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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : Democracy in Action: How the Studios Torpedoed Upton Sinclair’s Run for Office

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A few weeks after the 1934 California gubernatorial election, Hollywood liberals gathered at a Beverly Hills party hosted by actor Fredric March. They complained bitterly about the smear campaign directed at the defeated Democratic candidate for governor of California, muckraking author Upton Sinclair. Most troubling to the gathering: the series of pseudo-newsreel propaganda films that had scuttled Sinclair’s chances, marking the first time the screen had ever been used to demolish a candidate.

No one knew who had created the outrageous films, but speculation centered on mogul Louis B. Mayer or another right-wing studio head. Finally, Irving R. Thalberg, the revered MGM producer, stepped forward, admitting he made the shorts.

March couldn’t believe it. Thalberg was brilliant, refined, apolitical. “It was a dirty trick!” March protested. “It was the damnedest unfair thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Nothing,” Thalberg replied calmly, “is unfair in politics.”

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Thalberg, for whom the Academy Award for lifetime achievement is named, might be called the Father of the Attack Ad, paving the way for the likes of Willie Horton ads in years to come. Now, nearly six decades later, Thalberg’s notorious political films--long believed to be missing--are coming to network television, appearing in “We Have a Plan,” the episode of the PBS series “The Great Depression” that airs on Monday.

The episode chronicles the 1934 campaign between incumbent Republican Gov. Frank M. Merriam and Sinclair, a lifelong socialist, who lead the most remarkable mass movement in California state history--and the Hollywood power structure’s singular role in quashing Sinclair’s candidacy.

Sinclair’s platform for combatting unemployment and other ravages of the Depression was called EPIC--End Poverty in California. His grass-roots appeal was phenomenal, and in August, Sinclair won the Democratic primary in a landslide and appeared headed for victory in November.

To stop EPIC, the Republicans, with Hollywood’s crucial help, devised public-relations and advertising techniques that would dominate elections for decades.

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The arch-conservative studio bosses, including MGM’s Mayer and United Artists’s Joseph M. Schenck, feared Sinclair, for he had promised hefty tax hikes not only on the film industry but on personal wealth. A few days after Sinclair’s shocking primary win, the moguls announced that they would relocate to Florida if he was elected. But few took the threats seriously.

So Mayer kicked into high gear, deducting one day’s pay from every MGM worker--from hairdressers to stars--for Merriam’s campaign. Depending on salary, the “contribution” was from $10 to $500. In a rare display of unity, the other moguls--including Jack Warner, the only Democrat--adopted Mayer’s scheme at their studios.

Low-level employees had no choice but to go along. When Billy Wilder, then a struggling screenwriter at Fox, received his weekly paycheck he found $50 missing. A studio executive informed him that Upton Sinclair was a communist and had to be destroyed. Wilder, who had just left Nazi Germany, loved America, but this thought occurred to him: I fled fascism for this ? “I was aghast,” the 87-year-old director remembers now. “This was not an example of what an American democracy was supposed to be all about.”

Some top-name talent, including James Cagney and Dorothy Parker, resisted; others, like Frank Capra and Robert Riskin, complied.

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Still, money alone would not halt Sinclair. So Hollywood used its craft to appeal to citizens on an emotional level. On Sept. 16, 1934, Variety issued this call: “With theaters available to provide Sinclair opposition, so far as propaganda is concerned, let the picture business assert itself.” Thalberg, in particular, answered the challenge.

In late September, 1934, Thalberg created a special film unit within MGM to shoot three movie shorts. Carey Wilson took a break from completing his screenplay for “Mutiny on the Bounty” to write the scripts; a director of MGM film tests, Felix Feist Jr., shot the footage.

In the first two films, an avowedly “impartial” Inquiring Cameraman--who contemporaries said sounded suspiciously like Carey Wilson--interviews a wide range of citizens on the streets of Los Angeles. Their votes are split fairly evenly between Sinclair and Merriam, but with a difference: the Merriam backers are all upstanding citizens (a realtor, a banker, a grandmother in a print dress), while many of the Sinclairites are slovenly or speak with foreign accents. “I’m going to vote for Upton Saint Clair,” one unsavory fellow says. “Upton Saint Clair is the author of the Russian government, and it worked out very well there and I think it should do so here.”

A few of the interviewees seem heavily scripted, and Hollywood insiders swore they recognized movie extras playing some of them. It appears that at least a couple of the interviews might have been shot on the MGM back lot.

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In the third and final film, Thalberg decided to deliver the knockout punch. For weeks, the California press had been citing dubious statistics suggesting that a horde of migrants and misfits were crossing the California border, lured by Sinclair’s promise of an EPIC Utopia. But numbers, no matter how exaggerated, usually fall flat; horrific images are something else again. So Feist and his MGM crew traveled to Colton, a major railroad junction, hoping to document the so-called “bums’ rush.”

The result, shown in movie theaters a few days before the election, opened with a switchman, a constable and a state official confirming that an “invasion” of criminals and communists was under way. A dozen tramps scramble out of a boxcar and step menacingly toward the camera. The narrator claims that “these boys” planned to remain permanently in California if Sinclair were elected. Finally, the film takes viewers inside a “hobo jungle” for an even more frightening look. It mattered little that no such invasion was taking place. This short caused riots in theaters and torpedoed Sinclair’s candidacy; Gov. Merriam was reelected to another term.

Ironically, these shorts also spelled the end for the right-wing domination of Hollywood. Liberals, outraged over the ’34 campaign, finally succeeded in organizing writers’ and actors’ guilds. In 1938, liberals, led by actor Melvyn Douglas, played a key role in electing Culbert Olson (one of Sinclair’s old allies) governor.

Attack ads have become par for the course in the years since the Sinclair-Merriam campaign. In defending his role in smearing Sinclair, Irving Thalberg told Fredric March, “A fair election is a contradiction in terms.” Nearly 60 years later, it’s truer than ever.

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