An Army of Phantoms

by J. Hoberman

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Publisher: The New Press

Is there a more exasperating era of Hollywood than the period immediately following World War II? With the end of the most massive conflict mankind had ever seen, Hollywood found itself attacked on all fronts – from the government it had selflessly loaned its stars and directors to, from upstart politicians looking to turn vague threats into presidential platforms and even from its own kind. J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms is an exhaustive, ambitious attempt to do this time frame justice by magnifying the way in which Hollywood’s attempts to please everyone almost led to its demise.

The Hollywood depicted in Phantoms is not the Hollywood that has been embraced by the nostalgic. Instead it was a bitterly divided house run by studio heads unsure of where society and pop culture were heading. The war effort had been easy for the aging studio heads Neal Gabler depicted as pioneers seeking out the last real frontiers in his sociopolitical industry biography, An Empire of Their Own. Removed from an enemy everyone could rally against, they were lost. The FBI and the newly empowered House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) suffered from no such lack of focus and didn’t care what empire these pioneers had built, or what services and sacrifices it had made for the government during the war.

Emboldened by the vague, increasingly more ridiculous threat of communism, the FBI and HUAC made a two-pronged attack on Hollywood utilizing its own stars, directors and hangers-on. Though there were some early attempts at unity amongst the Hollywood elite, Hoberman shows that what really sunk the ship was the effort of the studios to play ball for their government adversaries. Through panicky pictures like I Married a Communist and the “documentary” I Was a Communist for the FBI as well as their attempts to police their own with the infamous blacklist and similar tactics, Hollywood granted an increased legitimacy to the Red Menace.

It didn’t help that so many of Hollywood’s biggest actors had bought into HUAC’s paranoid passion. Hoberman contrasts the rise of HUAC’s power with that of notorious red-hater John Wayne, who saw his meteoric rise to fame occur at exactly the same time. Never exactly known for his subtlety or compassion, Wayne manages to come off as even more of a dick than usual in Hoberman’s text, bullying stars and directors alike, at one point even bluntly demanding his co-stars tell him whether they’re communists. Less belligerent but just as problematic was Ronald Reagan, who became the president of the Screen Actors Guild just in time to turn it into a communist-fighting machine. For Reagan, the payoffs off his turncoatism (Reagan had been relatively moderate and even liberal at times in his politics previously) were immense, putting him in touch with future power players like Richard Nixon and cementing his political career.

Hoberman packs Phantoms with a truly astounding amount of information, digging into the soap opera complexities of the betrayals, backstabbings and general assholery of the time, as friends sold each other out to stay afloat and legends such as Charlie Chaplin were forced to leave the country. In many ways, that’s the book’s largest flaw, as keeping the facts straight becomes almost a chore and the number of subjects and players being juggled clouds the narrative. The lack of focus in the book, particularly as Hoberman makes ill-advised attempts to tie the UFO fad into the larger issue of political fear-mongering, may be fitting given the insanity of the times but it also makes for, at times, a difficult read.

Where Hoberman does maintain focus is where the book truly succeeds. In depicting the post-war fear that spread throughout the country, fear that was manipulated by HUAC and the FBI but nonetheless real, Hoberman excels. As easy as it is to judge the decisions of the Hollywood players in Phantoms, Hoberman grants them a necessary humanity, indicating that the apocalyptic mood of the country was so great that it truly seemed as though all hell could break loose at any moment. Hoberman’s ability to utilize his research to get inside the heads of his subjects is extremely valuable, particularly as he’s illustrating how someone like Elia Kazan could seemingly turn snitch on his Group Theatre comrades.

That insight enables An Army of Phantoms to mostly overcome its flaws and act as a vital document for any student of 20th century culture. The overstuffed nature of the research may make the book at times artless and clumsy but there are few like-minded works that can match it in terms of scope and ambition.

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