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.
“Will you please explain?” Wilder asked. “I’m just here on a visa, I’m not interested in politics.”
“Sinclair is dangerous,” the executive replied, “he must be defeated. The Communists want to take over.”
“Shouldn’t I have the privilege of making the donation myself?” Billy asked innocently.
“No, the house is burning down,” the exec said, “and we need as much water as possible to put it out. That son of a bitch bolshevik Sinclair must be stopped.”
“And my hard-earned fifty dollars is going to stop him?” Wilder wondered.
Billy was aghast. It seemed childish, foolish and incipiently fascist at the same time. And he knew something about fascism. He went back to his office and asked his colleagues, red-blooded Americans all, what he should do. After all, he was just a hick from Austria and unwise to the ways of American politics. This just didn’t seem like the American way, as he understood it.
They said, “It had to be done,” and “There’s nothing you can do.” You can’t fight city hall, and all that. Some of them agreed that Sinclair
was a Communist. Wilder said he knew a little bit about Sinclair and he was not by any means a Communist.
“Oh, you’re a Communist too?” one writer replied. “You better watch it.”
Wilder was out of fifty dollars and left with two conflicting thoughts concerning the forced donations. One was: It may not be democratic, but it’s a brilliant idea. Maybe if businessmen in Germany had deducted fifty marks from their workers to stop Hitler, Europe would be a safer place today.
The other was: I fled fascism for THIS?
Another Hollywood figure rebelling against the so-called Merriam tax was that “professional againster” James Cagney. He was back in Los Angeles after shooting Devil Dogs of the Air in San Diego. Politically, Jimmy was still skating on thin ice thanks to the flap over his alleged role in last summer’s Communist uprising, so it behooved him to go along with Jack Warner’s request for money for Merriam. But Cagney wouldn’t sign the studio’s check.
At least that’s what he told Frank Scully, head of the writers’ committee for Upton Sinclair, when they met, for secrecy’s sake, just outside the Warner Brothers gate. Scully found it amusing that two solid Americans were huddling on the street, speaking in whispers, as if they were plotting a revolution. Cagney told Scully not only that he had refused to sign the check delivering one day’s wage to Merriam but that if the studio forced him, he would donate one week’s salary to Sinclair. Since that represented a six-to-one advantage for EPIC, Jimmy figured that would stop them.
Unlike the writers, Hollywood’s acting talent, with the exception of Jimmy Cagney and a handful of others, seemed to go along with the Merriam tax without much of a fuss. Early reports that Jean Harlow planned to buck the system proved premature. But the name of another
young star supposedly fighting the Merriam tax had surfaced in Hollywood. It raised eyebrows, for the actress, Katharine Hepburn, had much to lose, having just won an Academy Award. While Jean Harlow’s career, in the Production Code “decency” era, appeared to be imperiled, Hepburn had clear sailing.
But 1934, by and large, was not kind to Kate. After a flop or two, criticism of Hepburn’s cool manner and unconventional dress mounted. Gossip columnists referred to her as La Hepburn. One writer dryly commented that she “occasionally has human impulses and she is not all snobbery and self-satisfaction.” On October 7, Louella Parsons revealed that “photographers have agreed not to take a single pic of her because she’s been so rude.”
Yet, if anything, Hepburn took herself less seriously than others did. When her habit of wearing men’s pants caused a stir in Paris, she commented, “I couldn’t be dignified if I tried.” She hated reading references to Kit Hepburn as the mother of Katharine Hepburn. “My mother is important,” she explained, “I am not.” Kate wished she could paint, play music, or write books instead of act, but “alas, I’m not talented at all.” With her friend Laura Harding she lived in an isolated home in Coldwater Canyon.
As the California governor’s race heated up this autumn, Hepburn was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film to put Hepburn’s career back on track. With that much invested, RKO executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the “Merriam tax,” or both. Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investigator to find out what Hepburn really believed—and whether RKO had threatened to punish her for those beliefs.
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