THE MOVIES AND POLITICAL PROPAGANDA

from The Movies On Trial

Upton Sinclair

I HAVE had dealings with the movies since their infancy. Twenty years ago the late Augustus Thomas made a really honest version of "The Jungle." That caused me to have hopes, but they were quickly dashed. I sold to a movie concern a story telling about a self-confident young rich man who made a wager that he could go out as a hobo and get a quick start in life. When I next heard of that story, it had to do with a lost will. Soon after the War, my old friend, Ben Hampton, historian of the industry, undertook to make a picture of "The Moneychangers," which tells how the elder J. P. Morgan caused the panic of 1907. When I went to see it, it was a story of the drug traffic in Chinatown!

I don't think I am egotistical in saying that I have offered to the motion picture studios some good opportunities. "King Coal," "Jimmie Higgins," "100%," "They Call Me Carpenter," "Boston" - all these are motion picture scenarios ready made. There is only one thing wrong with them, they indict the profit system. "Oil" has been read by every concern in the business - I suppose a dozen agents have set out full of confidence to handle it, and never have they reported but one thing: "Magnificent, but dangerous."

That I know what I am talking about was proved when I happened to write on a subject that did not involve the profit system. Several concerns were bidding for "The Wet Parade" before the book was out. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid twenty thousand dollars for it, and they spent half a million and made an excellent picture, following my story closely.

Now I loomed on the horizon, no longer a mere writer, but proposing to apply my rejected scenarios! While I was in New York some reporter asked: "What are you going to do with all the unemployed motion picture actors?" I answered: "Why should not the State of California rent one of the idle studios and let the unemployed actors make a few pictures of their own?" That word was flashed to Hollywood, and the war was on.

Louis B. Mayer, president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was vacationing in Europe when he got this dreadful news, and he dropped everything and came home to take charge of the campaign to "stop Sinclair." You see, he is chairman of the State Committee of the Republican party, so he had a double responsibility. I have met "Louie Bee," as he is called, now and then. I once took Bertrand Russell to lunch with him by invitation and learned that a great film magnate doesn't have time to talk with a mere philosopher, but politely appoints a substitute to see that he is properly fed and escorted round the lot.

Also Mr. Hearst was summoned from his vacation. Mr. Hearst belongs to the movie section. Hearst had been staying at Bad Nauheim. He was hobnobbing with Hanfstaengel, Nazi agent to the United States. You see, Hearst wants to know how the Reds are to be put down in America; so "Huffy," as they call him, flew with Hearst to interview Hitler.

As soon as Hearst learned of my nomination, he gave out an interview comparing me with the Pied Piper of Hamlin; and then he came back to New York and gave another interview, and from there to California, where he called me "an unbalanced and unscrupulous political speculator." His newspapers began a campaign of editorials and cartoons denouncing me as a Communist. I didn't see any denouncing me as a free-lover, and a menace to the purity and sanctity of the American home.

The first threat of the movie magnates was to move to Florida. Warner Brothers said they would go - and proceeded to start the construction of two or three new sound stages in Hollywood. Joseph Schenck of United Artists travelled to Florida to inspect locations, and the Florida legislature announced its intention to exempt motion picture studios from all taxes, and a mob of new "come-ons" rushed to buy lots.

Of course, this talk of moving was the veriest bunk. It would cost a billion dollars to move, and the British would grab the business meanwhile. Where would they get their mountains, and their eucalyptus trees, which represent the foliage of North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia? Above all, what would they do about the mosquitoes? I have lived in Florida, and I said to my audiences: "Right in the middle of a scene, one would bite the lady star on the nose and cost them fifty thousand dollars."

But that didn't keep them from building up the terror. Orders for an assessment came; and in Hollywood an assessment means that the check is written for you, and you sign it. In this case it was for one day's pay of everybody in all the studios - except the big "execs." The total amount raised was close to half a million. There was a little rebellion, but I didn't hear about it in any paper in California. I had to go to the London News-Chronicle to learn that Jean Harlow and James Cagney were among the Protestants. From the same paper I learn that Katharine Hepburn was threatened with dismissal if she supported Upton Sinclair.

I am happy to say that a few Hollywood writers showed political independence. Frank Scully got up a committee in my support, and it was joined by Dorothy Parker, Morris Ryskind, Gene Fowler, Lewis Browne and Jim Tully.

Also they started in making newsreels. Will Hays sent a representative to attend to this. They invented a character called the "Inquiring Reporter." He was supposed to be travelling around California, interviewing people on the campaign. They were supposed to be real people, but of course they were actors. On November 4, the New York Times published a two-column story from their Hollywood press correspondent, from which I quote:

FILMS AND POLITICS
HOLLYWOOD MASSES THE FULL POWER OF HER RESOURCES
To FIGHT SINCLAIR

The City of Los Angeles has turned into a huge movie set where many newsreel pictures are made every day, depicting the feelings of the people against Mr. Sinclair. Equipment from one of the major studios, as well as some of its second-rate players, may be seen at various street intersections or out in the residential neighborhood, "shooting" the melodrama and unconscious comedy of the campaign. Their product can be seen in leading motionpicture houses in practically every city of the State.

In one of the "melodramas" recently filmed and shown here in Los Angeles, an interviewer approaches a demure old lady, sitting on her front porch and rocking away in her rocking chair.

"For whom are you voting, Mother?" asks the interviewer.

"I am voting for Governor Merriam," the old lady answers in a faltering voice.

"Why, Mother?"

"Because I want to have my little home. It is all I have left in the world."

In another recent newsreel there is shown a shaggy man with bristling Russian whiskers and a menacing look in his eye.

"For whom are you voting?" asked the interviewer.

"Vy, I am foting for Seenclair."

"Why are you voting for Mr. Sinclair?"

"Vell, his system vorked vell in Russia, vy can't it vork here?"

All these releases are presented as "newsreels."

Another "newsreel" has been made of Oscar Rankin, a colored prizefighter and preacher who is quite a favorite with his race in Los Angeles county. Asked why he was voting for Governor Merriam, he answered that he liked to preach and play the piano and he wants to keep a church to preach in and a piano to play.

Merriam supporters always are depicted as the more worthwhile element of the community, as popular favorites or as substantial business men. Sinclair supporters are invariably pictured as the riff-raff. Low paid "bit" players are said to take the leading roles in most of these "newsreels," particularly where dialogue is required. People conversant with movie personnel claim to have recognized in them certain aspirants to stardom.

At another studio an official called in his scenario writers to give them a bit of advice on how to vote. "After all," he is reputed to have told his writers, "what does Sinclair know about anything? He's just a writer."

Hitherto the movies have maintained that they could not do any kind of "educational" work; their audiences demanded entertainment, and they could have nothing to do with "propaganda." But now, you see, that pretense has been cast aside. They have made propaganda, and they have won a great victory with it, and are tremendously swelled up about it. You may be sure that never again will there be an election in California in which the great "Louie Bee" will not make his power felt; and just as you saw the story of "Thunder Over California" being imported from Minnesota, so will you see the "Inquiring Reporter" arriving in Minnesota, Mississippi, Washington, or wherever big business desires to ridicule the efforts of the disinherited to help themselves at the ballot-box.

Listen to the lords of the screen world vaunting themselves: The front page of the Hollywood Reporter eleven days prior to the election.

This campaign against Upton Sinclair has been and is dynamite.

When the picture business gets aroused, it becomes AROUSED, and, boy, how they can go to it. It is the most effective piece of political humdingery that has ever been effected, and this is said in full recognition of the antics of that master-machine that used to be Tammany. Politicians in every part of this land (and they are all vitally interested in the California election are standing by in amazement as a result of the bombast that has been set off under the rocking chair of Mr. Sinclair.

Never before in the history of the picture business has the screen been used in direct support of a candidate. Maybe an isolated exhibitor here and there has run a slide or two, favoring a friend, but never has there been a concerted action on the part of all theatres in a community to defeat a nominee.

And this activity may reach much farther than the ultimate defeat of Mr. Sinclair. It will undoubtedly give the big wigs in Washington and politicians all over the country an idea of the real POWER that is in the hands of the picture industry. Maybe our business will be pampered a bit, instead of being pushed around as it has been since it became a big business.

Before Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Charlie Pettijohn (a good old democrat under ordinary conditions) and Carey Wilson stepped into this political battle here, the whole Republican party seemed to have been sunk by the insane promises of Mr. Sinclair. With that group in the war, and it has been a WAR, things took a different turn. Governor Merriam's party here in the South had a HEAD, something that was missing before. It received the finances it so direly needed AND the whole picture business got behind the shove.

Sinclair is not defeated yet, but indications point to it, and California should stand up and sing hosannas for their greatest State industry, MOTION PICTURES, and that same industry should, for itself, point to its work whenever some of the screwy legislation comes up in the various State Legislatures during the next few months.

1936


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