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Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Hollywood Hits, FDR Ignores, Upton Sinclair

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Greg Mitchell on Tuesday 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 Monday's intro piece here and catch up with the past two here. ) Along the way we'll hear from many other famous figures involved in the race.

October 22, 1934:

By all appearances, Jim Farley, the Democrats' national party boss, was playing some kind of strange political game, even by Democratic standards. Three weeks ago he was criticized for not taking a position on Upton Sinclair. Now he was accused of taking too many. The answers might arrive soon enough. FDR would be going on the radio in a few hours, and if he kept his "promise" to Upton Sinclair, he might clarify the White House's policy on the California race -- and elect the former socialist.

BABIES AS DOG FOOD. The Los Angeles Times was at it again in its front-page Sinclair box which every day reprinted some outrageous quote from one of the candidate's books -- sometimes just statements made by evil characters in his novels. Already it had depicted Sinclair calling Methodists "children of hell." Bankers were "legalized counterfeiters. The American Legion favored "drunken orgies."

Today's quote came from The Profits of Religion. In this heavily edited excerpt, Sinclair warned that "some of our leisure class ladies" may one day discover that "the flesh of working class babies ... is relished by poodles."

After relying for months on West Coast stringers, The New York Times finally sent a reporter to cover the California campaign. It wasn't just any newsman but one of the best, Turner Catledge. Arriving in Los Angeles, Catledge checked into his hotel and, following the normal practice, bought a copy of a local paper to find out where the candidates were appearing over the next few days. The Los Angeles Times had plenty of news about Frank Merriam, but Catledge couldn't find a single word about Sinclair--beyond the fact that he was rabidly anti-Lutheran.

At dinner, Catledge asked L.A. Times political editor Kyle Palmer whether he knew where Sinclair was. "Turner, forget it," Palmer replied. "We don't go in for that kind of crap that you have back in New York--of being obliged to print both sides. We're going to beat this son of a bitch Sinclair any way we can," the curly-haired, bow-tied reporter explained. "We're going to kill him."

Reports that actress Jean Harlow was fighting her studio's demand that she donate to Sinclair's opponent proved premature but now word circulated that another rising young actress, Katharine Hepburn, was holding out.

High-salaried actors and writers were no longer the only targets of anti-Sinclair fund-raising. Today the Hollywood magnates levied the "Merriam tax" throughout their realm. Execs at major studios called their rank-and-file workers together to hear anti-Sinclair speeches delivered by prominent Republicans. At some studios, employees were politely asked to donate one day's pay to the Merriam fund. At others, they were simply told to look for a lighter paycheck this week.

MGM distributed personal vouchers made out to Louis B. Mayer, and workers at some of the other studios received them as well. At Columbia Pictures, the set department erected a huge thermome-
ter on the patio of the executive dining room, and as studio personnel contributed to Merriam, the red bar climbed toward the 100-percent mark. Today it was nearly there.

Columbia's leading writer, Robert Riskin, and its top director, Frank Capra, had resisted at first. Frequent collaborators, they made films in which characters were forced to call upon inner reserves of courage, integrity, and idealism, with social justice inevitably winning in the end. Perhaps Riskin and Capra saw no happy ending in the EPIC campaign, for they agreed finally to give money to Merriam. Creators of the year's most acclaimed film, It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, they had the power to hold out, but perhaps not the incentive.

Over at MGM, Louis B. Mayer faced a minimutiny. Technicians, carpenters, and secretaries had no choice but to go along with the levy, but a solid corps of creative personnel held out. Asked to submit fifty dollars to Merriam, Sam Marx, the story editor, sent off that amount to his friend Upton Sinclair instead.

A studio exec told writer Allen Rivkin, "You better not work for Sinclair or you'll be in trouble." Rivkin, who was writing a film for Carole Lombard, did not consider this an empty threat but raised money at the studio for EPIC anyway. The studio's tactics seemed to give the Screen Writers Guild a new sense of purpose, Rivkin observed. Not every member supported Sinclair, but they all opposed attempts by the studio to control their life away from the office.

Louis B. Mayer was so upset he called a group of defiant writers together and advised them to cooperate. "After all," L.B. told them, "what does Sinclair know about anything? He's just a writer."
At another studio, an executive advised his workers against Sinclair by pointing out that "of forty-seven books he has written, not one has ever been filmed." (And this wasn't even true.)

When Upton Sinclair arrived in San Francisco today , he was greeted by a startling story in Fremont Older's newspaper, the Call. Rumor had it that anti-Sinclair Democrats were considering a new "stunt": promoting a write-in vote for Will Rogers to take Populist votes from Sinclair. Will inevitably received many such votes for president so this was no idle threat.

At nearly half past seven, President Roosevelt was about to deliver his second fireside chat of the season. Sinclair borrowed a radio and set it up in his room at the Whitcomb Hotel in San Francisco. His bodyguard and a couple of other friends joined him. Uppie had been telling his aides that he was on pins and needles anticipating this moment, and when it arrived, he was even more nervous than he had imagined.

The President's chat focused on charity. FDR sermonized about the sacredness of pity and the holiness of giving, and then, just as he got rolling, he came to an abrupt halt, without breathing a word about EPIC's production for use. The speech was so short it didn't even fill the allotted radio slot, and the network had to play music to complete the program.

Pained and saddened, Upton Sinclair recalled the fable of the mountain in labor and a little mouse coming forth.

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.