06/21/2012 03:29 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Think Again: Fearmaking, Then and Now

I spend a lot of time working with Turner Classic Movies on in the background to keep me company. This week, I happened on a film of which I was previously unaware: "The Fearmakers," starring Dana Andrews and directed by Jacques Tourneur, released in 1958 but based on a 1945 novel by Darwin L. Teilhet.

As most film fans are well aware, Andrews was an especially important figure in postwar American film for many roles, but especially because of his star turn in the 1946 release, "The Best Years of Our Lives." Authored by Robert Sherwood, who had been a speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the film featured three returning veterans facing the challenges of peacetime. In it, Andrews comes home to a wife who has been unfaithful and insists that he dress up in his uniform to impress her friends. He suffers insults from wealthy women and bratty children at the drug store where he is forced to work and is unable to find anything better.

Another of the men finds himself pushed to deny G.I. loans to deserving clients and proceeds to self-medicate with massive amounts of alcohol as a result. That film struggled with its own commitment to realism as it simultaneously reflected the liberal thinking of the day. A particularly pointed scene showed a wealthy man carrying his golf clubs taking the place of a returning vet waiting for a flight home -- a scene that led to talk in Congress that Sherwood be investigated for Communist sympathies once the McCarthyite Red scare hit Hollywood.

Soon thereafter, executive director Dr. John Lechner of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals insisted that he had identified "sizeable doses of communist propaganda" in the film, and pretty much everyone associated with it saw their careers suffer. "The Fearmakers" was part and parcel of Hollywood's campaign to portray the heroic search for undercover "Reds" in our society.

In the movie, Andrews plays Alan Eaton, once a PR executive, now a Korean War veteran just released from a North Korean prison camp where he was tortured by communist prison guards. In the film's first scene, in which Eaton is flying home to Washington, he happens to be seated next to a nuclear physicist who preaches nuclear disarmament, and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion just as often as they reflect it. He just so happens to be looking for a good PR man. Lots of bad things happen, as it turns out that his partner has been murdered, his PR firm is working hand in glove with commies like the nice professor fellow on the plane, who turns out to be a communist fellow-traveller. The plan is to use his old PR firm to mess with public opinion polls so that the communists can one day take over America... or something.

As Stephanie Thames explains:

The film expresses the greatest fears of its day. First, there's the frightening notion that communists could ... worm their way into positions within the U.S. government. Beyond that, The Fearmakers plays up the scary notion of a media outlet whose sole purpose is to distribute communist propaganda. In the course of the film, Andrews' character is gradually transformed into an anticommunist white knight who not only rids his company of enemy agents but also testifies against them before Congress.

"The Fearmakers" is the product of a different America, of course. A year earlier, in October of 1957, the Russians had deployed Sputnik via the world's first functional intercontinental ballistic missile, sending much of America into a panic. But the danger expressed in the movie is not so much communism itself -- nobody in the movie has a good word to say for it -- rather it's the unscrupulous fellows like the guy who took over the PR firm just to make a buck by selling out the country's best interests. It is a quaint reminder of a more innocent moment in American political history that the manner in which the manipulation of public opinion was thought to be something both nefarious and notorious.

Now it's an entire industry. For the bad guys in "Fearmakers" are the people who are pretty much in charge of our political system today.

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