Cedric Belfrage

Cedric Belfrage

Cedric Belfrage was born in London on 8th November 1904. After leaving Cambridge University he began writing film reviews for the Kinematograph Weekly in 1924. Three years later he moved to Hollywood and was employed as a film critic by the New York Sun and Film Weekly. He also worked as a press agent for Sam Goldwyn. Belfrage became a socialist after becoming friends with the novelist, Upton Sinclair.

Belfrage got a reputation for upsetting film studios. According to one source: "He became a press agent to a picture company at three pounds a week. He was fired. He went to New York and got a job as scenario reader with Universal Pictures. He was fired again. He then became a movie critic, which profession he kept up until 1930, when he had interviewed all the stars several times over and had been ejected from four major studios."

Belfrage returned to London but in the early 1930s he became the film critic of The Daily Express. When he returned to Hollywood he took his friend, Eric Maschwitz, with him. Maschwitz recalled in his autobiography, No Chip on My Shoulder (1957): "In Hollywood Cedric and I settled into a small apartment at the Roosevelt Hotel. As representative of a leading London newspaper he had the entree to all the studios, then very active in the first flush of the talking picture. He was kind enough to take me with him on his rounds and I found myself, as wide-eyed as any juvenile movie-fan, face to face with the gods and goddesses of the screen. I met most of them and remember few of them - except for Sylvia Sidney with her quick wit and almost Oriental beauty and Douglas Fairbanks Junior, who remains my friend to this day."

Belfrage introduced Eric Maschwitz to Upton Sinclair: "An old friend of Cedric Belfrage's was Upton Sinclair, the novelist at that time still active in the Socialist cause. Sinclair lived then in a wooden house in Pasadena so entangled in jasmine that, when we called to visit him, the perfume was almost stifling. A frail, yet dynamic man in the mid-fifties he talked fascinatingly for hours, communicating at intervals with his wife, who was upstairs in bed with a chill, by means of a police-dog to whose collar he tied notes. When we were about to leave, he said: 'Well, I guess you boys would like a drink'; we accepted and were immediately regaled with two glasses of water! I took away with me an autographed copy of his latest novel The Flivver King which was an expose of the Henry Ford Empire."

One of Belfrage's reviews in The Daily Express upset "the entire film industry in protest withdrew advertising from his paper. He quit dramatic reviewing for a time until the trouble blew over. He left on his round-the-world trip in January, 1934, and returned in December.... He then took up business at the old stand again." In April, 1936 he went on a visit to the Soviet Union with his wife, the journalist Molly Castle.

Belfrage joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL) in 1936. Other members included Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Walter Wanger, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Ogden Stewart, John Howard Lawson, Clifford Odets, John Bright, Dudley Nichols, Frederic March, Lewis Milestone, Oscar Hammerstein II, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Gloria Stuart, Sylvia Sidney, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chico Marx, Benny Goodman, Fred MacMurray and Eddie Cantor. Another member, Philip Dunne, later admitted "I joined the Anti-Nazi League because I wanted to help fight the most vicious subversion of human dignity in modern history".

Belfrage joined the American Communist Party in 1937, but withdrew his membership a few months later. He was too much a political maverick to accept the discipline of the party. For example, at one meeting, John Bright, asked V. J. Jerome, the leading party member in Hollywood: "Comrade Jerome, what if a Party decision is made that you cannot go along with?" Jerome replied: "When the Party makes a decision, it becomes your opinion."

Belfrage became active in the fight against fascism and developed a close relationship with Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club. He wrote several books during this period on politics. This included Away From It All (1937), Promised Land (1937), Let My People Go (1937) and South of God (1938). Ruth Dudley Edwards, the author of Victor Gollancz: A Biography (1987) has commented: "Belfrage, the author of the February 1938 choice (of the Left Book Club) Promised Land, an inner history of Hollywood - showing what happened to art under capitalism." Edwards quotes Belfrage as saying that at one packed meeting at the Empress Hall, which seated 11,000, he found the occasion "the atmosphere of a true religious revival".

In June, 1940, Winston Churchill appointed William Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase (British Security Coordination) is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the agreement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.

Charles Howard Ellis was sent to New York City to work alongside William Stephenson as assistant-director. Together they recruited several businessmen, journalists, academics and writers into the BSC. This included Belfrage, Roald Dahl, H. Montgomery Hyde, Ian Fleming, Ivar Bryce, David Ogilvy, Paul Denn, Isaiah Berlin, Eric Maschwitz, Giles Playfair, Benn Levy, Noël Coward and Gilbert Highet. The CIA historian, Thomas F. Troy has argued: "BSC was not just an extension of SIS, but was in fact a service which integrated SIS, SOE, Censorship, Codes and Ciphers, Security, Communications - in fact nine secret distinct organizations. But in the Western Hemisphere Stephenson ran them all."

Belfrage also co-edited a left literary magazine, The Clipper , where he promoted the work of Orson Welles. According to the authors of Radical Hollywood (2002), he selected Citizen Kane "as the supreme example of what radical innovators could do in Hollywood, the proof that showed the way forward." Belfrage argued that the movie was "as profoundly moving an experience as only this extraordinary and hitherto unexplored media of sound-cinema can afford." Belfrage suggested that progressive figures in Hollywood had been"hoping and trying for a chance like this.... but always the film salesman, speaking through the producer, has the last word."

James Aronson, Cedric Belfrage and John T. McManus in 1948
James Aronson, Cedric Belfrage and John T. McManus in 1948

In 1948 Belfrage helped establish the National Guardian with James Aronson and John T. McManus. The newspaper supported the Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace in 1948. It also provided positive publicity for Vito Marcantonio and the American Labor Party (ALP). The newspaper also campaigned against the convictions of Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg. One of its journalists, William A. Reuben, who wrote many of the articles on the case, later published The Atom Spy Hoax (1954) on the Rosenbergs.

In 1953 Belfrage was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After refusing to name fellow members of the American Communist Party, he was deported back to England in 1955. The following year he published The Frightened Giant: My Unfinished Affair with America (1956).

Cedric Belfrage
Cedric Belfrage

In 1961 he travelled to Cuba where reported on the new government of Fidel Castro. After spending some time in the region he published The Man at the Door with the Gun: Contemporary developments in Latin America (1963).

Belfrage, like his friend, James Aronson, took a close interest in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One of the first books claiming a conspiracy was written by Thomas Buchanan. When Who Killed Kennedy? was published in the United States in 1964, it was mainly ignored. However, Time Magazine reviewed it and made much of the fact that Buchanan was a former member of the American Communist Party. Belfrage, argued in the journal, Minority of One, that it was "irrelevant whether Buchanan was a former communist or a former Zen Buddhist". Belfrage went on to state that what was important was Buchanan's "common sense of the assassination and the American crisis it symbolizes".

Belfrage's book about The American Inquisition, was about Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism was published in 1973. He is also the co-author with James Aronson of Something to Guard: The Stormy Life of the National Guardian 1948-1967 (1978).

Cedric Belfrage died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on 21st June, 1990.

Primary Sources

(1) Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, Radical Hollywood (2002)

Perhaps the most important point of Hollywood discussion had already been reached in the short-lived Clipper by another political oddball at least as curious as Bright: British-exile novelist, newspaper "personality" interviewer, and past film publicist Cedric Belfrage. He chose Citizen Kane as the supreme example of what radical innovators could do in Hollywood, the proof that showed the way forward. This was a more obviously left-wing choice than critics (except perhaps those on the Right) were able to admit for decades-not only because Kane's factual basis happened to be the Red-baiting William Randolph Hearst, of course, but because of Orson Welles himself.

That Welles of the Mercury Theatre days had been surrounded by future blacklisted writers like Howard Koch and that he so depended upon the Popular Front-ish John Houseman as his producer could have been no secret. The notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast hoax caught savants of the Merc flat-footed: no one expected it to be taken seriously. The arrival of America's bad boy and mass-artistic genius in Hollywood has been made legend again and again. Right down to gofer William Alland, who drove Welles westward from New York and turned up as the narrator of Citizen Kane with back to the camera, Welles was surrounded by helpful, sometimes worshipful Communists.