To conservatives, film critic Pauline Kael will forever be known as the one who labeled the Silent Majority film, Dirty Harry as fascist, and for registering her confusion as to how Richard Nixon was re-elected in 1972 since “everyone I know voted for McGovern (Nixon’s Democratic opponent).”
But an examination of her career shows that she was far from being part of the mainstream media.
This is particularly apparent when Kael reviewed films that peddled heroic views of American communists.
She first broke her lance on such films in 1954, when she reviewed the all-communist production, Salt of the Earth. In contrast to the top critic of the day, Bosley Crowther, who praised the film as “in substance, simply a strong pro-labor film,” Kael saw through such gloss, and detected a hard-core Communist message beneath.
Labeling Salt “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” she said,
“…it is extremely shrewd propaganda for the urgent business of the U.S.S.R.: making colonial peoples believe that they can expect no good from the United States; convincing Europe and Asia that there are no civil liberties in the U.S.A. and that our capitalism is really fascism.”
But films peddling a pro-Communist message were in the minority until the early 1970s, when Vietnam seemingly justified rehabilitating Stalinists into merely heroic liberals.
She touched on this topic in her famous essay on Citizen Kane, in which she denounced joyless Hollywood Stalinists for destroying the screwball comedy genre during World War II. Anarchic figures like Groucho Marx, she complained, had no place in their hysterical Stalinoid patriotism.
In 1973, Kael took on the three-hanky weepy The Way We Were (1973), starring Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand, about a Hollywood couple who broke up because the wife would not give up her communist politics. Beneath all the moist treatment, Kael again found an implicit pro-communist message:
“Because of the sordid injustices to the blacklisted, and their suffering, it’s easy for new generations to get the idea that what they stood for politically was an intelligent and moral position. The movie doesn’t actually say that, but it’s the impression that the audience may come away with, because there appears to be nothing between Communist commitment and smug indifference. Hubbell (The Robert Redford character) makes valid points against Katie’s blind faith in Stalin’s policies, but since he represents polite cynicism and defeatism, her allegiance to those policies seems to be the only form of activism. (Implicitly, the movie accepts the line the Communist Party took–that it was the only group doing anything, so if you cared about peace or social injustice you had to join up).”
Capitalizing on the trend in new Hollywood toward making heroic figures of American communists, former blacklisted figures produced The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen. In the film, Allen, a cynical chiseler out for number one, agrees to act as a “front” for his blacklisted friend and his comrades in the early 1950s. But despite its comedic trappings,, Kael unearthed the pro-communist message peddled in the film:
“There is…no attempt to get into the psychology of the Communist sympathizers or to indicate why they defended Stalin’s totalitarian policies when he was wiping out dissent in the Soviet Union.”
In its place, the film-makers, she wrote used the simple theme of “the good guys versus the bad guys.” The film with its victimization of harmless leftists avoided the thorny matter that Communists “had nowhere to turn because they themselves had taken over the largest liberal organizations and had denounced the anti-Communist left as fascist.”
She added, “by turning them into simple victims,” the film “protects them from the recognition that their plight, horrible though it was, was also ludicrous. They’d gone to bat for Communist oppression; they’d blown their talents defending an illusion.”
With this film, she concluded, “Naivete is still being protected.”
Kael never was a conservative. Along with many liberals, she bashed Rambo and other anticommunist films produced during the Reagan era. But she was astute enough not to fall for the heroic treatment of people who were in effect nothing but Stalinists, at a time when such movies, produced during the Vietnam War, were fashionable to those on her side of the political spectrum.