During World War II, the American Federation of Labor gave the United States a no-strike pledge for the duration. The doubtful kudos for breaking that fragile pledge went to the Hollywood unions.
As early as March 1945, the first of a series of a half-dozen strikes was called in the movie capital. The strikes contributed substantially -- along with television and the 1948 antitrust federal action that split theater ownership away from the major producers -- to the final disintegration of Hollywood as the key movie manufacturer of the world.
What made this acceleration of the decline and fall of a $5 billion business particularly ironic was the fact that the strikes were unnecessary. They were almost entirely jurisdictional squabbles between unions.
1938, a novice in Hollywood, I suddenly found myself on the board of the Screen Actors Guild. The reason was not my fame nor fortune nor talents -- but simply that the board had created a policy of a broad representation of all segments of the actors' world.
I believe in the SAG with all my heart. It is a damned noble organization. The ones who made SAG work in the early days were the ones that didn't need it: Eddie Cantor, Edward Arnold, Ralph Morgan, Robert Montgomery, James Cagney, Walter Pidgeon, George Murphy, Harpo Marx, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Dick Powell -- and a hundred other stars who could call their own tunes on screen salaries. They were willing to use their personal power in order to better the lot of their fellow actors.
I had to resign from the board when I was swept into the Army but I kept in touch. Almost as soon as I got out in 1945, I was reappointed to the board and found myself swept into a maelstrom of the most rugged decisions I have ever had to make.
What I heard and read in the papers placed me on the side of the strikers. I was then and continue to be a strong believer in the rights of unions, as well as in the rights of individuals. I knew little and cared less about the rumors about communists.
Finally, I was a near-hopeless hemophilic liberal. I bled for "causes"; I had voted Democratic, following my father, in every election. I had followed FDR blindly, though with some misgivings. The story of my disillusionment with big government is linked fundamentally with the ideals that suddenly sprouted and put forth in the war years.
Meanwhile, I was blindly and busily joining every organization I could find that would guarantee to save the world. I was not sharp about communism: the Russians still seemed to be our allies. In that era, the American communists were high on the Hollywood hog, but only by reason of deception. Most of us called them liberals and, being liberal ourselves, bedded down with them with no thought for the safety of our wallets.
Thus my first evangelism came in the form of being hellbent on saving the world from neofascism. I considered myself quite a success until one evening in the spring of 1946. I had made my usual energetic pitch to howls of applause, but afterward a rather diffident local minister approached me.
"I agree with most of what you said," he murmured, "but don't you think, while you're denouncing fascism, it would be fair to speak out equally strongly against the tyranny of communism?"
I agree it was fair. I wrote a new last paragraph to my speech, doing just that. As it happened, my next address was as a substitute speaker for Jimmy Roosevelt. I took the rostrum. In a 40-minute talk, I got riotous applause more than 20 times. Then I denounced communism.
The silence was ghastly.
Two days later, I received a letter from a woman who had attended the last meeting. "I'm sure you were aware of the reaction to your last paragraph," she wrote. "I hope you recognize what it means." At the moment, I didn't; but from that time on, I commenced to back off from speaking engagements. A series of hard-nosed happenings began to change my whole view on the American dangers. Most of them tied in directly with events in my own bailiwick of acting.
Long before it became irrefutably documented by the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California (1959), the influence of the communists on the 1945-47 strike was clear. While others had been dodging the question, the SAG -- prompted by the strike -- had taken the strongest possible position on the question. A statement of policy by the board of directors in 1946 declared that the SAG "has in the past, does now, and will in the future rigorously oppose by every power which is within its legal rights, any fascist or communist influence in the motion picture industry."
In all the battles over the weary months, the Screen Actors Guild never used the word communist except in general terms, nor did we point a finger at any individual. We fought on the issues and proved that if you keep the people informed on those issues, they won't make a mistake. Some of the people against us were communists, some were knowing fellow travelers, and many were innocent dupes sincerely supporting a cause they believed was just.
But I will say of the communists -- they were the cause of the labor strife, they used minor jurisdictional disputes as excuses for their scheme. Their aim was to gain economic control of the motion picture industry in order to finance their activities and subvert the screen for their propaganda.
For my part, I owe it to that period that I managed to sort out a lot of items in my personal life. From being an active (though unconscious) partisan in what now and then turned out to be communist causes, I little by little became disillusioned or perhaps in my case, I should say awakened. One of the first examples I had was the communist infiltration into the original American Veterans Committee.
I expected great things of the AVC. I had taken the lead in assuming a number of obligations. One of these was securing for the group the free-use of the 750-seat auditorium of radio station KFWB. Things worked out fine -- except for those who thought the AVC was ripe for infiltration and takeover. Thus when I came back after a few weeks' shooting on location, I found that the meeting place had been transferred to a hall owned by the Screen Cartoonists Guild. This spot could seat only 75. Someone preferred a hall which could hold only a "small, working majority." It was an old communist trick but new to me.
Still, I didn't believe it had been done on purpose. Not until the day I got the AVC call to report in full Air Corps uniform, to picket a studio. Astounded, I investigated. I found that the action had been taken by a vote of 73 members out of a total of 1,300. I called back and said that if this was done was purporting to represent the AVC membership, I would take full-page ads in the papers denouncing it. In less than an hour, it was called off.
I resigned shortly thereafter from the AVC board and membership.
Light was dawning in some obscure region in my head. I was beginning to see the seamy side of liberalism. Too many of the patches on the progressive coat were of a color I didn't personally care for. Something the liberal will have to explain and stand trial for is his inability to see the communist as he truly is and not as some kind of Peck's Bad Boy of liberalism.
It was an interesting period in my life. Nor was it without rewards and sacrifices. By the time it was over, I was president of the Screen Actors Guild -- and I had lost my wife.
Bob Montgomery, probably more than any single individual, was responsible for the Screen Actors Guild being in a position to stand firm against the communist attempt at takeover. Long before most of us were even conscious such a threat existed, he had proposed -- and the membership had overwhelmingly approved -- a change in the bylaws that stymied the comrades in their favorite practice, namely, "Come to the meeting early and stay late."
Even in memory it seems impossible that my workaday world was continuing through all this -- meaning that I was making pictures.
As a result of "King's Row," I was a star. Jack Warner thought I was a star and I liked the idea of his continuing to think that. It seemed to me that R. R. should do his "first out" in company with someone who hadn't been away -- sort of insurance, like a ball carrier picking up a down field blocker. After several months of waiting it out, what seemed to be the perfect answer came along. The studio paged me for a part in Stephen Longstreet's book, "Stallion Road." The real clincher was the male costar, Humphrey Bogart, who sold tickets like they were going out of production any minute.
One week before shooting, Bogey checked out of the cast and was replaced by Zachary Scott. Don't get me wrong: Zack is a fine actor and was a pleasure to work with, but Bogey was practically number one box office, and I was looking for a free ride.
Meantime, back at the guild, we were involved in the longest and most involved negotiations in the history of our union.
Looking back, I realize that all of this extracurricular activity prevented me from giving full thought to my career. For example, I should have settled down happily and gratefully in "The Voice of the Turtle." Instead, I fussed around trying to get out of it. Jack Warner had bought the rights to this play a long time before and had earmarked it for me while I was still in service. Here was Jack feeling rebuffed, and all because John Huston had dangled a role in his now-classic picture, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," under my hammy nose.
The studio put its foot down -- if I said no to "Voice of the Turtle," there would be no part in "Treasure" because it was a Warner picture, too.
I tried to turn down the next script offered, "That Hagen Girl." Every so often now it pops up on the late late show, and I'm reminded of how right my first actor's instinct was.
"That Hagen Girl" was Shirley Temple in her first grown-up role. Unfortunately the public was not ready to give up their young Shirley Temple, particularly to a man old enough to be her father.
I don't know how much my double life had to do with what happened, but during all this picture-making I was spending five nights a week at the Screen Actors Guild. For months we had been getting ready for our negotiations with the producers.
The negotiations carried on for five months. They were a whole new experience to me. I suppose I really walked in believing we'd get what we asked because we asked for it. First surprise was discovering that the fellows across the table had ideas of their own.
I was also surprised to discover the important part a urinal played in bargaining. When some point has been kicked around a while, someone from one side or the other goes to the men's room. There is kind of sensory perception that gives you the urge to follow. Then, standing side by side in that room that levels king and commoner, comes an honest question, "What do you guys really want?" No bargaining here -- each tells what is the settling point. Back in the meeting, one or the other makes an offer based on this newly acquired knowledge. Then the other returnee from the men's room says, "Can our group have a caucus?" Slowly, point by point, men's room to caucus, you get on with it.
We shook hands over the debris of conference indispensables such as cigar butts, note paper, chewed-up pencils, etc. Actors had gotten raises. Working conditions had been vastly improved and we had wearily agreed to a stopgap clause that settled nothing with regard to movies someday being reissued on television -- but then everyone said they'd be crazy to sell their movies to a competing medium.
We weren't through with the little Red brethren in Hollywood, though, by any means.
Suddenly it seemed we were all going to Washington as guests of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The situation was made to order for the "commies" -- they organized one of the most successful operations in their domestic history: "The Committee for the First Amendment." Literally, the whole industry appeared on a giant radio show and, of course, there was the famous planeload of stars to Washington. Today some self-appointed "Red hunters" still use participation on that junket as proof of procommunist leanings. The truth is the communists in their own circles insisted that no party member be on the plane: It was for suckers only.
I arrived home from the Washington hearing to be told my marriage to Jane Wyman was over. I suppose there had been warning signs, if only I hadn't been so busy, but small-town boys grow up thinking only other people get divorced.
Jane Wyman and I met in 1939, making "Brother Rat." We became engaged during a cross-country tour with Louella Parsons.
Divorce happens in every town, but somehow people reserve a special feeling for it when it happens in our town. When we have a domestic problem, we can't tackle it in any atmosphere of privacy. I had never discussed what happened, and I have no intention of doing so now.
The problem hurt our children most. Maureen was born in 1941 and Michael came to us in March of 1945 -- closer than a son; he wasn't born unasked, we chose him.
Fortunately Warner's put me to work in a picture called "John Loves Mary" with a newly arrived actress, Patricia Neal, Jack Carson, Wayne Morris and my comrade-in-arms, Eddie Arnold.
Warner's next told me I was going to England to play the comic "Yank" in "The Hasty Heart," another smash Broadway hit.
I was less than happy. I still wanted that outdoor epic. The studio knew it couldn't shanghai me and drop me in England if my sulk persisted, so I was told in the friendliest way that the studio was looking for an outdoor property for me. Maybe they hadn't anticipated how helpful I was prepared to be. I had a story in mind, "Ghost Mountain" by Alan Le May. Twenty-four hours later, Steve Trilling called and said, "We've bought it," and I replied, "Send me the boat tickets."
"The Hasty Heart" took almost four months to make, and, in spite of the homesickness, the hunger, and the annoyance at socialist bumbling, my farewell to London held its measure of regret. There were friendships made and cherished to this day.
Back in New York, I discovered things in the picture business were normal, which means all messed up. Variety carried a story the day we docked that Warner's had slated "Ghost Mountain" for early production -- with Errol Flynn in the starring role.
I was too far out to listen to my agent, Lew Wasserman. I dared the studio to put me in a picture, any picture. Lew had foresight and a more practical approach. My Warner's contract had three years to go. Lew rewrote it to read one picture a year for three years, and full rights to do outside pictures. One week later Lew added a five-year, five-picture deal at Universal.
Universal wasted no time: they came up with an exciting crime thriller teaming Ida Lupino and myself. On the Sunday night preceding the starting date, I played in a baseball game between comedians and leading men, to benefit the City of Hope Hospital. Before the end of the first inning I was lying just off first base with a multiple fracture of my right thigh.
Little did I know I was headed for months of traction, months of cast, then a steel and leather brace, crutches, canes, and almost a year of therapy.
Eventually, my picture career was under way again, but at the risk of your saying, "This is where I came in," it had to share time with another guild crisis and something new in my private life: a woman named Nancy.
One of the first films I did after my accident was at Universal, where I was supposed to realize my acting ambitions. In this comedy, Diana Lynn, Walter Slexak, and I fought a losing battle against a scene-stealer with a built-in edge -- he was a chimpanzee and he even had us rooting for him. The picture was called "Bedtime for Bonzo," and he was Bonzo.