Poor Hail, Caesar! The latest Coen Brothers film has had a tepid response from critics and its box office returns have been disappointing so far. The survey firm Cinemascore, typically generous to films, determined that opening-night audiences rated Hail, Caesar! a “C-“—dregs usually reserved for artsy action movies like Haywire or Killing Them Softly that tend to alienate their core audience. What accounts for this lukewarm reception?
Not since the Coens’ last feature, Inside Llewyn Davis, has there been an American film that presumes so much foreknowledge on the part of the audience. Hail, Caesar! might be a quotidian Coen brothers comedy for general audiences, but it’s catnip for connoisseurs of Hollywood history and the American left.
As with Inside Llewyn Davis, attention to detail is of secondary, if any, concern to the Coens; instead, major incidents and people have been refracted through the historical record so that they’re tilted sideways and upside down. The characters simultaneously do and do not function as stand-ins for Dave Van Ronk, Albert Grossman, Phil Ochs, Eddie Mannix, or Hedda Hopper—they’re historical figures inextricably bound up with the tall tales surrounding them. I’d argue that the liberties the Coens take with blacklist-era Hollywood in Hail, Caesar! could come only from filmmakers thoroughly steeped in its history. (Spoilers follow.)
The Future, the group of communist screenwriters who meet at a luxury beachfront property to discuss dialectics and smuggle political content into Hollywood movies, has some basis in fact. Such meetings were organized by the screenwriter John Howard Lawson, who often admonished his fellow writers for a lack of ideological commitment. (One filmmaker who cracked under the pressure, Elia Kazan, later cited Lawson’s scathing critiques as one reason he left the Communist Party.)
Pinko song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is obviously a riff on Gene Kelly—a figure whose own political activity demonstrates the subtle ideological gradation of the era. Neither Kelly nor his wife, Betsy Blair, were ever members of the Communist Party, but both served as emissaries to progressive Hollywood. (Blair’s party application was rejected in part because her stature as the wife of a prominent Hollywood liberal made her more useful as an outsider who could raise money for communist causes like the Henry Wallace presidential campaign or the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee.) It was Kelly who spoke out against The House Un-American Activities Committee under the guise of the Committee for the First Amendment, but it was Blair who was ultimately blacklisted after appearing publicly with prominent communists Gale Sondergaard and Lloyd Gough.
When Blair petitioned MGM boss Louis B. Mayer to reinstate her, she was met with a torrent of paternalistic claptrap. “I had to speak to Spence [Tracy] and Kate [Hepburn], too,” lamented Mayer. “What’s wrong with you people? This is the greatest country in the world.” “It went on and on,” recalled Blair, “with him expounding on marriage and life and pointing to photographs of him with the pope, with Roosevelt, with the king of England.”
There’s a similar scene in Hail, Caesar! where studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) upbraids witless hunk Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) for getting seduced by the Reds. The “communist dupe”—the actor who unwittingly supports the Communist Party through an innocuous front group or simply doesn’t understand the implications of political revolution—appears again and again during the HUAC era, with prominent stars repeatedly disclaiming their own intelligence and political acumen. The most prominent case is probably that of Humphrey Bogart, who publicly recanted his own role in organizing a Committee for the First Amendment rally in a letter to the New York Daily Mirror: “The trip was ill-advised, even foolish, I am very ready to admit. At the time it seemed the thing to do. I have absolutely no use for Communism nor for anyone who serves that philosophy. I am an American. And very likely, like a good many of the rest of you, sometimes a foolish and impetuous American.”
Though these events occurred more than six decades ago, the political implications of the blacklist are still contested. Right-wing scholars have attempted to rehabilitate HUAC, charging Hollywood with complicity in a communist conspiracy. Because Hail, Caesar! revolves around such a conspiracy, some observers have complained that it validates or excuses the blacklist. I’m sympathetic to that claim, but ultimately the film is so studied, so immersed in the tropes that it tweaks, that I think something else is going on here. Hail, Caesar! is a fever dream of the Red-baiting right, an all-too-literal imagining of a commie nightmare that quickly renders those fears absurd. Not even HUAC believed that Hollywood’s elite screenwriters could make contact with a Soviet submarine off the coast of Malibu, as happens toward the end of Hail, Caesar! For the Coens, the blacklist was a tragedy, but also a joke.