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Block Booking Battle in Congress

The Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen


In May 1935, two block booking bills made their way to the United States Congress. Senator Matthew M. Neely of West Virginia proposed the Anti-Block Booking and Blind Selling Bill on May 13, 1935 for hearings in early 1936. Earlier, in the House, Indiana representative Samuel B. Pettengill originated a sister proposal.

Block booking legislation was not new to Congress. Anti-block booking bills had been sponsored intermittently since December 1927, when the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease and desist order against Paramount. Paramount ignored the order, leading to the Famous Players-Lasky antitrust case in 1928.

Over the years, block booking restrictions had at times been passed by the Senate, but were consistently rejected by the House. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Neely-Pettengill bill became the most important anti-block booking measure before the advent of the later Paramount case in 1938. According to the proposal, blocks of any size should be forbidden, as well as well as any conspiracy that offered film discounts to buyers of more than one movie. According to the Senate Report, one of the principle reasons for the bill was to provide relief to the independent producers and exhibitors.

Blind Selling

At initial glance, the Neely-Pettengill bill seemed an ideal rallying point for all independents. However a provision designed to undermine blind bidding alienated many of the producers. Since many distributors sold their movies before they were produced, theaters complained that the sparse information upon which the theaters based their purchases was altered during the production process. In a well-intentioned effort to improve the bargaining position of the theaters, the Neely-Pettengill bill required all films to be presented to exhibitors with a "complete and true synopsis" of the movie, including plot details, scene analysis, and character information. Any person who sold a film without a synopsis, or knowingly provided false data, would be subject to fine or imprisonment.

Requiring all Hollywood producers to adhere to a detailed synopsis throughout production was a laughable concept in the major studios which relied on test screenings and reediting to hone their movies before each release. The independent producers also found the provision objectionable. While some independents were known for a methodical approach to film production, many of the creative producers resorted to on-the-fly filmmaking, molding the productions with quick decisions and last minute changes. The unpopular provision left most independent producers apprehensive of the bill, and made Neely an easy target for the Hollywood resistance.

MPPDA general counsel Charles C. Pettijohn, who had risen to prominence defending the arbitration system during the 1920s, attended the Congressional hearings to lambast the Pettengill bill's story synopsis requirement. Pettijohn brought with him quotes from filmmakers Jesse L. Lasky, Harold Lloyd, Louis B. Mayer, and Ernst Lubitsch to attest to the frequency of story changes and the importance of flexibility in film production. Particularly damaging was a statement that David O. Selznick had made, which Pettijohn reported to the sub-committee: "To compel any Producer to be bound in advance of Production to standardized, machine-like production of motion pictures is too abhorrent to ever contemplate." Selznick said that if story changes were a crime, then he would be one of the first to be held in contempt. It was an uneasy situation for Selznick, who despised block booking and blind bidding but genuinely disagreed with the Neely-Pettengill bill. Selznick had only recently turned independent, and, to his frustration, now found his words being used by the MPPDA to defend the monopolistic practices of the studios from which he had defected.

The Battle Over Block Booking

Block booking ignited the industry in the late 1930s, as Senator Neely's bill proceeded into sub-committee. A scathing pamphlet, "What Do You Know About Block-Booking," published anonymously by the MPPDA, was condemned by The Christian Century for "irrelevant and misleading statistics" designed to protect block booking.

Another booklet called "What Price Neely Bill?" consisted of a transcription of a talk given by C. C. Pettijohn at a Big Eight conference where he charismatically defended industry self-regulation instead of government edict. Pettijohn, speaking at the end of 1939, extolled the number of recent high-class studio releases, using films from that banner year as evidence that Hollywood did not need government fixing. He lavished considerable praise on the brand new blockbuster Gone With the Wind (1939), but neglected to acknowledge the independent producer who vehemently disapproved of the studio system, and who grew increasingly frustrated as the press grouped the independents and studios in the same category.

The Senate Interstate Commerce Committee ordered hearings on block booking in 1939. Again C. C. Pettijohn represented the major studios, and asserted that movies "cannot be sold one at a time if this business is to exist." He offered alternative suggestions like awarding local church and school boards with input in selecting the films in each block, or giving theaters their much-desired cancellation privilege at as much as 20 percent. The government rejected all proposals.

Hollywood Talent Gets Involved

Actor Robert Taylor (left) pictured with Walt Disney. In the late 1930s they stood at opposite ends of the block booking issue. A decade later both became members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of
American Ideals.

The studios requested that their contract actors join the movie fight and use their celebrity status to uphold block booking by attacking the story-synopsis requirement of the bill. Some Hollywood stars made personal appearances before the Washington committee, as reporters and guests packed the hearing room to get a glimpse of Robert Taylor, for instance, testifying against the Neely bill. The studios also encouraged the contract performers to write to Congress in protest of the bill. Many of the letters followed a generic format that was circulated by the studio managers. It was called the "Sample Letter for Actors and Actresses."

CLICK HERE to read the Sample Letter for Actors and Actresses

Eleven year old Shirley Temple and the teenage Mickey Rooney were among the many high-profile stars who submitted letters to relay their disapproval of the Neely legislation.

However there were performers who harbored prejudice against block booking. Some even raised concerns while under contract in the 1930s. James Cagney and Bing Crosby protested block booking as a contributing factor to the factory-like atmosphere of studio filmmaking; later on both joined SIMPP to help oppose the controversial practice during the 1940s.

Congress Kills the Neely Bill

The Senate Committee eventually issued a favorable report that resulted in a 46 to 28 vote that passed the Neely Anti-Block Booking and Blind Bidding Bill in the Senate on July 1939. The measure was sent to the House, where, despite the momentum of the bill, it was not expected to pass. The studios repeated the letter-writing campaign and parade of stars for the House Interstate Commerce Committee. The Committee called the bill "unworkable," and unanimously recommended to dispose of it. As expected, the controversial bill died in the House of Representatives just as previous block booking reform had in earlier instances.

By the time the Neely bill was shelved in June 1940, the Roosevelt administration had already fired up the Paramount case. That month, the Justice Department took the Big Eight to court, seeking both the abolishment of block booking and the end of studio-owned theater chains.

Though the independent producers had had reservations about the Neely bill, they viewed the Paramount suit with great expectations. Ever since the Famous Players-Lasky case in the early 1930s, the independent producers spent a great deal of their time defending themselves from allegations that drew United Artists into the fight, rendering themselves ineffective in the antitrust war. The Neely bill made this worse, as the independents were linked even more closely to the studios. This need to distance themselves from the studio system convinced many of the independents that they needed their own trade organization.

Another important result of the block booking fight was the amount of publicity the studio practice received in the 1930s. Outside of the industry and a few public-advocacy groups, block booking remained largely unknown to the public until after 1939. The booklet called "Let's Kill the Movies! No Let's Kill the Neely Bill," which was funded by the major studios, boasted a circulation goal of over one million copies. A counter-pamphlet, distributed by the Allied States Association of Motion Picture Exhibitors, tried to inform the public and national interest organizations about the "false and misleading information" of the Big Eight. Both sides used misleading slogans like "Neely Bill means higher theatre admissions," or "Neely Bill means the end of bad pictures." This helped generate public awareness for the issue, which the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers would later use as a springboard to bring the antitrust battle into the households of America.

 

MORE - Block Booking information


SOURCES:

Anti-Block Booking and Blind Selling Bill: H. R. 6472 [1935] by Cong. Pettengill (Ind.); S. 3012 [1935] by Sen. Neely (W. Va.); S. 153 [1937] by Sen. Neely (W. Va.); H. R. 1669 [1937] by Cong. Pettengill (Ind.); S. 280 [1939] by Sen. Neely (W. Va.); Benjamin Werne, "The Neely Anti-Block Booking and Blind Selling Bill—An Analysis," Contemporary Law Pamphlets; Senate Report on S. 280, 76th Congress, 1st Session, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939.
Selznick quote from statement of C. C. Pettijohn, in opposition to H. R. 6472, Before the Sub-Committee on Interstate Commerce, 7th Congress, 2nd Session, 1936, p. 7.
P. S. Harrington, "Give the Movie Exhibitor A Chance," The Christian Century, June 1935, p. 819; C. C. Pettijohn, "What Price Neely Bill?", talk given before Associated Motion Picture Advertisers at New York City, December 14, 1939.
Matthew M. Neely, State Papers and Public Addresses, Charleston, West Virginia, 1948; Samuel Barret Pettengill, My Story, privately published by Helen M. Pettengill, Grafton, Vermont, 1979.
Congress and block booking: "Sample Letter For Actors and Actresses" (1939), AMPAS block booking file; Associated Press (Untitled), NYT, April 4, 1939, p. 29; "Gives Movie Booking Plan," NYT, April 5, 1939, p. 31; "Kent Backs 'Right' of Block Booking," NYT, April 7, 1939, p. 25; "Report Approves Neely Movie Bill," NYT, June 4, 1939, p. 17; "Senate Votes Ban on 'Block-Booking'," NYT, July 18, 1939, p. 14; Thomas M. Prior, "Some Arguments Pro and Con the Neely Bill," NYT, January 14, 1940, sec. IX, p. 5; "Senator Neely Rides Again," NYT, April 21, 1940, sec. IX, p. 4; "Denounces Movie Bill," NYT, May 28, 1940, p. 29; "unworkable": "Neely Bill Definitely Dead," HR, June 6, 1940, p. 1.

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