Tuesday, September 2, 2014
When Movie Studios Threatened to Exit California For Florida
The Campaign of the Century on Upton Sinclair's amazing race for governor of California in 1934--which changed the state, Hollywood, and politics in America forever. This covers 80 years ago today, just days after the famous author and Socialist, in a shock, had just swept the Democratic primary to gain the party's nod for governor.
Upton Sinclair, who was heading East on a train to meet the President at Hyde Park, did not share Franklin Roosevelt's skepticism about
fundamental change. He thought he could make California over, turn
it upside down. That's precisely what worried motion-picture execu-
tives. Rumors circulated in Hollywood that leaders of the film industry,
meeting privately, had vowed to close down operations and move back
East if EPIC became a reality. Now the moguls were about to go public
with this threat. Variety prepared a front-page story that promised to
produce panic not only in Hollywood but across California when it hit
the newsstands on Tuesday.
Today that seemed very far away, as Hollywood, feverish and self-
fascinated as ever, passed its final idyllic hours before trouble came to
paradise. The holiday weekend barely slowed the juggernaut of movie
production. After a momentary downturn in the early 1930s, business
was booming. Movie attendance shot up 15 percent in 1934, and most
studios had increased their earnings 100 percent over the previous year.
MGM showed a profit of about $1.5 million for the second quarter alone.
Dozens of stars, old and new, brightened the Hollywood skies. Emigre
writers and directors arrived nearly every day—some escaping impover-
ishment or chilly weather on the East Coast, others fleeing Hitlerism in
Unpredictable but profitable, Hollywood was, in the words of Walter
Winchell, "a nut farm on a paying basis." It was hard for even the daily
trade papers to keep track of all the activity. C. B. DeMille, whose
“Cleopatra” had just opened in New York, contemplated “The Crusades.”
MGM rushed ahead with a sequel to its successful “The Thin Man.” Over on the Left side of town, King Vidor was finally ready to serve up “Our Daily Bread,” and Charlie Chaplin would soon start shooting his long-awaited film set in a factory.
Putting his own political troubles aside—he had just been branded a
Communist sympathizer—Jimmy Cagney starred in “The Perfect Week-
end.” Garbo shot “The Painted Veil.” Shirley Temple seemed to finish a
movie every month as the studios attempted to exploit her sudden
preeminence at the box office.
California's first drive-in cinema was set to open September 9.
"This is the theatre," Variety explained incredulously, "at which patrons
view the show from seats in their automobiles."
With so much sunshine to enjoy, gossip to absorb, and money to
make, why would the moguls, most of whom had fled the dark and dirty
East Coast years ago, give it all up because of one crackpot politician?
Producers and high-bracketed Hollywood salary earners, according to
Variety, feared that under Upton Sinclair's EPIC scheme, taxation
would fall "particularly heavy" on the film industry. And so "switching
of much film production from California to New York" was now being
How would the readers of Variety react? Would they pigeonhole this
report as fact, rumor, or propaganda? Would they even care enough to
take it seriously? Contrary to popular perception, the number of high
rollers in Hollywood was minuscule. Of the thirty thousand movie
workers and movie-makers, perhaps only i percent fit this bill. The great
mass of bit actors, assistant directors, prop makers, sound men, and
wardrobe people each made less than three thousand dollars a year.
Hollywood was, in addition, notoriously—proudly—apolitical. Its so-
cial consciousness was admittedly askew. It was a town where the only
discussion of the Tom Mooney case revolved around what kind of movie deal the convict might get when he emerged from San Quentin; whose concerns about Nazism extended little further than Germany's threat to ban Shirley Temple's latest picture.
Will Rogers didn't call Hollywood "cuckooland" for nothing.
is author of a dozen books (click on covers at right), including the new "THE TUNNELS: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill." He was the longtime editor of Editor & Publisher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GregMitch