The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair in The First Attack Ads. Courtesy of Exposed Films.

The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair is a short documentary that looks at Hollywood’s fight against the American writer.

If you’ve read Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood or Sydney Stern’s The Brothers Mankiewicz, you’ll be in a good position because these books feature some of the history. In short, MGM executives didn’t want to see Upton Sinclair elected governor of California. As such, Louis B. Mayer’s #2 man, Irving Thalberg, created the first political attack ads for use on the big screen. Thalberg’s creation would evolve through the years especially as paid political advisors got evolved. The worst of them, of course, coming during the 1988 presidential election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. One cannot make any documentary about attack ads and not bring up this unfortunate attack on the Dukakis campaign.

Sinclair’s campaign goal was to “End Poverty in California” or EPIC, for short. MGM didn’t like this, especially after he won the Democratic primary, and so they responded in force in 1934. Not everybody was on board in the studio to say the least. It also led to the creation of both the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. This isn’t the only legacy as a result of the film. One can trace California’s Democratic stronghold all the way back to this election in particular. Even though Sinclair wasn’t endorsed by FDR, the president would go onto adopt some of his ideas with the formation of the Social Security Administration and the Works Projects Administration.

We’ve never really seen a film focus on this aspect of Hollywood. There have been books and writings from director Greg Mitchell. Hell, not even the Hollywood biographies that I’ve read go extremely in-depth on the issue. A few pages and that might be about it. Outside of excerpting interviews from Lyn Goldfarb’s We Have a Plan, Mitchell’s film uses parts of three of the short films attacking Sinclair. Surprisingly, some of the films feature excerpts from other films! And again, everything we know about attack ads goes all the way back to 1934. That’s not to say that they didn’t exist beforehand but this was the first time that anyone used the screen to attack a candidate.

When Mank came out in 2020, I had my own words to say about the film because of how it portrayed Hollywood history. This documentary short really puts it into perspective because it debunks the falsehoods of that film. When a documentary points out things in a biopic that are false, it’s never a good look for the narrative feature.

The First Attack Ads may be brief but a must-watch for anyone interested in Hollywood’s role in political advertising.

DIRECTOR: Greg Mitchell
NARRATOR: Elliott Forrest

The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair will air October 1, 2022 at 9 PM PT on KCET with an encore airing on October 6 at 8 PM PT on PBS SoCal. It will be distributed nationally via NETA with PBS SoCal | KCET as the Presenting Station. It will be available to stream and on the FREE PBS App. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.