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Communism in American Movies

Updated on June 10, 2013

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The Woman on Pier 13 (1949)

Times change. So do the bad guys. Villains once wore capes and fingered bicycle mustaches. They tied young maidens to railroad tracks. Then wild Indians scared the willikers out of young matinee audiences. Monsters also wreaked havoc on the nice lives of nice people. Stories in print or on film did not invent bad guys. They are in myths that precede the bible. In fact, they are in real life, too. Only in real life, things have a way of getting complicated. Stories sometimes get that way, too. Often enough, however, they go in the opposite direction. They streamline, simplify, and transform complexities into routine drama, or, if possible, comedy. No one really takes The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) all that seriously. And yet, there is not much else to compare it to. Filmmakers were not so very into it in the years following World War II, and for good reason. The subject matter was pure poison.

Moviegoers might wonder about actors, the cinema in general, and the shape and form of the careers it spawns. Why would a very established actor and recognized name play an American Communist? Actors play all kinds of strong characters, but seldom will a single actor tough out a role like this, especially at a time when the whisper of the word "communist" might, quite literally, put a man's life in jeopardy. Well, so much for that. It requires research to get the scoop. And, it can also be said, Johnson, or, as he is sometimes called, Collins (Robert Ryan), is not all that red a red. In fact, it is his hope that he will be able to give the Party the slip.

The Party is working on a shipping company. It is, typically enough, going against a big, capitalist business. The Party leader, Vanning (Thomas Gomez) will not let Johnson/Collins go straight. Vanning is a bad guy, make no mistake. He loves to pass along orders that cannot be contravened. No one knows where they originate. Might they come from Moscow? Not likely. New York City? More likely. It is still the headquarters of the Communist Party of America. But Vanning is particularly corrupt and unfeeling. He has a bad habit of killing off his employees by staging their dispatches as suicides. One would think that American Communists, outnumbered and unpopular, needed every available human being. With somebody like Vanning in charge, how far could any organization under his leadership of attrition progress?

An alternate name for this movie is I Married a Communist. Unfortunately, Nan Collins (Laraine Day) does not play as big a role as this film required. From her point of view, it would really have been intriguing. We know that Johnson/Collins totters this way and that on a fence all the way through. But his wife, torn between two fidelities, to husband and country, might have been a much more compelling character. Still, the way in which the Party is depicted, more or less as a criminal enterprise, with a single member unable to detach, holds up till the end. The movie also works, if in a rather peripheral manner, as a film noir.

The use of a shipping company referentially connects the movie to both The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and On the Waterfront (1954). In the former, workers rise up. The communists are the good guys. In On the Waterfront, the dock boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), is the bad guy. In both cases, plain workers are the people whom both opposing forces, capitalist or communist, are after. Historically, communists tried hard to woo the working class in America. They never had much success, except in terms of collusion with labor reformers and the like. Collins is a worker, too. But his weakness, as was the case in the 1940s, hinged upon his idealism. It was this that made him and lots of real people in real life, not just characters, vulnerable and, here and there, manipulable.

Looking back from the vantage point of 2013, the blossoming of a communist movement in America over a rather lengthy period of time seems unbelievable. Reds (1981) deals with its heady initial days. The movement later gained momentum during the Depression, which seemed to indicate that the capitalist system did not work. And lest it be forgot, the Communists of Russia gave the Germans hell. Depriving the 3rd Reich of what might have been a stunning victory is still a source of some wonder -- not a foregone conclusion or inevitability. It is worth ruminating on these and other relevant aspects of Communism versus the Free World only because later on geography plays such a pivotal role. Eventually, location determined one's political disposition. It was the neighborhood of one's birth and childhood that formed the inclinations and beliefs of men and women whose ideologies, on either side of the iron curtain, became totally incompatible. Until the 1980s, that is.

There is no getting rid of complications. World War II made strange bedfellows. First, Germany and Russia had an understanding. And then, America, anti-communist to the core, had no choice but to arm Russia against Germany. As cozy as America got with "Uncle" Joe Stalin, as he was often called in magazines, the Cold War was already in full swing before WWII finished. Again, despite the heroism of communist soldiers in the 1940s, communist agents in America got no mileage out of it. Maybe, once again, it was geography. The Nazis never invaded England and left the Americas alone. The heroes over there fought to liberate Russia and Eastern Europe. The Woman on Pier 13 is certainly of interest not just to film professors and historians, but anyone who by whatever means develops an appreciation for the larger ideas that actually inform our lives. By 1949, when this film was released, communists were definitely, no holds barred, the bad guys.


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