Once again, political mudslinging and false campaign ads threaten to take center stage in the final weeks before election day in November. This is nothing new, but thanks to television networks, streaming services and the internet, these ads are now more influential than ever. But the first attack ads to hit the screen predated these mediums by many years. Their creator was not an advertising pro but a revered Hollywood producer.
In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Upton Sinclair — author of “The Jungle” and a world famous socialist — ran for governor of California, leading a mass movement called End Poverty in California. Sinclair, then living in Pasadena, shocked the political world by sweeping the Democratic primary. Republicans in the state, led by party chief Earl Warren, and conservative Democrats responded by introducing fundraising, advertising and public relations techniques that would come to dominate elections in America. The principal decision, from which all else flowed, was that politics was too important to be left to the political parties.
Some may be surprised to learn, given Hollywood’s liberal reputation of today, that back then studio moguls were overwhelmingly conservative. They promised to move their operations to Florida if Sinclair was elected. Screenwriters, such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz, penned anti-Sinclair radio dramas. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, docked each of his employees, including top stars, one day’s pay as “donations” to Sinclair’s opponent, Gov. Frank Merriam. Most of the other studio chiefs followed suit.
The Los Angeles Times ran an attack on Sinclair almost every day in a box on Page One, calling him an “apostle of hatred,” denigrating his supporters as “maggots” and “termites.” Still, money and vicious attacks in the press would not halt Sinclair. So Hollywood tried a new tactic — an emotional appeal to a captive audience. The secret catalyst was Mayer’s partner at MGM, Irving Thalberg, one of the most successful movie producers. Thalberg asked Carey Wilson, a screenwriter, to manage and narrate three shorts. A director of MGM film tests, Felix Feist Jr., would shoot them. Debuting in mid-October and titled “California Election News,” the shorts were shown in almost every theater across the state.
The first two featured a cameraman interviewing average citizens about the upcoming election. The Merriam backers were all portrayed as upstanding citizens, whereas many of the Sinclair supporters seemed to be poor or shabbily dressed. Whom would voters relate to — the winsome grandmother who supported Merriam or the gap-toothed fellow who announced, “I’m going to vote for Upton Saint Clair.” Another man with a heavy accent said, “Upton Saint Clair is the author of the Russian government, and it worked out very well there and I think it should do here.”
Hollywood insiders thought they recognized movie extras playing some of the interviewees. But California Election News carried no screen credits, not even the MGM logo.
The appeal of the Thalberg shorts was visceral, not ideological, their sunny manipulation prefiguring modern-day advertising on television. The Hollywood Reporter called it “the most effective piece of political humdingery that has ever been effected,” adding that this was the first time the screen had been used in “direct support of a candidate.”
The MGM team delivered its knockout punch with a third short, which was a blunt appeal to fear. For weeks, the California press, which was strongly anti-Sinclair, had cited dubious statistics indicating that a horde of tramps and other migrants were heading west to California, lured by Sinclair’s promise of jobs for everyone. The movie crew traveled to Colton, a terminus for the Southern Pacific Railroad, to document, or invent, the so-called bums’ rush.
The result, shown in theaters just a few days before the election, opened with a state official confirming that an invasion of undesirables was underway. “If they stay in California,” a judge in the short said, “I don’t know what will become of the working man.”
Then, instead of just talking about the alleged invasion, the filmmakers showed it. A dozen men were seen scrambling out of a boxcar and stepping menacingly toward the camera. Narrator Carey Wilson claimed that “these boys” planned to remain permanently in California if Sinclair took office.
This third Thalberg short set off riots and vocal disturbances in theaters, and it helped kill Sinclair’s candidacy. Sinclair was defeated by more than 200,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast. This paved the way for notorious political TV commercials to come, such as the so-called Willie Horton ad, which appealed to racial fears, broadcast by the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988.
Shortly after Sinclair’s defeat, when liberal guests at a Beverly Hills party decried Hollywood’s fake newsreels, Thalberg suddenly announced, “I made those shorts.”
“But it was a dirty trick!” actor Fredric March protested.
“Nothing is unfair in politics,” Thalberg replied.
Greg Mitchell is the director of “The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair,” which airs on KCET on Oct. 1 and KOCE on Oct. 6. He is also the author of several books, including “The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California.” @GregMitch