DRI-287 for week of 8-31-14: The Hollywood Blacklist as an Economic Phenomenon

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Hollywood Blacklist as an Economic Phenomenon

Very few people will ever develop an econometric model. Even fewer will use abstruse mathematics to formulate economic theory. A larger subset of the population is called upon to interpret the output of these economic tools, but this group is still microscopically small. To pinpoint the practical value of an economic education, we will have to look elsewhere.

Economics should enable us to understand the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of our daily life, to borrow the characterization of a 19th-century historian. Indeed, the great historical questions of yesterday should yield their mysteries to basic economic logic.

No economic exercise is as deeply satisfying as the parsing of a great historical dispute or debate using economics. When this exercise overturns the conventional thinking, it is one of life’s most exhilarating moments.

The famous Hollywood Blacklist is a ripe subject for this economic treatment.

The Blacklist as Portrayed by the Political Left

The stylized portrayal of the Blacklist by the political Left begins in the 1930s, when numerous actors, actresses, screenwriters and other rank-and-file motion-picture personnel were strongly attracted by the tenets of socialism and Communism. Indeed, for many Communism was the practical embodiment of socialism. This attraction led them to participate in rallies, join organizations and make contributions in kind and in cash to the socialist and Communist movements. Some even joined the Communist Party, but these were mere flirtations, more emotional than intellectual. Almost all of these Party memberships were short, transitory affairs that, however, would later come back to haunt the participant.

Even the biggest movie stars were contractual employees of the big movie studios. The operational heads of the studios, moguls like Louis B. Mayer of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, were fanatically dedicated to the profits returned by their movies. This led them to take an unseemly interest in the private lives of their actors and actresses, even to the point of influencing the stars’ marital, pre-marital and extra-marital pursuits. The moguls feared that unfavorable publicity about a star would destroy his or her box-office value.

After World War II, American attitudes toward the Soviet Union underwent a reversal. The public became inordinately fearful of Russia and of Communism. This wave of emotion was typical of a country that was governed by a chaotic, competitive spirit rather than by a tightly regulated bureaucracy run by left-wing intellectuals, or what the radical economist Thorstein Veblen had called a “Soviet of engineers.” The same spirit had made America society racist (anti-black, anti-immigrant) and sexist (anti-woman). Now it had become “anti-Communist,” which was the same thing as anti-intellectual, anti-democratic and fascist. After all, the Fascists and Communists had opposed each other in the Spanish Civil War prior to World War II, hadn’t they?

This inordinate fear was exploited by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who used his government investigative committee as a tool to further his political career by pretending to expose Communists operating in government and virtually every other nook and cranny of institutional America. The Left originated the term “McCarthyism” and used it as shorthand for the Cold War anti-Communist mentality and all its representations.

The moguls were less interested in anti-Communism as a political project than for its financial implications on their industry. They feared that the public would associate the left-wing sympathies of their actors, actresses and screenwriters with Russian Communism. This potential linkage threatened studio profits.

Thus was born the Blacklist. The moguls commissioned their sycophantic underlings and outside organizations, such as the newsletter Red Channels, to provide lists of Hollywood artists who were current or former Communist Party members. Those on the list were blacklisted – they could no longer work. The lists were compiled partly by offering an inducement: Those “naming names” of other current or former Party members would be spared punishment. The question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” became associated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and McCarthyism in general.

The Left saw the dilemma faced by witnesses testifying before security hearings as a Catch 22. A witness admitting current or former Communist Party membership would subsequently be blacklisted. A witness refusing to “inform” on his friends and/or colleagues would also be blacklisted. A witness citing his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as justification for a refusal to testify would be blacklisted. But a witness who testified and named names could work only at the cost of eternal damnation – by universal understanding, the most despised and despicable of all human beings is an Informer.

Thus, the Blacklist is pictured as an intellectual Dark Age, a dark night of the American soul. Some blacklistees (John Garfield, J. Edward Bromberg) were so traumatized by their plight that they died from the stress. Others (Larry Parks) suffered permanent destruction of their careers. Most (Lee Grant, Dalton Trumbo, Carl Foreman, Marsha Hunt, Michael Wilson, Jules Dassin) lived in literal or figurative exile for one or two decades, suffering financial reverses and emotional isolation. A few (Edward G. Robinson) coped with a quasi-blacklist (“greylist”) that produced similar but less severe effects.

The Blacklist hovered like a great plague over the land for many years until it finally ended suddenly in the early 1960s. The heroic Kirk Douglas (or, in some retellings, the heroic Otto Preminger) openly hired long-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, thus breaking the back of the Blacklist.

The Blacklist as Seen Through the Lens of Economics

If the left-wing tale of the Blacklist has a fairy-tale quality, that is apt. Despite the acceptance and even reverence with which it is treated, it makes little sense. The principals behave in unreal ways, unlike actual human beings impelled by rational motives. The portions of the story that are correct are woefully incomplete. The rest is inaccurate. Most misleading of all is the complete absence of economic logic from the tale.

America’s “inordinate” fear of Communism. To be sure, fear is a prime mover of human action. But fear is conditioned and shaped by our rational understanding of the world around us. After World War II, the Soviet Union’s public face was rapidly transformed. Russia blockaded Berlin. It invaded or formally occupied Eastern Europe. After a few years, it acquired nuclear weapons that it pointed at the U.S. It aided its client states in the export of Communism throughout the world and indirectly fought the U.S. by aiding North Korea against South Korea. Eventually, the confluence of all these actions resulted in the term “Cold War.”

We know now what we strongly suspected then – that the Soviet Union had unleashed the worst campaign of mass murder in human history during the 20th-century’s first half. Joseph Stalin supervised the killing of more Jews than did Adolf Hitler and killed more of his own citizens than did the Nazis in wartime. We also know that the America Communist Party was the Soviet espionage apparatus in the U.S.

Given all this, the fear of Soviet Russia does not seem “inordinate.” Moreover, the actions of the Communist Chinese subsequent to the fall of Nationalist China in the late 1940s validate the fear of Communism generally. Red China did not export terror and death to the extent that Soviet Russia did. But their murderous reign within China itself surpassed even Stalin’s butchery.

In this light, the American reaction against Communism seems mild and tentative. And indeed we know that prior to the accession of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1980, the Cold War was all but lost. While the American public displayed a well-founded a prophetic fear of Communism, our intellectual elites showed a shocking indifference to it. This began with the attempts by the Truman administration to cover up the discovery of high-level Communist penetration of the U.S. State Department and continued with the friendliness shown to Communist dictators by the American intelligentsia and to Marxist ideology by the American academy. Marxist economics has long exceeded free-market economics in popularity at American universities. Mainstream economics textbooks, notably the best-selling Economics by Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, touted the superiority of Communist central planning to American free markets in promoting economic growth right up to the day when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Time after time, the American public’s fear of Communism was validated while the American elites’ acceptance of it was not.

The Moguls and the Blacklist. The Left portrays the Hollywood Moguls as craven cowards because they were profit-motivated. Of course, when those same moguls occasionally dabbled in politics without a business rationale, the Left excoriated them for that as well. This leads us to suspect that the Left simply approved of the Communist sympathies of the blacklistees.

Left-wing intellectuals criticized corporations in the 1930s for putting the interests of executives ahead of shareholder and consumer interests. Yet here the moguls are criticized for doing just the opposite. Using the Left’s own premise – but applying it within the model of economic logic – the moguls were safeguarding the interests of consumers and shareholders when they instituted the Blacklist.

The movie moguls developed – or, more accurately, stumbled upon – the “star system” of moviemaking as a way of stimulating movie attendance by focusing their attention on movie stars. This system worked so well that in the 1930s and 40s, average weekly movie-theater attendance approached the population of the entire country. (Today it languishes at 10-15% of U.S. population.) The leading actors and actresses may have been salaried employees, but they were the best-paid people in the nation – behind only the moguls themselves.

The appeal of the stars rested on the image they projected. Of course, audiences knew that Clark Gable was not really a reporter or a British naval officer and Errol Flynn was not really a pirate or a medieval aristocrat-turned-rebel-bandit. But they believed that the roles were extensions of the stars’ true personalities – Gable’s as a straightforward, aggressive male and Flynn’s as an irresistible cavalier. Ditto for Gary Cooper as a man of few words and James Stewart as hesitant and bashful.

In order to keep their profit machine humming, the moguls inserted morals clauses in studio contracts allowing termination for “moral turpitude” or anything that would destroy the good will vested in those personalities. From the standpoint of consumers – and therefore from the standpoint of shareholders and the moguls as well – a movie star was a product consisting not wholly but largely of image. A mogul that ignored the image projected by a star would have been derelict in professional duty.

Communism was a label that threatened a studio’s brand just as (for example) genetic modifications affect the brand of certain foods today. The comparison is apt. Communism was a genuine threat, regardless of whether or not any actor or actress really ever espoused Communist doctrine. Genetic modification, on the other hand, is a bogeyman whose dangers are illusory. But in both cases, the relevant consideration was and is what consumers think rather than objective truth. Consumer beliefs, truth aside, will govern their actions and the marketplace outcome. Consequently, moguls must act on their perception of what consumers perceive.

The moguls accurately judged that any actor or actress linked to Communism would be box-office poison, as would any writer whose words were being spoken on screen. Therefore, they had to purge their industry of Communists and suspected Communists – and do so in the most visible way possible. After all, any executive could, and presumably would, say that there were no Communists working for him. But the Blacklist was an exercise in product labeling – just the sort of thing that the political Left likes and even demands from corporations. The moguls were trying to obtain independent certification that their motion-picture product was “Communist -free.” Audiences could safely admire the actors and actresses appearing in it; they could safely consume the spoken and visual content contained within it. If the moguls had been selling apples, the Left would surely have admired the energy and determination devoted to preserving the purity and wholesomeness of the product.

But since we were talking movies, the Left was outraged by the Blacklist.

The Blacklist helped usher in an undemocratic reign of terror in America. Nothing prevented the dozens of competing movie studios and independent movie producers from advertising their movies by saying “we employ Communists and former Communists” or “we cast Fifth-Amendment-takers in our productions.” If the public was indifferent to this or even pleased by the idea, they could have flocked to these competing movies and enriched the maverick studios and producers. Of course, that didn’t happen because the public held no such beliefs. The moguls were neither craven cowards nor undemocratic tyrants. They were doing exactly what producers are supposed to do in a free market and what the Left criticizes producers for not doing: catering to consumers by insuring the quality of their product, thereby catering to shareholders by safeguarding profits.

The Blacklist was undemocratic and unfair because it denied blacklistees the means of earning a living. This is completely untrue. At worst, blacklistees were denied the ability to work in Hollywood productions. That is, they were denied the same thing that actors and actresses are denied when they are not cast and writers are denied when their scripts are rejected – which is the fate of the overwhelming majority of all actors, actresses and writers. In this case, the denial was figuratively stamped “unsuitable due to Communism.” This was a subjective evaluation, just as all rejections are subjective. Of course, the particular artist involved will take the blow hard and view it as unfair – just as all rejects do when consumers prefer the work of somebody else.

At all events, the so-called “victims” of the Blacklist were not denied the “right to work.” Movie actors went abroad and worked. Michael Wilson and Dalton Trumbo wrote Oscar-winning scripts submitted under false names while working and earning income abroad. Other blacklistees worked on Broadway or on television. And of course, nothing prevented them from – hold on to your seats here – getting an ordinary job and earning an ordinary living instead of earning thousands of dollars per week in Hollywood while the average American wage was less than five thousand dollars per year. Indeed, from among the few hundred documented Blacklist cases, it is often difficult to sort out those people whose Hollywood careers were ended by the Blacklist from those whose careers petered out naturally. In Hollywood as in professional sports, the average career is short though often sweet.

Among the victims of the so-called “greylist,” Edward G. Robinson made 13 movies during the short time period when he was allegedly greylisted. All but one of these was for American studios, mostly major ones. Of course, his roles were not necessarily plum ones, but that was certainly because his career was declining both before and after the Blacklist. For those whose career proved disappointing, claiming victimization by the Blacklist has provided compensation for the recognition fate denied them and an excuse for failing to justify their own expectations of success.

The Blacklist was evil because McCarthyism itself was evil and threatened America with dictatorship. We have shown that, far from being evil, the Blacklist was a product of free-market economics at work. The Left excoriates free-market economics when it fails – or supposedly fails – then turns around and excoriates it for succeeding while correcting its supposed errors. But even more ridiculous is the fact that the Hollywood Blacklist – today almost always linked with McCarthy and McCarthyism even by those caught in its toils – had nothing whatever to do with Joe McCarthy.

Senator Joseph McCarthy was elected to the Senate from Wisconsin in 1946. But he was virtually unknown to most of America until he made a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950. The speech concerned Communists that McCarthy alleged to reside in the U.S. State Department, not in Hollywood. And throughout McCarthy’s subsequent career, Communists in Hollywood were not an issue raised by McCarthy. McCarthy’s Senate Committee was Government Operations, not too surprisingly in view of his preoccupation with Communists in government. The government committee most often concerned with Communists in Hollywood was not even in the Senate – it was the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Hollywood Communism made national headlines in 1947 when the so-called Hollywood Ten were called to testify before HUAC. These were a group of actors, writers and directors who were known to be current or former members of the Communist Party. They included now-famous names like writer Dalton Trumbo and director Edward Dmytryk. In his memoir Odd Man Out, Dmytryk confirms that all of the Hollywood Ten were indeed current or former Party members. He recounts how the appearance of the Ten before Congress was orchestrated by the Party and how non-Communist Hollywood liberals like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye were duped into supporting the Ten. The Party line was that the Ten were exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association. After all, Communist Party membership was legal.

But when the hearings began, Dmytryk was astonished to find that the Ten uniformly pleaded their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions and having to name names. Their testimony consisted of diatribes against the Committee in a Communist-Party vein. This episode reinforced Dmytryk’s resolve to quit the Party and sever his ties with his Leftist colleagues. His refusal to name names led to a prison sentence for contempt of Congress, after which Dmytryk emerged one year later to testify again and salvage his career by naming the names of his Party colleagues.

In 1947, McCarthy sat in Congress but was uninvolved in the Hollywood Ten episode. He played no part in the Hollywood Blacklist. By the time McCarthy delivered his Wheeling speech, the Blacklist had already been established. McCarthy played no part in it; he was concerned with security risks in government (the State Department) and the military (the Army). McCarthyism, whatever it was or meant, was a phenomenon of the 1950s, while the Blacklist was the outgrowth of the Cold War security debates that began in the 1940s.

McCarthy is notorious today for claiming that large numbers of Communists were employed in government without naming any names. (“He never produced a single Communist.”) As is usually the case, the Left is wrong. McCarthy did name names and was usually right about those he named, such as Owen Lattimore. He also named numbers, but the numbers did not refer to those currently employed but rather Communists known to have operated within government. We know now that substantial numbers of Communist agents operated within the State Department, for example, and the exact number is not of paramount importance today because we are still uncovering more. All this is irrelevant to the Hollywood Blacklist.

The Blacklist was evil because (a) the blacklistees were never Communists (b )the blacklistees had every right to be Communists and still remain employed in Hollywood (c)anti-Communism was evil by definition (d) choose any one or all of the above. Perhaps the most amazing facet of the Left’s portrayal is its fuzziness. When discussing blacklistees like Larry Parks, the Left implies that all blacklistees were innocent victims who were selected at random by Red Channels or victimized by John Wayne, Ward Bond or an anonymous grudgeholder. It is true that fellow actors at the Motion Picture Alliance, including stars like Wayne, were involved in the interviews prepatory to blacklisting. By blacklisting a fellow performer, MPA officials might leave themselves open to a charge of thinning the ranks of their competition. But every blacklistee was a potential employee of the studio; this was the opportunity cost incurred by the moguls. They had no incentive to be randomly vicious or inaccurate, since they were cutting their own throats by doing so – and the object of the exercise was to preserve their profits, not squander them. Presumably, this is why prospective blacklistees were always given an out, either by naming names or by pleading innocence with sufficient eloquence. This latter course was taken by various stars, including Lucille Ball and James Cagney.

The Left has gotten a lot of mileage out of the implication that the blacklistees were all, or mostly, innocent. But the problem is that this does not imply that the investigations of Communist infiltration of Hollywood were wrong; it implies that there was not enough investigation. Even if the moguls had done nothing, if Red Channels and the MPAA had never existed, the American public’s well-founded fear of Communism would have remained. The investigations did not convict innocent people of being Communists; they gave people under suspicion the opportunity to absolve themselves. Those who seized the opportunity – e.g., most people involved – emerged better for the process.

When the subject changes to avowed Communists like Dalton Trumbo, the Left abruptly changes its tune to focus on the unfairness of denying the writer his right to write, to earn income, support his family, etc. But what the Left is defending is not a right but rather Trumbo’s power to force people to hire him when his qualifications for hire no longer pass muster. While Trumbo would have protested that he was still the same writer he always was, the truth was that his qualifications did not consist solely of his writing talent. He also had to be free of moral taint. Would the Left defend O. J. Simpson’s “right” to work as an actor today even after a civil conviction for murder? Would they have defended Lord Haw Haw’s right to remain employed as an announcer after he worked for the Nazis in World War II?

Indeed, suppose the word “Communist” in the entire Blacklist controversy were to be replaced by the word “Nazi” – would the Left still take the same anti-blacklist position? Of course, we all know that the answer to that question is “no.” Right-wing writers like Ayn Rand and Morrie Ryskind were subjected to the Left’s own Blacklist after they objected to the Communist penetration of Hollywood. In the ensuing years, nobody on the Left has come to their defense.

The Blacklist killed blacklistees. The few blacklistees who died, including John Garfield and J. Edward Bromberg, had pre-existing medical conditions. (Garfield’s heart condition exempted him from military service in World War II.) Medical science lacks the capability of assigning causation to an external event like the Blacklist, which is one of many potential stressful events that might or might not contribute to death.

The overarching question, though, is why any moral opprobrium should attach to the Blacklist. The moguls had no incentive to kill Garfield or Bromberg. If nobody intended to cause the deaths, then the Blacklist is like any other stressful event. All kinds of morally innocuous actions might conceivably result in a death without adversely transforming the character of the action.

The Blacklist was an anti-competitive cartel. Intriguingly, this argument was advanced not by the Left but by free-market economist Milton Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom. Its problem is that it fails to distinguish between actions taken simultaneously and those taken in concert. To use the O.J. Simpson case again, it is obvious that Simpson became unemployable the moment he killed Nicole Simpson. Hollywood moguls did not need to collude to achieve that outcome. The same is true of the Hollywood Blacklist. If simultaneous actions taken to insure product quality are “collusion,” then the word has been distorted beyond all semblance of meaning.

The Blacklist was not destroyed by the heroic actions of Kirk Douglas or Otto Preminger in hiring Dalton Trumbo (to write Spartacus or Exodus, respectively). The Blacklist was already a dead letter by 1960, then these movies were produced. It was killed by the death of anti-Communism, which died when Joe McCarthy was discredited during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1956. If Douglas or Preminger had hired Trumbo in 1953, that would have been courageous. But they didn’t because – at that point – it would also have been suicidal.

Forcing witnesses to inform to keep their jobs is immoral. The injunction against informing is the heart of the criminal code. (It is even the title of a cult-movie classic from 1931, Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code.) Without informing, police would be unable to solve most criminal cases; even with the sophisticated technology aired on television shows like CSI, the solution of most crimes depends on confession and prying information out of witnesses. The technique of threatening knowledgeable parties with sanctions in order to induce testimony is perhaps the most venerable – and successful – of all police techniques.

The position taken by the Left aligns it perfectly with the criminal element, which tries to preserve collusion between criminals against the substantial inducements for confession. It is those economic incentives that persuaded Dmytryk and others, such as director Elia Kazan and actor Lee J. Cobb, to relent and name names.

It is unfair that people should be held accountable for past actions that led to unforeseeable consequences such as blacklisting. When people publish embarrassing photos or posts about themselves on the Internet, they give hostages to fortune. Yet the prevailing sentiment today seems to be that they should have known better. If anybody should have known better, it was Hollywood actors with morals clauses in their lucrative contracts. Communism was both controversial and popular in the 1920s and 30s. During World War I, the “Palmer Raids” had set a precedent for government interference with the exercise of a right to practice Communism. Yet an illusion of invulnerability and messianic notions of social responsibility persuaded countless Hollywood figures that their moral duty lay in following the red star of Communism.

If people choose to offer sympathy for former Communists, that is their business. Most of the original editors of the conservative magazine National Review were former Communists. They rebuilt their lives despite this youthful misstep by forcefully changing direction and repudiating their past. That is exactly what too many Hollywood Communists were unwilling to doand that is why we owe them no sympathy, just as we owe their arguments no respect.

DRI-275 for week of 8-24-14: The Movie Law of Inverse Relevance

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Movie Law of Inverse Relevance

Beginning in the late 1940s and early 50s, more Hollywood movies were made to push a polemical agenda or send a political message. Prior to that, the major Hollywood studios followed “Mayer’s Maxim.” Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s boss Louis B. Mayer is credited with the dictum: “When I want to send a message, I’ll call Western Union.” Mayer objected to “message movies” because he didn’t think they were good box office.

This space has taken a different tack, objecting to Hollywood message movies a posteriori, doubting not their entertainment value but rather their veracity. The problem is that Hollywood producers, directors and screenwriters cannot keep their thumbs off the scales. Since reality stubbornly refuses to accommodate itself to their warped vision, they film their “true stories” by lying about the facts in order to satisfy the audience and themselves simultaneously. The problem is so endemic that the only safe approach is for viewers to assume that filmmakers are lying until proven otherwise.

This tempts us to the conclusion that truth and movies are mutually exclusive. We’re congenitally suspicious of entertainment-oriented Hollywood films. For example, we know that action movies defy the laws of physics and suspense movies end happily whereas real-life suspense often does not. If movies that advertise “This is a true story” are almost certainly lying to us, where can we hope to find a semblance of reality?

The surprising answer is that some of the most entertaining movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, movies made with no apparent thought for social relevance, occasionally offer stunningly accurate illustrations of history and economics. This forms the basis for an empirical dictum called the Movie Law of Inverse Relevance: The more entertaining the movie, the greater the likelihood of encountering truth within it; the more socially conscious the movie, the less likely it is to be true.

Boom Town: More Than Just Another Hollywood Potboiler

Oil has been the lifeblood of life on Earth for over a century. You’d never know it from depictions of the oil business on screen, which have tended to treat petroleum as a commodity freighted with tragedy and the oil business as populated by psychotics. Yet it was not ever thus.

The 1940 movie Boom Townwas one of the biggest box-office movies in the year after Hollywood’s legendary year of 1939. It starred Clark Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” and Spencer Tracy, winner to consecutive Best Actor Academy Awards in 1937 and 1938. The female lead, Claudette Colbert, had teamed with Gable in 1934’s It Happened One Night, the first film ever to win Academy Awards in the five major categories – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. This was their “reunion” film, long-awaited by movie audiences throughout America. As if this blockbuster combination of stars weren’t enough to assure the film’s success, they were joined by Hedy Lamarr, perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world, and Frank Morgan, a scene-stealing character actor and eventual Oscar nominee in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories.

The movie’s formidable assemblage of talent was enough to lure people into the theaters and keep them in their seats. But the script, by Gable’s favorite screenwriter, John Lee Mahin – based on a story by another Gable favorite, James Edward Grant – told more than the usual Hollywood tall tale. It told a true story of the oil business and the men who made it work – and a government that tried to torpedo it.

The Plot

The time is 1912. The place is a dusty Texas town called Burkburnett, which some spring rains have turned into a mudhole. Two men are crossing the muddy street from opposite directions on a narrow, rickety bridge of planks built from two-by-fours. They meet in the middle. The tall one (Gable) addresses the other (Tracy) as “Shorty” and cordially invites him to stand aside, knowing this would entail a side trip into the mud. This meets with a stony refusal. The two trade insults and the impasse is about to escalate into fisticuffs – then gunfire splits the air when a man flees the nearby saloon with a deputy sheriff in hot pursuit. The two men abandon their dignity and leap head-first into the mud rather than risk meeting a stray bullet.

Thus is born a famous friendship between “Big John” McMasters and “Square John” Sand. The two share more than a first name. They are both wildcat oil prospectors, freshly arrived in town thanks to the discovery of oil that has turned a tiny Texas fly-speck into a legendary boom town. They have both staked out a likely looking stretch of ground outside of town. They pool their meager assets and find they lack sufficient funds to purchase drilling equipment and supplies. McMasters allows Sand to choose the precise spot to “sput in” (drill) but promises to produce the necessary materiel. At his urging, the two stage a skit to deceive a local equipment dealer, Luther Aldrich (Frank Morgan) into supplying the necessary stuff in exchange for a small share in their well which, they assure him confidently, is a sure thing to succeed.

The well fails. Sand reluctantly admits that McMasters’ choice of drilling location would have been better. Now the pair must raise their roll again – after first fleeing town one jump ahead of that same sheriff’s deputy whose bullets they had earlier dodged, one Harmony Jones (character actor Chill Wills). The film skillfully uses montage to concisely depict the succession of odd jobs and travails that eventually takes them back to Burkburnett. They have enough money to pay for tools and equipment now, but not enough to pay off the debt for their previous dry hole.

Undaunted, the two bluff their way past Luther Aldrich a second time. They’d be crazy to try the same routine on him again, wouldn’t they? This time they’ve really got a sure thing, and they’ll increase his stake as an incentive to agree to an ownership share against what they owe. Luther is imprudent enough to agree, but not completely crazy; he dispatches Harmony as a security guard over their claim to make sure they don’t run out on him a second time. McMasters gives Sand the naming rights over their claim and Sand chooses “Beautiful Betsy” in honor of the girl he left behind back East.

As the drilling progresses, the restless McMasters leaves Sand on duty at the rig one Saturday night and goes into town to relieve the monotony. He bumps into a proper Eastern girl (Claudette Colbert) who has journeyed to Burkburnett to meet a friend. She and McMasters experience the classic Hollywood “love at first sight” evening. By morning, they are married. Sand returns to their boarding house to break the news that their gusher has come in and the time-honored plot device of unknown identity unfolds – Colbert is Betsy Bartlett, the woman Sand is expecting to marry, while Sand is Betsy’s best-friend-who-she-doesn’t-feel-that-way-about. McMasters, in true Gable fashion, steps forward and invites Sand to take a poke at him. But Sand quietly asks Betsy if McMasters is the man she really wants. Upon verifying the truth, he calmly leaves the scene, implicitly giving the two his blessing. “Honey,” McMasters concludes admiringly, “that is a man.”

The movie’s next few minutes set the scene for the rest of the film. The audience learns that McMasters’ love for Betsy is true but equaled by his love of the chase and conquest. Betsy’s real rival is not other women but oil; women only tempt McMasters when he is tied down and prevented from exercising his talent for serial exploration and exploitation of oil. And Sand remains faithful to Betsy, his romantic ardor now sublimated into friendship. The movie resolves into the kind of romantic triangle that only Hollywood could dream up. McMasters and Sand make and lose a succession of fortunes and their friendship is broken and mended repeatedly. The cause of these episodes is Betsy; Sand will not allow McMasters to abuse Betsy’s love.

When McMasters meets the illegally lovely Karen Vanmeer (Hedy Lamarr), the two are drawn to each other. Vanmeer is a skilled business analyst who wants to acquire McMasters in a hostile takeover from his wife. Sand won’t permit it. He proposes marriage to Vanmeer and offers her lavish financial terms including a draconian divorce settlement that would enrich her. Astonished, she mutters, “I see. Greater love hath no man than…”

Eventually, the long-delayed fisticuffs between McMasters and Sand explode. The movie culminates in a battle over control of the oil business.

The plot summary highlights the entertainment value of Boom Town. It says nothing about the movie’s contributions to our understanding of history and economics.

Boom Townas History

There is no narrative or visual prelude assuring us that “this is a true story.” Nevertheless, there is no movie that tells the story of wildcat oil exploration and drilling in the early 20th century as vividly and truthfully as Boom Town. Burkburnett was a real Texas boom town where oil was discovered in 1912. The discovery turned the town upside down in just the manner portrayed in the movie.

How many movies shown today are as relevant to life today? The Burkburnett of 1912 is uncannily like parts of Texas and North Dakota today – scruffy, muddy, starved of infrastructure, crowded with roughnecks, troubled with petty crime but bursting at the seams with opportunity and unbridled vitality. Both today and a century ago, this was a frontier region – not in the geographic sense but in an economic sense. This was entrepreneurship at its most raw and visceral, not something out of business school.

Perhaps the most neglected feature of Boom Townis the role played by this scenic backdrop. The movie is so dominated by its multiple stars and impeccable supporting cast that the audience is unconscious of the background. We feel it acutely nonetheless. The critic James Shelley Hamilton wrote long ago of the elements that make up “the feet a movie walks on.” Boom Town owes its jaunty strut to its brilliantly observed picture of the life of an oil town, whether in Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, California or Central America.

Boom Town as Economic Theory and Logic

Boom Townshould be shown in university courses on economic history and theory. We could leaf diligently through reference sources like Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide or Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide without encountering another movie so rich in economic meaning.

The physical, geologic circumstances of petroleum evolution and extraction create an age-old problem of economic investment and consumption. In the movie’s final third, McMasters discovers that the refining of oil offers even more scope for entrepreneurial skill and profit than does exploration and production. Characteristically, he charges into the market full-bore, determined to risk going down in flames in order to become a leader. He forms a partnership with wily veteran Harry Compton (character actor Lionel Atwill). But when Sand and McMasters feud over the latter’s treatment of Betsy, Sand enlists Compton in an effort to break McMasters by double-crossing him. In retaliation, McMasters calls on his countless contacts among the country’s small wildcatters, persuading them to forsake the partnership of Compton and Sand and sell their oil to him instead.

McMasters uses an argument that must have seemed obscure to most movie audiences – and probably still does. But knowledgeable industry observers and economists will recognize within it a time-honored conundrum. “Sand will make you force-pump your wells,” he insists to the wildcatters. “Pretty soon you’ll be looking at dry holes. Go with me and I’ll keep you pumping years longer.” Hollywood was – and still is – famous for dishing out all manner of baloney in the service of its plots. But this wasn’t the usual nonsense.

According to orthodox geological theory, petroleum is created by fossilized deposits that crystallize in the ground over many millennia. These deposits eventually liquefy and congregate in underground reservoirs called “traps.” That term is particularly apt when the liquid is literally trapped within rocks like the shale or sandstone that now supplies much of the oil being produced in the northern United States and Canada. Oil exploration has traditionally consisted of the location, identification and confirmation of these traps.

But just locating oil isn’t enough; that’s just the beginning of the process. Getting the oil out of the ground was no picnic in the early 20th century. Drilling holes in the ground using percussive methods – e.g.; knocking holes with heavy machines – enables the oil to be reached and exhumed. Raising it to the surface isn’t like dropping a dipper in a pail of water lifting it to your lips. It takes great physical persuasion to accomplish. McMasters’ use of the term “force-pumping” referred to the practice of pumping compressed air down the drilling shaft to force the oil to the surface. This term involved a certain amount of time, trouble and danger. But the worst thing about it was the tradeoff it implied. Its use eventually made the trap unproductive – not because the oil was fully extracted but instead because the remaining oil could no longer be withdrawn from the ground. Given the technology currently in use, it was stuck there. We know it was there, or at least those in the know did. But it didn’t count as “reserves,” because “proven reserves” only consisted of oil that was actually extractable. Depending on particular circumstances, this might be anywhere from 30% to 60% of the original petroleum deposit in the trap.

These facts of geologic and economic life are particularly germane today. The U.S. economy today is getting a shot in the arm from oil exploration and production in Texas and North Dakota, not to mention the oil coming from our longtime leading supplier to the north, Canada. Strictly speaking, this oil comes not from “new” discoveries but from long-existing fields and rigs that only recently became economically useful. New techniques of “enhanced recovery” like horizontal drilling (over fifty years old but newly profitable) and “fracking” have given these sources a new lease on life – which aptly describes the effect the oil has had on the America economy.

The wildcatters McMasters and Sand fought over faced a classic economic dilemma. They could pump more oil now and a lot less later or pump somewhat less now and somewhat more in the future. Sand himself alludes to this in courtroom testimony by calling McMasters a “conservationist… although he didn’t know it.” We are taught – conditioned is a better word – to view “conservation” as a good thing, as the antonym of “waste.” That is simply not true, though. There is no inherent, technological logic of efficiency that allows us to prefer consumption in the future to consumption now; only human preferences and purposes can resolve this issue.

That is where the interest rate enters the picture. Interest rates balance the supply of saving funds and the demand for investment funds – that is, the desires of those who want to consume more in the future and those who want to produce things to be consumed in the future. In pure theory, there is an optimal rate of extraction for natural resources such as petroleum that depends on the level of interest rates. Relatively low interest rates suggest that people want to consume lots in the future and that we should economize on consumption now and concentrate on production for the future. High interest rates encourage current consumption and discourage saving and investment geared toward the future.

The movie presents conservation in a whole new lightas governed by economics. Boom Towndoesn’t present this relatively sophisticated analysis explicitly; it just treats McMasters as a hero for promoting “conservation.” The implications of this, however, are unprecedented.

For one thing, Sand suggests that McMasters is acting entirely in pursuit of his own profit, yet his actions promote the general interest. That is, he is providing an operational definition of Adam Smith’s famous invisible hand at work. Celebrations of Adam Smith in Hollywood movies occur roughly as often as Halley’s Comet visits our solar system. For another, conservation in the movies is practiced by environmentalists or mavericks or nut jobs that are portrayed as really smarter than successful people – but never by successful businessmen. In 1940 as today, businessmen weren’t allowed to act nobly or altruistically within the framework of a movie unless they were portrayed as deliberately scorning profit.

Compton matter-of-factly uses the antitrust laws as a tool to harm his competitor, McMasters, thus serving his own business advantage. When Compton (Atwill) muses, “I wonder what the federal government would say about McMasters’ activities…,” and we then witness McMasters’ trial for violating the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act, it is a seminal movie moment. It would be over twenty years before radical historian Gabriel Kolko would advance his famous theory of “regulatory capture,” which was eventually co-opted by the right wing as a key plank in its opposition to the regulatory state. Kolko’s research showed that the first great regulatory initiative, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in 1887, was ushered in by the corporate railroad interests it ostensibly was created to regulate. The railroad business was beset by the age-old bugbear of industries with high fixed costs and low variable costs: price wars among competitors. The ICC cartelized the industry by raising prices and ending the price wars. Subsequent research has shown that antitrust enforcement has specialized in suppressing competition by concentrating on protecting competitors from competitive damage rather than safeguarding the competitive process itself.

McMasters successfully persuades wildcatters to forsake Compton and Sand in his favor. Yet his actions are criminalized as “monopolization.” It is true that orthodox economic theory describes a monopolist as one who “restricts” output in his own interest. But his ability to do that derives from restrictions on entry into the industry. The oil business is legendary for the absence of just those restrictions; indeed, that is what Boom Town is all about. Even the smallest wildcatter, whose fraction of total oil output is so tiny as to foreclose any influence on the market price of oil, still faces a problem of optimizing the time structure of oil extraction and sale. This problem is absent from orthodox theory only because that theory is timeless; it foolishly treats production and consumption as though occurring simultaneously in a single timeless instant.

In the event, the movie and the jury both vindicate McMasters by finding him innocent of monopolization. Unfortunately, he has spent so much money in his legal defense that he is now broke again, for what seems the umpteenth time. And this is yet another sophisticated economics lesson: somebody can be right and win in court, yet still be defeated by the magnitude of legal expenses.

Entertainment Wins Out in the End – as Usual

We are seemingly set up for a downbeat ending. But not in 1940, not when Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Claudette Colbert are heading the cast. At the fadeout, we find ourselves on a California hillside, overlooking a valley. McMasters, Betsy and Harmony and broke but happy, living out of a trailer and working the one small section of oil property that McMasters has left after his devastating brush with antitrust law. Who should come wandering over the hill but Luther Aldrich and John Sand? Aldrich has persuaded Sand to invest in the property as a devious scheme to reunite the old partners. Grudging at first, they spar over where the oil structure is located and where the rig will sput in. They turn their aggressive humor on their old target; Aldrich will naturally float them the tools and equipment in exchange for an ownership share in the property, in lieu of cash payment. “Oh, no!” Aldrich exclaims. “You two go broke on your own this time. There’s a dry hole in every foot of this place.”

As the background music score swells, the four principals stroll arm in arm toward the camera, grinning happily. “What’s the name of this sucker’s paradise?” demands Aldrich. “They named it after some old guy called Kettelman,” McMasters explains nonchalantly. “They call it ‘Kettleman Hills.'”

“Kettleman Hills?” Aldrich scoffs. “Doesn’t even sound like oil.”

The 1940 movie audience knew what today’s audience, for whom American history is a lost pastime, never learned. The gigantic Kettleman Hills discovery was one of the greatest oil booms of its day. McMasters, Sand, Aldrich and Betsy will soon be richer than ever. It’s happy-ending time for the cast of Boom Town.

The Moral

Metro Goldwyn Mayer never set out to make Boom Town a “relevant” movie, slake an executive’s social conscience or satisfy a star’s altruistic longings. If anybody associated with the project sensed its historical or economic uniqueness, it was a well-guarded secret. Its singular goal was entertainment, one that it fulfilled admirably.

The bleached bones of failed socially conscious and message movies litter the pages of Variety and other trade publications. The lies told by the numerous “true stories” and exposes await exposure by an investigator with the intestinal and anatomical fortitude for the job. Buried within the boundless entertainment of gems like Boom Town are the real lessons Hollywood can teach us about economic history and theory, freedom and free enterprise.

The relationship between socially relevant pretension and truth in movies is inverse. The more relevance, the less value; the less relevance and the more entertainment, the more truth.

DRI-190 for week of 12-30-12: Stereotypes Overturned: Race, Hollywood and the Jody Call

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

Stereotypes Overturned: Race, Hollywood and the Jody Call

The doctrine often referred to as “political correctness” ostensibly aims to overturn reigning stereotypes governing matters such as race. Yet all too often it results in the substitution of new stereotypes for old. Economics relies on reason and motivation rather than political programming to provide answers to human choices. Nothing could be more subversive of stereotypes than that.

What follows is a tale of Hollywood, race and the American military. At the time, each of these elements was viewed through a stylized, stereotypical lens – as they still are to some extent. But in no case did this tale unfold according to type. The reasons for that were economic.

The Movie Battleground (1949)

In 1949, Metro Goldwyn Mayer produced one of the year’s biggest boxoffice-hit movies, Battleground. It told the story of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge as seen through the eyes of a single rifle squad in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. In late 1944, Germany teetered on the edge of defeat. Her supreme commanders conceived the idea of a desperate mid-winter offensive to grab the initiative and rock the Allies back on their heels. The key geographic objective was the town of Bastogne, Belgium, located at the confluence of seven major roads serving the Ardennes region and Antwerp harbor. Germany launched an attack that drove such as conspicuous salient into the Allied line that the engagement acquired the title of the “Battle of the Bulge.”

The Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne were the chief defenders of Bastogne. This put them somewhat out of their element, since their normal role was that of attack paratroopers. Despite this, they put up an unforgettable fight even though outnumbered ten to one by the German advance. The film’s scriptwriter and associate producer, Robert Pirosh, was among those serving with the 101st and trapped at Bastogne.

Battleground accurately recounted the Battle of the Bulge, including an enlisted man’s view of the legendary German surrender demand and U.S. General McAuliffe’s immortal response: “Nuts.” But the key to the film’s huge box-office success – it was the second-leading film of the year in ticket receipts – was its continual focus on the battle as experienced by the combat soldier.

The men display the range of normal human emotions, heightened and intensified out of proportion by the context. Courage and fear struggle for supremacy. Boredom and the Germans vie for the role of chief nemesis. The film’s director, William Wellman, had flown in the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was one of Hollywood’s leading directors of war films, including the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar, Wings.

Some of MGM’s leading players headed up the cast, including Van Johnson, George Murphy, John Hodiak, and Ricardo Montalban. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two, for Pirosh’s story and screenplay and Paul Vogel’s stark black-and-white cinematography. In his motion-picture debut, James Whitmore was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe Award as the tobacco-chewing sergeant, Kinnie.

Whitmore provides the dramatic highlight of the film. Starving and perilously low on ammunition, the men of the 101st grimly hold out. They are waiting for relief forces led by General George Patton. Overwhelming U.S. air superiority over the Germans is of no use because fog and overcast have Bastogne completely socked in, grounding U.S. planes. Whitmore’s squad is cut off, surrounded and nearly out of bullets. Advised by Whitmore to save their remaining ammo for the impending German assault, the men silently fix bayonets to their rifles and await their death. Hobbling back to his foxhole on frozen feet, Whitmore notices something odd that stops him in his tracks. Momentarily puzzled, he soon realizes what stopped him. He has seen his shadow. The sun has broken through the clouds – and right behind it come American planes to blast the attacking German troops and drop supplies to the 101st. The shadow of doom has been lifted from “the battered bastards of Bastogne.”

1949 audiences were captivated by two scenes that bookended Battleground. After the opening credits and scene-setting explanation, soldiers are seen performing close-order drill led by Whitmore. These men were not actors or extras but were actual members of the 101st Airborne. They executed Whitmore’s drill commands with precise skill and timing while vocalizing a cadence count in tandem with Whitmore. This count would eventually attain worldwide fame and universal acceptance throughout the U.S. military. It began:

You had a good home but you left

You’re right!

You had a good home but you left

You’re right!

Jody was there when you left

You’re right!

Your baby was there when you left

You’re right!

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

At the end of the movie, surviving members of Whitmore’s squad lie exhausted beside a roadway. Upon being officially relieved and ordered to withdraw, they struggle to their feet and head toward the rear, looking as worn out and numb as they feel. They meet the relief column marching towards them, heading to the front. Not wishing for the men to seem demoralized and defeated, Van Johnson suggests that Whitmore invoke the cadence count to bring them to life. As the movie ends, the squad marches smartly off while adding two more verses to the cadence count, supported by the movie’s music score:

Your baby was lonely as lonely could be

Until he provided company

Ain’t it great to have a pal

who works so hard to keep up morale?

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

You ain’t got nothing to worry about

He’ll keep her happy ’till I get out

And I won’t get out ’till the end of the war

In Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-four

Sound Off – 1,2

Sound Off – 3,4

Cadence Count – 1,2,3,4

1,2 – 3-4!

The story of this cadence count, its inclusion in Battleground, its rise to fame and the fate of its inventor and his mentor are the story-within-the-story of the movie Battleground. This inside story speaks to the power of economics to overturn stereotypes.

The Duckworth Chant

In early 1944, a black Army private named Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr., was returning to Fort Slocum, NJ, from a long, tiresome training hike with his company. To pick up the spirits of his comrades and improve their coordination, he improvised a rhythmic chant. According to Michael and Elizabeth Cavanaugh in their blog, “The Duckworth Chant, Sound Off and the Jody Call,” this was the birth of what later came to be called the Jody (or Jodie) Call.

Duckworth’s commanding officer learned of popularity of Duckworth’s chant. He encouraged Duckworth to compose additional verses for training purposes. Soldiers vocalized the words of the chant along with training commands as a means of learning and coordinating close-order drill. Duckworth’s duties exceeded those of composer – he also taught the chant to white troops at Fort Slocum. It does not seem overly imaginative to envision episodes like this as forerunners to the growth of rap music, although it would be just a logical to attribute both phenomena to a different common ancestor.

Who is Jody (or Jodie)? The likely derivation is from a character in black folklore, Joe de Grinder, whose name would have been shortened first to Jody Grinder, then simply to Jody. The word “grind” has a sexual connotation and Jody’s role in the cadence count was indeed been to symbolize the proverbial man back home and out of uniform, who threatens to take the soldier’s place with his wife or girlfriend.

Already our story has turned certain deeply ingrained racial stereotypes upside down. In 1944, America was a segregated nation, not just in the South but North, East and West as well. This was also true of our armed forces. Conventional thinking (as distinct from conventional wisdom) holds that a black Army private had no power to influence his fate and was little more than a pawn under the thumb of larger forces.

Yet against all seeming odds and expectations, a black draftee from the Georgia countryside spontaneously introduced his own refinement into military procedure – and that refinement was not only accepted but wholeheartedly embraced. The black private was even employed to train white troops – at a point when racial segregation was the status quo.

Pvt. Duckworth’s CO was not just any commanding officer. He was Col. Bernard Lentz, the senior colonel in the U.S. Army at that time. Col. Lentz was a veteran of World War I, when he had developed the Cadence System of Teaching Close-Order Drill – his own personal system of drill instruction using student vocalization of drill commands. When Lentz heard of Duckworth’s chant, he immediately recognized its close kinship with his own methods and incorporated it into Fort Slocum’s routine.

The public-choice school of economics believes that government bureaucrats do not serve the “public interest.” Partly, this is because there is no unambiguous notion of the public interest for them to follow. Consequently, bureaucrats can scarcely resist pursuing their own ends since it is easy to fill the object-function vacuum with their own personal agenda. This is a case in which the public interest was served by a bureaucrat pursuing his own interests.

Col. Lentz had a psychological property interest in the training system that he personally developed. He had a vocational property interest in that system since its success would advance his military career. And in this case, there seems to be little doubt that the Duckworth Chant improved the productivity of troop training. Its use spread quickly throughout the army. According to the Cavanaugh’s, it was being used in the European Theater of Operations (ERO) by V-E Day. Eventually, Duckworth’s name recognition faded, to be replaced by that of his chant’s eponymous character, Jody. But the Jody Call itself remains to this day as a universally recognized part of the military experience.

Thus, the stereotypes of racial segregation and bureaucratic inertia were overcome by the economic logic of property rights. And the morale of American troops has benefitted ever since.

Hollywood as User and Abuser – Another Myth Exploded

The name of Pvt. Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr. does not exit the pages of history with the military’s adoption of his chant as a cadence count. Far from it. To paraphrase the late Paul Harvey, we have yet to hear the best of the rest of the story.

As noted above, the Duckworth chant spread to the ETO by early 1945. It was probably there that screenwriter Robert Pirosh encountered it and germinated the idea of planting it in his retelling of the Battle of the Bulge. When Battleground went into production, MGM representative Lily Hyland wrote to Col. Lentz asking if the cadence count was copyrighted and requesting permission to use it in the film.

Col. Lentz replied, truthfully, that the cadence count was not under copyright. But he sincerely requested compensation for Pvt. Duckworth and for a half-dozen soldiers who were most responsible for conducting training exercises at Fort Slocum. The colonel suggested monetary compensation for Duckworth and free passes to the movie for the other six. MGM came through with the passes and sent Pvt. Duckworth a check for $200.

As the Cavanaugh’s point out, $200 sounds like a taken payment today. But in 1949, $200 was approximately the monthly salary of a master sergeant in the Army, so it was hardly trivial compensation. This is still another stereotype shot to pieces.

Hollywood has long been famed in song and story – and in its own movies – as a user and abuser of talent. In this case, the casual expectation would have been that a lowly black soldier with no copyright on a rhyming chant he had first made up on the spur of the moment, with no commercial intent or potential, could expect to be stiffed by the most powerful movie studio on earth. If nothing else, we would have expected that Duckworth’s employer, the Army, would have asserted a proprietary claim for any monies due for the use of the chant.

That didn’t happen because the economic interests of the respective parties favored compensating Duckworth rather than stiffing him. Col. Lentz wanted the Army represented in the best possible light in the film, but he particularly wanted the cadence count shown to best advantage. If Pvt. Duckworth came forward with a public claim against the film, that would hurt his psychological and vocational property interests. The last thing MGM wanted was a lawsuit by a soldier whose claim would inevitably resonate with the public, making him seem to be an exploited underdog and the studio look like a bunch of chiseling cheapskates – particularly when they could avoid it with a payment of significant size to him but infinitesimal as a fraction of a million-dollar movie budget.

A Hollywood Ending – Living Happily Ever After

We have still not reached the fadeout in our story of Col. Lentz and Pvt. Duckworth. Carefully observing the runaway success of Battleground, Col. Lentz engaged the firm of Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. to copyright an extended version of the Duckworth chant in 1950 under the title of “Sound Off.” Both he and Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr. were listed as copyright holders. In 1951, this was recorded commercially for the first of many versions by Vaughn Monroe. In 1952, a film titled Sound Off was released. All these commercial exploitations of “Sound Off” resulted in payments to the two men.

How much money did Pvt. Duckworth receive as compensation for the rights to his chant, you may ask? By 1952, Duckworth was apparently receiving about $1,800 per month. In current dollars, that would amount to an income well in excess of $100,000 per year. Of course, like most popular creations, the popularity of “Sound Off” rose, peaked and then fell off to a whisper. But the money was enough to enable Duckworth to buy a truck and his own small pulpwood business. That business supported him, his wife and their six children. It is fair to say that the benefits of Duckworth’s work continued for the rest of his life, which ended in 2004.

If still dubious about the value of what MGM gave Duckworth, consider this. The showcase MGM provided for Duckworth’s chant amounted to advertising worth many thousands of dollars. Without it, the subsequent success of “Sound Off” would have been highly problematic, to put it mildly. It seems unlikely that Col. Lentz would have been inspired to copyright the cadence count and any benefits received by the two would have been miniscule in comparison.

The traditional Hollywood movie ending is a fadeout following a successful resolution of the conflict between protagonist and antagonist, after which each viewer inserts an individual conception of perpetual bliss as the afterlife of the main characters. In reality, as Ernest Hemingway reminds us, all true stories end in death. But Willie Lee Duckworth, Sr.’s story surely qualifies as a reasonable facsimile of “happily ever after.”

This story is not the anomaly it might seem. Although Hollywood itself was not a powerful engine of black economic progress until much later, free markets were the engine that pulled the train to a better life for 20th century black Americans. Research by economists like Thomas Sowell has established that black economic progress long preceded black political progress in the courts (through Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education) and the U.S. Congress (through legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The Movie that Toppled a Mogul

There were larger economic implications of Battleground. These gave the film the sobriquet of “the movie that toppled a mogul.” As Chief Operating Officer of MGM, Louis B. Mayer had long been the highest-paid salaried employee in the U.S. The size of MGM’s payroll made it the largest contributor on the tax rolls of Southern California. Legend had endowed Mayer with the power to bribe police and influence politicians. Seemingly, this should have secured his job tenure completely.

Battleground was a project developed by writer and executive Dore Schary while he worked at rival studio RKO. Schary was unable to get the movie produced at RKO because his bosses there believed the public’s appetite for war movies had been surfeited by the wave of propaganda-oriented pictures released during the war. When Schary defected to MGM, he brought the project with him and worked ceaselessly to get it made.

Mayer initially opposed Battleground for the same reasons as most of his colleagues in the industry. He called it “Schary’s Folly.” Yet the movie was made over his objections. And when it became a blockbuster hit, the fallout caused Mayer to be removed as head of the studio that bore his name. To add insult to this grievous injury, Schary replaced Mayer as COO.

For roughly two decades, economists had supported the hypothesis of Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means that American corporations suffered from a separation of ownership and control. Ostensibly, corporate executives were not controlled by boards of directors who safeguarded the interests of shareholders. Instead, the executives colluded with boards to serve their joint interests. If ever there was an industry to test this hypothesis, it was the motion-picture business, dominated by a tightly knit group of large studios run by strong-willed moguls. MGM and Louis B. Mayer were the locus classicus of this arrangement.

Yet the production, success and epilogue of Battleground made it abundantly clear that it was MGM board chairman Nicholas Schenck, not Mayer, who was calling the shots. And Schenck had his eye fixed on the bottom line. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Louis B. Mayer was not the King of Hollywood after all. Market logic, not market failure, reigned. Economics, not power relationships, ruled.

Thanks to Battleground, stereotypes were dropping like soldiers of the 47th Panzer Corps on the arrival of Patton’sThird Army in Bastogne.

No Happy Ending for Hollywood

Battleground came at the apex of American movies. Average weekly cinema attendance exceeded the population of the nation. The studio system was a smoothly functional, vertically integrated machine for firing the popular imagination. It employed master craftsman at every stage of the process, from script to screen.

Although it would have seemed incredible at the time, we know now that it was all downhill from that point. Two antitrust decisions in the late 1940s put an end to the Hollywood studio system. One particular abomination forbade studios from owning chains of movie theaters; another ended up transferring creative control of movies away from the studios.

The resulting deterioration of motion pictures took place in slow motion because the demand for movies was still strong and the studio system left us with a long-lived supply of people who still preserved the standards of yore. But the vertically integrated studio system has been gone for over half a century. Today, Hollywood is a pale shadow of its former self. Most movies released by major studios do not cover their costs through ticket sales. Studio profits result from sales of ancillary merchandise and rights. Theater profits are generated via concession sales. Motion-picture production is geared toward those realities and targeted predominantly toward the very young. Subsidies by local, state and national governments are propping up the industry throughout the world. And those subsidies must disappear sooner or later – probably sooner.

This has proved to be the ultimate vindication of our thesis that economics, not stereotypical power relationships, governed the movie business in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Free markets put consumers and shareholders in the driver’s seat. The result created the unique American art form of the 20th century. We still enjoy its fruits today on cable TV, VHS, DVD and the Internet. Misguided government attempts to regulate the movie business ended up killing the golden goose or, more precisely, reducing it to an enfeebled endangered species.

DRI-424: Why the Number of Seats in a Theater is So Important

The law of unintended consequences is that intentions alone do not define results; our intended actions have consequences that we neither intend nor foresee. This law applies with special force to the actions of government. Labor unions enjoy special privileges and immunities given them by government, so they too are subject to the law.

The Formation of Actor’s Equity Association

Actor’s Equity Association (Actor’s Equity or just Equity for short) is a labor union formed in 1912 to improve the lot of actors and stage personnel working in the realm of live performance. It establishes wage minima and rules governing working conditions and compensation. One Equity provision of particular importance is its bond requirement. No later than the first rehearsal, the producer of a play employing Equity members is required to put up a bond for the contractually-guaranteed provisions of member contracts – typically two weeks worth of salary, pension and health benefits.

Most Americans are conditioned to regard regulations governing wages and working conditions as good things. Economists take a more jaundiced view of these matters. They know, for example, that merely requiring payment of a wage does not guarantee that the worker’s productivity will vindicate its payment. If the wage exceeds the value of the worker’s production, then the worker will be unemployed at that minimum wage.

In the case of Equity, this is a datum of more than theoretical interest. Equity is widely thought to be the only union in the world with a membership unemployment rate exceeding 90%. It is clear that the gains of union membership flow disproportionately to the small fraction of members who are fortunate enough to be working on the stage. These people are heavily concentrated in the Broadway theater district of New York City.

According to the Oxford Companion to American Theatre, “In recent years, the minimums and bonds demanded by this and other unions have been a factor in stifling production, shrinking the road and forcing musicals to perform in auditoriums that are really too large for live performances… .” The reference to the size of the performing venue suggests that the unintended consequences of Equity have spilled over the boundaries set down by economic textbooks.

The Equity Waiver Movement

In 1972, Los Angeles trailed only New York City in U.S. population. Yet the theater scene in Los Angeles, quite unlike that in New York, was sparse and stagnant. The city held only 45 theaters, ranging from huge (the Ahmanson in downtown LA) to middle-size (the Mark Taper Forum) to small (scattered neighborhood theaters).

In New York City, large theaters and large numbers of people were crammed together in a relatively small area in the theater district. Moreover, the subway system provided relatively cheap transport from outlying boroughs into the city. Los Angeles comprised the largest geographic metropolitan area of any major U.S. city and – at that time – lacked a subway system. Thus, there were fewer large theaters to contain plays and fewer economic ways for theatergoers to reach their destinations. Both the supply of, and the demand for, theater correspondingly suffered in LA compared to that in New York.

This wasn’t for lack of local actors. The motion-picture industry continually refreshed the supply of labor with infusions of new talent – or would-be talent, anyway. During the old days of the studio system, community theater had thrived. Venues like the legendary Pasadena Playhouse acted as minor-leagues for the movie studios. They allowed raw recruits to learn their craft from experienced directors and practice it before audiences that included movie talent scouts and a public hungry for reasonably priced entertainment. Graduates of the theater’s drama school made up a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood: Raymond Burr, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jamie Farr, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Lloyd Nolan, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston, George Reeves, Randolph Scott, Gloria Stuart, Robert Taylor, Gig Young and Robert Young.

By the 1960s, Equity wages and work rules became onerous enough to drive community theater into the ground. The nadir was reached when Pasadena’s drama school closed and the Playhouse went bankrupt. This led a hardy band of actor-producers to approach the union with a daring suggestion – waive Equity rules for small theaters, those with fewer than 100 seats. They hoped this would allow struggling actors to work instead of languishing, unemployed, or – just as bad – spending their lives in tasks unrelated to their chosen life’s work.

The waiver provision did just that – it waived Equity provisions completely for theaters with fewer than 100 seats. As long as the theater met the size limitation, actors and producers were free of Equity’s burdensome restrictions on wages and working capital. Actors could work for free, if they chose. And some of them – mostly chose who were also producers of the plays in which they appeared – did, indeed, so choose.

The waiver provision was capped at 100 seats because it was just those small theaters that had been disproportionately wounded by Equity, whose increased minima and work rules increased theater costs. A theater offers a fixed physical potential for income; anything that increases costs threatens to overwhelm that fixed income potential. As the Oxford Companion to American Theatre observed, bond costs and increased minimum compensation forced producers to seek larger venues in order to enhance their revenue potential. If the particular production – such as a musical – did not lend itself to presentation in that venue, the result can be aesthetically unsatisfactory.

Poles of Opinion

Predictions of disaster for the Equity Waiver movement were loud and frequent. The quality of theater was bound to suffer, according to Waiver opponents, because lower pay for actors would call forth lower-quality actors. Any success the Waiver movement had in stimulating play production and employment of actors would be offset by fewer plays and less employment within big theaters.

No, maintained Waiver proponents, the Waiver would showcase actors who would otherwise find it hard to secure auditions or get work. Actors could practice their craft and avoid going stale and maybe pick up a few bucks in the process. Meanwhile, producers could actually revamp theaters and put on productions for a change.

In the event, it was the Waiver supporters who were proved right. Community theater flourished. The number of theaters and theatrical companies tripled. It became possible to go to the theater in Los Angeles for about the price of attendance at a sporting event. This was a far cry from the hundreds of dollars that theater tickets cost on Broadway – although, to be sure, the quality of 99-seat theater in LA was not uniformly equal to that of the Great White Way.

The Equity Wars

In the mid-1980s, Equity withdrew its waiver and tried to reimpose control over the small-theater market in Los Angeles. This led to the Waiver Wars from 1986-1988, fought mostly in courtrooms. Equity refused to negotiate with the insurgents – the very tactic it had always publicly deplored when employed against it by theater owners or producers.

The eventual compromise left LA community-theater intact but set up an Equity contract for small theaters, one which was subsequently modified several times. The odd thing about this outcome is the fatalistic reaction it has triggered from all participants. Waiver proponents seem to believe that the return to Equity hegemony was inevitable, that there was something inherently wrong, or at least suspect, about a completely free market for labor in live theatrical performance.

In effect, both sides seem to believe that actors should be protected from themselves. If left alone, they will be driven by their free will to act for a zero wage – and that this is clearly intolerable. While they lasted, though, the Equity Waiver free market in stage labor and the subsequent Equity Wars proved the imperishable value of freedom. They also proved the applicability of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

What Happened to Movie Theaters?

Older readers may recall the single-screen movie theaters that covered the United States in the first half of the 20th century. The best of these were marvels of construction and design that ranked among the most beautiful works of architecture in America. Today, only a tiny handful remains standing, let alone operating. Most owe their survival to historic-preservation efforts.

What happened? How did the principal hangout and communal gathering place in big cities and small towns alike lose its status? The full story cannot be told without recounting the rise and fall of motion pictures in America – in itself an economic object lesson – but it will suffice to reveal the history behind the successor to the movie palace.

From Cineplex to Multiplex

The modern cineplex was born in the Ward Parkway Shopping Center in Kansas City, MO, in 1963. Stanley Durwood, head of American Multi Cinema, opened the first two-screen movie theater there. He was capitalizing the new technology of automatic movie projection, which allowed one projectionist to simultaneously operate two projectors showing two different films in adjacent theaters. Formerly, one skilled union member was needed to show a film. Now one non-union projectionist could do the job for a fraction of the cost.

The demise of the old studio system of movie making brought an end to vertical integration of the movie business. This meant that costs of producing, distributing, marketing and exhibiting movies spiraled higher – so much so that eventually few movies were profitable when all costs were accounted for. The profit in the movie business came from ancillary activities. In production, these were sales and licensing of products spun off from movies, mostly to children and young adults. In exhibition, the profitable activity was not the showing of the movie but instead sales of food and drink at the concession stand.

In order to squeeze the most profit from concessions, exhibitors had to book heavily-advertised films into multiple theaters in order to draw large crowds and schedule those films at staggered half-hour to one-hour intervals, so as to create a constant parade of customers past the refreshments.

Why is 299 the Magic Number for Movie-Theater Seating?

Just as 99 became a magic number for live-theater seating capacity in Los Angeles in the 1970s, movie multiplexes acquired their own magic seating number in 1990. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required theaters with 300 or more seats to provide ramps for wheelchairs to all rows. The ramps took up roughly one-third of the space that would otherwise be allocated to seats.

Movie theaters were already a declining breed – by 1990 there were about one-third as many theater sites as in 1929. To cut potential revenue in existing sites by one-third by simply refitting all theaters would have been business suicide for theater owners. Instead, they cut up their existing space into smaller theaters – each with 299 seats. New theaters were multiplexes with screens each serving 299 or fewer seats. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of movie screens increased from 23,000 to 38,000 – despite the relatively small number of theater sites previously noted.

The Implications of Multiplex Movie Exhibition

The unintended consequences of the ADA on the movie business do not stop there. Smaller screens and cramped seating areas make for poorer viewing; there is less room for the viewer and more chance of a view being obscured. Ambient noise is more intrusive and annoying. The aspect ratio of the picture is less favorable, which is less pleasingto the eye. Older movies were shot for wider screens and cannot be shown comfortably on today’s screens.

In order to serve an exhibition market with more screens, distribution companies must make more prints of the movies. This is so costly that movies are now subsidizing the cost of converting theaters to digital projection. But replacing film with digital technology is revolutionary – it changes the texture of film and presents new and vexing problems in film preservation.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Over the centuries, economists have come to appreciate the law of unintended consequences. Every time we pass a law or regulation – or otherwise impede the workings of a free market – we invite consequences whose nature and magnitude we cannot begin to understand. The wild disproportion between 99 and 100 seats in live theater and between 299 and 300 seats in movie theaters are good examples of this.

Somehow, it seems that these consequences are seldom favorable. This is because we have a solid understanding of the consequences of free markets, which are predominantly favorable. When we deliberately set out to thwart those outcomes, we cannot always confidently predict the result, but we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be bad.