Conservatives may overstate the impact, but few today would challenge the claim that the movie industry, or “Hollywood” in archaic shorthand, is staunchly, at times proudly, liberal in politics (Jon Voight, Clint Eastwood and Gary Sinise notwithstanding). This has been true for so long that most Americans–even right-wingers obsessed with this–have no idea how and why it happened.
Those who know a bit about the history of the industry know that it was, in fact, founded, and managed for many years, by very conservative men from the East, mainly middle-aged Jewish immigrants. Actors and actresses were long known for contract disputes and sex scandals, not social activism. So when, and why, did the shift to the left occur?
Simply put: Those staunchly Republican studio chiefs were so afraid of famed Socialist writer Upton Sinclair winning the 1934 race for governor—after he swept the Democratic primary leading an amazing grassroots movement known as EPIC (End Poverty in California)—that they took several outrageous actions that inspired liberal actors, writers and directors to finally organize and speak out. And, as we all know, they haven't stopped since.
Those strong-arm studio tactics, what I've termed "Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics," ranged from deducting one day's pay from all of their employees (including top writers and actors) for the Republican candidate's slush fund to the creation at MGM—by saintly producer Irving Thalberg—of faked newsreels, the precursor of "attack ads" on TV that dominate campaigns today (see below).
Just one longterm effect: The Screen Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild had each been formed in 1933 but were attracting little big name talent until the backlash to the 1934 campaign arrived. Soon they were for the first time successfully challenging the bosses on everything from contracts and working conditions to bullying political tactics. And they led the fight that elected a Sinclair ally governor in 1938. More and more films with a progressive point of view appeared.
I first revealed much of this story in my award-winning 1992 book for Random House, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics. The Hollywood angle was just one of the wild and wooly highlights of the book. You can read a full summary in my Nation feature from a few years back.
For some readers, The Campaign of the Century, however entertaining and eye-opening, suffered from one drawback: It takes over 600 pages to tell its tale. And it does so in a day-by-day chronology, meaning, for example that the Hollywood segments are scattered throughout. Some have suggested, for two decades now, that I break out the movie material into a separate, easier-to-consume narrative.