August 30, 2004

Fox and Friend, 2

A while back, I noted the oddity of muckraker Upton Sinclair taking up his pen in the service of William Fox, who from 1915 to 1930 ran what was arguably the most influential motion picture company, the Fox Film Corporation (which survives to this day as Twentieth Century Fox). William Fox was an ardent Republican, supported Herbert Hoover's 1928 election campaign through his Fox Movietone Films and -- wait for it -- his Fox News division, produced patriotic films during World War One, and ran a company worth (Sinclair tells us) some $300 million. From Alibris I ordered a copy of Sinclair's book, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox shortly thereafter; the book arrived last week. In the interim, I fished around for information on the book, and came across, via Nexis, an August 31, 2003, column by Tim Rutten that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Rutten wrote:

THERE is no better evidence of that -- and no stronger refutation of the liberal Hollywood myth -- than the movie industry's most decisive intervention ever into California politics.

In 1934, the muckraking novelist, socialist tract writer and dietary crank Upton Sinclair stunned the state by winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. His platform called for adopting a modest universal old-age pension and seizing idle factories and farmlands so that they could be handed over to cooperatives of the unemployed. Sinclair was favored to win the general election, and that prospect rattled the California establishment to its marrow.

Among those most alarmed were the mostly Republican, mostly Jewish founding fathers of the film industry.

The year before he won the nomination, Sinclair had published a book, "Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox," based on a series of interviews he had conducted with the recently deposed Fox Studios founder. The book, as historian Kevin Starr points out, was "an anti-Semitic document in which Jewish villains were everywhere. Ostensibly, an expose of Hollywood and Wall Street, the Fox memoir had a strong secondary theme as well: Hollywood as the Cosa Nostra of American Jewry."

I was rather surprised to read this -- Sinclair may have been many things (he was a bit of a crank when it came to diet, and it was rather disturbing to read in the Fox book that only the Soviet Union enjoyed freedom from "wage slavery"), but he was no anti-Semite (his books were among those burnt by the Nazis). So when the Fox book arrived last week, I read it with interest, and can say that Kevin Starr's characterization is wildly inaccurate.

Hollywood is hardly mentioned in the book. Instead, Sinclair focuses on Fox's dealing with the New York and Chicago financiers who, Fox and Sinclair believed, tried to ruin the producer and his companies. The only time Sinclair raises Fox's Judaism (and that of a few other Hollywood moguls) is to ask whether Fox thought that anti-Semitism played any role in the shabby treatment Fox alleged he received from his bankers. (Fox says the thought had crossed his mind, but doubted it). The villains are largely Anglo-Saxons, but Sinclair couldn't care less -- his enemy is capital, and that's where he trains his fire, and had the heads of Chase and Chemical and other banks been Zulus, Sinclair wouldn't have had any less ire for them.

Posted by Ideofact at August 30, 2004 11:59 PM

About ten or twelve years ago I read Sinclair's It Could Happen Here, a fictional account of fascism's triumph in the US after its European successes. I remember the protagonist's Dickens collection being burned, and the centrality of Father Coughlin, but otherwise my recollection is pretty sketchy.

I keep meaning to revisit it in the light of the past few years of political reflection.

Posted by: tm at September 1, 2004 02:37 AM

Wasn't it Sinclair Lewis, and wasn't the title "It Can't Happen Here?"

Upton Sinclair wasn't nearly the stooge Sinclair Lewis was -- even if Upton's economics were all wrong, he had an unfailing eye for the humanity of his characters (real and fictional). I always get the feeling with Sinclair Lewis that he despised his countrymen. I never get that feeling from Upton Sinclair.

Posted by: Bill at September 1, 2004 03:23 PM


I usually know better than to trust my memory on something vague and distant. Yes, that's the one. It's fascinating to note how many of Amazon's reviewers think connect it with the present.

Posted by: tm at September 1, 2004 09:04 PM

I think there's a line to the effect that fascism is always descending on America, but somehow ends up landing in Europe.

Anyway, don't get me wrong -- as much as I admire Upton Sinclair's prose style and his cantankerousness, I nevertheless regard him as an economic illiterate. And one of the strangest things about his making Fox a hero is that Fox was sort of the Ken Lay of his day.

Posted by: Bill at September 2, 2004 10:37 AM