Class Struggle In Hollywood, 1930-1950

Class Struggle In Hollywood, 1930-1950

by Gerald Horne

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Class Struggle In Hollywood, 1930-1950 by Gerald Horne

As World War II wound down in 1945 and the cold war heated up, the skilled trades that made up the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) began a tumultuous strike at the major Hollywood studios. This turmoil escalated further when the studios retaliated by locking out CSU in 1946. This labor unrest unleashed a fury of Red-baiting that allowed studio moguls to crush the union and seize control of the production process, with far-reaching consequences.

This engrossing book probes the motives and actions of all the players to reveal the full story of the CSU strike and the resulting lockout of 1946. Gerald Horne draws extensively on primary materials and oral histories to document how limited a "threat" the Communist party actually posed in Hollywood, even as studio moguls successfully used the Red scare to undermine union clout, prevent film stars from supporting labor, and prove the moguls' own patriotism.

Horne also discloses that, unnoticed amid the turmoil, organized crime entrenched itself in management and labor, gaining considerable control over both the "product" and the profits of Hollywood. This research demonstrates that the CSU strike and lockout were a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, with consequences for everything from production values, to the kinds of stories told in films, to permanent shifts in the centers of power.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780292731387
Publisher: University of Texas Press
Publication date: 02/01/2001
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 364
Sales rank: 879,924
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Gerald Horne is the author of Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. He is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


To understand the intensity of the labor unrest that pockmarked the film industry, it is necessary to understand the repressive atmosphere that characterized California in the years leading up to the strike of March 1945.

    The writers, whose organizing efforts were sparked by Communists, were not the first to organize in Hollywood: they were preceded by the craftsmen—painters, carpenters, plumbers. In the summer of 1918 some five hundred of these workers went on strike and stayed on the picket lines until September, forcing several producers to close down in the process. This unrest continued in 1919 and 1920. By 1921 a number of the studios—thoroughly exasperated—locked out the unions; jurisdictional disputes hampered the unions' ability to forge unity, and by 1922 this era of labor militancy had come to an end.

    Earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had told Congress that "every farsighted patriot should protest, first of all against the growth in this country of that evil thing which is called 'class consciousness.'" By the end of World War I and the outbreak of unrest among studio labor, many in the United States had begun to agree with him; 1919 was a year "like none other in American history. Industrial conflict reached unprecedented levels as more than 300 strikes involved over 4 million workers.... The world had been turned upside down."

    The initiation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 was a direct response to this earlier growth of union sentimentinHollywood. A prime purpose of this new entity, which became fabled for its lavish and glittering "Oscar" ceremony, was a conscious attempt to "promote industrial harmony"; in effect, it "functioned as a company union."

    At the turn of the century, the Golden State contained one of the nation's largest socialist parties, which helped to spawn a fierce police-state apparatus designed to stamp out all traces of labor radicalism. The Socialist Party (SP) mirrored CSU in several ways. Both were influenced heavily by craft unions, both were deemed terribly radical, and both were weak on race matters. In retrospect, the SP's attraction to "oriental exclusion" laws weakened the party's attempt to broaden its base. Thus, with the Red Scare brought by World War I and its aftermath, the SP quickly found itself on the defensive as "vigilante methods ... organized along military lines and with arms" were wielded against the quickly fading organization. Though the SP's Robert LaFollette, running on a third-party ticket, received more votes for president in 1924 in California than his Democratic counterpart, working-class radicalism was basically squashed in the state during this decade.

    Los Angeles pioneered the crushing of labor dissidence. The Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD's) Red Squad was headed by a former "labor spy" for employers. The City of Angels was ruthless in its handling of strikes or any other form of dissidence; "picket lines were assaulted with nightsticks followed by tear-gas projectiles and guns.... [A]s official routine, the unit broke up every demonstration of organized communists and similar groups, raided communist halls every two weeks, confiscated literature, broke up Depression-related gatherings." There was "indiscriminate targeting of political figures, writers, ministers, journalists and prominent citizens." The Red Squad served as the "operational arm" of the powerful Merchants and Manufacturers Association, an influential group of businessmen. Carey McWilliams charged that in the 1930s "at least one member of the board of directors of every liberal-reformist organization in town turned out to be a police spy." In Los Angeles a "powerful alliance of businessmen, boosters, superpatriots and right wing evangelists" combined to make this rapidly growing city a hell on earth for those who went on strike.

    Hollywood did not escape the snare of repression. This fact immediately struck the British émigré Cedric Belfrage when he arrived there in the 1920s. He noticed the pervasiveness of the "gangster element" who were integral to the industry's political architecture. Class stratification was a signal aspect of the film colony, and the ostentatious luxury in which so many lived helped to engender a rampant fear that the great unwashed might seize it all; this fear in turn sparked a desperate desire for an ever-growing apparatus of repression. Belfrage felt that "the contrast" between and among classes "was so much greater here than it was anywhere else"; there was a "great emphasis on how much people made" and a reluctance to "consort with people who were in a different [class]." Along with this wealth came an almost hysterical concern with the rudiments of class, said Belfrage, who noted a particular fascination with English butlers, titles, and the like.

    The authorities seemed to fear that Depression-influenced art was much too oriented toward working-class radicalism. John Howard Lawson, Clifford Odets, Bennett Cerf, Malcolm Cowley, and other luminaries published a pamphlet in 1935 providing gruesome detail about the arduous plight of progressive theater. They decried "police terrorism: nightsticks, tear-gas, riot calls and jails. Municipal persecution: violation of non-existent fire regulations, condemnation of theaters used for years, trumped-up charges of 'blasphemy' or 'obscenity,' the threat of losing your regular job if you appear in an amateur production of a play of social protest. And the kidnapping and beating and robbing of actors and directors—such are the dangers that confront the vital, sincere theaters in America today!"

    As so often happens, there were other "crimes"—large and small—undergirding a number of the great fortunes of Hollywood. There was the flood of capital from mobsters propping up the industry and there were the small indignities exacted on employees to garner profits. Studios routinely worked employees like latter-day slaves, "from sunup to sundown." Dangerous stunts often led to broken bones—and worse. Agents routinely cheated their clients.

    Writers, the fulcrum upon which the industry rested, were subject to a special exploitation; their recognition of their plight and the presence within their ranks of more than one trade union militant ensured that writers would attract the angry attention of management.

    When industry titans met in Manhattan in 1929, one concluded that "the dominant, I might say the menacing force in moving pictures [is] the scenario writer." Because good writers were few and far between, producers were "afraid to quarrel" with them and, thus, "let [them] do pretty much as [they] liked. The result was a type of picture which should never have reached the screen." This situation must end, agreed management.

    But it was not only the writers who were being targeted by the moguls. Edward M. Gilbert of the Screen Set Designers, Illustrators and Decorators recalled that in the early days of the industry "six designers were discharged by MGM studio for no other reason than attending a committee meeting in a private home where the possibility of organizing was discussed." The studios maintained their own corps of spies to ferret out information about labor organizing. In 1933, for example, a top official of the Pinkerton's detective agency forwarded "a report" to Universal Pictures concerning the "IWW"—the anarcho-syndicalist "Wobblies"—and its alleged influence on unions.

    But it was the Red Squad that was the most pervasive organ of surveillance. The group's files included mailing lists of anarchists, "radicals" of various stripes, immigrant groups, and the like; it compiled "weekly intelligence reports" that scrutinized virtually every twitch made by every presumed agitator in Southern California. In the fall of 1936 William Hynes of the Red Squad was hailed by an entrepreneur who told him, "I believe our boat builder's strike at San Pedro is practically over and, due to the wonderful protection that you gave us in maintaining law and order, I am happy to say that the shops are running non-Union...."

    The Red Squad also kept in close touch with the right wing globally. In 1934, for example, Hermann Schwinn of the "Freunde des Neuen Deutschland" informed William Hynes about an upcoming mass meeting in Southern California protesting the anti-German boycott. He went on to "thank" Hynes "personally ... for the splendid service your department has given during the visit of the officers and men of the German cruiser 'Karlsruhe.'" The LAPD also shared information concerning various Italian radicals in the region with the consulate of Italy.

    However, being on the West Coast, the Red Squad maintained a keener interest in ties with Imperial Japan, which too had an interest in cracking down on Japanese and Japanese American radicals in the vicinity. In 1937 Kaoru Nakashima, secretary of Tokyo's consulate, sought information from the LAPD on the "organization and system of [the] Communist Party in California," including the "approximate number of Communists in California." Amazingly, this information was forwarded, and it might have proved helpful to Tokyo after Pearl Harbor if an invasion of California had come to fruition. The consulate sought specific information about "Geo. Ishinge (his false name is Geo. Tauda) who is a member of the RED COMMUNIST PARTY [sic]." Hynes contacted General Ralph Van Deman of military intelligence about information on Harry Steinmetz and "his possible association with prominent San Diego Japanese, who may or may not be members of the Communist Party."

    But Japanese and Japanese Americans with Hollywood connections interested the Red Squad as well. The group was seeking information on Charlie White, who was "supposed to be half Japanese and half Russian or English." He was "posing as a costume expert and character actor; he is understood to have mingled with John Reed Club members in Hollywood." Supposedly he was engaged in an unspecified espionage mission. He was "sort of slant-eyed (but not as much as an Oriental)" and "almost passing as a white man"; he was "said to be running around with a white girl from Seattle." He was born in Japan and spoke "English, Russian and Japanese fluently." Imperial Japan, which a few years later attacked the United States, was thankful to the LAPD for its aid, e.g., when it routed "Communists who were picketing in and about the entrance of the Yamato Hall, where a Japanese statesman was addressing ... the members of the Japanese community."

    The Red Squad collaborated with domestic as well as foreign elites. LAPD provided pistol permits and gold badges to numerous directors and executives and some actors. According to New Masses, "[T]his award is bestowed with the understanding that the recipient will be ready when called upon to fight in ... the 'War on Reds.'" What seemed to rile these rightists particularly was the idea that radicals, driven by the exigencies of the Depression, were diverging sharply from the stereotyped image they had enjoyed previously. Hynes noted bitterly that "in past years the popular conception of a revolutionist was that of a vicious looking individual, broad shouldered, deep chested and wearing bushy whiskers, whose eyes blazed with the fiendish light of maniacal fury and hatred—clothed in uncouth garments—and carrying a bomb in his pocket and a sword in his hand." But now "the most dangerous apostles of Communism and revolution today are fresh-faced [and] fair-haired." The provost at UCLA, Ernest Moore, agreed, calling his campus "one of the worst hotbeds of campus Communism in America." Despite the ferocious repression visited upon Southern California, the 1930s witnessed an upsurge of radicalism that the Red Squad could not arrest totally.

    The Red Squad saw its solemn duty as preventing the blooming of radicalism. It went to extraordinary lengths to accomplish this goal. Though it did not hesitate to collaborate with Nazi Germany, it also ceaselessly monitored anti-Nazi efforts. In 1937 its report on a gathering of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League noted that the "Jewish nationality" was "in predominance." This assemblage included the actor Paul Muni, "who, by the way, was just voted recognition in the Jewish Hall of Famous Jews [sic]."

    As a result of such suffocating monitoring, the upsurge of labor proceeded fitfully in Hollywood. In 1933 production in Los Angeles was shut down for a while by striking electricians, but scabs were brought in. James G. Stewart, who was involved in this fracas, recalled that these newcomers helped to produce some flawed movies. After the regular workers returned, he had to dub Little Women, which had been poorly recorded during the strike. Even after the official settlement, there was "continued disruption and conflict between ... International Sound Technicians" and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 40. The transition from silent films to "talkies" predictably inspired further jurisdictional disputes between and among unions.

    The 1933 strike provided bitter lessons for IATSE. IBEW was able to use its studio and political ties, along with its organized crime connections, to subdue IATSE. By the 1940s CSU was accusing IATSE of employing similar tactics.

    Little Women was not the only film reportedly affected by the unsteady state of labor-management relations. New Masses charged that MGM's Riff Raff and Warner's The Frisco Kid were designed to bolster the antiunion movement. Worse, Paramount was contemplating doing a feature on the strikebreaker Allan Pinkerton, with the emphasis on him "not as an enemy of labor, but as a hero of capital."

    Yet at this juncture, despite the beginnings of a budding radicalism, studio labor remained relatively weak. In fact, studio labor had taken a voluntary 10 percent wage cut in 1932. Such outrages led to the 1933 strike but disaster struck as not only scabs but also fellow workers—e.g., Teamsters and Musicians—freely crossed the picket lines while the loyalties of others—e.g., Cameramen—were bought with handsome raises.

    This was a difficult time for Hollywood. Small studios like Tiffany, Sono Art-World Wide, Invincible, and Mayfair disappeared. Paramount, which was to control 1,200 theaters in the United States, some 230 in Canada, and more in other nations, owned more movie houses than any other entity in the world; however, by early 1933 the company was in receivership and voluntary bankruptcy, which lasted for almost two years.

    Studio labor too had reached its nadir. Though Jack Warner was bragging in the fall of 1933 that the studios had just enjoyed the "biggest month as far as motion picture extras are concerned since talkies began"—with a startling "'increase' in the number of people on the payroll" at almost "100%"—the unions were on life support. Warner had reason to celebrate; by the end of 1934 he and his studio comrades had played a pivotal role in repulsing the profound challenge provided by Upton Sinclair's race for governor; this victory was viewed as a permanent bruise for labor and the left.

    Edmond DePatie, a vice president at Warner Bros., recalled that workers were "exploited en masse." It was "almost sickening" and "not uncommon to work people as late as eleven and twelve o'clock at night" and "every Saturday night, fifty two weeks a year." And if you objected to this regimen, unemployment was your alternative. An official of the Screen Publicists Guild noted that "insecurity played a big role in [the] growth of the union. It was not uncommon for a man employed several years to be told on Friday morning that he wasn't working after Friday afternoon. It's nice to be able to call the stars by their first names, but when the reward for 15 years' service is a salary of $40," the privilege was hardly worth it. The idea of a "reserve army of labor" was not a theoretical figment in Hollywood. Pat Casey, a studio executive, observed that before the advent of the CSU "there were thousands of fellows hanging around those gates trying to get jobs in the studios."

    Joseph North lamented the plight of screenwriters, who "punched a clock, sat in cubbyholes, writing to order like tailors cutting a suit. Actors worked when they worked; up early in the morning, on location till all hours." Like others, he too was struck by the pervasive insecurity of the industry; actors and other creative types who had to dig deep into their psyches to tap their muse, were driven further into psychological turmoil by the instability of the industry in which they toiled.

                   * Willie Bioff was born in Russia in 1899; he once organized kosher butchers in Chicago and had served a stint as a pimp before taking over a weakened IATSE local in the early 1930s with his close colleague George Browne—who once operated a soup kitchen. Browne, born in about 1893, had been defeated by a 2-1 margin as early as 1932 in his effort to lead an IATSE local. At that juncture, the projectionists—the heart of the local— were an essential part of the industry, for if a film could not be screened, no revenue could flow to the studios. Indeed, the critical role of the projectionists convinced studio labor generally that it should align with IATSE—which had this worker group within its ranks—rather than another labor organization, such as CSU. The projectionists were the weak link seized by Bioff and Browne.

    This link was seized—and maintained—with violence. Bioff, it was charged, "beat" Herbert Green, an official of the projectionists local "mercilessly with a blackjack, as the result of which [he] died." In 1935 Clyde Osterberg was "rubbed out" while trying to organize an independent union of projectionists. Days later, "Two-Gun" Louis Altrie was murdered while trying to organize a union comprising janitors who worked in theaters.

    One night Bioff and Browne were celebrating their good fortune at a Chicago nightspot, Nick Dean's One Hundred Club, a known hangout of Al Capone and his cronies. The two were gambling and lost huge amounts, but their sizable bankrolls caught the eye of resident mobsters. Shortly thereafter they were called to a meeting on Michigan Avenue across from the Carleton Hotel, where they were asked to turn over half of the union's revenues, a figure which later rose to two thirds—or else. They complied. Later Frank Nitti—the "enforcer"—installed his man, Isidore Zevin, as IATSE's accountant to make sure that there was no funny business when the time came for the mob's cut. Browne, who later became a vice president of the American Federation of Labor, also testified under oath that the attorney Sidney Korshak sat in on the meetings between himself and Nitti, as the latter's representative.

    In 1934 Bioff and Browne were invited to a dinner at the Casino de Paris in Manhattan. Bioff later testified on pain of being charged with perjury—that "the dinner was on the balcony of the theater cafe"; they sat at a "long table on the balcony. It was to introduce George Browne and me to Charlie Lucky"—i.e., the infamous gangster "Lucky" Luciano. "I am sure that Frank Costello was there and Jack Dragno [sic]" a leader of the L.A. mob. Browne and Bioff were told "many times to be free to call on Charlie Lucky or on Frank Costello if we find any difficulties here in our work, and if we need anything to call on them and be free to call on them, because that is their people." Later they met with Capone himself at his estate in Miami. With the connivance of the mob, Bioff and Browne were installed as leaders of IATSE nationwide. In return, the two received mob muscle to help in persuading nonunion movies houses to sign up with IATSE.

    Later, Bioff recalled, "the time came when we all sat together, [Nicholas] Schenck [of MGM], [Sidney] Kent [of Fox], myself and Browne and agreed to take $50,000 from each of the major producing companies and $25,000 from each of the independent companies." CSU later argued that these payments were bribes to ensure labor peace, while the studios argued that they were being extorted by the mob. Undeniably, the centralized structure of IATSE, which forbade local strikes without the president's authorization, made control of this office a valuable prize indeed.

    For individuals claiming they were being extorted, the executives were quite friendly toward Bioff. Joseph Schenck, a top executive at Fox, arranged for Bioff and his wife to be transported to Brazil and Europe in 1938 when tax agents wanted to query the union leader about the sources of his wealth—some of which came from the Schencks. Bioff longingly recalled the "Normandie ... the finest cruise afloat." Onboard was the wife of Louis B. Mayer, "a very sweet woman," he noted fondly. Harry Warner and his wife—acting strangely for victims of extortion—sent a bon voyage telegram and orchids to Bioff's wife. The Bioffs were feted by producers in London, where reservations had been made for them at the posh Dorchester.

    Nor was this the extent of the gratuities and hospitality Hollywood extended to Bioff. Joseph Schenck sold him some shares of Fox "when it was selling for $25 or 21 1/2 or something like that. He let me make that profit." Bioff also went to religious services with Harry Warner and visited his sprawling ranch, though he denied meeting the glamorous actress Claudette Colbert there. Bioff admitted to being just as close with Spyros Skouras of Fox as he was with the Warners. He often met with Harry Cohn and Jack Dragna at Roselli's apartment. And yes, Johnny Roselli visited Bioff's L.A. office at least twice a month to pick up the money that was supposedly extorted from the studios.

    To be fair, executives claimed to fear that great harm would befall them if they were not nice to Bioff and Browne. Nicholas Schenck insisted that "in one of our theaters ... we found a bomb under the roof of the theater, that holds between 3800 and 4000 seats. We have reported it to the prosecutor and we got no help and were never able to find out who put it there." However, the executives could not bring themselves to admit that their close relationship with the mob's union puppets stemmed from the need for mobster capital during the Great Depression. Nor could they answer satisfactorily why they didn't broach these illegal dealings with their board or their counsel, not to mention the L.A. district attorney.

    Why did Nicholas Schenck fear that the government would find out about payments to the IATSE leadership? Most people being extorted would not be so anxious about the foul deed being discovered. Why did Schenck invite Browne to visit his Long Island estate so frequently and to take yachting trips with him? Why did the two intimately address each other as "Nick" and "George"? Why was there "discussion about the painters" at their meetings? Why did the film executive Sidney Kent speak at IATSE conventions and praise Browne effusively? Why did Bioff and Browne claim that the moguls gave them money as an insurance policy to guard against the rise of a more progressive, CIO-like union? How could Bioff, when he went to the chief editor of Variety to demand the printing of "complimentary" articles about the IATSE leadership, promise that the producers would withdraw advertising from the trade paper unless this demand were heeded? Why, after the editor refused, did one official at a congressional hearing claim, "I have all the Varietys of this period and I can assure you that there is no advertising in them."

    The studios' largesse allowed Bioff and Browne to live like latter-day rajahs. The 5'6", 200-pound Bioff was an incredible sight; he appeared to be neckless, with a head that seemed to rise directly from his muscular torso and shoulders. His moon-shaped face supported multiple chins, and the ugly scar under his lip accentuated this unpleasant visage. His boast about drinking "100 bottles of a certain brand of beer a day" meant that he had a distinctive odor, slurred speech, and occasionally, a confused mind.

    Yet the decidedly nonglamorous Bioff owned eighty acres in the lush San Fernando Valley "hard by the estates of Tyrone Power and Annabella, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard" and other glamorous stars; his ranch included "$600 olive trees ... 'the biggest and oldest in California.'" Browne was no pauper either. When Roselli introduced him to the patrician Alfred Vanderbilt at a plush club in Hollywood, it was just part of another ordinary day consorting with the privileged few. Both leaders lived extremely well thanks to the sweaty toil of thousands of studio workers.

     In the fall of 1935 more workers joined IATSE, while the mobsters were investing in the industry; in other words the mob was supplying both labor and capital to Hollywood. Using the subsequent leverage, the mob enabled thousands of workers— including "soundmen, the propertymen, the greensmen, the electricians and the laboratory workers"— to enter IATSE with the studios' acquiescence. Ironically, the mob-led IATSE was closer to the ideal of an industrial union—a harbinger of the CIO—than CSU, a federation of craft unions. Thus, one IATSE local with only two hundred members in 1933 had five thousand by 1937. Correspondingly, organized crime's influence over the film industry grew dramatically during the 1930s.

    This reality was little known, for media figures such as the columnist Victor Riesel were busily perpetrating the myth that studio labor was dominated by Communists. "By 1935" the "Communists and their comrades," he thundered, "dominated or controlled the movie cameramen's union, the sound men's outfit, the laboratory technicians (which they seized by blackmailing its leaders into resigning), the costumers and the studio editors." Roy Brewer, a leader of the anticommunist forces that routed CSU, agreed: "[Y]ou see," he recalled, "in 1934, the Soviet Union dispatched funds to certain American Communists in order to finance the takeover of the motion picture industry. The idea was to use motion pictures as propaganda to soften the peoples of the world toward communism." The public had difficulty becoming outraged about the domination of organized crime while being fed a steady diet of propaganda about domination by the organized left.

    Soon after the Red Squad and its minions had thoroughly blunted labor radicalism, studio labor began clamoring against the misrule of Bioff and Browne. With the advent of their leadership, already bad working conditions apparently became worse. Scenic artists, costumers, plumbers, et al. were "on tap twenty-fours a day ... and you better hug the telephone or someone else will get the call. You can be snatched to work on location for a couple of hours, then not see a paycheck for weeks." Sexual harassment was as common as boring movies. By 1937 there was already a "merciless ... blacklist" in operation that kept many workers from protesting. Even so, the Screen Writers Guild, with the Communist John Howard Lawson leading the way, had demonstrated what was possible when it organized in the face of stiff resistance from the studio and their creation the Screen Playwrights.

    Thus, when Hollywood labor struck in 1937, ostensibly over a special 2 percent levy that lined the pockets of Bioff and Browne, the workers had two formidable forces to contend with—the studios and IATSE. The reporter Florabel Muir recalled later that at the strike's "height" a "group of strange outlanders arrived in town. Some of these men told around that they came from Chicago.... I saw these fellows in action. They all drove Zephyrs and obtained gun permits from the administration then governing Los Angeles." The mob had deployed these goons to pulverize studio labor, which in turn had secured muscle from the longshore union. Muir witnessed "one major engagement near the Pico Boulevard gate of the [Fox] studio in which fists put guns to flight. I also saw a platoon of swarthy gents identified as of the Chicago mopper-uppers swagger into a gun store directly across the street from ... strike headquarters. Word came they were at target practice."

    While testifying at the Roselli trial, Herb Sorrell vividly recalled this strike, which lasted for about two months, ending on 10 June 1937. He detailed the melee at the painters' hiring hall on Santa Monica Boulevard, where the studio goons and their opponents broke bones in profusion. The mob also brought some thugs to confront Sorrell directly: the pugnacious pugilist was captain of the picket line at Warner Bros., and he later became captain over the lines at all the studios. One day he received a tip that the goons were about to strike; "we did not wait for them to attack us; we went and attacked them. We went to their hotels when they were having a meeting, and we would catch them coming out and we would slaughter them.... [W]e never carried a firearm, we never carried anything but our fists, but we knocked the devil out of them." When the mobsters tried to secure scabs to take the strikers' place, Sorrell and his comrades attacked again "and the ambulance made 19 trips hauling them away."

    Sorrell and his co-workers were able to secure support from "liberal actors, writers and sympathetic people" and from the painters' union nationally, not to mention the San Francisco-based longshore union. Bioff fumed at this effort and said he "was going to get" Sorrell; "and in his gutter language [Sorrell] was going to have [Bioff] doing things to him down on Seventh and Broadway that no man should do to another—very bad. And [Bioff] repeated that time and time again." This was not the first—nor last—time that the allusion of homosexual abuse was raised as punishment by the mob and their allies.

    What had inflamed the workers' ire was not just the Bioff-Browne levy. Rather, the workers were irate that their 10 percent wage increase was undercut by the use of a double shift; e.g., one six-hour shift at Paramount would be followed by another for RKO—with no overtime pay. Thus, the increase was in effect a wage cut.

    Of course, in I937 "lead property workers, for example, earned two and one half times as much per week as did U.S. manufacturing workers on the average, and over one and one half times as much per week as did traditionally well-paid newspaper, printing and publishing workers." However, despite earning high hourly or weekly rates, film workers often made low annual wages. IATSE "prop makers, electricians, and grips averaged between $1215-1738 for the year 1938. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that a family of five in [Los Angeles] needed, at the very least, income of $2095 during 1938 to maintain 'minimum health and decency.'" Studios filmed primarily during spring and summer, so employment during the 1930s fluctuated between 19,500 in March to 27,500 in June to 18,500 in November.

    However, Hollywood labor could take heart from the obvious upsurge of labor in the region. From 1936 to 1938 "union membership in Los Angeles jumped from less than 20,000 to 125,000 (of about 600,000 workers in all job sectors)". In such an atmosphere, the corruption of IATSE could not stand unchallenged.

    IATSE—dissatisfied with the wealth generated by the levy and seemingly oblivious to the changing political dynamics—was in the midst of demanding "full jurisdiction" over "all workers in the production end of motion picture business from porters to stars." An NLRB official, with typical understatement, acknowledged that this maneuver would "bring up a tremendous amount of opposition." Senator Robert LaFollette was told that "the most vicious intimidation is being carried on against union men by the police, who are working closely with the employers in an effort to discredit union members and smash our unions. Gangsters and gunmen have been imported to this area ... and the police department have issued gun permits to them."

    These events were enough to energize the most passive union members; consequently, the Federated Motion Picture Crafts (FMPC), which spearheaded the strike, attracted adherents. Harlan Holmden, an IATSE official, recalled later how Johnny Roselli had brought "five or six of his friends" to Los Angeles, "more or less to maintain order" among the increasingly restive workers. Holmden witnessed the union hall skirmish involving these "friends." There was "some broken [plate glass windows] and some furniture demolished"—along with a few arms and legs.

    The mobsters and the moguls directly collaborated to break this strike. Lew Blix, another IATSE official, testified under oath that he was in Bioff's office when Eddie Mannix, a studio executive, made the call to request strikebreakers against FMPC.

    Though FMPC waned against superior strength, Sorrell and the painters were big winners; that he had turned down Bioff's bribes in favor of battling the gangsters head-to-head brought new luster to his painters. Soon other crafts wanted to ally with his union, laying the basis for the formation of CSU. Although mob muscle did crush the progressive forces, the lessons learned by Sorrell set the stage for the rise of CSU.

                 * The Bioff-Browne administration in IATSE—like many of its AFL counterparts—made no effort to alter the lily-white character of its many locals. In fact, IATSE sent numerous messages affirming racialism. The 1936 national convention in Kansas City was typical, with the event opening to the playing of "Dixie." Constructing whiteness and, more specifically, reconciling the component elements of whiteness on an altar of conservatism and defense of the status quo was a prime object of IATSE.

    Naturally Hollywood rampantly discriminated against African Americans. By the time CSU was finally crushed only 10 of the 9,635 weekly studio employees were African Americans, and all of those were actors. There was not "one Negro secretary, cutter, art director, cameramen, grip, reader, prop man, accountant ... in the motion picture industry." For African Americans the "blacklist" came earlier, hit harder, and lingered longer. Indeed, CSU never came to see that the illiberalism that sustained Jim Crow was the same one that sustained the blacklist.

    Nevertheless, the unions' lily-whiteness was not solely due to CSU, since management had the primary role in hiring. Whatever the cause, when Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee came to Los Angeles in the late 1940s to act in a feature film, they "were immediately struck by the fact that we didn't see any black people working anywhere. No technicians, no grips, no electricians, no props people. We didn't see any dark skins in the makeup and wardrobe departments or as hairdressers. From the minute we entered the gate in the morning till the time we left, we were in an all-white world, and that reality was hard for us to ignore." They "once asked a makeup technician why he didn't inquire about the absence of blacks in the unions.... [H]e said ... that he hadn't given it much thought." Unfortunately, this viewpoint was fairly typical, even in CSU.

    CSU did not aggressively fight for racial equality, and as African American migration to Los Angeles increased in the 1940s, the union found it difficult to secure the support of blacks, though it was in desperate need of allies. Frances Williams was one of the leading black actresses —and activists—of her generation, going on in the 1980s in the twilight of her varied career to captivate television audiences with her performances in the show Frank's Place. She recalled that in the 1940s in Hollywood the black actor John Marriott, who was "extremely well-trained" and "had great dignity," was harassed by film crews who "purposely went out of the way to sabotage his career.... [T]he technicians adjusted the blinkers on the lights so that there wasn't one shot you could clearly recognize him." There was a "complete absence of black extras. The Screen Extras Guild had black members who were almost never hired." When the "first black technician [was] hired to work on a picture in Hollywood," she maintained with a lingering scintilla of bitterness, it was for the 1950s classic Salt of the Earth, which was produced by "blacklisted" left-wing artists. As the 1990s wound down, Davis and Dee continued to maintain that "unions in the film industry were, and some still are, notoriously racist." Despite its progressive profile, CSU did not forthrightly and rudely challenge this bias when it had the opportunity.

    Women of all races within IATSE also suffered. They worked in jobs "traditionally associated with social constructions of femininity such as office work, make-up, hair-styling, costuming, entry-level animation, and screen story analysis." During the war they moved into new jobs "as a result of manpower shortage" as "screenwriters ... laboratory technicians, film cutters, cartoonists, script clerks and readers." But with the disappearance of CSU, women's already weak position deteriorated further. According to a Variety headline, when Soviet film workers toured Hollywood some years after the smashing of CSU, they queried wondrously, "Why are there no women comrades?"

    Such matters hardly concerned Bioff and Browne, however, at their 1936 Kansas City convention of 666 locals (with only 27 unrepresented). Browne reported that "non-union [movie] houses" on the West Coast were "a rarity." He was upset, however, by the fact that in many cities nationally "cashiers, doormen and ushers" at movie houses were organized by other unions. He was concerned that the New Deal's Works Progress Administration and its federal theater project might attract patrons who otherwise might go to movie houses and commercial theaters, thus undermining the employers of IATSE members. He objected to the existence of the American Society of Cinematographers, which he considered a "company union" that had "intimidated" and "coerced" workers to join its ranks. He wanted to organize carnival and circus workers, as well as workers in night clubs, supper clubs, cabarets, and summer theaters. If he had succeeded, the mob would have tightened its stranglehold over the leisure time—and consciousness—of a good deal of the public.

    This situation explains why the left's challenge during the 1937 strike had been met with such savagery by the mob—much was at stake. When IATSE met in Cleveland in 1938 there was an air of self-congratulation on having beaten back the left; "the ever popular 'Dixie' drew the first burst of applause from the Southern Delegation," signaling that IATSE's conservatism remained hegemonic. However, there were already signs that the comfortable consensus was being challenged. Jeff Kibre, viewed widely as a Communist, presented a report from "IA Progressives" in Hollywood: these locals with membership of about 10,000 had been under a virtual state of emergency for 2.5 years; they were chafing under the 2 percent assessment, which like most union mandates was enforced via "intimidation through gang bosses." There was a "speedup" that led to "accidents to members [as] an almost daily occurrence." Despite hourly wage increases, annual wages continued to fall; craftspeople who made $2,400 in 1929 received only $1,500 in 1937. Half the membership was unemployed, but no effort was made to help them. Studios tended to make films during spring and summer, which left many workers with long stretches of inactivity. IATSE required relatively high fees, dues, and assessments, while studios often hired and fired without regard to seniority. During the 1937 strike the L.A. Central Council had passed a resolution calling IATSE "a company union and a scab-herding agency" and Kibre was hard-pressed to disagree. The "IA Progressives"—who ultimately formed the kernel from which CSU grew—wanted one general studio union in a "single headquarters." Separate crafts should be maintained and should meet monthly, they thought, but each craft should elect delegates to a general administrative council.

    Kibre's intervention was not greeted with equanimity. In fact, presenting this report required enormous bravery, for the mob was notorious for murdering union dissidents. Kibre escaped unscathed, however, and the convention proceeded with remarks provided by Mayor—and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice—Harold Burton, Sidney Kent of Fox, and other dignitaries.

    However, after the convention, the IATSE leadership did not forget Kibre. Born in Philadelphia in 1906, Kibre came to Los Angeles in 1908. He majored in English at UCLA before gravitating to Hollywood, where his mother worked. In 1934 he joined the Communist Party and became one of Hollywood's leading Reds. Somehow IATSE got hold of a report supposedly written by Kibre and intended for the party leadership. The union circulated the document widely. Here Kibre was said to be seeking a break with IATSE "as the transitional stage towards an Industrial Union affiliated with the CIO." Hollywood, Kibre reportedly said, "probably has the greatest labor ramifications of any major industry in the country. There are more categories of labor and greater variations of income than in any other single industry. On top of this, the contradiction of craft unionism in an economic area demanding industrial action [has] virtually bankrupted trade union morale. Here for the most part is not the problem of organizing the unorganized but the more complex [task] of organizing the disorganized." Kibre was said to be expecting an even larger slash in union wages than had been experienced so far and, thus, "the IA as a company instrument must become industry wide to fulfill its role." In other words, IATSE would not be able to contain workers' anger at this cut unless it encompassed virtually all of studio labor. This could only worsen the horrid conditions in the industry, where seamstresses could earn as little as 35 cents per hour while actors could earn $250,000 working on the same project. Yet like the mob, the Communists were said to be looking ahead to organizing hundreds of thousands of workers in the leisure and amusement industries.

    IATSE's wailing publicity over this report indicated not only that Bioff and Browne were becoming increasingly nervous about maintaining their role, but also they were increasingly resorting to the Red Scare to deflect attention from their own misdeeds. At the 1940 convention in Louisville, the ritualistic playing of "Dixie" seemed to have a desperate air about it. Browne's report hysterically rambled on about the perils of Communism, "the most imminent and dangerous force standing in the path of our continued success." The locus for this pestilence was California; "only recently" did IATSE "succeed in suppressing a Communistic element that was threatening the existence of our West Coast locals." Approvingly, he cited the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had arrived at similar conclusions about the Reds in Los Angeles. "The conditions existing on the West Coast," Browne concluded with dismay, "are entirely different from the rest of the country. Our International being labor's foremost representatives in the Coast's principal industry ... it is only natural to expect that we would bear the brunt of such attacks." Though Seattle and San Francisco understandably were seen as the vanguard of labor radicalism in the West, given the general strikes that had rocked both cities in previous years, studio labor was beginning to stand out as a similar beacon of militancy in the open-shop haven that was Los Angeles. Browne was worried justifiably about the left's dredging up the tangled legal problems of his comrade Bioff, and about a possible indictment as a result. Browne was even more worried about the challenge of the left-leaning United Studio Technicians Guild to IATSE hegemony. Studio executives, particularly from MGM, had met at length with Bioff and Browne to ensure an IATSE victory, but there were disturbing signs that organized crime's hegemony among studio labor might eventually succumb to the strength of the organized left.

    Herb Sorrell argued cogently that "Willie Bioff made more Communists in Hollywood than any other Communist organizer could possibly make. He laid down the racketeering, domineering attitude to the workers, and he made them do things that they did not want to do, and they resented it." Sorrell was right; Bioff and Browne's actions did engender an opposite radical reaction. Even after the 1939 pact between the USSR and Germany, which notoriously drew no loud objection from U.S. Communists, Red prestige continued to grow. This success resulted not because of Moscow gold, but instead because the party seemed to be the only organized force with enough muscle and organizational facility to confront an IATSE leadership backed by the brute strength of organized crime.

                 * As World War II approached, the political dynamics within the United States began to change. The impending alliance with the Soviet Union helped to erode the anticommunism that had buoyed Bioff and Browne, just as movies themselves helped to alter the perceptions of Reds. By the spring of 1941 both IATSE leaders had been indicted for their financial miscues. It was in such an environment that Johnny Roselli was put on trial, and Bioff and Browne were ousted from the IATSE leadership—a development that supposedly extinguished mob influence in the union. A "popular front"—a broad array of Communist and other forces united against the ultraright and fascism—was arising.

    Similar reverberations were occurring in film industry unions with profiles similar to that of IATSE. In the spring of 1941 Ben Budman, a member of the Teamsters' Hollywood local was expelled for being a Communist. There was nothing extraordinary about his dismissal, except that the union's general counsel, Joseph Padway, intervened, reminding business agent Joseph Tuohy that the firing had violated due process. Violating the rights of a Red would earlier have been a trifling issue, but the political climate was changing. The Teamsters were discovering that "because of the higher wages paid ... many people who are presently employed in defense industries are attempting to quit their jobs in vital war work to obtain employment in the motion picture industry." This stampede was bringing in added dues, and the new political environment did not allow the unrestrained red-baiting that had previously characterized this union? Particularly after June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and the year after when the United States and the USSR became close allies, assaults on the rights of Communists were seen as untenable. Thus, when the right-leaning Tuohy aligned with conservative forces in Hollywood, he was reproved for joining those "that have nailed us to the cross during all the years in which we were endeavoring to organize."

    Even the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which eventually became a bulwark of opposition against CSU, was showing signs of progressivism as the war was launched. Jimmy Cagney, Edgar Bergen, Roddy McDowall, Jack Benny, Loretta Young, and many others gathered for a birthday bash for President Roosevelt. Cagney, who was close to the left, assumed the leadership of SAG in 1943. SAG worked with the California State Federation of Labor on basic working-class issues concerning prices and wages. The actor, it was said, must come down from his "ivory" tower and act politically. "Leading actresses of the USSR" were praised and "anti-Negro discrimination" was excoriated. SAG sought to organize film extras, "bit players, stuntmen, etc.," but lost to the competing Screen Players Union. Yet even this defeat showed the changing atmosphere, for not only were unions able to organize, but the campaign was characterized by "mass meetings and underground pulling and hauling for votes." Previously mass meetings in Hollywood to organize a union probably would have been broken up by either the Red Squad or the mobsters.

    Writers had long been more militant than actors, and this situation did not change as the war approached. Ella Winter acknowledged that the writers were the "group most feared by Hollywood producers"; they "deal with those uncontrollable entities, 'ideas'; and you don't know where an idea might lead you." Writers were beginning to object to the system whereby "studios own everything a writer creates—plays, novels, radio scripts, poems—if written while he is under contract, and [a] contract for one year calls for three months without pay." With wonder, Winter remarked, "[I]n the last few years there have been great changes in Hollywood. The town has become union-conscious and world-conscious"; writers were "ceasing to be morticians and are becoming doctors."

    The mood of progressivism was spreading. In the summer of 1942 office workers in five L.A. film distribution offices went on strike; the action ended after seven days with an agreement by the employer to "grant union shop and job classifications substantially the same as those in Hollywood studios."

    The FBI could not help but notice these liberalizing developments, not least because of their reflection on the silver screen. Like meticulous film critics, the FBI minutely analyzed a multitude of films deemed to be pro-Soviet or overly radical, such as Mission to Moscow, Action in the North Atlantic, Hangmen Also Die, Keeper of the Flame, Edge of Darkness, North Star, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Song of Russia, and Seventh Cross. The FBI kept lists of everyone involved with such films, even though only a few people directly affected the ideological stance taken by this engaged cinema.

    However, with the winds blowing so resolutely to the left, intimidating those drifting in that direction was difficult. The United Auto Workers was among the unions producing educational films and contemplating the production of feature-length films, all with a reform-minded touch. The Hollywood Writers Mobilization and the Hollywood Democratic Committee were among the left-leaning organizations that flourished during the early 1940s.

    Besides the leavening influences of the war, other developments shaped Hollywood during this time. The struggle of set designers was at the heart of CSU, and unfolding events gave them an advantageous position. Shooting that had formerly been done at remote locations was being moved to "home lots. There will be extensive building of permanent outdoor sets in the heart of Hollywood once more." The impetus for this "re-centralization" was the "increase in planes zooming through [the] San Fernando Valley skies for testing, training and service maneuvers. The valley studios—Warner's, Universal, Republic—are moving all the outdoor sets possible under soundproof stages. Columbia will make less and less use of its 40 acre development of street sets in the valley and find outdoor space nearer home.... Script workers are rapidly developing new techniques to keep their characters off the streets. Process work—the use of canned shots of foreign street scenes and scenery racing past the car window—will come into its heyday." By bringing more workers under one roof, this "re-centralization" facilitated worker unity and union organizing while enhancing the role of set designers.

    This impetus for set designers simultaneously boosted CSU—and Herb Sorrell. He had already played a leading role in a highly contested strike among cartoonists, and since then he had been regarded as Hollywood's top labor leader. This position gave him the clout needed to form CSU.

    By early 1941 Variety itself was touting Sorrell as "studio labor's No. 1 leader." Two years later this paper of record concluded that his "Painters Local 644 now is generally recognized as the No. 1 film union.... Let a union mention Sorrell and the Producers reach for a pen to sign" a contract. All manner of studio labor flocked to Sorrell and his Painters, because of their supposed ability to deliver sound contracts.

    The Communist Party had been accused of paying inordinate attention to Hollywood, but actually the steel and auto industries were more to its taste—and theory. One writer in New Masses, an organ that often reflected the party's viewpoint, observed that "it was once the universal custom to dissolve in uncontrollable belly-laughter at the mere mention of the word 'Hollywood,' and it is still the practice among some superannuated esthetes." Yes, "the large majority of films are characterized by bad taste, cardboard characters, artificial plotting, witless wisecracks, slapstick, stale situations, an absence of historical or day-to-day realism and often by themes either dated or distorted." Yet this "young ... art form" seemed transformed by the war. At a meeting of film unions and guilds, the article continued, "they were making the kind of speeches that I once heard only at the most advanced political gatherings." The author had to "pinch" himself "constantly to make sure it was all happening."

    Actually, this was just a bit of condescension from this often "New York-centric" organ, which paid more attention to theater and novels than film. But what could not be ignored was that the left—including the Communists—had been able to develop a foothold in one of the most important and profitable industries in the nation.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part 1
    • Introduction
  • Part 2
    • Chapter 1: Class versus Class
    • Chapter 2: Reds
  • Part 3
    • Chapter 3: Mobsters and Stars
    • Chapter 4: Moguls
  • Part 4
    • Chapter 5: Strike
    • Chapter 6: Lockout
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Index

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