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Showbiz Politics

Hollywood in American Political Life


Kathryn Cramer Brownell


Chapel Hill: University of North California Press, 2014

Hardcover. xv+311 p. ISBN 978-1469617916. $39.95


Reviewed by Nolwenn Mingant

Université de Nantes


Traditional histories of the relationship between Hollywood and Washington tend to center on issues of propaganda, notably in the context of World War II and the Cold War. Showbiz Politics however does not follow that well-documented line and proposes an in-depth exploration of the participation of Hollywood personnel in political parties as well as the personal relationships between movie professionals and politicians. Cramer Brownell sets out to deconstructs the myth according to which Reagan inaugurated the era of the ‘celebrity presidency.’ Tracing the participation of Hollywood in the political world from California’s 1934 gubernatorial race to Nixon’s winning strategy in the 1968 presidential elections, Cramer Brownell shows how Hollywood’s growing involvement in and proximity to the political power led to today’s ‘showbiz politics,’ ‘a political process that value[s] advertising, showmanship, and media spectacles over the traditional politics of party loyalty, patronage, and urban machines’ [6]. She presents a history of personal and institutional contacts between Hollywood and the two traditional political parties, with relationships ranging from whole-hearted embrace to reluctant collaboration.

Chapter 1 defines the 1920s and 1930s as the era of ‘industry politics’ for Hollywood, i.e. a moment when Hollywood professionals got involved in politics in order to promote and protect the young film industry [14]. Studio heads, such as Louis B. Mayer, felt they needed to create links with the federal government notably to avoid the creation of a federal censorship system [17]. On the other side of the political spectrum, Warner Brothers epitomizes Hollywood’s commitment to the New Deal. The studio publicly endorsed Roosevelt and chose as its motto ‘Combining good picture-making with good citizenship’ [23]. Hollywood celebrities became community activists, involving in unions, participating in Roosevelt’s charity balls and supporting his pro-war agenda. Although the Roosevelt administration appreciated Hollywood’s support, it ‘distanced itself from the industry that, while able to generate box office profits, still stirred public controversy with prominent censorship debate’ [32]. Over the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood personnel were viewed as lacking ‘political authority’ [15], as gullible people easily manipulated into endorsing any cause [40].

Chapter 2 explores the War Years, the era of ‘patriotic politics.’ At a time when Roosevelt’s opponents ‘questioned the legitimacy and legality of using entertainment to advance a political agenda’ [43], Hollywood professionals set out to give a new meaning to films. Actors such as Fairbanks defended the notion of ‘enlightened entertainment’ [48], which entertains and educates. Hollywood personnel came in closer contact with the administration, actively collaborating with the Office of War Information, becoming ‘symbols of Americanism’ through their involvement in the war bond fund-raising effort [67]. They also showed how efficient the Hollywood style of direct and emotional address to the people was. For Cramer Brownell, the ‘war bond drives definitely blurred the lines between politics, patriotism and entertainment, ultimately affording the motion picture industry a distinct opportunity to insert itself into the political process’ [73].

Chapter 3 centers on the 1944 presidential elections and deals with ‘ideological politics.’ It focuses on celebrity activism and notably the opposed activities of the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) and the liberal Hollywood Free World Association (HFWA). Growing partisanship in Hollywood led to the birth of the ‘celebrity spot’, i.e. the official endorsement of a candidate by a star through radio ads [85]. Although California’s mass media tactics were increasingly accepted on the national level, Hollywood personnel was still kept on the periphery of the campaigns and viewed as ‘inferior political minds’ [90]. While the usefulness of Hollywood communication skills were recognized, the debate about the ‘manipulative power of media’ [101] went on.

Chapter 4 offers a new take on the 1947 HUAC investigation of Hollywood. At a time when ‘New Deal propaganda’ was increasingly criticized, Hollywood’s Communist activists came under scrutiny. As studio heads made the pragmatic decisions to blacklist Communists, professionals had to ‘repent publicly for their liberal ideological political activism during the war’ [111]. This broke the link between Hollywood and the Democratic Party for a number of years, and led to more conservatism in the film industry. In order to prove its loyalty, the Hollywood community, notably though the influence of Motion Picture Association of America head Eric Johnston, developed its own ‘politics of Americanism’ [112]. Films became ‘ambassadors of democracy,’ conveying values of freedom and free market policies.

While the first chapters of the book concentrate on political involvement in Hollywood, chapter 5 brings Hollywood-style politics to Washington as film and advertising professionals became directly involved in Eisenhower’s campaign for the 1952 presidential election. Cramer Brownell calls this the era of ‘electoral politics.’ With the arrival of television in 1952, political advertising underwent a deep change. Eisenhower brought in ad, film and television professionals, such as advertiser Bruce Barton and actor Robert Montgomery, to engineer his campaign. Showmanship and salesmanship were the order of the day as ‘the merchandizing of Eisenhower’s personality became integral to the Republican Party’s victories’ [145] and Eisenhower went on to become ‘the first ‘‘prime-time’’ television president’ [159]. On the other hand, Hollywood liberals remained silenced by the anti-Communist context and distrusted by the Democrats, who relied on traditional methods, notably collaboration with unions, and ‘maintained distance from a ‘‘showbiz politics style’’.’ [154] For Cramer Brownell, the Eisenhower era marks a definite shift. Voters came to be increasingly considered as media consumers, and Hollywood started to hold a key place in a political world where ‘star quality’ [156] had become indispensable for candidates.

Chapter 6 centers on the 1960 presidential elections and the birth of ‘celebrity presidency,’ that is ‘the use of entertainment to stimulate voter interest, behind-the-scene collaboration with Hollywood figures, and a coherent advertising strategy that focused on selling political personalities’ [160]. With candidates such as John F. Kennedy becoming celebrities, voters were not simply media consumers, but also ‘fans’ [160]. This led to a radical change in the structure of party mobilization, as party leaders and interest groups were left aside in favor of television. Chapter 6 details J.F.Kennedy’s strong personal links with the Hollywood community, notably through his father’s professional past and through his brother-in-law, actor Peter Lawford. Meanwhile, Hollywood liberals had found a new avenue to express their political opinion: defense of the civil rights movement through the organization of charities. Black entertainers, such as Harry Belafonte and Sammy David Jr. were particularly active, and soon the ‘Rat Pack’ supported Kennedy. As media-centered campaigns proved extremely expensive, Kennedy came to rely heavily on star-studded fund-raising balls and dinners. While Hollywood liberals were fenced in by the Democratic Party in such activities, the Republicans tended to welcome ‘prominent personalities in the full range of political activities: from policy discussion about the Cold War to collaboration over advertizing strategies to evaluations of campaign finance effort.’ [184]

Chapter 7 finally explores how Republican Richard Nixon reinvented himself for the 1968 presidential elections, using lessons learnt both from Kennedy and Reagan. Nixon used television to ‘bypass the press and actively construct a public image of a likeable, popular personality to assert his political legitimacy’ and connect with the under-30 audience [189]. By the late 1960s, Hollywood skills were not necessary only during the presidential campaign but all through the presidency. Obsessed with controlling their image, politicians had become ‘performers’ [192]. At the time, Republican actors George Murphy and Ronald Reagan had also started political careers. Fast-forwarding to the Clinton era in her conclusion, Cramer Brownell argues that by the 1990s, ‘the line between politics and entertainment […] had fully disappeared’ [227].

Although Cramer Brownell recurrently refers to Sklar’s Movie-Made America (1975), Ross’s Hollywood Left and Right (2011) and Critchlow’s When Hollywood was Right (2013), she mostly relies on primary sources. The author’s archival research is very impressive. In line with her argument on the links between political parties and Hollywood, she visited governmental archives (NARA, presidential libraries) as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library. She went through numerous papers, from presidents to Hollywood professionals, such as Bette Davis, Walter Wanger or Eric Johnston. This work enables her to present original research on a topic that had been already largely studied. It does shed a new light on episodes such as the World War II propaganda effort and the anti-Communist witch-hunt. The book’s interest also lies in Cramer Brownell’s choice to favor individual histories and present the political itineraries of Louis B. Mayer, Bette Davis and other Hollywood professionals. She shows that the link between Hollywood and the political world was woven through personal relationships, such the one between Eisenhower and Robert Montgomery. This insertion of the personal dimension into a larger political and electoral history is to the point. The attention she gives to the heads of the MPPDA and MPA Will Hays and Eric Johnston who, in spite of their central positions in Hollywood, have rarely been documented, is particularly to be appreciated.

On the whole the style of the book is quite pleasant. Its narrative structure and chronological presentation makes it a very easy read. The only less satisfying element is the large number of repetitions, especially at transition points. This is probably due to the fact that the book is a reworked version of the author’s history PhD ‘The Entertainment Estate : Hollywood in American Politics, 1932-1972,’ defended at Boston University in 2011.

Showbiz Politics is thus well-documented, clearly-structured and generally well-written. The author, whose aim is to show that ‘showbiz politics’ pre-dates the Regan administration and how it came into existence, sets her line very clearly in the introduction and holds to it. This book is a valuable addition to the academic literature on the history of political advertising, the use of media in the political field and celebrity activism. It will be of great interest to film historians as well as political history academics.*


* Chapters 5 and 7 will be of particular interest for those teaching the U.S. civilization topic for the Agrégation 2016.


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