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Sometime during Labor Fest 2001, the city’s month-long celebration of its history as a union town, San Franciscans may wonder why their struggles have never produced a cinema classic on par with “On the Waterfront.” But film does commemorate the impact of law on the lives of the local rank and file: In fact, the movie that gave the city its theme song also produced a testament to a generation of West Coast laborers who were determined to use New Deal legislation to improve their working conditions. True, “San Francisco” (1936) doesn’t look like a film about the bloody labor wars that ravaged California during the Depression. But that was the point. Indeed, screenwriter-activist Anita Loos used the story of the Great Quake to fly under the radar of MGM’s notoriously reactionary chief executive, Louis B. Mayer. Loos’ subterfuge was successful: Mayer saw the film — a genuinely corrosive commentary on studio attempts to destroy organized labor — and crowed, “Now that’s what I call a quality picture!” On the other hand, Loos’ sleight-of-hand may have worked too well. For 65 years, filmgoers have been swayed by the same window dressing that seduced Mayer: icons from the movie industry’s most extensive stable of stars — Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy; state-of-the-art special effects that can still make the city’s collapse seem scary; and a plotline that diverted ’30s audiences from their troubles with a dose of revisionist history. Today, “San Francisco” seems an agreeable confection, offering more meringue than message. Yet Loos’ story is worth a second look — a reappraisal in which the reviewer remembers that context is everything. And the setting in which “San Francisco” arose was a labor battlefield. Crushed by the Depression, California workers greeted the New Deal’s NIRA as a godsend that promoted collective bargaining and prohibited interference with labor activity. But CEOs — among them San Francisco’s shipping magnates and Los Angeles’ studio heads — were determined to block Roosevelt and to break the unions. In San Francisco, longshoremen went toe-to-toe with management-backed police goons who used force to bar union registration; the bloodshed resulted in the General Strike of 1934. In Hollywood, studio execs used the threat of bankruptcy to get workers to agree to 50 percent pay cuts. When studios compounded the cuts with a credits-allocation system that denied writers earned seniority, irate dramatists organized the Screen Writers Guild, a reincarnation of a group that Loos had founded during the silent era. Management’s reaction evoked the violence America had seen on San Francisco’s waterfront: “If those guys set up a picket line and try to shut down my studio, I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow them down,” Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck threatened. What Loos witnessed in Hollywood from 1934-1936 looks remarkably like the screen story that became “San Francisco.” In the film, working class San Franciscans are denied life’s necessities while — in a poke at Mayer himself — execs spend exorbitant sums to buy high-culture status. When a determinedly agnostic rake — a nod to the “godless” Communists at the head of the Writers Guild — organizes the working folk in a campaign for reform, reactionaries use a barrage of dirty tricks to splinter the alliance. Loos’ characters move toward a climactic election that will decide the fate of labor reform. Yet even as Loos scripted that showdown, she and her colleagues raced toward a more critical referendum — a vote, on May 2, 1936, that allowed studio dramatists to ratify or reject the Guild. Loos couldn’t know the fate of labor as she watched the filming of her script. But she had seen the power of reactionary America — courts determined to constrict the scope of the Constitution, conservatives who addressed appalling need with pitches for private charity, campaigns that painted the federal government as the ultimate evil — and she feared the worst. So Loos opted for an earthquake — leveling the city as certainly as the Crash had flattened America’s future — and for a sublime send-up of reactionary piety: the last scene of “San Francisco” displays its devout hymn-singers through a clearly identifiable visual homage to Marxist filmmaking. Seen today, it’s an ending apt to remind us that the fight for American workers has included — along with winning strategies and successful walkouts — the occasional triumph of exquisite wit. Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches courses on film and the law at San Francisco’s Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law and is the coordinator of “A Century in the City: A Retrospective on the Legal Issues that Shaped San Francisco.” Her e-mail address is [email protected] For more information on the film series, currently underway in San Francisco, go to www.ggu.edu/schools/law/filmfest.

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