A Memorial Day Tribute to the founders of the Great Screen Actors Guild (With some neat old photos.)
As we enter into this Memorial Day weekend, I thought it might be be appropriate to, also in some small way, honor those brave actors who at great professional risk founded our great guild!
“THE FOUNDERS – 1933” The first board meeting of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 (seated left to right) Alan Mowbray, Lucille Gleason, Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan, Noel Madison, (standing left to right) Kenneth Thompson, James Gleason, Ivan Simpson, Richard Tucker, Clay Clement, Claude King, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace, Arthur Vinton.So I went on our SAG website to download a photo of them that I had noticed there a couple of years ago.
Unfortunately, whether by design, neglected or an Internet glitch, it was not available. Fortunately, after my own Google search, I was able to access it from the MembershipFirst Website.
I have included that photo and a piece that I wrote during the ATA/NATR referendum. It’s the SAG Watchdog’s tribute to those who stood up for their fellow actors 70 years ago.
“MEET JOHN DUES” MEETS “IT’S A WONDERFUL GUILD”
INT. – JOHN DUES APARTMENT – EVENING
A young man sits in front of his computer. His name is JOHN DUES, and he’s got one of those faces that you recognize but aren’t quite sure why. Covered in perspiration, John SILENTLY reads from his computer screen. As he does, we HEAR his thoughts:
JOHN: “If we don’t reach a deal, it will be chaoswe’ll be forced to choose whether to abandon our union or our agentsWhat if our union stars don’t stand by us?”
Hypnotized by the screen, John’s eyes glaze over in fear as he drifts off into deep Reverie.
VOICE: John, John Dues, wake up!
John’s eyes blink open. Standing before him, a dapper, feisty man with a mischievous grin.
JOHN: Uh, who are you?
JAMES: Name’s Gleason. James Gleason. I’m a proud SAG member just like you.
JOHN: Oh yeah, I recognize you. I’ve seen you in a lot of movies. (Fond reflection) You were great in Meet John Doe
JAMES: Yeah, I know kid. (Beat) Hey, you weren’t so bad yourself in that toothpaste commercial.
JOHN: Thanks. (Eyes widen) Wait a minute, aren’t you’re supposed to be dea, dea
JAMES: Like I said, I’m a member of SAG. I prefer to think that I’ve just moved on to a faraway branch. (Beat) You look troubled, brother.
JOHN: Yeah, well, it’s this damn ATA agreement. It’s got me petrified.
JAMES: Yeah, the scuttlebutt at my branch is that a lot of other John Dues are scared too.
JOHN: Most of them know it’s a bum deal, but they’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t agree to it.
JAMES: Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being scared, kid. The important thing is that you don’t let fear cloud your judgment. (Beat) Hey, I remember back when we first got together to form The Screen Actors Guild
JOHN: You formed S.A.G.?
JAMES: Well, there were 18 of us. Besides me, my wife Lucille, Alan Mowbray, Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan, Noel Madison, Ken Thomson, Ivan Simpson, Richard Tucker, Clay Clement, Claude King, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace, Arthur Vinton
JOHN: I’ve never heard of most of them.
JAMES: Well John, maybe you better read some more of that S.A.G. website.
JOHN: Yeah, but but that’s what got me scared in the first place.
JAMES: I was talking about the S.A.G. history part. (He peruses the screen) Hmmm, I see what you mean. There’s a lot of fear here. (Sadly shakes his head) Sure, I’ll admit it. Most of us were scared back then too, but hell kid, we weren’t just going up against a bunch of agents. We were taking on the likes of Jack Warner, Louie B. Mayer
JOHN: They were more powerful than agents?
JAMES: You kidding? The worst an agent can do is refuse to represent you. These guys had the power to destroy your career.
JOHN: And you stood up to them?
JAMES: It was worth the risk. If you don’t believe me kid, listen to a couple of your brothers and sisters who where back there in the beginning.
A young boy steps out of the shadows of the past.
FRANK: Frank “Junior” Coghlan, I joined May 2nd 1937. I worked in a movie at Paramount, and we kids worked from 8:00 a.m. to half past midnight.
JAMES: And who changed all that Frankie, your agent?
FRANK: Heck no, Mr. Gleason it was S.A.G. When they came in, they enforced the rules to make it a financial penalty if the studios didn’t give us meal breaks and hours off between calls, and later on they helped get a lot of other neat things like pension and welfare, and a credit union and
JAMES: You sure it wasn’t your agent who got you all that?
FRANK: Yes, sir!
A handsome leading man type steps into view.
DON: Don Defore, October 12th, 1937. Let me tell you, working conditions were rough before S.A.G. We had to report to this assistant director who was a mean bastard. Warner Bros. hired him as a “herder” for some of the big Western pictures where they used lots of extras. He carried a cane and beat it on the floor and actually herded them. We needed a strong union with strong representatives to sit at the table to look out for actors and protect them from such abuse and that’s what SAG has done.
A beautiful woman steps forth and takes Frankie’s hand. Don follows her cue and the three stand hand and hand.
LARAINE: Laraine Day, August 30th, 1937. When I was on the Board of the Screen Actors Guild in the early ’40s, I remember Gene Kelly at every meeting bringing up the subject of a new medium called television that was going to be important. He was adamant that the Guild should do something about it right then and nobody would pay any attention to him.
JOHN: Boy, was that a big mistake.
LARAINE: Yes John, it was. That’s why it’s important that you let your leaders know when they’re making a poor decision.
JAMES: And you can’t do that if you’re immobilized by fear.
A slender, pretty woman steps forth and joins hands.
ANN: Ann Doran, May 16th, 1934. I was sacred but I joined. There was this feeling that we would be blacklisted. I never let a producer or director or casting person know I was a member of the union unless I was pinned to the wall. I knew that the big stars were backing the union; it was a Who’s Who list of Hollywood.
John Dues eyes widen as other stars step foreword and join hands: Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Lew Ayres, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Eddie Cantor, Frank Morgan
JAMES: Anyone that tells you that Stars will desert their union don’t know what they’re talking about, kid
Stars, now joined by day players, continue to gather, joining hands; Among the stars, Burt Lancaster, Robert Young, Gene Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Douglas Fairbanks Jr
JAMES: We are a union rich in the tradition of all our John Dues, both the little guy and the superstar standing hand in hand in SOLIDARITYand NO agent will ever change that!!!!
As far as the eye can see, SAG members of the past have come forth to hold hands in unity and fellowship.
JAMES: Well John, now its up to you. You have your chance to make a difference on this ATA thing by speaking up—and then voting. All we ask of you, and your fellow S.A.G. members, is that you make your decision based on what’s best for the enduring integrity of our union–rather than a decision based on fear. To do otherwise would dishonor the sacrifices and tough decisions that have made S.A.G. the great union it is today. You owe it not only to those who preceded you, but also to future generations. Those generations that will be able to look back proudly, and say that you had the courage to stand up for them– and their right to representation that is NOT compromised.
JAMES: Remember, good agents, and there are enough swell ones out there to go around, have only one agenda—and that’s to represent you!
JOHN: I’ll do it!
A bell tinkles. James Stewart cradles a smiling Peggy Ann Garner while holding Donna Reed’s hand. He begins to sing Auld Lang Syne and everyone joins in. James Gleason’s eyes mist up as he joins hands with Thomas Mitchell– and Henry Travers who looks back to admire James’ new wings. Frank Faylen whispers to Gloria Grahame, ” Not bad considering he never even worked on this frikking movie!” Holding Barbara Stanwyck’s hand, Edward Arnold fires back, ” The hell he didn’t!”
ON JOHN’S FACE: He has stopped perspiring. He smiles. His eyes are now clear and focused. He looks around his empty apartment, then back at his computer screen. A look of determination crosses his face. He types in the address of his favorite computer website “IdoTVads” and begins to type, posting his message: ” Dear fellow SAG members as a great leader once said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear its self.”
a.l. miller sw editor & chief
Humbled to be a member of the Great Screen Actors Guild.