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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Greg Mitchell: Dispatches From Incredible 1934 Campaign: Hollywood ‘Attack Ads’ Hit Upton Sinclair Again


Greg Mitchell on Tuesday started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist — the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair — leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history — swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first “attack ads” on the screen — thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it “The Campaign of the Century” (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential — and most entertaining — campaigns reached its final days. (Read last Monday’s intro piece here and catch up with previous days here. ) Along the way we’ll hear from many other famous figures involved in the race.

October 25, 1934

This morning the Los Angeles Examiner published a huge four-column news photograph on page 4 under the headline ANOTHER EPIC IN CALIFORNIA ANNALS. It showed eleven men and two women climbing out of a Union Pacific boxcar — among the alleged thousands of new arrivals from the East lured to the state by Upton Sinclair’s promise of a coming utopia.

But there was something wrong with this picture. It had the dreamy focus of the cinema, not the gritty complexion of a news photo. And the caption took the unusual step of attributing the picture to an outside photographer — a member of the California Crusaders.

Sharp-eyed movie fans had little trouble identifying the real source of the photograph. “Did you see my picture in the Hearst paper this morning?” a young actor asked famed writer Albert Hackett at MGM. Sinclair supporters in the Warner Brothers’ publicity department called EPIC headquarters with this tip: the Examiner’s photo, and at least one of the L.A. Times’s shots, came from the recent Hollywood feature Wild Boys of the Road.

But Sinclair faced more problems from movieland today. “Here we are again, ladies and gentleman,” boomed the voice from screens throughout the state, “the Inquiring Cameraman, and we’re going to give ourselves a little pat on the back.” The second edition of MGM’s California Election News — the first attack ads against the candidate to ever hit the screen — had invaded the theaters. “Our first issue seems to have aroused all California,” the narrator boasted. This was no lie. Some observers felt that audience response was so favorable it doomed Sinclair’s chances completely.

“We’ve found out that some of the politicians don’t like our idea at all,” the announcer explained. “They seem to want you to hear only what they have to say, but we still think you’re interested in how the man in the street is actually going to vote. We let him say what he wants, we encourage him to talk freely and we try to be as non-partisan as possible. Now for the votes. …”

The format and general look of the film closely followed its predecessor, but this time it tossed subtlety to the wind. This became apparent about midway through when a dark-haired fellow in his forties wearing an open-collared shirt appeared. “I’m going to vote for Upton St. Clair,”
he intoned. “Upton St. Clair is the author of the Russian government. And it worked out very well there and I think it should do so here. Thank you.”

An elderly gent in a bow tie, a youngster by his side, pointedly declared, “Sinclair is too radical. I feel that Mr. Merriam is the only man in the field today who can defeat Sinclair.” Then a bald man, tie askew, standing on a street corner, shifty-eyed and speaking with a heavy Eastern European accent testified, “I have always been a socialist and I believe Sinclair will do best for working people.”

The next scene seemed staged on the studio lot. An auto mechanic, wearing a bow tie and a work shirt, crawled out from beneath a car to address the camera. He wiped off his hands, but his immaculate clothes and face looked like dirt had never touched them. “First of all,” he said, apparently struggling to remember his lines, “I am an American … and I believe Mr. Merriam will support all the principles America has stood for … I have a job now and want to keep it. .”

And so on. . While perhaps not as deft as the first edition, the latest California Election News just as effectively made Sinclair, his cause, and his supporters appear disreputable. An almost palpable stink drifted from the screen whenever a Sinclairite appeared. (Watch excerpts here.)

Tonight, when acerbic syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler arrived at Upton Sinclair’s room in the Whitcomb Hotel in San Francisco, he found the candidate sprawled across one of the twin beds, resting but still wearing a sport coat.

Greeting Pegler, Sinclair immediately sensed that he was one of those New York “swells” who take nothing seriously and treat everyone like a Runyonesque “guy.” Dark-haired and handsome in a sulky sort of way, Pegler wore trousers creased to a knife-edge and a boldly striped tie. Sinclair considered him a young man of the demimonde but decided to treat him like a reasonable human being anyway. Some might say that was his first mistake.

Westbrook Pegler was known as the man who was “agin” everything. He wore the title proudly but never modestly. Pegler once complained that he had stored up a week’s worth of ill will and found “no really worthy proposition or group to use it on.” Readers turned to his column with hearts racing, wondering whom he was going to slam today. There were plenty of targets, since “Peg” generally believed that both sides in any dispute were wrong.

Retreating to his own hotel room a bit later, Pegler wrote, “Your correspondent has just reeled away from an interview with Upton Sinclair and some members of his Brainstorm Trust. The column was short on substance but rich in Peglerisms. EPIC was “socialistic what-not.” Sinclair was the “Mahatma.” A gentleman who had suffered three business reversals during the Depression was “the triple-crash man.” This fellow qualified as an economic adviser to Sinclair by virtue of failures in “manufacturing, finance and art.”

Sinclair, the columnist complained, was “elusive as smoke.” His pronouncements “drifted on like a faint odor in a light breeze. Now you smelled the merest whiff of a definite answer in his conversation. The next instant it was gone, and the discourse was only words.” Pegler described Sinclair’s bodyguard — death threats were now common — waving his arms in circles, explaining the EPIC plan “in terms of great wheels spinning in space and windmills, bolts and nuts.

“Nuts,” Pegler observed, “seems an appropriate note on which to conclude today’s installment.”

A new edition of Mitchell’s book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at:

From The Huffington Post