Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fredric March - Attack Ads "Dirty Trick"

Fredric March with wife Florence Eldridge

With an election coming up later this year and with a Republican presidential primary in progress, it's hard to avoid the many political attack ads airing on television. I'm just glad that California, where I'm at, is one of the last states in the primary process so we haven't quite been bombarded with ads the way other states have. Still, every news program seems to re-run the ads. I just saw one a couple weeks ago that portrayed Mitt Romney as an action figure - think Arnold Schwarzenegger in any of his action roles - running around with a large mudslinging gun. Eventually while Romney is firing his mudslinging gun it backfires on him. The sad thing is, contrary to the message of this particular ad, attack ads have proven to be an effective weapon for taking down an opponent. For this reason, despite how much any of us seem to dislike attack ads, politicians continue to use them.

Of course, these polished attack ads that sometimes look like a trailer for an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster are nothing new. Attack ads have been used for a long time. For that matter, Hollywood has been involved for a long time in producing attack ads.

The classic movie related blog Sittin On A Backyard Fence is currently hosting a blogathon dedicated to the early Hollywood star, Fredric March. As my contribution to the Fredric March blogathon I couldn't think of anything more currently relevant than a short anecdote that involves March, a political campaign, Hollywood and attack ads.

During the 1934 campaign for governor of California, socialist writer and political activist Upton Sinclair was the choice candidate for many politically left leaning Hollywood celebrities. Fredric March and his wife, actress Florence Eldridge, both progressive Hollywood liberals,  were part of Sinclair's ardent Hollywood supporters. To make a long story short and keep this centered on March, Sinclair lost the election. Many Sinclair supporters believed that Sinclair might have won the election if it wasn't for a series of newsreel films that were really just attack ads. In some of the films, supporters of Sinclair were shown as shady looking characters or spoke like newly arrived immigrants with foreign accents, while supporters of Sinclair's opponent, incumbent Republican Governor Frank M. Merriam, were always shown as respectable, upstanding citizens. 

At a post-election party hosted by March and Eldridge in Beverly Hills, several guests complained about the use of the films. In the book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, author Greg Mitchell writes about an exchange that took place at the party between March and the respected MGM producer, Irving Thalberg:

"Suddenly, and to the surprise of nearly everyone, Irving Thalberg quietly announced, 'I made those shorts.'
'But it was a dirty trick!' Fredric March protested. 'It was the damnedest unfair thing I've ever heard of.'
'Nothing is unfair in politics,' Thalberg replied, unperturbed. 'We could sit down here and figure dirty things all night, and every one of them would be all right in a political campaign.'
'It wouldn't be all right with me,' March maintained.
'That's because you don't know politics,' Thalberg answered, recalling his days as a boy orator for the Socialist party in New York. Tammany Hall, he explained, never would have let his party win an election in New York. 'Fairness in an election,' Thalberg advised, 'is a contradiction in terms. It just doesn't exist.'"

Nearly eight decades later and the same argument is still taking place in politics!

To read more about actor Fredric March please visit the blog Sittin On A Backyard Fence where many bloggers are contributing entries on all aspects of March's career.


whistlingypsy said...

A fascinating insight into politics, then and now; I guess the more things change the more they really do stay the same. I’m vaguely familiar with the events from programs devoted to California during the Depression, and the background on the Sinclair/Merriman election campaign is intriguing for two reasons: I had the idea in the back of my mind that Harry Chandler and the LA Times was somehow responsible for the dirty campaign against Sinclair. I wasn’t aware that Irving Thalberg produced the inflammatory films or of the discussion between Thalberg and Fredric March. Thanks for sharing this fascinating insight into the character of Fredric March and the golden age of Hollywood politics.

Paul D. Marks said...

Well, I was going to say 'the more things change...' But I see someone's already beaten me to it.

Lauren LoGiudice said...

HIstory does repeat itself!

Karen said...

What an interesting article - so fascinating to see, once again, that the more things change, the more they say the same. Thanks for this timely post!

kittenbiscuits said...

A really interesting story!

Fredric and Florence were incredibly active in liberal causes for years. The couple were targeted by HUAC. They also sued the red hunting publication Counterattack! for libel...and won.


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