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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Posted: October 20, 2010 09:00 AM

Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Irving Thalberg's 'Attack Ad' vs. Upton Sinclair


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 yesterday's first dispatch.) Along the way we'll hear from many other famous figures involved in the race.

October 20, 1934: -- Scientific election polling had not yet emerged, meaning the long-running Literary Digest polls were the only game in town, and could easily sway elections. Readers simply sent in their printed ballot. Often accurate in a national race for the White House, they could be more easily manipulated in a state race, and now Upton Sinclair's supporters were claiming that Frank Merriam's GOP bag men were buying up ballots on the street for 25 cents each. According to one report, a pro-Merriam plant manager ended up with 200 ballots to distribute to workers.

Upton Sinclair, on the radio tonight, attempting to dispute the many smears claiming he was an atheist (which was actually more-or-less true), swore Jesus was in his thoughts "more frequently than any other man who has ever lived."

Harry Chandler, legendary publisher of the Los Angeles Times, owned a storehouse of Sinclairiana: out-of-context book excerpts, embarrassing biographical details, ill-considered quotes from campaign speeches. Every day he published anti-Sinclair editorials, cartoons, or comic strips. His newspaper didn't have enough pages to print it all, no matter how hard they tried.

But up in Palo Alto, Herbert Hoover found the perfect gift for the man who had everything. Someone had sent the former president an article from Pravda, purportedly dated July 5,1934. Hoover had a Russia expert at Stanford decipher it, and today he sent the text to Harry Chandler.

"Herewith," Hoover wrote, "the translation of a gem which we have found in the Pravada [sic], which is the official government organ at Moscow." According to this version, Upton Sinclair, in reply to a questionnaire sent out (on an unspecified date) by a Soviet journal, had called the Marxist "experiment of Soviet Union the most important event in the whole history of humanity."

Moviegoers across California today watched a five-minute political short distributed to theaters throughout the state by MGM (although Metro's name appeared nowhere on it). Apparently the propaganda screen campaign promised by the Hollywood trade journals had finally come to pass.

In hundreds of movie theaters the scene was the same. A title, California Election News, flashed on the screen, accompanied by a map of the state and the familiar orchestral strains of "California, Here I Come."

"Ladies and gentlemen," a narrator intoned, "I am the Inquiring Cameraman....I stop people on the street, I pry into offices and shops and stores and restaurants. I knock on the doors of homes, all for the purpose of digging out voters of California to express their views for your edification."

First up: a working man in overalls, sitting on a bench eating an apple. Whom did he favor in the race for governor? Sinclair. "Do you really believe he can end poverty in California?" the Inquiring Cameraman asked.

"Well, no, I don't think so," the worker replied.

Number two: another laborer at the same workplace. "I'm going to vote for Merriam," he announced, "because I want a job. If you drive capital out of the country, who's gonna pay us?"

The setting shifted. Two stocky black men dressed in vests sat in the front seat of an old car. The passenger proclaimed that he was "gonna vote for Mr. Sinclair. He has something new, that new EPIC plan, and I think it's time to try something new out again."

"Do you think that plan will work?"

"I don't know ... but I'm willing to take a chance on it."

Again the Inquiring Cameraman found someone to offset this view. A black man, also in a vest, declared that he was going to vote for Merriam, "because I need prosperity."

Then a young, shifty-eyed Chicano man standing on a busy street corner endorsed "Uptown Saint-Clair." But a sweet little old lady picked Merriam because he would keep her family safer.

Again, the next subject provided a vivid contrast. A Mr. Duncan, also elderly, wore a beat-up hat and was absent his front teeth. One might call him a bum. "I'm going to vote for Upton Saint-Clair," he said.

Voter number nine, a well-dressed young chap in a dark suit, stood on a tennis court, though not dressed for the sport, looking for all the world like an. . . aspiring actor? Maybe even an accomplished one. Merriam, he said, was "for democracy rather than socialism, and he won't involve us in any dangerous experiments."

A gentleman in a gray suit and hat standing next to him put in his two cents: "I'd like to stay in the real estate business, and if Mr. Sinclair gets in I believe there will be no real estate business."

If intended as propaganda, California Election News (watch here) no doubt accomplished its task. It was skillfully executed. Most of the faces and settings appeared authentic. The respectable-looking people endorsed Merriam, while those down on their luck supported Sinclair. Almost as if reading from a script (were they?), the Merriamites managed to raise virtually every major point promoted by the anti-Sinclair forces. Even the Sinclair partisans admitted EPIC wouldn't work.

The 1934 governor's race marked the first time that filmmakers set out to destroy a political candidate. Until the '34 campaign, newsreels and film shorts commonly covered candidates in a dull, nonpartisan fashion. That was not to say that political bias never appeared, but the deck
was rarely stacked; both candidates in a race usually had an equal say. With that expectation firmly in place, the audience for California Election News probably regarded it as a fair reflection of public opinion.

Not everyone found it credible. Some Hollywood scriptwriters chuckled as they watched. The short carried no credits, surely a first in the film industry, but that Inquiring Cameraman sure sounded like MGM's Carey Wilson. Others thought they recognized a couple of actors from Central Casting on the screen.

Many EPIC activists unwittingly subjected to this short laughed aloud, finding it blatantly biased, even comical, and therefore ineffectual. But they missed the point. They were judging the short too much on what it said, not on what it showed. The opinions expressed by the Merriamites might not, by itself, swing votes. But this was a new political medium--a visual medium. The spoken word might rule the radio, but in a darkened theater moviegoers identified with images projected on the big screen.

And apparently, there was more to come. This edition of California Election News was labeled "Number One."

LOOK for tomorrow's coverage for October 21, 1934: H.L. Mencken weighs in, riots in movie theaters.

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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