Real life and entertainment, politics and policy.
The Bonus Army—Herbert Hoover, FDR, and William Randolph Hearst, Gabriel Over the White House; Busby Berkeley and “Remember My Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933
The movie industry’s successful smear campaign against Upton Sinclair’s 1934 run for California governor—Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg (and possibly William Randolph Hearst), Harry Cohn, and even ardent New Dealer Jack Warner: “The Inquiring Reporter” fake newsreels…
The news has always quickened my pulse. I was a religious watcher of the evening network news back in the day when everybody found out what was happening at the same time and place: 6:30pm, ABC, NBC, or best of all, Walter Cronkite on CBS.
I remember being 8 or 9 and soberly noting the stock market figures for the day (though I knew no more than up/good, down/bad) and noting with sorrow the week’s casualty figures from Vietnam, and I also remember watching the riots in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and seeing Lee Harvey Oswald shot by Jack Ruby on WFAA, our Dallas ABC affiliate, and Charles Whitman shooting students from the tower on the University of Texas campus. And I was enamored with newspapers long before I pulled a few shifts as a copy girl at the New York Post in the mid-’70s or worked at Variety, before I learned that enough people had shared my infatuation to make newspaper movies a genre to themselves, dating back to the advent of talking pictures.
Newsreels, though, seemed the most intriguing of all—I thought of them as the network news of the pre-television era—exotic because they belonged to the past and only glimpsed as clips, archival footage in historical documentaries.
The early sound and pre-Code eras are particularly intriguing for newsreels. In the upheavals that sound brought to movies, which had in less than 20 years become a mature industry and art form, feature films underwent an awkward period of adjustment as technicians and performers learned to work with recording equipment and vocal requirements, necessary adjustments to their acting technique, and learning new ways of telling stories on film that included sound.
There’s just one thing the newsreels weren’t, and that was the one thing I had always assumed they were: objective journalistic enterprises dedicated to investigating and revealing the truth. The great irony is that while events so dramatic you couldn’t make them up were taking place right outside the theater, the newsreels didn’t show them, and the gut-wrenching stories about the Depression came to us in features, mostly from Warner Bros. Directors like William Wellman and Mervyn LeRoy gave us hard-hitting features (Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) with social issues too hot to handle in newsreels, while the newsreels entertained with beauty contests and football games, and the political stories they did show were staged and safe as milk. Interestingly, when the facts were too harsh to face, it was, ironically, the features that did the heavy lifting.
It’s important to distinguish newsreels (the regularly produced news “magazines” owned by Hollywood studios) from other documentary films of the period. There were documentaries sponsored by the federal government under the auspices of the WPA and other agencies, and there were also films produced by independent filmmakers, many of them leftists dedicated to making movies that would be more honest and realistic than those made in Hollywood. We commonly call any documentary footage from the era newsreels, but the newsreel was a particular commercial entertainment product.
While features struggled in the early sound era to manage cumbersome audio technology and learn to tell stories in the new medium, the newsreel took to sound like a duck to water. Newsreels had been a standard part of movie programs for more than a decade, but the addition of sound, first by Fox Movietone, in 1927, took the world by storm. Unlike Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone process, which was recorded on phonograph records and had to be played in sync with the film, Movietone recorded directly onto the film, so it was considerably less cumbersome for exhibitors.
Quickly two developments in the sound newsreel solidified the form: voiceover narration, and commentative music. These two elements gave the sound newsreel its distinctive identity. The first sound newsreels had intertitles, like silents, and if there was narration it was declamatory, old-style oration, loud and theatrical. But very quickly a different style emerged and became standard, analogous to Bing Crosby’s crooning: conversational and intimate, like someone talking to you rather than at you. And commentative music worked as it did in features, to set the tone for the current story, provide emotional cues and transitions.
Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight was recorded and brought to screens on the same day, May 20, 1927. Movietone cameras and exclusively licensed Western Electric microphones captured Lindy’s takeoff from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, on May 20, 1927, and was viewed that same night by ecstatic audiences at New York’s Roxy Theater. The Movietone crew didn’t get to Lindbergh’s landing in France 33 hours later, but Movietone combined “radio photos” (photos taken at the landing and sent by radio signal) with their takeoff footage to create a sense of being there.
Early sound newsreels have a static, staged feel. Most people being interviewed read from the page, with no awareness of engaging the audience on the other side of the camera. There were a few, though, including playwright George Bernard Shaw, who had an instinctive grasp of how to relate to the camera. Shaw was interviewed for a newsreel in 1927, and he radiated his distinctive personality and wit, addressing the audience directly and wishing them a good evening or afternoon (in case, he said, this was a matinee performance).
A few politicians also got it. Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was one of the earliest to understand the potential of sound film as a political tool: On April 20, 1927, Hays Office general counsel and head of the Films Board of Trade Charles Pettijohn suggested to Mussolini that he appear in an interview on sound film, and movie fan Il Duce readily agreed, saying “Let me speak through [the newsreel] in twenty cities in Italy once a week and I need no other power.”
Unlike feature films, which traveled by train, newsreels depended on immediacy for their impact, so newsreel producers chartered planes to fly footage of important events to cities all over the country within a day. That sounds unimaginably slow to us, but to audiences still astonished to be witnessing and hearing events at all, to do so within hours of the actual events was even more incredible.
Multimedia strategies also emerged in the era of talking pictures and radio: A Hearst radio station would read a story on its news broadcast, then cover the same story in greater depth in a Hearst paper, then follow up with footage in the next edition of Hearst Metrotone News. Multimedia has been with us for 80+ years—truly there is nothing new under the sun.
I had always assumed that newsreels were the news broadcasts of their time, that newsreels were serious news, delivered in the only way possible at the time. Actually, though, newsreels in the sound era tilted quickly toward entertainment, shaped by the shared goal of studios and exhibitors to entertain. The five major newsreels—Paramount Sound News, Hearst Metrotone News, Universal Newspaper Newsreel, Pathé News, and Fox Movietone News—were all affiliated with major studios. Only Warner Bros. sat out and had no newsreel service of its own. Disturbing news was not part of the program—at least not if it had divisive political overtones. This tendency solidified further after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, when audiences were themselves dealing with financial losses, unemployment, dislocation, and despair. Box office receipts were dropping, and neither studio executives or theater owners wanted to further alienate the moviegoers who could still afford a ticket with yet more bad news.
This applied to political content, which at a time when the stability of American democracy was in question, was viewed as a match on a puddle of gasoline—it didn’t take more than a few fights breaking out between moviegoers with differing views for at least one theater owner to say straight out that he would not show bad news—and if there were upsetting stories on newsreels he would edit them out himself.
But it did not apply to crime: The Lindbergh baby kidnaping in 1932 was covered by newsreels just as they had covered Lindbergh’s triumphant flight five years before. The scene of Bonnie and Clyde’s fatal ambush was filmed by Ted Hinton, a member of the posse,just minutes afterward.
Between 1927 and 1934 sound newsreels developed their distinctive stylistic features and allowed movie audiences unprecedented access to remote events, now intensified and made realistic because of live sound recording. They thrilled and entertained, introduced personalities like Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw, now heard for the first time with their own voices. Savvy politicians got it—Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini hypnotized crowds and won converts with their film appearances, and here sound was also crucial: Imagine Hitler, silent…. Of the savviest pioneer media politicians, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the Olivier of newsreel acting—others were good, but none was better.
FDR combined his extraordinary charm and personality with impeccable political instincts, augmented by an understanding of the new medium’s power and how to use it that he put to use as governor of New York. The skills and relationships he developed then were invaluable in 1932 when he ran against Herbert Hoover, an old-school guy who seemed uncomfortable in front of the cameras. Where FDR befriended the camera and joked with the guys behind it, Hoover kept his eyes on the pages of his prepared statements and couldn’t wait to get the filming over with. This crucial difference played out strikingly in the two men’s handling of one of the many challenges posed by the crisis of the Great Depression: the Bonus Army.
Today’s endlessly shifting relationship between fact, fiction, spin, and propaganda dates back to the early sound era. Commercialization of newspapers was evident in the 19th century, but it was in the early 1930s, as sound revolutionized both entertainment and the reporting of news with radio and in newsreels, that the permeable membrane between actual events and fictionalized versions really took shape. As Gerald J. Baldasty writes in The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century,commercialization has definite benefits (freedom from government interference, more readers, listeners, or viewers, and lower prices), but there are trade-offs, and “…when entertainment is paramount, difficult issues or current events that are not inherently interesting or entertaining may well get short shrift.” He might have added events that are awful damned interesting but disturbing, depressing, politically polarizing, or otherwise a buzzkill for a movie audience with serious problems of its own.
The Great Depression, writes Thomas Doherty, was the defining crisis of the 20th century. Politics were contentious, with sharp contrasts in worldview and agenda between socialists, union activists, Communists, New Dealers, conservatives, and fascists (beg pardon for anyone I left out). It’s hard for us to understand just how close to collapse the government, economy, and society really were. Fascism in Europe didn’t just happen out of noplace—it’s in chaos and crisis that people gravitate toward strong (aka autocratic) leaders. Until pre-Code movies resurfaced a few decades ago we had only archival newsreel footage to show the brutal realities of those times. Take the Bonus Army: tens of thousands of World War I veterans, lobbying Congress in the bleak summer of 1932 to release the bonus they had been promised back in 1924. The bonus wasn’t due to be paid until 1945, but the veterans and their families were starving now. They asked Congress to release their bonuses right away.
The veterans, black and white, swarmed into Washington, D.C., in ragged caravans from all over the country and built a tent city across the Anacostia River from the Capitol. When Congress voted down their requested advance the veterans stayed, and President Hoover, afraid of the combustible mixture of summer heat, frayed tempers, and frustrated, hungry veterans, ordered the U.S. Army to get the vets out. Unfortunately the man in charge was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who thought he was the commander-in-chief, and his assessment was that his fellow WWI vets posed a grave threat to the security of the capital. Hoover had urged restraint, but MacArthur ignored the order. He took 800 troops and a bunch of tanks and marched toward the encampment. At first the veterans cheered, thinking the army was there to support them. Their cheers turned to screams as MacArthur gave the orders to lob teargas into the crowd and begin burning their tent city.
The horrible irony of MacArthur and Patton (and dubious assistant Eisenhower, on record as advising MacArthur that the attack was a terrible mistake) and the army firing on their own veterans, burning their tents and few possessions, was not lost on Americans already disgusted by President Hoover’s paralysis in the face of the Depression, and the brutal mishandling of the Bonus Army is widely viewed to have destroyed any remaining hope for Hoover’s reelection.
We know the newsreels shot footage of those terrible events of July 28, 1932, but it was likely not shown in movie theaters at the time. We know the footage exists because it turns up in historical documentaries. Newsreel cameramen documented many of the biggest, most shocking events of the era, but neither the studios nor theater owners wanted to upset the audience. The miracle is that so much of the footage has survived and found its way into archives. But the remarkable film clips we see were deemed too divisive and disturbing to be seen by contemporary audiences.
The newspapers ran photos, of course: the tent city on fire with the Capitol dome in the background, MacArthur strutting in his general’s uniform… and a few months later Hollywood responded with its own “ripped from the headlines” versions of the Bonus Army’s story. Busby Berkeley, himself a WWI vet, ends his masterpiece Gold Diggers of 1933 not with Joan Blondell and Warren William in a clinch but with Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a dirge epic that shows the soldiers marching off to cheering crowds, slogging through battle, and returning home, still walking, but now on a bread line. Watch the clip with this in mind and you’ll notice lots of things that didn’t jump out at you before, like Blondell showing a combat medal to the cop about to bust a guy napping on the street, urging the cop to go easy, this man is a veteran. Side note: It was in the army that Berkeley began to stage giant parade operations, to choreograph for huge numbers of bodies. He was already a dancer, raised in show business, but his genius for envisioning vast groups in geometry was largely developed when he was in uniform.
And William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures produced a very odd feature, Gabriel Over the White House (including an “army of the unemployed” clearly modeled on the Bonus Army), as a primer for the new president on how to handle the crisis of the Depression (hint: martial law, public execution of gangsters, and an “Army of Construction” to aid in “the rehabilitation of America,” by working on infrastructure projects).
This is where things get interesting. According to Alter, Hearst was in contact with FDR during the development of GOTWH, and apparently the president-elect even made a couple of suggestions that ended up in the finished screenplay. Here’s the chicken/egg question: Did FDR get his idea for the CCC from the movie’s “Army of Construction,” or vice versa?
Also, several months after taking office, FDR was once again confronted with the Bonus Army, albeit in drastically reduced numbers. The men had again come to Washington hoping to get the money they had been promised. Alter writes that FDR had said he would never have dealt with the Bonus Army as Hoover had (and of course after the disaster with MacArthur, attacking the vets was not an option). The president ordered a camp be set up for the men on the site of the first CCC camp, in Fox Hunt, Virginia. It was well-appointed, with electric lights and hot and cold running water. FDR also made sure there was plenty of good coffee. He said nothing made a man feel as welcome as a good, strong cup of coffee. All this was seen to by FDR’s special assistant Louis Howe, who also met with the veterans’ leaders to defuse tensions. Then Howe had a brainstorm of his own: He invited Eleanor to drive him up to the camp one afternoon, and when they arrived he told her that he would nap in the car while she went and met with the men. Eleanor was in her element, and the men were totally won over by the personal gesture. Alter writes: “Afterwards, a veteran said admiringly in earshot of a reporter: ‘Hoover sent the army. Roosevelt sent his wife.’ “
The Birth of Fair and Balanced
The newsreels did cover the 1934 midterm elections, including novelist and socialist Upton Sinclair’s incredible run for governor of California (with his radical plan to End Poverty in California, or EPIC). This is one of those amazing stories, the whole thing, but we’re going to focus on one part of it: How the Hollywood studios mobilized their resources to create a series of fake newsreels that slimed Sinclair.
In 1934 California was suffering the same way every state was, with 300,000 unemployed in Los Angeles alone. Novelist Upton Sinclair, best remembered today for his exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, had already run for California governor twice on the Socialist ticket, pulling few votes. But this time Sinclair ran as a Democrat, and he had a plan, proposing “production for use”—rather than for sale. Crops that could not be sold were being destroyed… many tons of oranges doused with gasoline and burned rather than given away. Sinclair wanted to give the unemployed plots of land so they could be self-sufficient, grow their own food. Sinclair’s candidacy struck a chord with Californians, who started EPIC clubs around the state, more than 1,000 of them, and registered 375,000 new voters.
Sinclair seems not to have understood how radical his ideas were or how they antagonized powerful people. Hollywood went from amber to red alert when Sinclair proposed that the studios let unemployed actors and technicians use unused studio space to make their own movies. Plus, Sinclair planned new taxes for the wealthy and for industry. The California Democratic Party machine had already been sounding alarms about Sinclair, but the studio proposal galvanized studio execs and other leaders. Louis B. Mayer, Harry Chandler, who owned the LA Times, and C.C. Teague, who owned Sunkist, banded together and coordinated with other Republican leaders to raise funds to fight Sinclair. They also hired a consulting firm and a public relations firm to help them beat him—a first in American politics. They put together a statewide campaign of stuff like free editorial cartoons smearing Sinclairism, available to any paper who wanted to carry them. The anti-Sinclair campaign was estimated to cost between $2 and $10 million, a considerable sum. About half a million of that came from a slush fund created from mandatory contributions from studio employees. Studio workers were warned that voting for Sinclair would result in dismissal.
Chandler’s LA Times ran a box on the front page every day, of quotes they attributed to Sinclair. There was just one thing: They were actually said by characters in Sinclair’s novels, not by Sinclair himself.
King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) had the misfortune to be released during this election season, and its release was blocked in California, where Sinclair’s agrarian EPIC program had captured so many people’s imaginations. The last thing they wanted people to see was a paean to cooperative farming, even if its director was himself a conservative. The opposition feared that Vidor’s movie would unwittingly make a case for Sinclair’s controversial policies.
Greg Mitchell has written extensively on the Sinclair campaign and its sabotage by a coalition of Republicans (including future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren) and studio heads, at least one, Jack Warner, a prominent liberal. But all that went by the wayside in the face of Sinclair’s threats of new taxes and other policies the studios were determined to squash.
According to Mitchell, it’s impossible to tell who spearheaded the fake newsreel campaign, narrated by “The Inquiring Reporter.” It might have been Thalberg, who took credit for it after the election, in which Sinclair lost to the Republican, Merriam, but the state swung progressive for the first time in 40 years and stayed that way… It might have been Louis B. Mayer, a prominent Republican. It might even have been Hearst (again—he was everywhere!). In any case, MGM’s Carey Wilson was put to work writing the shorts, and director Felix Feist, Jr., took a camera crew up and down the state recording the faked interviews. The film was processed at the MGM labs.
Sinclair was asked if he thought the unemployed would flock to California if he won, and he glibly answered that he expected half of the nation’s unemployed to come to the state, and that then Harry Hopkins would have to look after them. The remark would haunt him through the rest of the campaign. The Inquiring Reporter claimed to have interviewed 30 freight-riding guys who said they were coming to California for the winter and to stay permanently if Sinclair won. Don’t assume audiences were all naive back then, either: some viewers knew the newsreels weren’t legit. One stood up in the middle of the newsreel and shouted into the darkness, “I like my movies without any propaganda!”
As the election neared and the anti-Sinclair campaign intensified even further, Sinclair wired FDR, asking for the endorsement he had left his meeting with the president believing he had been promised. But it didn’t come. Instead a Democratic state leader visited Sinclair on FDR’s behalf and asked him to quit (headline in the Hollywood Reporter). Sinclair refused, and the rep went to Merriam, the Republican incumbent, and made a deal with him to deliver the Democratic votes to Merriam so that he could claim a bipartisan victory, if Merriam would then throw his support behind the New Deal (and FDR’s biggest legislative gambit, Social Security).
FDR knew that the 1934 midterms were crucial for the future of New Deal legislation. In Hollywood, the studios all shut down for two hours so that employees could vote. One studio had a sign by the time clock: “If you want to punch in next week, vote for Merriam.” No less than Katharine Hepburn and Dorothy Parker were called on the carpet and threatened for not being anti-Sinclair, as were James Cagney and others. Only Chaplin, who existed outside the studio system, openly supported Sinclair, campaigning for him, speaking at events. But in the end, of course, Merriam won, though only by 200,000 votes—a lot less than you might expect with the forces arrayed against Sinclair. The combination of Republicans, traditional Democrats, and Hollywood and advertising consultants flexed their muscles and even though Sinclair hung onto a lot of passionate and loyal supporters, it wasn’t enough. Still, progressives swept the midterms both nationally and at the state level, providing the support FDR needed to push through Social Security and other New Deal programs.
The campaign to destroy Upton Sinclair’s campaign in 1934 was the birth of the modern political attack campaign. Next year when we’re all feeling slimed by the presidential campaign ads, think of 1934 and Upton Sinclair—this is where it all started.
And last of all, a few words about Headline Shooters (1933), RKO’s tough little action / romance movie about newsreel cameramen. The poorly paid, fast-talking, hard-drinking, daredevil cameramen are just movie newspapermen with cameras, cousins to those in The Front Page, Five Star Final, Picture Snatcher, and so many other newspaper pictures, though their jobs are obviously more dangerous. In typical Hollywood fashion, William Gargan is a romanticized version of a newsreel guy, fiercely determined to get a story out even with powerful opposition. In real life, powerful interests were able to control the newsreels with little fuss. They would just approach the cameramen and demand the film. Given that the newsreels were a commercial operation and part of the studio system, there was little appetite for journalistic independence.
Headline Shooters isn’t a great movie but it’s pretty darned good, with some terrific pre-Code dialogue and performances to compensate for the plot’s conventions. There are some elements of His Girl Friday (such as the woman reporter who’s trying to quit the business to be respectable but who just can’t resist chasing a fire). The cast is fine: William Gargan, Frances Dee, Ralph Bellamy, Jack LaRue, Gregory Ratoff, Wallace Ford, Robert Benchley, Betty Furness, Franklin Pangborn, and Dorothy Burgess. The romance between Gargan’s ladykiller cameraman and Dee’s newspaper sob sister gives Dee more wit and resourcefulness than we have a right to expect, and she and Gargan have real chemistry. Ralph Bellamy is, of course, the rather dull but decent guy Dee plans to marry, and Wallace Ford is Gargan’s pal, the hard-drinking cynic who dies covering a brewery fire. In a brisk hour we get an earthquake, an explosion, and a flood.
Gargan: I’m worried about [your] cold. I knew a dame once had a cough like that and—
Dee [smiling]: …and it kept you awake all night.
* * *
Bill [aspiring photographer]: Just imagine you’re a lady [he demonstrates how he wants her to hold the crackers she’s supposed to be eating]
Betty [doing her best Jean Harlow impersonation]: Bi-ll, do you think a lady would be eating crackers in bed?
Photographer: Listen, baby, when we put this over, that’s all people will do in bed.
* * * * *
Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR’s 100 Days and the Triumph of Hope, Simon & Schuster
Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent, University of California Press
Richard Brody, “The Hollywood Movie Made for F.D.R.’s Inauguration,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013
Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound 1926-1931, University of California Press
Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen, The Bonus Army: An American Epic, Walker & Company
Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934,Columbia University Press
Greg Mitchell, The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for the Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Sinclair Books (ebook)
Greg Mitchell, “How Hollywood Fixed an Election,” American Film, November, 1988
This post is a proud contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. We’d also like to acknowledge the support of the lovely folks over at Flicker Alley. Now go read some of the other 90 amazing entries spanning the eras from the beginning of cinema up to 1975…