Carole Lombard is shown with Will Rogers following a polo match on his field on May 21, 1934. Less than a year earlier, they had something in common -- both were among the newest members of the emerging Screen Actors Guild, according to the Oct. 31, 1933 Motion Picture Daily:
Today, we thought we'd examine the birth and early history of SAG, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year and merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) in March 2012 to form SAG-AFTRA.
We've previously noted that in the early 1930s, life was difficult for most actors in the industry. You essentially were owned lock, stock and barrel by the studio that had you under contract (usually for an iron-clad seven years). There were no limits on the number of hours you worked each day; heck, meal breaks weren't even mandated. Yes, many actors gained renown, and some made splendid salaries by Depression standards, but for many of them, conditions would have been intolerable no matter how much they were making.
So in 1933, a group of actors, including Ralph Morgan (seated at lower right, brother of the better-known Frank Morgan, and also a fine character actor), James and Lucile Gleason, Boris Karloff and others founded an organization to work on film actors' behalf. Morgan became SAG's first president, but before the end of 1933 ceded his presidency to someone with a higher public profile, Eddie Cantor.
Many in the business risked their careers by joining. (Lyle Talbot, the first Warners actor to join SAG, would never work for the studio again.) Robert Young, one of those early members, recalled, "We met at night, in private homes, in the basement if there was one. It was a like a Communist cell for those of us who were involved in the formation of the SAG. We had to be very careful back then because the actors unionizing was verboten as far as the studios were concerned. It was risky for us. They had spies all over the place, so we were very secretive. If we were identified with the Guild, it could cost us our contracts."
Virtually all of the studios steadfastly opposed SAG, and MGM executive Irving Thalberg said he would die before accepting the Guild...and that's precisely what happened; Thalberg died in September 1936 and in May of the following year, SAG gained its first major victory when studios agreed to a contract with the union.
But that contract didn't spell the end of challenges for SAG. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (IATSE), then run by George Browne with help from Chicago gangster Willie Bioff, sought to strong-arm SAG and gain control over actors. In the late 1930s, SAG president Robert Montgomery exposed Bioff's criminal past and thwarted his plans. In testifying in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, Bioff squealed on several members of Al Capone's old Chicago gang, including Frank Nitti, who were sent to jail. After Bioff's release in 1955, he was killed that November when the car he was driving exploded.
In the '50s, SAG responded to the growth of television by winning the rights to contract for commercials, residuals for television repeats and, by 1960, films shown on TV. That year, pension and health plans also were secured. Later contracts have similarly responded to technological changes.
As one of the most visible unions in the country, SAG presidents have been well-publicized. One of them, of course, even eventually became president of the U.S., and Ronald Reagan was in the White House when this photo of six past heads of SAG was taken in 1986 to commemorate its new national headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard. Top row: Leon Ames, Dana Andrews, Charlton Heston. Bottom row: Ed Asner, William Schallert, Dennis Weaver. (Note Asner and Heston were far from each other, perhaps reflecting a political contretemps they were in earlier that decade.) Other notable SAG presidents included James Cagney, George Murphy, Walter Pidgeon, Howard Keel, Dennis Weaver, Patty Duke and Melissa Gilbert.
Lombard was content to let others guide the Guild, but that doesn't mean she didn't participate in its activities. Take this program, from May 18-20, 1934 -- just before the polo match she attended that Sunday:
The Film Stars Frolic was intended as a fundraiser, with a rodeo, circus acts, a chariot race and appearances by stars, Lombard among them. Hardly anyone showed up to Gilmore Stadium, and SAG's treasury nearly evaporated; only $1,000 loans from president Cantor, 1st vice-president Montgomery, 2nd vice-president Ann Harding, 3rd vice-president Cagney and board member Fredric March kept the organization afloat. A SAG ball at the Biltmore Hotel fared much better.
So did the Screen Guild Theatre radio program, which aired from 1939 to 1952 and raised $5.3 million for the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Lombard appeared on the series several times, and like all other performers on the program contributed her salary to the fund. Here's an ad in Pittsburgh for the Oct. 26, 1941 airing of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips":
Lombard and Rogers would have something else in common, unfortunately -- both would die in airplane crashes, Rogers in 1935, Lombard in 1942.