‘The Hollywood Writers’ Wars.’ We are dealing here with the thirties before the Second World War and, in particular the years of the great depression. It really is true that there is nothing new under the sun and reading of the depression, what was going on in America at the time and in particular what was going on in Hollywood in the early thirties, it could be equated with what is going on in Greece today. For ‘the producers’ read the Greek government and for ‘the writers’ read civil servants. Because of the depression people could no longer afford to visit the cinema so often and box office takings dropped alarmingly. So what did the powerful producers do?
It was necessary in order to protect themselves from the machinations of the producers, Warner, Schenck, Mayer, et al that the writers and actors formed their guilds –anathema, horror, to the producers: socialism and worse communism lurking just beneath the surface, employees making demands that would erode their profits even further.
The surprising force of the general strike of 1934 saw labour immediately linked with communism and the times were not favourable to the artist as a work force. The hangover of the Protestant work ethic still condemned the artist as a shiftless non-worker and the underlying belief during the depression was that artists should find themselves any kind of job rather than starve for lack of creative work. The same thing was to happen in the UK in the seventies. So what effect did this have on Hollywood?
The producers up to this point had used intimate, familial form of economic and psychological manipulation to retain absolute control but in March 1933, except for MGM which paid its employees in cash, the studios were unable to meet their payrolls. Universal suspended all contracts. Fox notified its employees that salaries would not be paid: (Greece today?) Paramount, Warner brothers, Columbia and RKO faced bleak prospects (just like the Greek government today). Naturally (as in Greece today) workers lost their jobs and for those who remained a blanket wage cut was imposed (again as in Greece today). Those receiving $50 or more weekly would get a fifty percent wage cut. Those earning less would get a 25 percent cut, the cuts to last for eight weeks. More out of fear that it was the beginning of the end the cuts were reluctantly accepted. Naturally it did not affect heads like Thalberg who was on $4000 a week. Nor I suppose does it affect the Greek politicians today who are paid fourteen times for twelve month’s work.
The wage cuts had made several things obvious to the studio employees, chiefly that producers didn’t think contracts were sacred – tell me about it who has first hand experience – and it was time to unionise. My union, The Writers; Guild and The Writers’ Guild in America were of no help in my dispute with a major Hollywood studio but more of that at a later date maybe.
But to show what chicanery the producers could get up to in order to protect themselves; in 1934 a writer by the name of Upton Sinclair announced he would be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. ‘I saw hundreds of thousands of persons driven form their homes (Greece today) an economic process which has turned most of California over to money lenders and banks…(!) And for every official who was sent to jail (Greece) I knew that a thousand were hiding with their loot (Greece yet again).
So in the face of someone obviously on the side of the worker what did the studio bosses do? In order to destroy Sinclair they organised a smear campaign costing millions of dollars. They created fake newsreels in which vagrants on the way to California said they were drawn there because of Sinclair. Louis Mayor had his director of screen tests make the anti-Sinclair films. Joseph Mankiewicz was instructed to write anti-Sinclair radio spots, circulars were printed and hoardings supporting Sinclair’s rival, a man named Merriam, all paid for by the studios. But here comes the real humdinger. All studio employees, who were mostly for Sinclair, were expected to contribute one day’s salary to the Merriam campaign or their contracts would not be renewed. This was sheer blackmail and the New York Times at the instigation of the Guild reported that ‘motion picture producers attempted to collect funds for Merriam with deceit.’ The producers immediately denied it but it was yet once more thing that antagonised them towards the Guild. Needless to say Merriam won. It’s little wonder that the studios employ banks of lawyers.