hollywood in the depression -- 2/17/15

Today's selection -- from The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks. In the darkest moments of the Great Depression, Hollywood studio executives cut their employee's pay by 50 per cent, but did not take pay cuts themselves. This act of bad faith gave impetus to the rise of unions for actors, directors and writers:

"The same was true for individual businesses and industries, including the Hollywood studios. The studios were indebted to stockholders and to personnel and feared that it would be impossible to payoff both debts with funds so tight. In January 1933, RKO and Paramount had gone into receivership, declaring their theater chains bankrupt. Studios were unable to meet payroll. MGM cobbled together the funds to pay its employees in cash, but Universal suspended contracts, and Fox told its employees outright that they would not be paid. Across the eight major studios, the outlook was grim, and a shutdown looked likely. ... As stirrings of unionization began among screenwriters, the studio heads were anxious to deter any talk of the Hollywood workforce organizing. Louis B. Mayer, the MGM studio boss, stood in front of his employees with a plan to counteract the effects of the Depression.

"The preceding months had been difficult for Mayer. ... The studio had barely made its payment to employees during the bank closure. At the last-minute the studio sold its lucrative Treasury bonds and in a dramatic -- arguably cinematic -- move, hired a private airplane on the East Coast to airdrop the cash to a line of grateful employees. Still, the studio's cash flow was drying up, and selling more bonds was not possible. MGM needed bold action and got it: Mayer called an emergency meeting and gave the performance of a lifetime. Even though the SWG's first meeting had occurred weeks before, screenwriters and historians have often seized upon this event as the moment of the Guild's formation -- a narrative that makes for a grander origin story for a union of people who tell stories. Inevitably, the event's details may be embellished, but the actions have been documented in a wide array of memoirs, press reports, and oral histories. The story goes like this:

"In early March 1933, Mayer called all of MGM's directors, actors, department heads, and writers to the executive studio projection room. After letting the crowd wait for more than twenty minutes, Mayer entered, unshaven -- perhaps, as many have noted, for the only time in his life. He was exhausted and red-eyed. In front of a massive crowd of creative personnel, Mayer declared that the studio was broke. As producer and legendary MGM story editor Samuel Marx describes: 'He began with a soft utterance. "My friends ..." Then he broke down. Stricken, he held out his hands, supplicating, bereft of words.' The only way to save MGM, he implored, was for everyone to take a 50 percent pay cut. Philip Dunne tells the story as he heard it: 'At the time I remember [fellow writer] Donald Ogden Stewart describing to some of us what had happened at MGM. He said Louis B. Mayer got up and pointed a finger at all the people who were listening to him saying, "We've got to take a salary cut."' The emphasis was on the community sharing the weight of the studio's future on their collective shoulders. Employees were given the impression that if everyone worked together, the crisis would be averted. After a pause, actor Lionel Barrymore proclaimed in his commanding, avuncular baritone, 'Don't worry, L.B. We're with you.' But they were not. Fellow actor Wallace Beery rose from his seat and stormed out. Ernest Vajda, screenwriter of The Merry Widow, questioned the economics of Mayer's declaration. The pay cuts, he believed, were premature: 'I read the company statements, Mr. Mayer. I know our films are doing well. Maybe the other companies must do this, but our company should not.' Barrymore boomed back: 'Mr. Vajda is like a man who stops for a manicure on his way to the guillotine.' At this point, according to some accounts, the entire room went into peals of laughter and applause; others suggest that the chuckles were more dutiful. The drama continued.

" May Robson, an Australian-born actress who began her career as a Vitagraph star in 1916, rose from her chair and declared with great aplomb, 'As the oldest person in the room, I will take the cut.' As if working from a script, eight-year-old child star Freddie Bartholomew took his cue and piped up, 'As the youngest person in the room, I'll take the cut.' It was then, when Mayer had the full attention of his audience, that he called for a vote to show a declaration of allegiance and a willingness to accept the salary reduction. Frances Goodrich, screenwriter for The Thin Man, It's a Wonderful Life, and Father of the Bride, remembered, 'Everyone got pious and scared.' The vote was cast with tears of solidarity, and the employees agreed to accept the loss in pay. Mayer promised that he would personally see to it that every penny was reimbursed someday. The tone was solemn as the room was rocked by the new reality of Hollywood economics. But walking back across the iron bridge to the front office buildings, Samuel Marx overheard Mayer gloating to his right-hand man and talent expert Benny Thau, 'So! How did I do?' Albert Hackett, Goodrich's husband and writing partner, said of the meeting, 'Oh, that L. B. Mayer, he created more Communists that day than Karl Marx.'

"The dramatic slashing of incomes was later cited in part as a pretense, a subterfuge play-acted by moguls in front of employees to foster fidelity in a time of economic crisis. After six weeks, Mayer and other executives restored workers' pay to their full salaries. But the deducted sums for those six weeks were never reimbursed. And there was more to this story than Mayer let on.

"While teary-eyed directors, actors, and writers voted to give back half their salaries to save the company, not everyone working at MGM or other studios was forced to make this financial sacrifice. What became apparent to the creative workers over the ensuing weeks was that two groups of personnel were never asked to cut back: the studio executives and the below-the-line (craft) employees who were covered under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union contract. That the studio executives did not dock their own salaries came as little surprise; but the durability of the IATSE's contract, even in the face of budget cuts, provided insight and inspiration to embryonic creative talent unions.

"Only a few weeks before the MGM meeting, IATSE workers, angered at the possibility of pay cuts, considered a strike across the studios and flatly refused the reductions. ... Though they were paid little, their jobs were vital. Studio heads Jack Warner of Warner Bros., Harry Cohn of Columbia, Carl Laemmle of Universal, Winfield Sheehan of Fox, and Mayer gathered and ultimately agreed not to cut the earnings of those who made fifty dollars or less a week. Cognizant of the critical role these workers played in the daily functioning of the production machinery, the moguls bent to this massive union. For the first time, a union held its ground against the industry. Although word of this victory did not reach the talent in time, writers, directors, and actors agreed that from this point forward they would never be swindled by the studios again. As Philip Dunne remembers, Mayer's cuts and the creatives' realization of their mistreatment were 'what kicked off all of the so-called talent guilds.' It was clear to Hollywood talent that the best way to ensure their power was to stand up to the studios as unions. For many writers, the newly formed Screen Writers Guild now looked like a necessity if they wanted to protect their wages and basic labor rights."


Miranda J. Banks


The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild


Rutgers University Press


Copyright 2015 by Miranda J. Banks


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