The Red Menace was one of the first American postwar scaremongering films to explicitly name Communism as a threat. The structure and plotting of the film are similar to both Violence (1947) and Open Secret (1948), but those films dealt with cells of American fascists who used postwar housing and employment crises for their own anti-Semitic and xenophobic ends.
The Red Menace makes no bones about naming the most pervasive threat to America — it’s Communism, brother, and it’s everywhere.
When The Red Menace premiered, Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, released a brochure that explained his motivation for producing the film, and ended with the following cri de guerre:
Even though the picture was made behind closed doors, and there has been no public showing to date, Republic Studios and the Writer Have Already Been Attacked by the Daily People’s World, a Communist Paper Published in San Francisco, and the Daily Worker, A Communist Paper Published in New York.
The attack is more than an open threat. It is an effort to intimidate Republic Pictures and to stifle its right of freedom of speech. We accept the challenge of The Communist Party and its Fellow Travelers, and we declare that the Republic organization will do everything in its power, regardless of expense or tribulations, to make certain that “The Red Menace” Is Shown in Every City, Town and Village in The United States of America and Other Countries Not Under Communist Control.
I assume Yates liberally used initial caps for Extra Emphasis.
The Red Menace was directed by Republic Pictures mainstay R.G. Springsteen, who had mostly directed westerns for Republic, including several Red Ryder films. (Don’t let his name fool you, kids. Red Ryder was no Commie.)
I really enjoyed some of Springsteen’s westerns, so I was hoping for more from The Red Menace. The main problem with the film is that it’s not ludicrous enough to be truly entertaining, but it’s not realistic or incisive enough to be a great movie.
The opening is shadowy and atmospheric. A young couple are fleeing a pervasive and terrifying menace. They’re driving at night from Los Angeles through Arizona. Could the gas station attendant be part of the conspiracy? They can’t trust anyone.
Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. Returning serviceman Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell, who would go on to play Mr. Boynton when Our Miss Brooks moved from radio to television) is fleeced of his savings by an unscrupulous real estate developer, and he’s not the only G.I. facing a housing crisis. His disillusionment is seized on by the local chapter of the Communist party, who play on his anger toward the system. He’s further lured in by the beautiful Nina Petrovka (played by German actress Hannelore Axman, who’s credited as “Hanne Axman”) and good-time girl Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller). In The Red Menace, sex is the gateway drug to the philosophy of Marx and Engels.
The script is talky, and to its credit much of the back-and-forth debates are interesting. It’s also nice that the film acknowledges American discrimination against Jewish people and African-Americans, and there are two black men in the film who are not stereotypes (Duke Williams and Napoleon Simpson).
The film also correctly points out that Soviet bloc countries were far from paradises for writers, poets, and artists, who were forced to toe the party line or suffer the consequences. The film’s most tragic character is Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet who resigns from the Communist party when the party newspaper he works for tries to force him to retract true statements he has made about the evolution of Communist philosophy.
Not every character is three-dimensional, however. The Red Menace features accomplished radio actress Betty Lou Gerson (who would go on to voice Cruella De Vil in the Disney movie 101 Dalmations) as a Communist party leader whose final histrionics are so over-the-top that they are positively hilarious.
I think it’s easy to look back on the excesses of McCarthyism during 1950s America and see only madness. But let’s keep in mind that Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state in which dissent was met with imprisonment or execution. Millions died under Stalin’s reign of terror. Whatever Communism promised in theory, it miserably failed to deliver in practice.
But the United States was hardly a paradise for dissenters itself. The Red Menace ends with a kindly cowboy sheriff assuring our fleeing protagonists that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is that while in Russia there are no second chances, here in the U.S. we give people just as many second chances as they’re entitled to. But this isn’t even what the film itself has depicted, as the poet Henry Solomon was fired from one job after another and driven to suicide after his former Communist affiliations were revealed.
There is a world of difference between Socialism and Communism, but most Americans (including elected officials) could never see that. People who embraced Socialism in the 1930s because they perceived unfairness in the relationship between labor and management were driven out of their jobs and blacklisted in the 1950s because they refused to “name names.”
Despite some nuances here and there, films like this toed their own party lines. While it’s tempting to see a film like The Red Menace as a historical curiosity, fear and hatred are still the driving force behind much of our politics, and we forget that at our own peril.