Mobsters, Union Leaders, and Studio Moguls: The Infamous 1945–46 Warner Brothers Strikes
By Chris YogerstAugust 22, 2023
The Warner Brothers by Chris Yogerst
My forthcoming book, The Warner Brothers, details how the lives of Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner truly defined the studio—not just the individual films, but the entire attitude of the place. The headline-driven, socially conscious filmmaking of Warner Bros. was created by the top-down influence of the culturally and politically charged brothers, who together weathered many cultural hurricanes while helming a studio that could often be seen as a political battleship. The Battles in Burbank, chronicled below, are part of a larger story in which the Warner brothers had a front-row seat to nearly every social conflict from the day they opened their first theater in 1905 until the day Jack Warner died in 1978. This is one of those conflicts.
In November 1943, Harry Warner testified in federal court against labor mobster Willie Bioff. After being charged with tax evasion, extortion, and racketeering, Bioff squealed on his mob buddies Johnny Rosselli and Frank Nitti in return for a reduced sentence. If Bioff was willing to rat out some of the cruelest gangsters around, there was no telling what he might do to a Hollywood mogul. Warner testified in court that he carried a gun and had hired extra personal security out of fear of the racketeer. Defense counsel James Murray asked why Warner had not reached out to the police for protection. “They couldn’t help me if I was dead,” answered Harry. “You mean all the law enforcement agencies couldn’t keep you from getting killed?” asked Murray. “No,” Warner shot back, “not after I was dead. No sir.” Murray also asked why Warner had not been more forthcoming in 1937 when asked about Bioff. Harry answered that he feared for his life. He was on the hook in this extortion plot, and Bioff “had the power to close my business or do me bodily harm, or both, and this persuaded me to give it [payments] to him.” Harry and Murray locked horns numerous times throughout the day, forcing the government’s counsel to step in.
Murray also flung accusations at Albert Warner. “Don’t rush me,” fired Albert after Murray accused him of being Bioff’s willing accomplice. Albert too feared Bioff and spoke of his frustration with the labor leader. After reluctantly paying dues to avoid labor strikes, he then learned he was on the hook for constant bribes. The entire industry was victimized by Bioff’s exploitation. Both Harry and Albert had refused to hand Bioff any money personally. In an attempt to pin Harry as Bioff’s friend, Murray accused Warner of sending orchids to Mrs. Bioff as a goodbye gift before a Rio de Janeiro vacation. “I never sent orchids to Mrs. Bioff, or any other woman, including my wife,” quipped Harry. He claimed he had not paid anything to Bioff since 1937, when, just before Christmas, the gangster had asked for $20,000 as a Christmas gift for his bosses in Chicago. In total, Warner Bros. sank $100,000 into Bioff’s scheme. One day in 1955, Bioff got into his vehicle, turned the key, and in true mob hit fashion was blown to bits.
The Warner Bros. lot saw its share of battles as well. After spats with James Cagney and Bette Davis over contracts and scripts in the 1930s, Olivia de Havilland became the biggest thorn in Jack Warner’s side. Like Davis, de Havilland started to reject scripts, leading to numerous suspensions. Warner called de Havilland’s claims “ridiculous,” given the many successful Warner roles that had made her a star. If de Havilland wanted to compare every role to her part in Gone with the Wind, Jack volunteered to get every major producer to tell her that was a bad idea. De Havilland had been loaned to David O. Selznick for that film because she pleaded with Jack’s wife, Ann, to speak up on her behalf. After all, it was Ann who had lobbied for Jack to take a chance on a young Errol Flynn. As de Havilland’s biographer argued, “It’s a pity Jack didn’t listen to his wife more often.” By June 1944, Harry told Jack to stop suspending the talent if they did not comply with their assignments. “If they don’t want to work in one picture, make some other picture with them, but for goodness sake make a picture.” The frugal Harry knew that it made no sense to sit on top talent. He reminded Jack that with all the liberty and freedom talk going on, the talent wanted more control. “When the war is over and all the actors and help have come back, you can at that time suspend anyone you want—including me, but right now don’t cut your nose to spite your face.”
Jack wrote back, arguing that if they let the actors pick their roles, the studio wouldn’t “be in business very long.” Jack told Harry that actors often pushed back on a film as a ploy to get a raise or renegotiate the terms of their contract. “Everybody isn’t suspended every time because they don’t play a picture,” reasoned Jack. “If they were, we wouldn’t be making pictures at all. We play ball with them but when people become ornery like Bogart, de Havilland, this type, you haven’t any alternative.” One of the problems with suspensions was that the time was added to the end of an actor’s contract. De Havilland, like others who had tried and failed before her, filed a lawsuit in 1943 to get out of her contract with Warner Bros. She had been on suspension five times in seven years, so, according to Jack, she had time to make up. De Havilland took the case to the California Supreme Court in December 1943, which ruled in her favor. The seven-year contract maximum is still referred to as the de Havilland law. Besting Jack Warner was a turning point for de Havilland and set an example for other stars who wanted more control over their own careers.
Actors were not the only ones pushing for more control. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) were feuding over union representation of set decorators. CSU leader Herbert Sorrell had orchestrated the Disney animators’ walkout in 1941. As the CSU organized strikes, “the producers began to hire scabs,” recalled Sorrell. “There was violence, but not enough.” It was time to “pick one studio and hammer it good … we finally decided on Warner brothers.” What Sorrell did not realize was that the studio had the capacity to hammer back.
The CSU and Sorrell had pickets set up shop at the Warner Bros. main entrance on October 5, 1945. Dozens had gathered at the lot by 5:00 a.m., this ballooned to 300 by 6:00, and an hour later, there were around 700 protesters who grew unruly fast. Word spread quickly across the Associated Press wires about a “melee of fire hoses, tear gas, bombs, and bottles.” By noon, the studio’s police force was spraying the rioters with three fire hoses, knocking them off their feet. The stunned picketers then became an angry mob and rushed the police, who quickly launched tear gas into the crowd. The mob retaliated by heaving bottles, causing many of their own number to be injured by glass shards.
Studio law enforcement constructed barricades, likely out of leftover material from air-raid preparations. A riot squad from the Los Angeles Police Department arrived by bus, assembled into two brigades, and cleared the studio’s front gate. The Los Angeles Times reported that “one striker who swung his fist at a policeman was felled with a club and dragged away. Another who grabbed a motorcycle officer’s revolver from its holster was subdued by the policeman with the barrel of his recovered weapon.” There were numerous fistfights, several stabbings, and three overturned cars, one of which belonged to a studio police officer. Sorrell was in police custody by the end of the day. The event is known as Hollywood Black Friday. Strikes took place on other lots, including Paramount, RKO, and Universal. The protests did not end until Will Hays’s replacement at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA; formerly MPPDA), Eric Johnston, negotiated with the American Federation of Labor to reorganize the CSU.
In addition to taking the brunt of the strike, Jack Warner was the victim of CSU antisemitism. CSU supporter L. T. Sheppard wrote to Jack, calling the Warners “a pack of real kikes,” “real dirt Jews,” and “cheap Jew bastards.” Warner was irate, feeling pressure from all sides and ready to erupt over the turmoil on his lot. John Wexley, who penned Angels with Dirty Faces and Confessions of a Nazi Spy for Warner Bros., remembered the aftermath of October 5. Wexley had always liked Warner, but after the strikes, the mogul sounded off: “I saw you on the goddamn picket line. Stop striking. Fuck off!” The strikes continued into 1946 and had a lasting effect on the Warner brothers, particularly Jack. Tensions were so high that Jack’s daughter remembered someone sending a note to their house “threatening to scatter our bones all over our golf course; a map was enclosed to show where the different pieces would be buried.”
Roy Brewer, an IATSE representative, remembered working with Ronald Reagan to counter communist forces in the trade unions. Reagan was a contract player at Warner Bros. and head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Many believe that this period solidified Reagan’s move from the political left to the political right. Brewer maintained that the communists orchestrated the violence on Black Friday, but Ring Lardner Jr., who was working on the script for Cloak and Dagger (a 1946 thriller set in Nazi Germany), remembered it differently. “The head of the Warner studio police, Blayney Matthews, was an American fascist type, very much against unions, and he led this business of attacking the picket lines when there was no real cause for it,” the screenwriter said. “That made Warner brothers a particular target for liberals and radicals.” What was once seen as the most progressive studio in Hollywood had become a target for the political left. Matthews, a former investigator for the Los Angeles district attorney, maintained a range of connections and was a force to be reckoned with on the lot.
A major blow to the Warners was the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. FDR had been the Warner brothers’ political and, in some sense, moral leader since the Great Depression. Warner Bros. put more faith in FDR than any public official before or since. Jack Warner’s statement on the president’s passing began, “This is a day of reverence in memory of our late dearly beloved President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Jack saw Roosevelt’s vision of victory as the most important influence in winning the war, and “his memory will always remain enshrined in our hearts—his spirit of constant inspiration in a better world.” It was time to welcome a new era where “tyranny and injustice will be no more” and where there is no space for “rabble-rousers and demagogues who would set class against class, creed against creed, and race against race.” Jack hoped Roosevelt’s memory would bring attention to the United States’ freedoms—“freedom from fear and want, freedom of thought and religious conviction. For that we fought this war [and] for that we must work in peace.” The postwar years in Hollywood would find none of that peace. The ripple effects of the labor strikes were felt as the industry struggled to maintain its own narrative.
Following the 1945 riots on the Warner lot, Herbert Sorrell was found guilty of contempt of court and failure to disperse for his role in the unrest. Labor strikes continued at many studios in 1946. Someone was stabbed during a protest at Universal, fights regularly broke out at MGM, and pickets were mainstays at 20th Century–Fox, RKO, Paramount, and Columbia. Sorrell led hundreds of picketers back to the Warner Bros. lot in September 1946. Speaking through a megaphone, he announced, “There may be men hurt, there may be men killed before this is over, but we’re in no mood to be pushed around anymore!” The Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of pickets were preventing employees from entering the Warner lot. Having learned a lesson from the previous year’s strikes, Warner Bros. was not about to let the spectacle continue. When Sorrell’s group arrived shortly after 4:00 a.m., strikebreakers were ready with “chains, bolts, hammers, six-inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets, and battery cables.” Blayney Matthews, known as the “head of Warner Bros. private gestapo,” brought in county officers to help break the strike. The picketers were ready, though, donning the white air-raid helmets that had been so prominent during the war. The strikebreakers drove cars into the crowd, while the strikers tried to stop vehicles from getting onto the lot. Overturned automobiles eventually prevented workers from gaining access. Fire hoses and tear gas were used, once again, to disperse the crowd. Sorrell described the scene as “slaughter.”
The Los Angeles Times estimated that only about half the strikers were employed in the film industry; the rest were union members from other industries. A leaflet was found, written by the North Hollywood chapter of the Communist Party, leading to rumors of communist infiltration. The CSU changed tactics. Instead of convincing the workers to strike, it used force to keep employees off the lot. Jack Warner eventually asked employees who had been able to leave the lot to come back. He called Arthur Silver and asked, “How are we going to win the strike if everybody stays out?” Employees sneaked onto the lot through a storm drain connected to the Los Angeles River. Those who made it back to the studio had to stay there for days. One worker claimed that someone threw acid at them. Shots were fired by the Burbank police. Labor relations were so bad that the Epstein brothers joked the Warners should change their slogan from “combining good picture making with good citizenship” to “combining good picture making with good marksmanship.” Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz assigned more than 120 officers to guard the studio in the days following the violence. Sorrell and his accomplices faced a $3 million lawsuit; they were charged with “conspiracy to ruin the film company by strikes and by pickets keeping it closed both last year and this year on various occasions.” Sorrell was also accused of inciting a riot, but he would eventually be acquitted of that charge. The nearly yearlong series of strikes and studio shutdowns deeply impacted Jack Warner, who began to reconsider his progressive feelings about the “little guy.”
To address the Hollywood labor strikes of 1946, particularly the violent unrest at Warner Bros., state senators Jack B. Tenney and Hugh M. Burns and assemblyman Fred H. Kraft organized a subcommittee of California’s Un-American Activities Committee to advise Governor Earl Warren on subversive activity. Its report read: “After [a] thorough investigation of [the] juris-dictional situation at Warner Bros. studio,” the subcommittee “is convinced that the strike is Communist inspired and dominated.” According to the Tenney Committee, the strike was not about wages or working conditions; it was simply “a long-range communist strategy to control [the] motion picture industry as [a] potent medium for propaganda.” The committee was appalled at strikers who disobeyed all “lawful orders,” and it urged the governor to “personally investigate this deplorable revolutionary situation immediately in order that you may take proper executive action.” Tenney became one of California’s leading anti-communists as the Red Scare swept the nation.
As president of SAG, Warner employee Ronald Reagan worked diligently with George Murphy and Robert Montgomery to keep the CSU from controlling their union. Montgomery was concerned that if more unions joined the CSU, the studios would shut down, putting many thousands of people out of work. Reagan and Montgomery sided with IATSE, which had kept its members working and helped fill the vacancies left by strikers. They knew that pushing the narrative of a “red CSU” could hobble the striking union. Meanwhile, the CSU gave Sterling Hayden the task of convincing SAG to support the strikes. When Reagan and William Holden attended a meeting at Ida Lupino’s house in October 1946, they saw Hayden making the CSU’s case, with support from John Garfield, Howard Da Silva, and others. Holden prevented Reagan from making a scene. The next day, Reagan got a phone call on the set, which turned out to be a credible threat of violence. Blayney Matthews, the notorious Warner Bros. police officer, handed Reagan a permit to carry a .32 Smith & Wesson. Reagan remembered, “I mounted the holstered gun religiously every morning and took it off the last thing at night.” The constant protests, coupled with the increasing violence and threats, had a lasting effect on Reagan.
During the strikes, Jack Warner spoke in support of Reagan, who “turned out to be a tower of strength, not only for the actors but for the whole industry.” Reagan was proud of his role but frustrated by the result, writing in his autobiography,
We stopped the Communists cold in Hollywood, but there was a dark side to the battle […] Some members of the House Un-American Activities Committee came to Hollywood searching more for personal publicity than they were for Communists. Many fine people were accused wrongly of being Communists simply because they were liberals.
Although Jack Warner supported Reagan’s role in muscling the unions, he was not so keen about the actor’s political future. Writer-producer Robert Buckner was on the lot when the studio boss first heard of Reagan’s interest in running for governor. “No, no,” Jack quipped, “Spencer Tracy for Governor, Reagan for his best friend.”
Chris Yogerst is an associate professor of communication in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. His latest book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2020.
Chris will be speaking at Book Soup, in conversation with bestselling author Sam Wasson, on September 8. Another talk will be held, virtually, through USC in conversation with Thomas Doherty and Steven J. Ross on September 10. Another event, date to be determined, will be held later this year at the Burbank Public Library.
This essay is excerpted from Chris Yogerst’s forthcoming book The Warner Brothers, which is also available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
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