November 13, 2007

How the writers' strike of 1919 led to Hollywood's liberal monoculture

Intellectual property rights are a snooze-inducing topic for everybody except, apparently, rabid libertarians who hate to pay for their entertainment, but they can have far-reaching consequences. Here's an excerpt from my 2005 American Conservative article on "Hollywood's Skin-Deep Leftism:"

Keep in mind that Hollywood's relationship with the outside world is tenuous. It's a self-absorbed community and its politics are skin-deep, serving functions within the industry that aren't always obvious to outsiders. Today's liberal monoculture is in large part an outgrowth of the compromise resolution to the ancient struggle between studio executives and screenwriters that culminated in the endlessly discussed but little understood blacklist of Marxists in the 1950s.

One of the blacklist's main roots has disappeared down the memory hole because it doesn't the burnish the heroic image created to flatter the Communist victims.

A 1919 theatre strike won the playwrights of the Dramatists Guild the right to retain copyright in their works. To this day, dramatists own their plays and merely license them to producers. Further, they have the right to approve or reject the cast, director, and any proposed changes in the dialogue. Contractually, a playwright is a rugged individualist, an Ayn Rand hero.

With the introduction of the talkies in 1927, Hollywood began importing trainloads of New York dramatists. Salaries were generous and the climate superb, but the dramatists found the collaborative nature of moviemaking frustrating, even demeaning. Screenwriters were employees in a vast factory, which owned their creations. The studios could, and generally would, have other hired hacks radically rewrite each script, all under the intrusive supervision of some mogul's half-literate brother-in-law.

In the 1930s, Hollywood's Communist Party, under the command of its charismatic commissar, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, improbably but enthusiastically championed the intellectual property rights of script-writers. The ink-stained wretches found the Marxist concept of "alienation" described their plight. They felt just like the once psychologically fulfilled hand-craftsmen forced into becoming dispossessed factory drones who cannot recognize their creativity in their employer's output.

Insanely ironic as it seems now, many screenwriters became Communists because they despised the movie business' need for cooperation. How turning command of the entire economy over to a dictatorship would restore the unfettered joys of individual craftsmanship was a little fuzzy, but, hey, if you couldn't trust Stalin, whom could you trust?

The possibility of studios blacklisting writers first surfaced in the 1930s when the moguls' cartel turned aside the leftist screenwriters' push to align themselves with the Dramatists Guild by threatening to fire union supporters. "It wouldn't be a blacklist because it would all be done over the telephone," Jack Warner explained.

Decades later, after the formal Blacklist era, this labor-management conflict was eventually resolved by a tacit compromise. The blacklisted writers were elevated in the collective memory to the role of martyrs. Their leftism (but not their Stalinism, which was conveniently forgotten) was enshrined as the appropriate ideology of all respectable movie folk.

In return, the producers damn well hung on to their property rights in screenplays.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

15 comments:

Bruce Wayne said...

I like the story but don't see what the evidence actually is for this conclusion:

"Decades later, after the formal Blacklist era, this labor-management conflict was eventually resolved by a tacit compromise. The blacklisted writers were elevated in the collective memory to the role of martyrs. Their leftism (but not their Stalinism, which was conveniently forgotten) was enshrined as the appropriate ideology of all respectable movie folk."

I don't dispute the elevation of the blacklisted writers as martyrs nor that their leftism is considered the acceptable ideology. However, 1) When was leftism not the acceptable ideology of Hollywood? 2) the treating of the blacklisted writers as martyrs also conveniently pins blame not on the studios and execs but on "mcCarthyism" and is thus self-serving for all parties concerned. 3) More is hidden in the phrase "Decades later" than revealed. That is, what exactly is the story hidden by that phrase that supports your claim of this "tacit" compromise?

Jim O'Sullivan said...

In the 1930s, Hollywood's Communist Party, under the command of its charismatic commissar, screenwriter John Howard Lawson, improbably but enthusiastically championed the intellectual property rights of script-writers.
I read this and I asked myself,"but why?" Then I recalled that Marx told his followers to get peasants to support the revolution by telling them that they would each get their own 160 acres of land - then just collectivize once they take over. Makes sense.

Anonymous said...

"The studios could, and generally would, have other hired hacks radically rewrite each script, all under the intrusive supervision of some mogul's half-literate brother-in-law."

I'm sure the half-literate brother-in-law got that job strictly by merit.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that so much of the film and music industry likes to portray it's self as being rebelious and free spirited while simultaneously fighting against copy right pirates. Artists like Bruce Springstein are into their protest-non-cooperation-foucalut-agitprop bs as a way of patriotic protest. On the other hand they are on the spear point against illegal downloading. It seems there is a limit to being a rebel and the culture they have bred.

Evil Neocon said...

Steve --

Objectively several of your comments don't apply (if they did then):

Moms and Dads spending time with their kids? Ice Storm, American Beauty, Squid and the Whale (just off the top of my head). Manly men and womanly women? TransAmerica, Boys Don't Cry, Grace is Gone, Martian Child? Heck the careers of Hillary Swank and John Cusak stand as Exhibit A of manly women and womenly men as far as Hollywood goes. Johnny Depp and Kiera Knightly would be Exhibit's B.

Moreover the spate of anti-American movies depicting blue-collar America as worthless and in particular white males (unless they are high-staus "Idols" like Clooney or Pitt or Damon) as evil stands as rebuke to your 2005 article. Valley of Elah -- soldiers as racist moronic murderers? Check. Three Burials, white males as failures and so disagreeable they should be shot? Check. Crash, Waitress, etc?

IMHO you miss the bigger dynamic with Hollywood -- the constant churn to be the big dog, Alpha Male (that Entourage or Action! captured) and the consequent disdain to hatred of the ordinary guy.

Consider this: there is no Hollywood American actor who can play ordinary manly-men (as opposed to a high-status Metrosexual like Clooney or Pitt). So you have Bale and Crowe in the Western 3:10 to Yuma. If that's a symptom of the massive crisis afflicting Hollywood -- reliance on a few box office blockbusters that are creatively garbage, while most films are elitist snob fests (Station Agent, Loggerheads, Brokeback) that few want to see but are made to display status-power-wealth among Hollywood players.

[As for Blackhawk Down, the lesson is "don't fight, you will make them angry!" but rather, if you're going to fight, fight with everything, and WIN. Don't be hobbled by PC. That there are no magic black-clad ninjas like Clinton fantasized able to solve your problems. Funny that, there are no magic shortcuts in any aspect of life!]

I don't agree that Hollywood is basically conservative -- that might have been an accurate picture say 1988, but too much "easy money" on blockbusters and status derived from being "cool" rather than making money (look at how Eastwood pathetically wanted approval from the "cool kids" by trashing WWII vets in Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) has warped Hollywood. Spielberg at this point clearly has less status among his peers than say, Stephen Gaghan of Syriana and Traffic. Zach Snyder, Frank Miller, and Michael Bay have likely none at all despite being involved in very profitable films.

Heck films get made with zilch expectations of profit at all. Just a status display.

Anonymous said...

Jack Warner explained. Decades later, after the formal Blacklist era, this labor-management conflict was eventually resolved by a tacit compromise. The blacklisted writers were elevated in the collective memory to the role of martyrs. Their leftism (but not their Stalinism, which was conveniently forgotten) was enshrined as the appropriate ideology of all respectable movie folk. In return, the producers damn well hung on to their property rights in screenplays
------------------------------

That's the worst post you ever made. How could studio heads who have little power today determine the appropriate ideology of movie folk today. Really, you have to look in other direction than some laboe agreement of years ago for why hollywood is left or universities are left.

Captain Pugwash said...

Steve, La Shawn Barber is missing from your blog roll. Would you rectify, please?

Anonymous said...

I think you're really reaching here for an explanation of Hollywood's leftism. It's an interesting story about the conflict between the writers and the studios but it's not very convincing to explain their leftism. I don't understand why the writers financial and creative differences with the studios would make them leftists in the first place if they weren't already leftists and I understand even less why they would remain so several generations on when they don't even know about this history. The explanation that makes the most sense to explain Hollywood's leftism is that Hollywood is largely Jewish. If you're not a Jew and wish to work you need to go along to get along.

I think this is one of those times Steve that you need to remember Orwells admonition (taken from your old site): To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

One of Steve's Henchmen said...

The blog owner has asked for commenters to assume a nickname.

Sound off like you got a pair.

James Kabala said...

The present-day music industry (meaning actual bands, not executives or producers, and meaning pop/rock, not Broadway, which traditionally has been heavily Jewish, or country, where there are still many conservatives) has relatively few Jews (mostly old-timers like Dylan and Simon) but is also overwhelmingly liberal.

Mark said...

The blacklisted writers were elevated in the collective memory to the role of martyrs. Their leftism (but not their Stalinism, which was conveniently forgotten) was enshrined as the appropriate ideology of all respectable movie folk.

Sorry, Steve, but no. This argument is just (barely) one step removed from a conspiracy theory.

Writers are mostly liberal because liberals today are the only ones who write. Why is that? Has writing always been a liberal thing? Is it the love of writing that makes one liberal, or being liberal that makes one love to write? Or is there a connection between being a good writer and being liberal? (Those questions seem to be right up your alley).

Conservativism as an ideology is about numbers and logic; liberalism is about words and feelings. Personally I think conservatives have lost all of the cultural institutions that encouraged artistic endeavors. Schools are run by unionized government bureaucrats. Christian churches - even the "conservative" ones - have devolved to shelling out sappy, effeminate, anti-intellectual nonsense, even though there's a huge cultural endowment just there for the taking.

If conservatives want conservative movies and conservative art we need to emphasize the humanistic aspects of conservativism - and teach our kids what the schools are not.

As for Blackhawk Down, the lesson is "don't fight, you will make them angry!" but rather, if you're going to fight, fight with everything, and WIN. Don't be hobbled by PC. That there are no magic black-clad ninjas like Clinton fantasized able to solve your problems.

What I find funny about war movies is the number of actors who star in them then later claim that "they had no choice" due to some contract clause, or that they're "opposed to war."

Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards, both of "Top Gun," come to mind. Both have said that they didn't want to be in "TOp Gun." Of course in Edwards's case there's nothing on God's green earth that could make him look like a man.

Hollywood actors still know the score: to look like a real man, to build your fan base, and to build your credibility there's nothing quite like starring in a good war movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal knows that, except that his agent never bothered to tell him that as a war movie "Jarhead" sucked, and that nobody ever bothered to see it anyway.

Reg C├Žsar said...

This may be a quibble, but wasn't Marx's concept of "alienation" purely economic, rather than psychological? The craftsman was alienated from the full value of his creation through the factory system. Feelings had nothing to do with it-- Marx had none of his own, and would hardly care about workers'.

Anonymous said...

Evil neocon said:

"Consider this: there is no Hollywood American actor who can play ordinary manly-men (as opposed to a high-status Metrosexual like Clooney or Pitt). So you have Bale and Crowe in the Western 3:10 to Yuma."

Funny you mention that. Isn't one of the main male characters in the FOX show Prison Break an Australian too?
James Woods commented a while back (in Maxim I think) that when Hollywood needs a true masculine man they now cast an Australian. As an American he finds this quite disconcerting.

-Vanilla Thunder

Mark said...

Funny you mention that. Isn't one of the main male characters in the FOX show Prison Break an Australian too?

Don't know, haven't seen the show. For a real eye opener, though, watch the "making of" documentary that comes on the disk with "Blackhawk Down." It seems that half the stars, at least, have "funny" accents. Jason Isaacs, who played the Ranger captain, is non-American, as is at least one of the Delta MoH recipients, and three of the other main characters: Orlando Bloom, Ewan MacGregor and Eric Bana. (Besides MacGregor, another "Trainspotting" star was in the movie, but I forget his name.)

Spielberg, of course, would never cast a Brit as a hero in one of his war movies because in his eyes they're all villains. An anti-WASP thing, I think.

James Woods commented a while back (in Maxim I think) that when Hollywood needs a true masculine man they now cast an Australian.

That guy is so smart in so many ways, and a total treat to listen to. I'm no fan of Terry Gross, but when NPR replayed an interview of her with James Woods I was glued to my car radio for an hour.

He was also one of the few people who witnessed the 9/11 terrorists in pre-9/11 action to report them to the authorities, while all the rest bended to the other police - the PC gestapo.

rik spillman said...

speaking of media monoculture, the same is true of book publishing today, is it not?

even *publishers* admit it:

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/mailbag/dont_write_western_civilization_off_just_yet_71208.asp

i'd like to know what people like you and jorn barger etc think of this