How Conservative Hollywood Became a Liberal Town

A History of Hollywood's Political Past

USA, California, Los Angeles, sun behind clouds over Hollywood sign
USA, California, Los Angeles, sun behind clouds over Hollywood sign. Eric Schnakenberg/Getty Images

While it may seem as though Hollywood has always been liberal, it hasn’t. Very few people today realize that at one point in the development of American cinema, conservatives ruled the movie-making industry.

Santa Monica College Professor Larry Ceplair, co-author of "The Inquisition in Hollywood," wrote that during the ‘20s and ‘30s, most studio heads were conservative Republicans who spent millions of dollars to block union and guild organizing.

Likewise, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the Moving Picture Machine Operators, and the Screen Actors Guild were all headed by conservatives, as well.

Hollywood Scandals and Censorship

In the early 1920s, a series of scandals rocked Hollywood. According to authors Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, silent film star Mary Pickford divorced her first husband in 1921 so that she could marry the attractive Douglas Fairbanks. Later that year, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused (but later acquitted) of raping and murdering a young actress during a wild party. In 1922, after director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, the public learned of his lurid love affairs with some of Hollywood’s best-known actresses. The final straw came in 1923, when Wallace Reid, a ruggedly handsome actor, died of a morphine overdose.

In themselves, these incidents were a cause for sensation but taken together, studio bosses worried they would be accused of promoting immorality and self-indulgence.

As it was, a number of protest groups had successfully lobbied Washington and the federal government was looking to impose censorship guidelines on the studios. Rather than losing control of their product and face the involvement of the government, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of American (MPPDA) hired Warren Harding’s Republican postmaster general, Will Hays, to address the problem.

The Hays Code

In their book, Thompson and Bordwell say Hays appealed to the studios to remove objectionable content from their films and in 1927, he gave them a list of material to avoid, called the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” list. It covered most sexual immorality and the depiction of crime activity. Nevertheless, by the early 1930s, many of the items on Hays’ list were being ignored and with Democrats controlling Washington, it seemed more likely than ever that a censorship law would be implemented. In 1933, Hays pushed the film industry to adopt the Production Code, which explicitly forbids depictions of crime methodology, sexual perversion. Films that abide by the code received a seal of approval. Although the “Hays Code,” as it came to be known helped the industry avoid stiffer censorship at the national level, it began to erode in the late 40s and early ‘50s.

Hollywood & the House Un-American Activities Committee

Although it was not considered un-American to sympathize with the Soviets during the 1930s or during World War II, when they were American allies, it was considered un-American when the war was over. In 1947, Hollywood intellectuals who had been sympathetic to the communist cause during those early years found themselves being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and questioned about their “communist activities.” Ceplair points out that the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals provided the committee with names of so-called "subversives." Members of the alliance testified before the committee as "friendly” witnesses.

Other “friendlies,” such as Jack Warner of Warner Bros. and actors Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Taylor either fingered others as “communists” or expressed concern over liberal content in their scripts.

After a four-year suspension of the committee ended in 1952, former communists and soviet sympathizers such as actors Sterling Hayden and Edward G. Robinson kept themselves out of trouble by naming others. Most of the people named were script-writers. Ten of them, who testified as “unfriendly” witnesses became known as the“Hollywood Ten” and were blacklisted – effectively ending their careers. Ceplair notes that following the hearings, guilds, and unions purged liberals, radicals, and leftists from their ranks, and over the next 10 years, the outrage slowly began to dissipate.

Liberalism Seeps into Hollywood

Due in part to a backlash against abuses perpetrated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in part to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1952 declaring films to be a form of free speech, Hollywood began to slowly liberalize. By 1962, the Production Code was virtually toothless. The newly formed Motion Picture Association of America implemented a rating system, which still stands today.

In 1969, following the release of Easy Rider, directed by liberal-turned-conservative Dennis Hopper, counter-culture films began to appear in significant numbers. By the mid-1970s, older directors were retiring, and a new generation of filmmakers was emerging. By the late 1970s, Hollywood was very openly and specifically liberal. After making his last film in 1965, Hollywood director John Ford saw the writing on the wall. “Hollywood now is run by Wall St. and Madison Ave., who demand ‘Sex and Violence,’” author Tag Gallagher quotes him as writing in his book, “This is against my conscience and religion.”

Hollywood Today

Things are not much different today. In a 1992 letter to the New York Times, screenwriter and playwright Jonathan R. Reynolds lament that “… Hollywood today is as fascistic toward conservatives as the 1940's and 50's were liberals … And that goes for the movies and television shows produced.”

It goes beyond Hollywood, too, Reynolds argues. Even the New York theater community is rampant with liberalism.

“Any play that suggests that racism is a two-way street or that socialism is degrading simply won't be produced,” Reynolds writes.

“I defy you to name any plays produced in the last 10 years that intelligently espouse conservative ideas. Make that 20 years.”

The lesson Hollywood still has not learned, he says, is that repression of ideas, regardless of political persuasion, “should not be rampant in the arts.” The enemy is repression itself.