Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths is a fantastic book. It is highly ambitious and delivers a strong narrative history of the United States. Professor Lepore has taken the United States Constitution as a starting point for a highly impressive single-volume survey of the history of the USA. Impressive as it is, it is not without error, and Lepore repeats one of the major misconceptions of United States cinema history. She argues that in 1944, Eric Johnston said: “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath… We’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We will have no more films that treat the banker as villain.” (p.501) Eric Johnston, was a successful businessman who in 1945 succeeded Will H. Hays as President of the Motion Picture Association of America—the industry’s institution for self-regulation—defended Hollywood against HUAC’s attacks and complained vigorously that the “atmosphere of fear” resulting from the investigation precluded the production of “good and honest motion pictures.”
The origin of the statement about Grapes of Wrath came from a book on editing by Murray Schumach. The book contained no primary reference – basically because there isn’t one. The quote from Eric Johnston was allegedly made in the preliminary HUAC hearings in March 1947 – of which records are scant. Johnston was quoted as saying that the industry would have no more “Grapes of Wrath” or “Tobacco Roads.” Grapes of Wrath has based on the acclaimed novel by John Steinbeck about people being driven off their land during the depression and heading for California. The novel and film focus on the Joads, tenant farmers who face drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and expolitation. The set out to California seeking employment, and a better future. Tobacco Road was a film about the decline of farmers in Georgia. Both films were directed by John Ford. The reference to the banker was from another Wyler film Best Years of Our Lives (1946), where Fredric March played a banker who must overrule bank policy to give a returning GI a loan for a small farm.
This comment implies that the directors John Ford and William Wyler were seen as a socially progressive filmmakers who was frowned upon in the conservative political environment created by HUAC. Many film historians have used Johnston’s quote to present such a case and it has been reprised in many publications, including Lepore’s.
Even after an extensive search of all possible sources, the evidence shows it is unlikely that the statement was ever made. HUAC investigator Robert Stripling told the committee in October 1947, that Eric Johnston was denying the two films to Russia. This claim was supported by Walt Horan, a Republican member of the House of Representatives at the House Appropriations Committee, who said, “We know there is quite a demand for ‘Tobacco Road’ and ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ on the part of the Russians, and so forth. Mr Eric Johnston, representing our responsible movie industry, has denied them those pictures and has said in effect, ‘Here is a list of the pictures that you may have that are representative of the American people.’” More compellingly, Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Walter Bedell Smith, wrote to Johnston on August 7, 1947 approving of the measure to deny The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road to the Russians, unless “an equal number of films showing more favorable aspects of life in the United States were exported.” The conclusion that Hollywood’s liberal films were not being produced is highly questionable.
Johnston’s recorded testimony to HUAC in October 1947 shows little indication that we was going to censor political cinema.
“When I talk about freedom of speech in connection with this hearing, I mean just this: You don’t need to pass a law to choke off free speech or seriously curtail it. Intimidation or coercion will do it just as well. You can’t make good and honest motion pictures in an atmosphere of fear.
“I intend to use every influence at my command to keep the screen free. I don’t propose that Government shall tell the motion-picture industry, directly or by coercion, what kind of pictures it ought to make. I am as whole-souledly against that as I would be against dictating to the press or the radio, to the book publishers or to the magazines. . . .
“To sum up this point: We insist on our rights to decide what will or will not go in our pictures. We are deeply conscious of the responsibility this freedom involves, but we have no intention to violate this trust by permitting subversive propaganda in our films.”
Johnston concluded: “Communism must have breeding grounds. Men and women who have a reasonable measure of opportunity aren’t taken in by the prattle of Communists. Revolutions plotted by frustrated intellectuals at cocktail parties won’t get anywhere if we wipe out the potential causes of communism. The most effective way is to make democracy work for greater opportunity, for greater participation, for greater security for all our people.
“The real breeding ground of communism is in the slums. It is everywhere where people haven’t enough to eat or enough to wear through no fault of their own. Communism hunts misery, feeds on misery, and profits by it.
“Freedoms walk hand-in-hand with abundance. That has been the history of America. It has been the American story. It turned the eyes of the world to America, because America gave reality to freedom, plus abundance when it was still an idle daydream in the rest of the world.”
While not stating it directly, there is little or no indication of censorship for liberal films. In fact, Johnston is almost saying the opposite.
The misquote has a possible mixture of sources: the conservative ideologue Ayn Rand had written a Screen Guide for Americans in 1947 for the the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man shouldn’t be smeared; that failure and the collective shouldn’t be glorified; and that communist writers, directors and producers shouldn’t be hired. The alliance did not see it as a ‘forced restriction’ on Motion Picture studios, rather that each man should do ‘his own thinking’ and for the guide to be adopted as a ‘voluntary action’. Rand wrote that the guide aimed to keep the screen free from any ‘collective force or pressure.’ The irony being that this was precisely what the alliance was doing. Rand told her biographer that the guide had such a huge impact that it was printed in full on the front page of arts section of the New York Times, it was actually mentioned in summary in a column by Thomas F. Brady on page 5 of the arts section on 16 November 1947. It was printed in full in an ultra-conservative newsletter Plain Talk in November 1947 which also featured articles on the influence of ‘communism on youth’.
The real point of Rand’s pamphlet was that only a conservative vision of America should be allowed on the screen. The alliance wanted the present wave of films which attacked or criticised capitalism halted. One of alliance’s supporters, the conservative Cecil B. DeMille was making similar speeches:
The American people know that with all its faults capitalism has given them the highest standard of living and the greatest personal freedom known in the world. The communist cannot deny that. But they can – and do – make a banker or a successful businessman their villain. They can – and do – pick out the sordid and degraded parts of all America, leaving the audience – especially the foreign audience – to infer that all America is a vast Tobacco Road and successful people are all ‘little foxes’.
Little Foxes, directed William Wyler, dealt with an unscrupulous rich and powerful family, who exploited their workers, and who would stop at nothing to cheat, steal or kill each other. The screenwriter was Lilian Hellman who was a prominent leftist and who was later called before the HUAC hearings.
The Johnston quote is one of many expressions which have been used often that they have developed a veneer of truth over time. They enter the historical stream, and it takes some effort to remove them. Even an astonishingly gifted historian such as Lepore, can fall for them.
Original source for Johnston quote: Murray Schumach, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975), 129 with no reference. This statement has been quoted by film writers such as Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1981, p. 296. Lary May, “Movie Star Politics: The Screen Actors Guild, Cultural Conversion and the Hollywood Red Scare, p. 145, in Lary May (ed) Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989, pp. 125 – 153, Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition, Routledge, London; New York, 1992, p. 90. Jonathan Munby, Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, p. 172. Jon Lewis, Lyn Gorman and David McLean, Media and Society in the Twentieth Century: A Historical Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2003, p. 115, Jennifer E. Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008, and Reynold Humphries, Hollywood Blacklists: A Political and Cultural History, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008 , p. 96.
Johnston and Stripling testimony in Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, HUAC, US Government Printing Office, October 20–30, 1947, https:// archive.org/stream/hearingsregardin1947aunit/hearingsregardin1947aunit_djvu.txt (accessed January 3, 2020). p.60
Walt Horan testimony in Department Of State Appropriation Bill for 1948, March 3, 1947, 80th Congress, 1st Session, Congressional Testimonies, 24–25 retrieved from The George C. Marshall Foundation, http://marshallfoundation.org/library/digital-archive/department-state-appropriation-bill-1948/ (accessed November 8, 2014).
Smith letter in W. B. Smith to Eric Johnston, August 7, 1947, COMPIC.
Motion Picture Alliance For the Preservation of American Ideals, Screen Guide For Americans, 1947 p. 1.
DeMille speech in ‘Spotlight on Hollywood’, 9 October 1947, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Box 212, Folder 1.