The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is Gov. Scott Walker's union fight any worse than Hollywood's own brutal labor wars?

March 10, 2011 |  2:48 pm

Frank_capra Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate his state workers’ collective-bargaining rights has led to weeks of angry demonstrations at the state Capitol by teachers and others. It’s also helped inspire a lot of renewed interest in unions and what they mean to the working class in this country, especially in states such as Wisconsin, where the average salary for one of those supposedly overpaid state workers is $48,348.

Wisconsin activists love to boast about their state’s pivotal role in the evolution of unions. But out here in Hollywood, we have a pretty colorful, sometimes brutal union history as well. A friend of mine just passed along a copy of the latest edition of the DGA Quarterly, which devoted most of its winter issue to the pioneering 1930s efforts of early filmmakers such as Frank Capra and King Vidor that led to the birth of the DGA (originally known as the Screen Director’s Guild). For me, the most fascinating chapter in all these formative labor disputes came in 1939, when DGA activists, still seeking studio recognition of the union after three years of fruitless negotiations, walked out of a deal-making session after the studio executives demanded that the union toss its assistant directors out of the guild.

The guild’s chief negotiator was Capra, then at the height of his career. He’d already won an armful of Oscars for “It Happened One Night” and was about to start production on “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Of equal importance in this battle, Capra was also president of the motion picture academy, which put on the Oscars. It might seem hard to believe by today’s standards, when conservatives are almost reflexively anti-union, but Capra was a Republican and later a fierce anti-Communist, even though he was an equally vociferous union supporter.

His main adversary was Motion Picture Assn. of America chief and 20th Century Fox Chairman Joseph Schenck, a gambler and womanizer who was known as a shrewd pragmatist, having once advised a friend, “If four or five guys tell you that you’re drunk, even though you know you haven’t had a thing to drink, the least you could do is lie down a little while.” Like most of his Hollywood mogul brethren, Schenck figured Capra as an easily manipulated amateur negotiator, so he decided to test his mettle.

Schenck told Capra to show up for a 3 p.m. meeting at his office. But when Capra arrived, Schenck’s secretary told him that Schenck had gone to the racetrack hours before. Furious, Capra hopped into his car and headed out to Santa Anita, where he confronted Schenck, saying “The next time you ask me for an appointment, I’ll be there. And so will you -- with your hat in your hand.” Schenck’s high-handed behavior infuriated guild members, who were all on board when Capra played a canny card of his own. If the studio bosses refused to make a deal, the directors would not only go out on strike, but they would also boycott the upcoming Academy Awards (where another one of Capra’s pictures, “You Can’t Take It With You,” had earned seven Oscar nominations).

The guild gave management 24 hours to recognize the union or they’d go public with their ultimatum. When Schenck asked Capra to meet with the assembled studio chiefs the next day, Capra retorted: “Would it save time if I went directly to Santa Anita?” Schenck promised he’d be there, with his hat. In fact, on Feb. 17, 1939, all of the legendary moguls were on hand, including Darryl Zanuck, Sam Goldwyn, Harold Cohn, Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. After an hours-long, closed-door meeting, the studio chiefs emerged, handing Capra a two-page letter that was a clear admission of defeat. They recognized Capra’s union as the directors’ sole bargaining agent, giving them rights to preparation time before they made a film and establishing minimum salaries for assistant directors.

The Academy Awards went on, without delay, just days later, with Capra being named best director for “You Can’t Take It With You,” which also won best picture. But the real winners were the men who made the movies, who walked away with a dramatic labor victory over the far more powerful studio chiefs. As Capra told it, after the moguls admitted defeat, the directors went out and got “pifflicated.” I can’t find that word in my dictionary, but I'm betting it means that Capra and his fellow filmmakers had a helluva wild victory celebration.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Frank Capra, left, with Jimmy Stewart in a publicity still from the 1946 film "It's A Wonderful Life." Credit: Cumberland House Publishing