Once again, political slander and false campaign advertising threaten to take center stage in the final weeks before Election Day in November. It’s nothing new, but thanks to television networks, streaming services, and the internet, these ads are now more influential than ever. But the first attack advertisements to appear on screen predated these mediums by many years. Their creator was not an advertising pro but a revered Hollywood producer.
In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Upton Sinclair — author of “The Jungle” and a world-renowned socialist – ran for governor of California, leading a mass movement called End Poverty in California. Sinclair, then living in Pasadena, shocked the political world by sweeping the Democratic primary. State Republicans, led by party leader Earl Warren, and conservative Democrats responded by introducing fundraising, advertising and public relations techniques that would eventually dominate elections in America. The main decision, from which everything else flowed, was that politics was too important to be left to political parties.
Some might be surprised to learn, given Hollywood’s liberal reputation today, that the studio moguls back then were extremely conservative. They promised to move their operations to Florida if Sinclair was elected. Screenwriters, such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wrote anti-Sinclair radio dramas. Louis B. Mayer, director of MGM, offered each of his employees, including the biggest stars, a day’s pay in the form of “donations” to Sinclair’s opponent, Governor Frank Merriam. Most of the other studio heads followed suit.
The Los Angeles Times carried out an almost daily front-page box attack on Sinclair, calling him an “apostle of hate,” denigrating his followers as “maggots” and “termites.” Yet money and vicious attacks in the press would not stop Sinclair. So Hollywood tried a new tactic – an emotional appeal to a captive audience. The secret catalyst was Mayer’s partner at MGM, Irving Thalberg, one of the most successful film producers. Thalberg asked Carey Wilson, a screenwriter, to manage and narrate three shorts. An MGM film testing director, Felix Feist Jr., would film them. Launched in mid-October and titled “California Election News,” the shorts have played in nearly every theater in the state.
The first two featured a cameraman interviewing average citizens about the upcoming election. Merriam’s supporters were all described as upstanding citizens, while many of Sinclair’s supporters appeared to be poor or poorly dressed. Who would voters identify with – the handsome grandmother who backed Merriam or the gap-toothed guy who announced, “I’m going to vote for Upton Saint Clair.” Another man with a heavy accent said, “Upton Saint Clair is the author of Russian government, and it worked really well there and I think it should work here.
Hollywood insiders thought they recognized movie extras playing some of the interviewees. But California Election News featured no screen credits, not even the MGM logo.
The appeal of the Thalberg shorts was visceral and not ideological, their sunny handling foreshadowing modern television advertising. The Hollywood Reporter called it “the most effective political momentum ever made,” adding that it was the first time the screen had been used to “directly support a candidate.”
The MGM team delivered their final blow with a third short, which was a stark scare appeal. For weeks, the strongly anti-Sinclair California press had cited dubious statistics indicating that a horde of tramps and other migrants were heading west to California, lured by Sinclair’s promise of jobs for everyone. . The film crew traveled to Colton, a Southern Pacific Railroad terminus, to document or fabricate the so-called tramp rush.
The result, shown in theaters just days before the election, opened with a state official confirming that an invasion of undesirables was underway. “If they stay in California,” a judge said in the short, “I don’t know what will happen to the worker.”
Then, instead of just talking about the alleged invasion, the filmmakers showed it. A dozen men were seen exiting a train car and walking menacingly towards the camera. Narrator Carey Wilson claimed that “those boys” planned to stay permanently in California if Sinclair took office.
This third Thalberg short sparked riots and vocal unrest in theaters, and it helped kill Sinclair’s candidacy. Sinclair was defeated by over 200,000 out of 2.3 million votes. This paved the way for notorious political television ads, such as the so-called Willie Horton ad, which appealed to racial fears, aired by George HW Bush’s campaign in 1988.
Shortly after Sinclair’s defeat, when liberal guests at a party in Beverly Hills spoke out against fake Hollywood news, Thalberg suddenly announced, “I made those shorts.”
“But it was a dirty trick!” protested actor Fredric March.
“Nothing is unfair in politics,” replied Thalberg.
Greg Mitchell is the director of “The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair,” which airs on KCET on October 1 and KOCE on October 6. He is also the author of several books, including “The Campaign of the Century”. : Upton Sinclair’s race for governor of California. @GregMitch