The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan: The Politics of the Post-HUAC Films
By Ron Briley
Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, 241 pages
Film director, Elia Kazan, was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952 at the height of the “Red Scare” to testify about his involvement with the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) in the 1930s. At the time he was summoned, Kazan was widely recognized as the premier director in Hollywood AND on Broadway. If he refused to cooperate with the committee, the movie studios would immediately blacklist him, as they had with many others.
Kazan had quit the CPUSA in 1936, fed up with its strong-arm tactics, but he remained a Marxist his entire life. Many American communists and their fellow-travelers were appalled by Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 and his totalitarian methods but more than a few agreed with the Soviet dictator that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” The consensus among Hollywood liberals was to close ranks and oppose the conservative “witch hunt,” even if it meant losing employment.
Kazan finally agreed to cooperate with the committee and he named the names of communists that he personally knew. He argued that all Americans should oppose the Soviet-controlled CPUSA. Others in Hollywood had cooperated with the committee, but Kazan was the biggest name. After testifying, he became an absolute pariah among the entertainment industry’s liberals. He lost most of his friends and many in Hollywood and Broadway refused to work with him. The decision on whether he should testify or not was a lose-lose proposition for Kazan and one of the great personal dramas of the period.
In this interesting book, Briley examines the twelve films Kazan made following his testimony. The first three movies are thinly veiled critiques of Stalinism and serve as self-justification for his testimony, but in his final nine films, Kazan would continue to attack American capitalism and materialism, thereby defending his status as a political progressive despite his cooperation with HUAC.
Every person holds to some kind of “worldview.” Kazan was a Marxist and an atheist and believed exclusively in human solutions to human problems. I enjoy reading about Kazan and watching his films, some are real gems, but I’m also saddened for those who hold to such a Christ-less view of life and the world. I’ll be reviewing Kazan’s first film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), later this week.