Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Irving Thalberg's Final 'Attack Ad' Sparks Riots

As Election Day neared, Hollywood's crusade against Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor, hit a new low.
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Greg Mitchell recently started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. )

November 2, 1934
-- In an account of the movie-industry crusade against Upton Sinclair, New York Times correspondent Douglas Churchill described Los Angeles as one huge movie set where studios filmed anti-EPIC trailers and newsreels every day. "Low paid 'bit' players are said to take the leading roles in most of these 'newsreels,' " Churchill revealed, "particularly where dialogue is required. People conversant with movie personnel claim to have recognized in them certain aspirants to stardom."

The tenth and final Westbrook Pegler column from California appeared this morning in newspapers around the country. After bashing Sinclair and Merriam with equal force for a solid week, Pegler closed with something of a tribute to the man he called the Mahatma.

Like a block of granite left out in the sun, Pegler had warmed toward Sinclair in recent days. He allowed that Sinclair often spoke the truth, and because of that he should never have run for office. Wasn't there a story in the papers once about a girl who rammed an engagement ring down the barrel of a gun and fired it at her philandering fiance?

"Any man who ever undertakes to tell the people the truth about themselves," Pegler observed, "should forever renounce his hope of public office. Mr. Sinclair should know that the people, the chronic joiners, the men who march in parades wearing feather duster hats, tripping over tin swords or the hems of nightshirts, will never forgive a man who derides their foolishness."

But at least, Pegler remarked, in concluding his memorable California saga, Upton Sinclair had thrown such a fear of revolution into the complacent Republicans that they "now realize that they had better be good -- or else."

Just when it appeared that the screen campaign against Upton Sinclair had dimmed, California Election News, No. 3, arrived in movie theaters this weekend, three days before election day. The most partisan movie short yet, it represented a breakthrough in political advertising on film, discarding the pretense of objectivity in favor of a naked appeal to the emotions.

"Ladies and gentlemen," narrator Carey Wilson began as a train pulled into a station in Niland, California, "your Inquiring Cameraman decided to look into this much-discussed situation of the unemployed of the United States flocking to California." A Colton sign appeared. "Let's see what we can see in actual scenes. . . ."

The movie short, directed by MGM's Felix Feist, Jr., under instructions from Irving Thalberg, unfolded in documentary style. This was no man-in-the-street survey but a hard-hitting expose of the "bums' rush." Many moviegoers had read about the hobo influx or seen it captured in photographs. Experiencing it in the movie theaters, where horrific images leapt off a huge screen, was something else again. (Watch here.)

First to appear on camera was a Mr. Healey, who identified himself as a switchman at the Southern Pacific yard at Colton. He claimed that every freight train coming into Colton carried about two hundred transients with it. "What kind of fellas are these men?" the narrator asked.

"Well, they're men of all classes," the switchman replied. "Only last week I pointed out to the chief of police in Colton two men who were wanted in Yuma for burglary."

Then a local constable, a short man with a hat and bushy mustache, appeared in front of a government quarantine station, where officials inspected every car coming into that part of California. He reported "quite an increase in traffic lately."

"Why is that?" the narrator innocently asked.

The constable struggled to remember his lines: "They say that--they read in the papers--that California's going to be -- cleared of poverty and -- and they're going to get something for nothing."

Next to testify: a local judge, dressed in a white, open-collared shirt and white hat, filmed against a backdrop of a freight pulling into a train yard. He had lived in Niland for nine years, and "this situation is far beyond anything I've experienced. Since last August when conditions were improving this hobo situation has gradually grown worse."

What kind of men were these tramps? "I consider most of them have radical ideas," the judge insisted, "some communist. If they stay in California, I don't know what will become of the working man."

Interviewing over, Carey Wilson introduced a rush of images of indigents riding the rails. The first clip showed a couple of dozen tramps, or perhaps actors, walking along a train track directly toward the camera, some stopping to pose. "Because of the tremendous importance to you Californians of this influx of visitors," Wilson said, "your Inquiring Cameraman went even as far as Phoenix, Arizona." A federal relief administrator in Arizona had declared that so many people were heading west they had to feed an additional one thousand people a day.

"Your Inquiring Cameraman," Wilson revealed, "interviewed thirty who said they were on their way to California to spend the winter and remain there permanently if the EPIC plan went into effect."

The images came rapidly now. Some might actually have been filmed at a rail yard. Others appeared to come from feature films; they might have been outtakes from Wild Boys of the Road.

Up north, the Alameda County D.A, and state Republican boss, Earl Warren received a note from J. Pendleton Wilson, head of San Francisco's leading Democrats-for-Merriam group, thanking him for arranging another payment from the GOP slush fund. This would enable local Democrats to continue their anti-Sinclair activities "unimpaired" right through Election Day.

Wilson closed on a whimsical note, predicting that when his party nominated "some Red" for president in 1936, he and Earl would collaborate "as pleasantly as we have in this campaign."

Disturbances broke out tonight at dozens of motion-picture theaters following screenings of the latest Inquiring Cameraman short. Patrons scuffled among themselves, and EPIC supporters, who thought they had seen the worst of the screen campaign already, stormed box offices to demand refunds or insist that house managers pull the offending trailers from their schedules. Near-riots were reported in several locations. More here.

A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at: epic1934@aol.com.

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