The Political History of Classical Hollywood: Moguls, Liberals and Radicals

Wheeler, Mark (2016) The Political History of Classical Hollywood: Moguls, Liberals and Radicals. In: Hollywood and the Great Depression: American Film, Politics and Society in the 1930s. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748699926


Hollywood’s relationship with the political elite in the Depression reflected the trends which defined the USA’s affairs in the interwar years. For the moguls mixing with the powerful indicated their acceptance by America’s elites who had scorned them as vulgar hucksters due to their Jewish and show business backgrounds. They could achieve social recognition by demonstrating a commitment to conservative principles and supported the Republican Party.

However, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer held deep right-wing convictions and became the vice-chairman of the Southern Californian Republican Party. He formed alliances with President Herbert Hoover and the right-wing press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Along with Hearst, Will Hays and an array of Californian business forces, ‘Louie Be’ and MGM’s Production Chief Irving Thalberg led a propaganda campaign against Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) gubernatorial election crusade in 1934. This form of ‘mogul politics’ was characterized by the instincts of its authors: hardness, shrewdness, autocracy and coercion.

In response to the mogul’s mercurial values, the Hollywood community pursued a significant degree of liberal and populist political activism, along with a growing radicalism among writers, directors and stars. For instance, James Cagney and Charlie Chaplin supported Sinclair’s EPIC campaign by attending meetings and collecting monies. Their actions reflected the economic, social and political conditions of the era, notably the collapse of US capitalism with the Great Depression, the New Deal, the establishment of trade unions, and the emigration of European political refugees due to Nazism.

Therefore, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) courted Warner Brothers to make films supporting New Deal values and appointed Jack L. Warner as the Los Angeles Chairman of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Elsewhere, stars and writers such as Edward G. Robinson, and Dudley Nichols lent themselves to liberal, international causes. Some activists became attracted to the Hollywood Communist Party, which was a small, but potent, force in 1930s. This tide of Hollywood liberalism and radicalism was enhanced by the migration of New York based writers and stage actors who, in the wake of sound films, had resettled on the West Coast.

This chapter outlines the development of the moguls’ politics and how they courted the ‘great and good’ in American civil life. It will demonstrate how the social changes instituted by the New Deal provided the context through which the Hollywood workforce became politically conscious. Finally, it will discuss how the techniques employed by the moguls in EPIC campaign defined the political divide between left and right which emerged in Hollywood in the 1930s and would provide the context for the anti-Communist blacklist of the 1940s and 1950s.

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