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Ellis G. Arnall - Biography

President of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (1948-1963)

by J. A. Aberdeen


SIMPP president Ellis G. Arnall. This memorial to the former Governor stands at the Georgia state capital.

Ellis G. Arnall was a self-proclaimed “practical idealist” who attracted attention as a progressive reformer in Georgia. In 1940 he served as director of President Roosevelt's reelection campaign in the south. In turn, Roosevelt threw his support behind Arnall's decisive gubernatorial primary (in a Democrat-dominated state where the party primary effectively secured the eventual winner). As one of the youngest governors ever elected, at age 35, Arnall opposed graft and corruption in a state dominated by special interests. Attacking many of the regional monopolies, he guided successful antitrust suits against the railroad and highway cartels to the Supreme Court [e. g., Georgia v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 324 U.S. 439 (1945)]. Against great opposition, he imposed voting reform that increased black voter franchise, and made Georgia the first state to extended the vote those who were 18 years old.

He also championed prison reform by overhauling the notorious chain gang penal system that had subjected his state to so much nationwide criticism. He attacked political favoritism by voluntarily surrendering the much-abused governor power to grant pardons. Arnall nevertheless took exception in the case of Robert Elliot Burns. Burns had been a praiseworthy figure in the chain gang controversy, and a two-time prison escapee allegedly imprisoned without due process. While running from the law, Burns rehabilitated himself and pseudonymously gave an account of his misadventures in a book that became the basis for the classic Warner Bros. film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Despite overwhelming public sympathy, the state of Georgia still considered Burns a fugitive. Arnall, who was inspired by the film years before his own political career, decided to inaugurate his administrations's prison reform efforts by pardoning Robert Burns.

The Burns incident also convinced Arnall of the influence of the movie industry on the shaping of public attitudes. In order to enhance its ability to work for the public good, Arnall believed in total freedom of the motion picture marketplace. He therefore found the cause of the independent producers to be compatible with his personal beliefs. The longstanding SIMPP opinion that film restrictions-whether they were international quotas or anti-competitive behavior-eventually would bring about a paucity of quality, reflected what Arnall termed as “an economy of scarcity of good entertainment.” Arnall publically called trustbusting “a lot of fun,” and maintained that “the survival of democracy and the capitalistic system is dependent on winning the war against monopolies.”

Ellis Arnall also brought to SIMPP his organizational ability. The Governor was charismatic, as Donald Nelson was deliberate. Sought after for his renowned speaking ability, Arnall was continually on lecture tour. During his tenure as governor, he drafted a new Georgia constitution and spearheaded a state-wide campaign to rally support for it. SIMPP believed that such enthusiasm was ideal for the continuing attack on film monopolies that the Society would wage in various parts of the country.

Paradoxically, the ratification of the new Georgia constitution, which prohibited more than one successive term of office, brought an end to his popular governorship, and lead to one of the most bizarre elections in United States history. In November 1946 the voters chose Arnall's conservative arch-rival Eugene Talmadge as the new governor. But when Talmadge died one month after the election and before being sworn in, the dispute degenerated into a power-struggle between three potential governors-the governor-elect's son Herman Talmadge, Lieutenant Governor M. E. Thompson, and Arnall who refused to surrender his position. After being locked out of the governor's office in the capital building in Atlanta, Arnall took over the information booth at the capital gates, and ran his administration from the kiosk. His demonstration helped secure the recognition of the Lieutenant Governor as his successor, but in a special election in 1948, the Talmadge regime was voted into power.

SIMPP contacted Ellis Arnall following the three-governor controversy to consult with him on the enduring motion picture monopolies, and perhaps to invite him to join the independent producers as president of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. The members were impressed with Arnall's ability to reverse Georgia's declining fortunes during the war. They saw a parallel with the declining film industry in the late 1940s, and hoped that Arnall would be able to enact a proactive agenda during a time of retrenchment.


SOURCES:

Arnall biographical information-see Henderson, The Politics of Change in Georgia; Georgia v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 324 U.S. 439 (1945); Scott E. Buchanan, “Georgia's Three Governors Controversy,” Gordon College, Barnesville, Georgia.
“A lot of fun”: “Arnall Declares 'Open War' On Big Theatre Monopolies,” HR, December 14, 1948.
“The survival of democracy”: “Arnall To Fight As SIMPP Head,” MPH, December 18, 1948, p. 16.

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