Robert Taylor and Communism – Background

In his eulogy for Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan said: “Simple things he had, like honor and honesty, responsibility to those he worked for and who worked for him, standing up for what he believed, and yes, even a simple old-fashioned love for his country, and above all, an inner humility.” (1) It was precisely these qualities that embroiled Mr. Taylor in two world wars: World War II and the Cold War.

Lt. Robert Taylor sitting in a Navy fighter, 1944.

Robert Taylor volunteered for the Navy in World War II. He didn’t have to. His age (30), his married status and his undoubted value as a supporter of the war on the home front were enough to exempt him. Despite that, he reported for duty immediately after finishing the movie Song of Russia in October of 1943. He graduated from flight training school in January 1944 near the top of his class and received his wings. According to the website Together We Served, “He contributed greatly to the war effort, (italics mine) serving as a  flying instructor and narrating the 1944 documentary ‘The Fighting Lady’. He also directed 17 United States Navy training films during World War II.”

No one questions Taylor’s service during World War II but his other wartime contribution—his opposition to communism – is highly controversial. Both before and during the Cold War Robert Taylor and other like minded people went public with their anti-communism. The left has responded, after his death, by attempting to destroy Mr. Taylor’s legacy and erase him from Hollywood’s story.

People aren’t taught today about the threat the international communist movement posed to the United States of America. Like Naziism, Soviet communism was based on world domination. Far more people were killed by communists than by Nazis during the twentieth century. The only nation strong enough to stand against Soviet ambitions was the United States.

Knowing this, the Soviets sought to undermine America through the use of propaganda. By gaining control of Hollywood, mostly through the unions, they planned to spread their message to millions of movie going Americans. The U.S.-Soviet alliance during World War II gave them a huge boost on which they capitalized by accelerating their efforts to recruit the motion picture community to their side.

“It has been estimated that from the middle 1930s to the middle 1950s as many as three hundred Hollywood actors, writers, directors, and designers joined the Communist Party. The former secretary of the Southern California Communist Party estimated that membership in the party reached a wartime high of four thousand.” (2) This gave them a voice in the content of Hollywood movies.

As Ayn Rand put it, “The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies—by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories—thus making people absorb the basic principles of Collectivism by indirection and implication.”(3)

It was dangerous to stand against the communists. Ronald Reagan put it this way: “I knew from first hand experience how Communists used lies, deceit, violence, or any other tactic that suited them to advance the cause of Soviet expansionism. I knew from the experience of hand-to-hand combat [during the 1945-46 studio strikes] that America faced no more insidious or evil threat than that of Communism.”(4)

Reagan is referring to an eight month strike in against the Hollywood studios by the Conference of Studio Unions, an organization formed during World War II to challenge the older IATSE or International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.(5) While the head of the CSU, Herbert Sorrell, may or may not have been a communist, by his own admission his money was coming from Moscow. This is substantiated by archives released by the Russian government after the fall of the Soviet Union.(6)

SAG meeting October 8, 1946.

Other unions, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) had to respond to the radical CSU. Should they refuse to cross CSU picket lines in solidarity with the strikers or should they join the studios, who regarded the strike as illegal, and continue to work?

In 1946 Ronald Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild and Robert Taylor was a Board member. In his 1947 HUAC testimony Taylor stated “I am a member of the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and recently I have been very active as a director of that board.” (italics mine) The SAG board first met with leaders of the studios, the IATSE and the CSU to try to broker a settlement. This failed and Reagan concluded that the CSU was not a legitimate union but rather a predatory organization seeking power for its own benefit.(7) After Reagan’s report to them, the membership of SAG voted overwhelmingly not to support the CSU and to continue working.

While this was going on, Reagan and others were threatened with violence. At one point he was told that his face would be disfigured with acid. “Homes and cars were bombed and many people were seriously injured on the picket lines. Workers who were trying to drive into a studio would be surrounded by pickets who’d pull open a car door and yank the worker’s arm until they broke it.”(8) CSU was reinforced by communist backed dock workers’ unions from San Francisco.

Reagan and the board of the SAG, including Robert Taylor, struggled for months with the CSU until February 1947 when, as Reagan put it, “we beat ’em.” Robert Taylor’s anti-communism was certainly reinforced by this experience, but he had already made his position clear. In 1944 a number of film industry leaders founded an organization called The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Some of the early members were Sam Wood, Cecil B. DeMille, Walt Disney, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Leo McCarey, Ward Bond, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.(9)

In 1947 Ayn Rand wrote a statement of principles for the MPA (as it became known) which included the following: “As members of the motion-picture industry, we must face and accept an especial responsibility. We refuse to permit the effort of Communist, Fascist, and other totalitarian-minded groups to pervert this powerful medium into an instrument for the dissemination of un-American ideas and beliefs.” Robert Taylor was very active in the MPA and served as president from 1947 to 1948.

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in the “Song of Russia,” 1944

During the U.S.-Soviet detente, communism became respectable, even trendy. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, through his Office of War Information, encouraged Hollywood to make films supportive of the Soviets. One such film was Song of Russia. Ostensibly it was the story of an American orchestra conductor who falls in love with a Russian girl while touring the Soviet Union and how they join in the fight for Russia against the Nazis. The film presented a giant celluloid Potemkin village for its setting. The brutality of life under Stalin was replaced by happy peasants dancing and singing. America and the USSR were seen as equals culturally, ideologically and morally.

Robert Taylor was sworn into the United States Naval Reserve in February of 1943, expecting to leave immediately for basic training. Instead, he was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s office where he met a man named Lowell Mellett, the director of Roosevelt’s Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures. They had a brief meeting about Song of Russia, which Taylor had already refused to do. According to Mr. Taylor’s family he was threatened with the cancellation of his Navy commission if he refused to do the film. Reluctantly he gave in. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, personally arranged the delay of Taylor’s Navy service.(10)

Robert Taylor and Susan Peters in the “Song of Russia,” 1944.

Having won, Mayer immediately set about placating Robert Taylor. He was promised substantial changes to the script and was given an assistant to help with the revisions. Ironically the assistant, or more properly minder, was a communist named John Wexley. Wexley recalls: “I was trying to touch it [the script] up and was there as a mollifier or pacifier—a diplomat—toward Robert Taylor, who was a very strong reactionary. He hated anything to do with the Soviet Union, and they kept trying to tell him it was his contribution to the war effort.(11)

To summarize, it is time to drop our current habit of dismissing the communist threat as “the red menace, reds under the bed, witch hunts, etc.,” and the corresponding hagiography of Soviet dupes and fellow travelers like “The Hollywood Ten.” The archives opened in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union support the contentions of the anti-communists that the Hollywood reds were receiving direct support and orders from Moscow. It is time for the modern Hollywood left to face this reality and to restore Robert Taylor to his rightful place in film history.

References:

  1. Ronald Reagan, Speaking My Mind Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 48
  2. House un-American Activities Committee, American Decades, 2001. Encyclopedia.com.
  3. Ayn Rand, Screen Guide for Americans, 1947
  4. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, 1990, p. 115
  5. Schweizer, Peter, Reagan’s War, NY 2002. Quoted in Wikipedia.
  6. Sorrel on Stand Denies Red Ties. Los Angeles Times, Sept. 30, 1953, p, A2. Quoted in Wikipedia.
  7. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, p. 108.
  8. Ibid., p. 109.
  9. The Man Who Fought the Hollywood Reds, American Thinker, Feb. 27, 2012.
  10. Linda J. Alexander, Reluctant Witness Robert Taylor Hollywood and Communism, Tease Publishing, 2008, p. 182, 183.
  11. Larry Ceplair, The Marxist and the Movies: a Biography of Paul Jerrico. U. of Kentucky Press, 2007,p. 66
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About giraffe44

I became a Robert Taylor fan at the age of 15 when his TV show, "The Detectives" premiered. My mother wanted to watch it because she remembered Mr. Taylor from the thirties. I took one look and that was it. I spent the rest of my high school career watching Robert Taylor movies on late night TV, buying photos of him, making scrapbooks and being a typical teenager. College, marriage and career intervened. I remember being sad when Mr. Taylor died. I mailed two huge scrapbooks to Ursula Thiess. I hope she got them. Time passed, retirement, moving to Florida. Then in 2012 my husband Fred pointed that there were two Robert Taylor movies that evening on Turner Classic Movies--"Ivanhoe" and "Quentin Durward." I watched both and it happened all over again. I started this blog both for fans and for people who didn't know about Robert Taylor. As the blog passes 200,000 views I'm delighted that so many people have come by and hope it will help preserve the legacy of this fine actor and equally good man.
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