Film Studies: Ronald Reagan's mentor

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Roy M. Brewer died a week ago in a Los Angeles suburb. He had ten grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren, and he was 97, so the ritual tributes of decent respect can be paid. But he did damage, and applied it as steadily as he knew how, and he was probably the second most important trade-unionist in the history of Hollywood. We'll come to number one before the end of what must be a brief obituary survey.

Brewer was born in Cairo, Nebraska, in 1909, the son of a blacksmith. He took up work as a movie projectionist in the days when that craft was close to art and danger (the film-stock was nitrate and it easily caught fire). He joined the projectionists' union and was promoted. And by 1945, he was leader of IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators). This was a grab-bag union for just about anyone not covered by the craft unions (i.e. the writers, directors and actors). It covered theatre projectionists, studio laborers, set builders, carpenters and so on.

In theory, it had the interests of labour at heart in one of the most extravagant and profitable of American industries. But the history at IATSE was of leaders who had made their private deals with the studios - a practice later employed by the Teamsters - of getting "insurance" payments: for a consideration, there would be no strike. Over the years, two IATSE leaders had probably skimmed $15 million from the studios. Their names were George Browne and Willie Bioff and they both ended in prison. It was as part of the "clean-up" operation that followed that Roy Brewer came to Hollywood and took over.

No one ever accused him of personal corruption, but he had another angle. As a defender of organized labour, he decided that the Communists must be the defining enemy in the picture business. As the sucker who played right into his hands, just after the war, Herbert Sorrell was just trying to radicalize Hollywood unions as part of the new world order. Sorrell was certainly a leftist and he probably had naive Communist associations. But he thought he could mount a rival to IATSE, the Conference of Studio Unions, to get better terms. He was misguided enough to call for a strike, in 1945-6, which was gingerly supported by the leftist elements in the Writers' Guild and the Actors' Guild. There were pickets, charges, and there was violence on the streets and serious work stoppages. And there was Roy Brewer explaining to the American people that it was all the work of that terrible Red influence so notable in Hollywood movies.

That description was a travesty of the facts, but Brewer had powerful allies in Washington and the mood in America was paranoid. A year later, 1947, saw the first hearings on the motion picture industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee. And Roy Brewer was their earnest supporter. For the next ten years, without any other official position than his leadership of IATSE, he was the enforcer of the black-list. You couldn't work unless Roy put a tick against your name.

It was in 1947, too, that Ronald Reagan became president of the Screen Actors Guild - at which time, by his own admission, he was a Roosevelt liberal. Roy was one of the men who taught Ronnie the facts of political life, who swayed him to the right and persuaded SAG to keep quiet about some of its own members being put out of work.

Brewer's power went far beyond matters of access and negotiation. He began to be the man studios sought out to approve dangerous projects. For example, at Columbia in the late 1940s, the studio head Harry Cohn was proceeding with a project called The Hook - about labour conditions on the Hoboken waterfront - to be directed by Elia Kazan and written by Arthur Miller. There came the day when Cohn called the artists into his office to meet Roy. They discovered that Brewer had already read their work in progress.

As a waterfront expert, Miller had developed the idea that organized crime was behind the unions. Brewer was disappointed at this scurrilous tactic. After all, he said, everyone knew - didn't they? - that the real problem there was the Communist influence. So he had suggestions - scenes and dialogue - that the boys might appreciate, just to give the picture a chance of being approved. Miller left Hollywood and went back east.

Years later, Kazan made a waterfront movie - On the Waterfront - which makes it clear that it's the mob running the show. But Kazan had gone to HUAC in 1952 and named names, at a time when you might easily bump into Roy if you went to the HUAC offices.

People who knew Brewer said he was sincere and deeply afraid of Communism. Others said he was a political innocent in a position of great power. As much as anyone, he created the cold climate of those days and set the example - still there for nervous souls - that the U.S. is not the country in which you want to go against the grain.