Private Project

THE FIRST ATTACK ADS: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair

When world famous author and socialist Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary for governor of California in August 1934--leading a massive grassroots movement--it provoked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics. In "The First Attack Ads: Hollywood vs. Upton Sinclair," we explore how Sinclair's inspiring End Poverty in California movement was destroyed by powerful business and political forces, with most of the Hollywood moguls lending a hand.

This is the first film to focus on the revered MGM producer Irving Thalberg ordering the creation of the first "attack ads" to appear on a screen, a forerunner of today's media-based politics. "The First Attack Ads" reveals highlights from the three "Thalberg shorts" along with interviews with participants in the EPIC campaign and observers of the crucial impact of those shorts and their influence since. The film--which has drawn early praise from Academy Award-winning directors, best-selling authors, and writers for leading national publications--shows how the 1934 race marked the rise of "spin doctors," false or manipulated news, and the modern campaign techniques that will continue to dominate political campaigning in 2022 and beyond.

  • Greg Mitchell
    Director
    Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest books every written by an election race. His previous film, the award-winning feature Atomic Cover-up, drew wide acclaim in 2021. He also co-produced another festival favorite, Following the Ninth, in 2014. Among his other books are the bestselling The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall (2016); The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2020), as well as the earlier Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and Hiroshima in America. He has written about the 1934 campaign in several articles for The New York Times, as well as for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, American Film, The Nation, and numerous other magazines.
  • Lyn Goldfarb
    Producer
    Lyn Goldfarb is an Academy Award-nominated and award-winning independent documentary filmmaker, with 19 films broadcast nationally on PBS and major cable. Her latest documentary short Eddy's World played at more than 30 film festivals, winning Best Short Documentary at the Port Townsend Film Festival, and was featured for several months on The New Yorker's site. Her feature films include: With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade; Danger: Kids at Work; People in Motion; The New Los Angeles; Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race; and the series: The Roman Empire in the First Century, Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire, and California and the American Dream. Goldfarb was director, producer and writer of We Have a Plan, an episode in the acclaimed 1993 The Great Depression series, produced by Blackside, Inc. The documentary included Upton Sinclair’s campaign as part of its story of the social and political upheavals that shook the nation in 1934. Greg Mitchell served as principal advisor. Goldfarb conducted the interviews featured in The First Attack Ads.
  • Greg Mitchell
    Writer
    Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest books every written by an election race. His previous film, the award-winning feature Atomic Cover-up, drew wide acclaim in 2021. He also co-produced another festival favorite, Following the Ninth, in 2014. Among his other books are the bestselling The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall (2016); The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2020), as well as the earlier Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady and Hiroshima in America. He has written about the 1934 campaign in several articles for The New York Times, as well as for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, American Film, The Nation, and numerous other magazines.
  • Pascal Akesson
    Editor
    A leading New York-based editor for several decades, his credits include four "American Masters" episodes for PBS, including 2021's on Helen Keller. Three of his many film credits are Sundance entries Fire in the Blood and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. He co-edited the award-winning PBS series Women, War and Peace. He has been awarded four Cine Golden Eagles and productions have also received Columbia DuPont and Overseas Press Club awards, several local and national Emmy's, and Cable ACE nominations.
  • Elliott Forrest
    Narrator
    Elliott Forrest is recipient of broadcasting's highest honor, the George Foster Peabody Award, and two New York State Broadcasting Awards.    For 12 years he hosted A&E's  Breakfast with the Arts, gaining nominations for an Emmy in 2002 and 2005, as well as the network's Biography series and numerous other programs.   For more than five years Elliott was the "voice" of programs and specials on CNN.   He presently hosts a daily show, as well as live events, on New York City's leading classical music station, WQXR,  and is national host of the syndicated radio series from The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
  • Project Type:
    Documentary
  • Genres:
    Political
  • Runtime:
    26 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    December 7, 2021
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
    English
  • Shooting Format:
    archival
  • Aspect Ratio:
    16x9
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    No
Director Biography - Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including "The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics," winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and selected by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five greatest books every written by an election race. His previous film, the award-winning feature "Atomic Cover-up," drew wide acclaim and festival screenings in 2021. He also co-produced another festival favorite, "Following the Ninth," in 2014. Among his other books are the bestselling "The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall" (2016); "The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (2020), as well as the earlier "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady" and "Hiroshima in America." He has written about the 1934 campaign in several articles for The New York Times, as well as for the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, American Film, The Nation, and numerous other magazines.

Add Director Biography
Director Statement

In completing this film, I have realized a goal (maybe more of a dream) going back more than thirty years when I uncovered the Thalberg shorts during research for my Random House book" The Campaign of the Century". By then I had written about the Sinclair race for several years, but these shorts, unseen by nearly anyone since they were made, remained a mystery, perhaps a myth. Often wrongly referred to as "newsreels," any accounts of what they looked like or the opinions they carried were totally second hand, based on the memories of people who had watched them in 1934. When I found all three of them in Los Angeles, I was able to describe them in detail for the first time, but could not display the images beyond a screen shot or two. Now, based on further research and new HD copies of the three shorts, I have been able to tell the story visually as well as in interviews with people who witnessed the reaction to them at the time (as well as pay tribute to Sinclair and his EPIC movement). This is all the more important today--and looking forward to the 2022 and 2024--given the toxic nature of politics and campaigns today and the often vicious, and false, attack ads that appear on screens today.