screen Guide for Americans,” published by the MPA and widely distributed throughout the studios, warned: “Don’t Smear Industrialists,” “Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System,” and “Don’t Smear Success.” It also advised: “Don’t ever use any lines about ‘the common man,’ or ‘the little people,'” because “It is not the American idea to be either ‘common’ or ‘little.'” Furthermore, she was against telling people that “man is helpless, twisted, drooling, sniveling, neurotic weakling,” and in favor of showing the world, “an American kind of man.”

 

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