The Union-Busting Birth of the Academy Awards

In 1926, Louis B. Mayer began to worry. A union, later to be known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, signed an agreement with the few big Hollywood studios. That meant that film laborers would receive a guaranteed wage and overtime pay. What if others in the industry -writers, artists, or even actors- wanted to organize as well?

The picture business was working very nicely. The money came in from banks in the East. It built the studios and put the talent under contract. For terrific salaries, those beautiful people did as they were told. When the movies were made and put out on the market, the revenue and the profits belonged to the studio. But just suppose those bastards got organized, with those lousy writers leading the way. Some of those people had education and radical ideas. Mr. Mayer didn’t like to think about it, but they might ask for pensions, health benefits, and—if you’ll excuse the word—residuals, or a cut of the profits.

This could be an undermining revolution and Mr. Mayer was one of those Russians who loathed revolutions. So he got a few friends together and said they needed some formula to make unions unnecessary. It would be a way of settling disputes before they arose. Another thing: the picture business stank in the nostrils of the decent public. Sure, they loved the pictures, and the stars, but the scandals were out of control—there were pretty kids with money to burn, wild on drugs; there had been a couple of murders; and there was the 1926 divorce between Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey. Seems Chaplin had screwed her when she was underage.

Mayer needed to raise the reputation of the movie industry and he needed to control those who worked for it. With his cronies, they came up with one solution for both problems: the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an elite-sounding name for an elite group of Hollywood insiders. It was organized to be an industry group in which to handle labor problems internally. The awards were to make Hollywood workers -and their products- look good to the public. But it didn’t stop unions from organizing the various trades that made the movies. Read the whole story, which started out with Mayer building a vacation house using studio labor, at Vanity Fair. -via Digg


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