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Lester Cole, member of the “Hollywood Ten”, on the Moscow River with our Soviet guides/handlers. July 1985, weeks before he died.
Maybe I should explain that title. I’m talking old school, OG, bottled in bond Hollywood Communists. Stalin, that kind of stuff. I’ve known a few. This begins a short series of sketches and book reviews about their lives and times in motion pictures.
In the beginning, and for decades thereafter, there were virtually no Communists in Hollywood. Surprised? The early film industry didn’t take itself very seriously and was apolitical both on screen and off. Hollywood was a more seasonal, fly-by-night business in those days, with hiring subject to things like weather and the number of hours of daily sunlight, not to mention the often erratic economic conditions of the employers. Film production wasn’t yet factory-like in the silent days; then, as now, most cast and crew members were freelancers, subject to frequent layoffs and long gaps between jobs.
Several things changed almost overnight at the end of the Twenties. The Depression changed American life and politics dramatically, dispelling trust in U.S. institutions and capitalism. There were few places to turn for the newly poor. Hard times began to turn the country leftward. By the time prohibition ended, the country now had a new, semi-permanent criminal class. There were trained guns for hire in cities across the country. Unions had been around since the late 19th century, but they hadn’t really caught on here until the Depression. Historically, gangsters had generally been strikebreakers, thugs in the pay of employers, but some of the more enterprising hoods realized that making strikes could be even more profitable than breaking them. Organized crime infiltrated organized labor.
In Hollywood, the onset of sound movies raised both the costs and the potential profits of filmmaking enormously. Almost every piece of equipment, from cameras to lights, had to be junked, and every single studio stage in Hollywood completely rebuilt for soundproofing. It wasn’t going to be a casual, seasonal game anymore; major banks financed the colossally expensive conversion to sound and they expected more professionally run companies to produce year-round, predictable income. In those days studios owned movie theaters, so they had guaranteed in-house buyers for their products.
But it left them vulnerable, too. For the first time, the industry—the term really came in around then; it finally was a real industry—was subject to technicians who had them by the throat at two major choke points: at the start of the production process, the men who ran the cameras and sound recorders; and at the end of the process, the projectionists who showed the films. Ninety years ago, this was a high tech field for its day, and the movies needed techs fast. They were hired from electrical, telephone, and the new radio companies. Crucially, as it would turn out, both sets of technicians, on the production and presentation sides, were members of the same union, IATSE—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada, generally shortened to “the Alliance” or “IA”. For decades to come, the IA enforced its virtual stranglehold over the industry by refusing to show films that were not produced with IATSE crews. (BTW, this arguably illegal action continued well into the Seventies). The relatively little-known IATSE had more power in movies than the Teamsters had in trucking. Naturally, the gangsters took notice.
Then they took over. A thug named Willie Bioff knocked over the inoffensive, elderly socialists that ran the IA when it was not much more than a fraternal order for stagehands. Bioff organized the projectionists who worked in the theaters of America’s biggest northern and midwestern cities. In 1933 and 1934, they conducted one of the most brutal campaigns of industrial terror in the history of corrupt labor, blinding, maiming and burning their way to power. Like naive wealthy Germans who backed Hitler because he seemed to know what kind of medicine to give the Communists, the nation’s theater owners were at first delighted that someone else was using real muscle to keep the Reds out. While Communist-led strikes convulsed many industries, like autos, railroads and shipping, Hollywood itself seemed content with tame company unions, and the theaters had IATSE as more of a partner in crime than as an adversary. Gradually, they realized that their devil’s bargain was sending them straight to hell, as the anti-Communist gangsters jacked up wages beyond the fondest dreams of Samuel Gompers. In many cases, union members started turning to the Communists to get the Mafia off their backs.
But not in the IA. A leader named Roy Brewer emerged from the projectionists, which dominated the union by sheer numbers and dues. (There were hundreds of top money cameramen in Hollywood, but nationwide there were tens of thousands of projectionists.) His faction was tough enough to drive out the gangsters without the help of the Communists, which rankled them greatly. They turned to other, lesser unions to try to get in the studio gates, such as the film laboratory technicians, cartoonists, drivers and set painters. One of those painters, Herb Sorrell, became the CPUSA’s man in screenland. Inter-union warfare, all too common in the Thirties, was now in the air.
Sound pictures of the early to mid Thirties were much more realistic, more down to earth than the sometimes silly dreamworlds of silent cinema. Talkies had stories ripped from the headlines of those Depression days. In other words, they could influence opinion more directly than most silent films could. Hollywood wasn’t used to writing dialog, so they sent for writers from the East. They came out to L.A. on the Santa Fe Chief, carrying east coast politics with them. For the first time, screenwriters were a recognized profession, and one of the first non-craft groups in Hollywood to unionize. The Communists had a pincer movement going, between labor and the writers, but there were critical weaknesses in their ambitions. One was the fact that the IA, the largest union in Hollywood, hated them, a feeling richly reciprocated; the other was the fact that Communists were never able to get into the position of being the executives commissioning and buying scripts. Hollywood executives, then and now, are expert at nodding their sympathetic liberal heads at ideas and people they laugh at as soon as they leave the room.
Herbert Kline’s New Theater and Film 1934-1937 is an elderly leftist’s tale of the somewhat glorified glory days of early-period Communism in Hollywood. It’s an often-annoying story of humblebragging and moral blindness. But there’s some useful information in there, and it’s hard for us today to fairly judge young people’s mistakes in the midst of an unprecedented national collapse. Some were naive, and most would later leave the hard left.
The early demise of New Theater and New Film magazine did Kline a historical favor, getting him off stage before he’d have to have justified how the Party supported killing competing socialists in that Spanish conflict, or the reports that filtered out by the end of the year of the Soviet Great Terror of 1937, or the Moscow show trials.
Kline’s left wing magazine (put it this way; its parent publisher was called The New Masses) went out of business quickly, and was forgotten by the time this collection of material was published in 1985. The deluded author thinks otherwise, and has a tragicomic lack of awareness of how little respect the post-Fifties left had for their embarrassing forefathers. One of this book’s young, idealistic Marxist characters was Leo Hurwitz, treated as a hero of photographing the Spanish Civil War, who would have a modest-to-middling documentary career and would later end up as head of NYU’s graduate film school. I knew Leo well; he and I had a testy year of cold politeness when I went to grad school. In my day (the mid-Seventies) Hurwitz resembled rumpled Bernie Sanders, a fiery sourpuss with a Moviola. He was eternally pissed off that his students, almost all of them at least vaguely on the left, were uninterested in the days of Stalinist struggle. He was just one of the old Thirties commies that I’d get to know.
Los Angeles, and Hollywood especially, is full of informal networks of people with a specific interest, and people from somewhere else. Southerners, Nebraskans, Catholics, what have you; all had social activities, picnics, screenings, clubs, and favorite hangouts. So, naturally, that’s how the new people in town did it, the east coast Communists.
When guys like Kline or Hurwitz came to town in the mid-Thirties, how did the Party try to capitalize on the situation, so to speak? What was it like, being an unknown left-wing writer or director trying to make a start in Hollywood? Not exactly what I thought. No lectures on Engels. No secret oaths. Nope, you’d call a phone number a New York friend gave you and be told about a restaurant that was friendly. The lady who greeted you at the door with a smile had a Texas accent. Nothing that screamed “commissar”. A little short on dough? Well, we know times are tough. We’ll run a tab for you. Maybe you’ll make it, maybe you won’t. No pressure, just a friendly welcome, then and always a rare commodity in this business. They wanted everyone to know they were as American as apple pie. We can’t hand out studio jobs—that’s still the boss’s privilege—but we’ll introduce you to other friends. It wasn’t a big money push. It was smart. With patience, within a few years, the “friends” would be scattered through the industry, like raisins in raisin bread. WWII would be their moment, but that was still in the future.
That’s the way the artists were handled in the Thirties. Back on the labor front, the Hollywood left was stretching their legs, organizing and picketing, inspired to keep up with union activism elsewhere. They looked for high profile targets and found a ripe one: Walt Disney. It would be a strike that all sides would quickly come to regret. That’ll be in part 2.