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SAG, HUAC, and Postwar Hollywood - Gorham Kindem

stars iatse producers guild

The Screen Actors Guild enjoyed steadily increasing power and influence during the 1940s, owing mainly to the vital importance of top stars in the volatile and uncertain movie industry. In the postwar era, SAG’s stature also signaled a shift in the relations of industry power, as the studios’ long-standing control of stars—and of the star system in general—began to erode. 98 At the same time, an anti-Communist ideology shared by many stars who were guild leaders reflected the mutual financial interests and a new degree of labor-management cooperation between SAG and the studios.

This cooperation was largely a function of SAG’s domination by top stars, of the unique status of stars as workers within the Hollywood system, and also of a basic rift within the guild between the elite stars and the low-salaried rank-and-file players. As the industry’s most visible and bankable assets, movie stars also represented a breed of worker very different from their colleagues in the other talent guilds. This difference was evident in not only SAG’s privileged status with the producers but also the role which the guild played during the 1940s in the labor disputes and the anti-Communist crusade. SAG generally supported the producers’ position concerning strikes, jurisdictional disputes, and even the post-HUAC blacklisting of the late 1940s. These principal issues involved not only national ideology and industry politics but also the mutual economic interests of Hollywood’s top stars and its major studios powers.

SAG’s postwar rapport with the producers contrasted sharply with the labor-management antagonism which had led to the guild’s formation in the 1930s. A relatively conservative union which emerged during a period of fierce labor dispute, SAG was formed in reaction to the studios’ attempt in early 1933 to enact both the 50 percent salary cuts and the salary-fixing provisions of the NRA. Responding to public outcry during the Depression about the industry’s high-salaried personnel, studio executives sought to extend the salary cuts to movie stars. While previous attempts by stars to organize collectively had been either co-opted or undercut by the studios, SAG succeeded for several reasons: the number of top stars involved; its avowed autonomy from the New York stage actors’ unions and relative independence within the AFL; and the Supreme Court’s validation of the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act) in April 1937.

This last event served as a catalyst for SAG’s official formation and recognition by the studio-producers in May 1937, within days of a SAG vote indicating that 90 percent of its members favored a strike. In that initial agreement, the studios granted SAG a 90 percent closed shop and made a number of important concessions which benefited lower-paid actors by establishing and clarifying minimum standards of employment. In the early 1940s, SAG achieved 100 percent closed-shop status—in other words, only guild members could appear in major studio films—and by then its interaction with the producers was characterized by a spirit more of cooperation than of antagonism.

This cooperation revealed conflicts in the makeup of SAG itself, as well as the guild’s paradoxical status as a Hollywood labor union. SAG traditionally had boasted about the altruistic motives for its founding (evinced in the guild motto, “He best serves himself who serves others”), and its major focus had always been to preserve and protect the economic interests of both its lowest- and its highest-paid members. But the background of most stars and feature players was not working-class but middle-class, and the incomes of some stars rivaled those of top studio executives. 100 Meanwhile, the vast majority of SAG’s members were relatively little-known players who were low-paid and infrequently employed. Classification of members within SAG gave the more prosperous, more visible, and better-known actors more power, and it eventually led to the departure of screen extras from SAG in 1945.

SAG’s fundamentally conservative bent and rapport with the producers first became evident in the guild’s involvement with IATSE and the jurisdictional disputes before and after the war. As seen in chapter 2, that earlier dispute involved IATSE and the United Studio Technicians Guild (USTG) in 1939, and it occurred while SAG was still Struggling to establish its own identity and autonomy within the film industry. SAG initially was favorably disposed to the USTG, but the guild became embroiled in its own jurisdictional dispute with the American Federation of Actors (variety actors in nightclubs, cabarets, and vaudeville), which was linked to IATSE. In the heat of the battle between the USTG and IATSE, SAG abandoned the former and forged an agreement with IATSE to protect itself from any incursion by the American Federation of Actors into its domain. While this strategy proved most effective, it brought the guild into an alliance with the IATSE—a labor organization with its own rapport with the producers, albeit one involving collusion, racketeering, and extortion.

SAG again found itself allied with IATSE immediately after the war in IATSE’s jurisdictional battle with the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU). But now SAG was operating from a position of strength and seeking to further enhance its power within the industry. The CSU had the support of non-AFL unions, the CIO, and most of Hollywood’s independent unions, including the Screen Writers Guild. IATSE had the support of most AFL unions and the producers, who vowed to break the CSU and its leader, Herb Sorrell. Early on, SAG had remained neutral and even tried to broker a settlement, but the guild eventually backed IATSE.

Key to the IATSE-SAG alliance was Roy Brewer’s vehement anticommunism, which he shared with several SAG officers—most notably the reformed liberal Ronald Reagan, who became president of the guild in early 1947. 102 IATSE portrayed itself as the bulwark of Americanism throughout its battle with the CSU, and its anti-Communist agenda clearly coincided with SAG’s. Indeed, in 1946 the guild had publicly stated that it “has in the past, does now and will in the future rigorously oppose by every power which is within its legal rights any Fascist or Communist influence in the motion picture industry or ranks of labor.”

The labor dispute and anti-Communist crusade brought SAG into an alliance of sorts not only with IATSE but with the producers as well. in fact, a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor investigating the CSU-IATSE dispute in 1946-1947 took note of this alliance. The hearings were confined to labor grievances and excluded testimony about alleged communism and racketeering. In September 1946, the subcommittee chair, Carroll D. Kearns, a Pennsylvania Republican, made an allegation of conspiracy and collusion between IATSE and the producers, and he suggested that they were aided by unnamed officers and employees of the Screen Actors Guild. Little came of Kearns’s hearings, however; they were concluded in September 1947 with a mild condemnation of conspiracy between the producers and IATSE. 104 By then, of course, another House committee, HUAC, had stolen the industry spotlight and the political climate had changed considerably. The CSU was broken, the Taft-Hartley Act had supplanted the Wagner Act, and an anti-Communist—and anti-labor—agenda dominated the proceedings.

SAG avoided HUAC’s wrath because of its conservative leadership, its implicit alliance with management, and its avowed anticommunism. This last point is obvious perhaps, but it clearly involved more than simply geopolitical and cold war ideology. The postwar leaders of the guild—Leon Ames, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan, and George Murphy—were staunchly anti-Communist, as were most voting members, by all accounts. 105 But that scarcely explains the motivations behind SAG’s opposition to the CSU, SAG’s failure to come to the aid of its own members and those in other guilds who were blacklisted, and its general support of producer policies.

To ensure their respective positions of power, IATSE, the producers, and SAG allied in the anti-Communist crusade to rid the industry of “troublemakers.” It was convenient for these groups to portray the CSU strike in early 1945 as Communist-inspired, despite the fact that, according to Nancy Lynn Schwartz, the Communist Party opposed the strike and supported the no-strike pledge out of solidarity with the United States as a Soviet ally. 106 in fact, failure initially to support the strike stimulated dissent within the Communist Party. Meanwhile, IATSE publicly adhered to the no-strike pledge, but it also threatened a projectionist shutdown if the producers attempted to conclude negotiations with the CSU. The efforts by SAG, IATSE, and the producers to save the industry from communism clearly were also motivated by a desire to maintain the status quo and protect their common economic self-interests.

SAG’s support of the producers and alliance with IATSE also proved to be a crucial factor in the 1947 HUAC investigation and its aftermath. Significantly, all three groups adopted essentially the same position with regard to Communist influence—admitting that radicals, leftists, and even a few CP members had infiltrated their midst and then relying on their own outspoken anti-Communist avowals to convince Parnell Thomas and his committee of their zero-tolerance for these contaminants. This view was hammered home repeatedly in the HUAC testimony by SAG’s past and present officers Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan. As Reagan stated in his testimony:

Ninety-nine percent of us are pretty well aware of what is going on, and I think within the bounds of democratic rights… we have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping these people’s activities curtailed…. We have exposed their lies when we came across them, we have opposed their propaganda, and I can certainly testify that in the case of the Screen Actors Guild we have been eminently successful in preventing them from, with their usual tactics, trying to run a majority of the organization with a well-organized minority. (1947 HUAC hearings testimony, p. 217; see also David Prindle, The Politics of Glamour [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988], pp. 53-54)

It should be noted that the SAG officers were included among the friendly witnesses, along with the Alliance members Adolph Menjou, Robert Taylor, and other stars. The one actor among the nineteen unfriendly witnesses, Larry Parks, was not called to testify and continued to work after the 1947 hearings—although he eventually was blacklisted in the course of HUAC’s second investigation of Hollywood in the early 1950s.

In November 1947, when HUAC cited the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress and the producers issued the Waldorf Statement that they would not employ known Communists, SAG threw its support behind the producers’ declaration. SAG did so despite the pleas of the other guilds, particularly the Screen Writers Guild, which advocated coming to the aid of members who had been cited. In a meeting of the SAG board on 8 December 1947, Leon Ames argued against supporting the Writers Guild in its quest to overturn the firings of those cited for contempt of Congress. Ames declared, “I believe that we must approve their [the producers’] actions in firing the five [members of the Writers Guild], from a public relations standpoint, if nothing else,” and he offered two reasons to support the producers’ position. The first was that movie stars, as highly visible members of the Hollywood community, had an obligation to demonstrate their opposition to communism. According to Ames, “enemies of our country… have no right to share in the bounty of our land while conspiring against the American people.” Ames’s second reason, which he admitted was “a selfish one,” was that, as highly paid actors, the more prominent members of SAG needed “to protect the economic welfare of the industry.”

Ames’s second reason for supporting the Waldorf Statement alludes to a fundamental philosophical and economic link between the producers and movie stars—and their reluctant alliance with IATSE as well. Three of the greatest potential threats to the economic welfare of the industry from both the producers’ and stars’ viewpoints were (1) exhibition shutdowns by projectionists, (2) boycotts of films by audiences due to the unsuitable (read “Communist”) content of films, and (3) outside regulation of film content by some agency of the federal government. Producers who were disgruntled with the leftist leanings of screenwriters and the radical activities of the craft unions found an acceptable excuse to scapegoat Sorrell and screenwriters like Biberman and Lawson by supporting IATSE and HUAC. Since many of the most popular and valuable movie stars seemed unlikely candidates to be cited for contempt of Congress or to be blacklisted, producers saw that cooperation with HUAC would preserve their autonomy and protect their economic interests. SAG shared those interests and clearly found it preferable to accede to the corruption of IATSE than to succumb to the radicalism of the CSU, and to support the Waldorf Statement rather than come to the aid of blacklisted talent—especially if these were less valuable and powerful guild members.

While blacklisted guild members were left to fend for themselves, SAG’s lower-paid rank-and-file members faced severe struggles of a different sort, owing to changes in the economics and structure of the industry. The general box-office decline and reduced revenues meant that what the studios had traditionally considered resources and assets—including contract stars and players—now looked more and more to them like liabilities. Stars and other personnel under exclusive, long-term contracts suddenly became expendable. The Paramount decree and other antitrust rulings aggravated the industry’s economic problems, further encouraging the studios to reduce overhead and production costs while stimulating independent production.

For top movie stars, these dramatic structural changes in the postwar film industry were actually an advantage. Freedom from studio domination and control and renewed market competition gave many stars greater control over their own careers and a chance to become actively involved in production. A key factor was the steady shift to a package-unit system as the primary organizational mode of Hollywood production. As Janet Staiger suggests, the package-unit system “was a short-term film-by-film arrangement,” and was directly related to the market-induced need “to differentiate the product on the basis of its innovations, its story, its stars, and its director.” 108 With the shift to a package-unit system, a star’s participation and bankability were essential to obtain funding. Moreover, the increased competition and greater uncertainty in the postwar market-place proved to be a windfall for the most popular stars as their talent agents bargained for higher and higher salaries and percentages of the profits.

While the top stars were able to turn the changes in the industry to their own economic advantage, their success obscures the fact that the demand for and incomes of less popular actors and actresses fell dramatically during the postwar era. Because of rising costs and declining production in the late 1940s, fewer actors were actively employed in production. The percentage of production costs in the average film budget paid to actors dropped from 25 percent in 1947 to 20 percent in 1948. 109 Many less popular stars moved into television while the most popular stars, who feared overexposure might jeopardize their careers, restricted themselves to film. And the studios, ironically enough, lacking any incentive to develop new stars through their own apparatus and with fewer actors under long-term contract, often looked to competing media for new stars, and especially to the television and recording industries.

As the decade ended, SAG was still the dominant labor force in Hollywood, although it compromised both its own founding principles and the welfare of many of its members to maintain that status. But in the midst of the widespread public outcry against the alleged Communist infiltration of the movie industry, it is not surprising that SAG’s leadership and its top stars, as the most visible members of the Hollywood community, felt obliged to demonstrate their opposition to communism. And it clearly was in the actors’ economic best interests to cooperate with both the producers and HUAC, even though such cooperation was inconsistent with SAG’s altruistic union aims (not to mention IATSE’s) and with unionism’s presumed struggle between workers and management. The “altruism” of anticommunism shared by SAG and IATSE was based in part on corruption, the quest for individual power, and the middle-class bourgeois values which the leaders of these labor organizations shared with the producers. This is not to suggest that communism posed no real threat to the democratic ideals of the Hollywood unions or to the American political system in general, or that the goals of the Communist Party were purely altruistic. It suggests, rather, that economic preservation and a pragmatic response to the industry’s shifting power structure were the primary motives behind SAG’s postwar anti-Communist strategy.

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