Class Struggle In Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, & Trade Unionists. By Gerald Horne. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2001. Pp. 309.
Some of the best studies of the Hollywood film industry are those that pull back the curtain only to reveal the shabbiness within. Work such as Larry Ceplair’s The Inquisition in Hollywood, David Culbert’s Mission From Moscow, and David Talbot’s Creative Differences all suggest the tawdriness of the Hollywood film industry. The valuable work done on red baiting, the cult of celebrity, and the Hollywood blacklist by a number of authors might illuminate differing aspects of the industry, but at one stage or another they all point to one thing: on the whole, Hollywood tends to be a nasty place. No more salient example of Hollywood’s bitter history exists than the events surrounding the 1945-46 labor dispute which saw the Confederation of Studio Unions (CSU) attempt to battle not only major studies but also a rival union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its supporters in organized crime. In Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, and Trade Unionists, Gerald Horne argues convincingly that the strike-which he uses to frame a twenty year history of class struggle-and subsequent lockout not only broke labor power in Hollywood, it effectively removed any organized opposition to the ideological direction the “dream factories” were taking.
The strike of 1945 actually resulted from a dispute between CSU and IATSE over seventy seven set decorators who had negotiated their own contract that was not certified by the National Labor Relations Board. Both CSU and IATSE claimed jurisdiction over the former rogue decorators, who briefly struck in order to gain recognition, though even when the decorators voted a CSU local as its bargaining agent the studios refused to accept this compromise. Such disputes and hundred like them were symptomatic of any number of problems among unions as well as between union and studios during the period. As a result of these ongoing problems, 10, 500 CSU workers went on strike in March 1945. CSU quickly stationed pickets outside studios as well as outside movie theaters thus disrupting filmmaking and threatening revenue. For those reasons alone studios hired “goons,” professional thugs armed with chains and clubs, to break the strike. Outside the Warner Bros. studio the pickets confronted the “goons,” police with batons at the ready, and studio cops using tear gas and high pressure fire hoses. As Horne implies, the vicious brutality in evidence was not only an attempt to break the strike but also one of the initial ventures in what would become a protracted campaign to break union power in Hollywood. The malevolence of the ensuing violence suggests that both sides knew there was more at stake than a localized, albeit large strike.
The strike had a direct influence on the creation of the Labor Management Act of 1947, better known as the Taft-Harley Act. Images of picket line violence undoubtedly had some impact on those who moved the Act, for it eventually emerged in a form which smacked of anti-unionism. The act, which made it difficult for unions to organize effectively, ensured that any union with a communist official in its ranks would be denied use of the National Labor Relations Board. Without NLRB certification collective bargaining was impossible and in fact decertification might ensue. In fact, this official response to a perceived communist threat was part of the red scare that moguls and press barons continually warned against. Nonetheless, what marked one as a communist was far from clear. Like many other union members, CSU leader Herb Sorrell, a former painter who “loved to hear the cracking of bones on a scab’s legs,” was repeatedly charged with being a party member. But Sorrell was no communist and was, in fact, held in contempt by communists not only because he was crass and a poor tactician, but chiefly because the party actually opposed the 1945 strike.
One of the most valuable points that emerges from this study is the author’s firm conviction that Communist influence in the film industry was never strong enough to balance Hollywood’s incessant campaign against the left both on and off screen.
Because Communism provided Hollywood with a license to attack organized labor, its presence, either real or imagined, was open to manipulation according to the prevailing political climate. During the war, of course, with the Soviet Union an ally, Hollywood was happy to portray Soviet Communism in an agreeable light. Films such as Mission to Moscow presented Stalin’s regime quite favorably, as did other films during what was a brief cinematic truce in the campaign against Communism. This brief period soon ended, though ironically, as Horne points out, communist writers such as Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson continued to hold prominent positions as screenwriters long after many communists had been driven out of the film business. Lawson’s position in particular is worthy of further examination. He was both an extremely affluent communist and one of the few Hollywood writers willing to portray blacks in anything other than a stereotypical light. Unlike the Communist Party, which, as Richard Wright was to point out, had great difficulty with the question of African Americans, in films such as Sahara as well as in his anonymously written screenplay of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, Lawson revealed himself as sympathetic to African Americans. Given that for black writers Hollywood was a no go area, the fact that one or two writers were prepared to offer positive images of blacks was especially important. In this respect we can only speculate about what the movie industry missed when it rejected work by writers as talented as Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen.
The racism evident in Hollywood was as much an open secret as was the collusion between movie moguls and the mob. Publicly studios worried about the proliferation of gangster films and the extent to which these films reflected conditions in America. Privately, as Horne shows, the studios and gangsters worked together to control and later eliminate unions as well as to maximize profits. And because mob and mogul collusion could be hidden under the bluster created by the supposed communist infiltration of the unions, much of it continued without remark. Notorious gangsters such as Mickey Cohen, the hood Columbia executive Harry Cohn approached when he wanted Sammy Davis Jr. killed for having an affair with Kim Novak, could also rely on the protection of the press. William Randolph Hearst confessed his great liking for Cohen, instructing his reporters to portray him as “sort of like a Robin Hood.” The mob effectively policed the industry, often carrying out the moguls’ dirty work, and the attraction of money and relative freedom from security forces no doubt also drew gangsters towards Hollywood. As Horne suggests, the movies have been largely “recession proof,” and that control of film offers a wonderful opportunity for the dissemination of propaganda. Yet quite why the government was apparently so reluctant to break up mob influence in Hollywood, with all its associated violence and corruption, is not so clear.
To a great extent the relationship between moguls and the mob was mutually exploitative. Ironically enough, the same claim can be made about rivalries between unions. Perhaps the clearest example of class solidarity occurs not with the unions, who often fought with one another when they would have been better off uniting, but between moguls, the directors and executives of what was always a fantastically profitable industry. Horne provides compelling evidence that their commitment to smashing unions and thus maintaining almost complete control over movie projects never wavered. What emerges from Horne’s discussion of movie moguls
is that there was little they would not do in order to maintain their positions of power and privilege. For Jewish moguls the situation was more complex than it was for their Anglo/American colleagues. Jews were subject to the charge that they were grossly over represented in positions of power in the film industry, they were also subject to anti-Semitism even as Jews in Europe were being slaughtered, and in the popular mind they were also connected to the unions through the persistent claim that “Jewish radicals,” allegedly communists, were at the heart of union disputes. The latter was an old myth, older than Hollywood, though it proved remarkably persistent. A cinematic response to the myth of Jewish hegemony resulted in Daryl Zanuck’s attack on anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement, while fears of communism were only reinforced by the same director’s anti-Communist The Iron Curtain,
Hollywood may have been able to tolerate many things but communism was not one of them. The specter of anti-communism dominated the film industry just as it was to dominate the mind of a country. With unions said to be peppered with “Reds,” opinion against organized labor could be readily mobilized. CSU, wrongly characterized by Screen Actors Guild leader Ronald Reagan as a “communist front,” had been softened up by a seven-month strike after which it was ripe for crushing. Beginning in September 1946 the major studios locked out CSU members. This lockout, as Horne makes clear, was a premeditated attempt to end CSU influence in the movie industry. And it worked. By December 1948 there was hardly anyone left to lockout; CSU had disintegrated.
How could a major union crumble so quickly and so completely? There was the curious relationship between CSU leader Herb Sorrell and studio chief labor negotiator Pat Casey. What evidence there is suggests that Casey was shrewd enough to influence Sorrell, and thereby CSU policy, without the union leader realizing it. If true, this meant that the studios had a crucial foot in the opposition camp. Quite why Casey became Sorrell’s confidante is never ultimately clear, though to be fair to the author Sorrell himself may have had trouble explaining this most odd relationship. But there were other reasons too. With the Red Scare propelling America towards conservatism, organized labor could easily be depicted as a nest of vipers full of closet communists. The rise of the Civil Rights movement also tended to shift emphasis away from class and towards race and ethnicity. In fact, the near eclipse of class as an analytical category in the 1950s meant that the most important issue in the Hollywood disputes could hardly have received the attention it deserved. In placing the labor disputes of 1945-46 at the center of Hollywood culture and politics, Horne has succeeded in returning to us, more than ten years after the fall of communism, the realization that class did and does matter.