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July 12: The Screen Actors Guild

Lawrence Bush
July 11, 2016

eddie_cantorThe Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was founded on this date in 1933 with the aim of lessening the contractual power of Hollywood’s movie studios over the lives of actors. Jewdayo locates no Jews among the union’s founders, but it was Eddie Cantor who sparked the growth of membership from eighty to more than 4,000 when he insisted, at an early meeting, that SAG sought to represent all screen actors, not only those with established careers. Cantor had a friendship with the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and quickly became SAG’s second president. Within two years of the passage of Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act in 1935, Hollywood’s producers agreed to negotiate with SAG, and the union would endure as an independent force in the labor movement until 2012, when it merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. During the early days of the McCarthy period, Ronald Reagan was the president of SAG, while also serving the FBI as “Confidential Informant T-10.” A 1947 FBI memorandum stated that Reagan “has been made a member of a committee headed by [Louis B. Mayer], the purpose of which is allegedly is to ‘purge’ the motion-picture industry of Communist party members . . .” On November 17, 1947, SAG voted to force its officers to take a “non-communist” pledge and approved using a blacklist to keep leftwing actors out of films. SAG has led at least six strikes in the course of its history, and in 1972 established a SAG Women’s Committee to protect and expand the rights and opportunities of women in the film business.

Eddie Cantor “convinced FDR to suspend three objectionable provisions in the proposed Code of Fair Competition for the Motion Picture Industry: salary limitations; the ‘anti-raiding’ clause; and licensing of actors’ agents by the producers. At the first annual meeting, May 17, 1934, Eddie concluded his speech with timeless words: ‘Boys and girls...I have been proud to serve you. I am only a small part of the movement, one individual. When I am gone and forgotten, the Guild will still be here. Other willing hands will take up the torch and carry it forward. If you stand together, you cannot lose. Actors cannot be beaten, except by actors. The Guild is for you, and you must be for the Guild. Stand together.”--

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.