In the wake of the latest US Supreme Court ruling, the problem of money in politics will soon reach a true crisis point, if it’s not already there. Of course, this has been a slow, steady match to this precipice.
The first modern campaign to raise massive amounts of money, secretly, via front groups or consultants outside the political party offices, sometimes with strong-arm tactics, and across the country—even though it was a state contest—took place in 1934, when the famous Socialist author Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary and appeared headed for victory leading a mass movement known as EPIC (End Poverty in California). I’ve written about this at length previously here (and in my book The Campaign of the Century), so I’ll just provide a link to the full story.
But one of the key sources of money was right in California—within the Hollywood studios, where tens of thousands toiled. My new e-book, When Hollywood Turned Left, was published last week. It focuses on the wild response in Hollywood—then controlled by conservative Republicans—to Sinclair, which included the creation of the first use of the screen for “attack ads,” thanks to MGM’s Irving Thalberg. The right-wing attack was so outrageous it sparked liberals out there to organize, and Hollywood has tilted left ever since.
Here’s an excerpt about one of the most notorious aspects: almost all the studio chiefs docked their employees, from low-level to top stars, one day’s pay to go for the slush fund of the hack Republican candidate, Frank Merriam. One of those who protested but lacked the clout to resist was the young screenwriter (later famed director) Billy Wilder, who had arrived in the US just recently. Jimmy Cagney and Kate Hepburn, already top stars, did fight back.
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Stars in the studio system enjoyed a wide variety of benefits and privileges. The studio bosses at least asked them to donate to the Merriam fund before threatening to dock them. Some writers, such as Donald Ogden Stewart, went along with the request. Less established figures were given no choice in the matter.
Take the young writer Billy Wilder over at the Fox studio, for example. Wilder, who was still trying to salvage Raoul Walsh’s East River, received his latest paycheck, normally $250, only to find $50 missing.
“There’s something wrong,” Billy said to the studio cashier in his heavily accented English. “There’s been a mistake.”
“There was no mistake,” she replied. “They took fifty dollars from everyone to give to Governor Merriam. If you have any complaints, talk to Mr. Sheehan.”
Billy didn’t know what this was all about, but he knew one thing: he desperately needed that fifty dollars to make the rent on his tiny room at the Chateau Marmont and to pay for his English lessons. He was behind on payments on his ‘28 De Soto, too. In no position to approach Winnie Sheehan, Fox’s top man, he cornered another studio exec instead.