Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950: Moguls, Stars, Reds & Trade Unionists

On Oct. 8, 1945, a riot erupted outside Warner Bros.' studios when thugs and the police descended on the Conference of Studio Unions picketing members. It was the ugly climax of a seven-month strike. With Hollywood now bracing for major strikes, Gerald Horne's pro-labor analysis of a bitter chapter in movie industry history is a particularly timely read and builds a compelling, and mostly convincing, case for "one of the pivotal worker struggles of the postwar era."

On Oct. 8, 1945, a violent riot erupted outside Warner Bros.’ Burbank studios when mob-hired thugs and the police descended on picketing members of the Conference of Studio Unions. It was the ugly climax of a seven-month strike, and though CSU won some concessions in the lengthy settlement of the labor dispute, a year later it would fall victim to a lockout, engineered by the studios and the rival IATSE, that led to its demise. With Hollywood now bracing for major strikes, Gerald Horne’s decidedly pro-labor analysis of a bitter chapter in movie industry history is a particularly timely read. Horne orchestrates extensive archival research to build a compelling, and mostly convincing, case for the events of 1945-46 as “one of the pivotal worker struggles of the postwar era.”

The book’s intro sets the stage, focusing on the post-World War II rise of organized crime in the U.S. and the pervasiveness of the Red Scare as factors in the decline of the organized left. Emblematic of Hollywood’s swing to the right was the hardening of the more “socially conscious” Jack Warner toward labor, in the face of Red-baiting. Subsequent chapters explore the period of the 1930s-50s from the perspective of various players in Hollywood (“Reds,” “Mobsters and Stars,” “Moguls”), so that the well-paced narrative revisits events from overlapping angles, building toward the climactic episodes of the mid-’40s.

CSU’s set decorators went on strike in March 1945 over a jurisdictional dispute with IATSE, a union built on the more traditional industrial model and headed for a time by Willie Bioff and George Browne, puppets installed by Al Capone. (There are some comical evocations of the hairsplitting logic of such disputes: “If glue were required, grips would claim jurisdiction; if wallpaper paste were involved, the painters would claim jurisdiction.”)

This was a time of especially larger-than-life characters in L.A.’s burgeoning film biz, men not so far removed from their street roots. At the center of the drama is Herb Sorrell, the former pugilist who headed CSU’s federation of craft locals with a passion for progressive unionism and no fear of violence. Sorrell and the CSU were damned as Red by studio moguls and the press, but Horne repeatedly points to evidence that the union chief was not a Communist. His main failing as a leader was his naivete about larger political and social forces at work; by the time CSU’s carpenters were locked out in 1946, those forces were beyond Sorrell’s most fervent resolve. The absence of the militant, progressive CSU, Horne asserts, made it all the easier for the studios to institute their 1947 blacklist of perceived subversives.

Horne’s labor-oriented view of the film biz provides images not often seen in Hollywood chronicles: glimpses of the stars who crossed picket lines and those who honored them; tactical discussions at SAG meetings; LAPD’s Red Squad conducting tireless surveillance of local Communists; the Culver City cops being put on the MGM payroll. Hardly ancient history, “Class Struggle in Hollywood” is a thought-provoking look at the rise and fall of a progressive force in the moviemaking industry.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • Fiddler A Miracle of Miracles

    Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles'

    Still beloved and routinely revived 55 years after its Broadway debut — including a Yiddish-language version now playing in New York — “Fiddler on the Roof” is a popular phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Max Lewkowicz’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” provides an entertaining if hardly exhaustive overview of how the unlikely success [...]

  • Review: Taylor Swift Finds Giddiness, Amid

    Album Review: Taylor Swift's 'Lover'

    Sitting in a hot tub on “Saturday Night Live,” Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch stole the sobriquet “love-ah” from the lexicon of acceptable terms of endearment — and, by golly, Taylor Swift is reaching into that oily water and stealing it back. The word doesn’t sound unctuous on her lips as she repeats it in [...]

  • Burn review

    Film Review: 'Burn'

    There’s more smoke than fire in “Burn,” a reasonably promising single-location thriller that never quite settles on what it wants to be — a straight-up suspense piece, twisty black comedy, oddball character study, etc. “All the above” would be a tall but not impossible order to pull off. The problem is that writer-director Mike Gan’s [...]

  • Rounds

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'Rounds'

    Five features (plus a scattering of documentaries) into his career, leading Bulgarian writer-director Stephan Komandarev has resisted cultivating a clear thematic or stylistic throughline to his oeuvre. Yet his latest, the overnight police patchwork “Rounds,” feels surprisingly close to quintessential, pulling as it does plot points, structural models and tonal switches from his previous films [...]

  • Overcomer

    Film Review: 'Overcomer'

    No matter the setting or circumstances, the solution to every dilemma found in Christian Evangelical films is getting closer to God. That certainly holds true with regards to “Overcomer,” the latest bit of bigscreen proselytizing by writer-director-star Alex Kendrick (“War Room,” “Courageous”). The story of a high school basketball coach who’s forced to take over [...]

  • 'The Son' Review: Bosnian Family Drama

    Sarajevo Film Review: 'The Son'

    It is a mixed blessing to be born in the aftermath of a war. On the one hand, you never have to experience the terror and suffering your parents did; on the other, you grow up with your own personal crises forever made to feel smaller by comparison. That, at least, is the frustration driving [...]

  • Gerard Butler Angel Has Fallen

    Film Review: 'Angel Has Fallen'

    “Angel Has Fallen” marks the third time that Gerard Butler, as the Secret Service agent and scowling samurai cowboy Mike Banning, has had to rescue the President of the United States from an international conspiracy so cuckoo bananas that the movie barely expects you to believe it. (Actually, in the six years since this series [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content