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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Anti-Block Booking and Blind Selling Bill: H. R. 6472  by Cong.
Pettengill (Ind.); S. 3012  by Sen. Neely (W. Va.); S. 153  by Sen.
Neely (W. Va.); H. R. 1669  by Cong. Pettengill (Ind.); S. 280  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
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.