Hollywood Flashback: James Cagney, Groucho Marx Were Among First to Join SAG in 1933

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From left: Actors George Raft, Warner Oland, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, James Cagney and Groucho Marx joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1933.

Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy were two other major stars who became members, giving SAG a boost in its battle for union recognition after studios tried to force actors under studio contract to take up to a 50 percent pay cut in response to the Depression's impact on moviegoing in March 1933.

When it came to organizing film industry labor unions, The Hollywood Reporter was definitely on the side of management, which in those days was represented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

On July 12, 1933, the same day the nascent Screen Actors Guild met to choose a board of directors, THR ran a front-page story saying that the attempt to organize the film actors "has blown up" and noting that organizers had "tossed in the sponge when no interest could be generated among top-notch stars and featured players."

And there was some truth in this. The earliest SAG members were not top-tier stars. Boris Karloff, who played Frankenstein's monster, might be the only name today's public would recognize. "Organizing a union was a dangerous thing in those days," says SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. "Our founders risked their careers — meeting in secret to keep from being identified."

But THR was wrong about tossing in the sponge. Within the next few months, Groucho Marx, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and James Cagney were among the major stars who would become members, giving SAG a boost in its battle for union recognition. The main issues at the time were pay (midlevel actors made about $66 for a six-day week, roughly $1,300 today); schedules that required working late into the night and then having to be back on set at 7 a.m.; not being paid for wardrobe fittings or tests; and the lack of arbitration for disputes.

But what really ignited the demand for a union was an incident in March 1933, when the studios tried to force actors under studio contract to take up to a 50 percent pay cut in response to the Depression's impact on moviegoing.

Then, in June 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act enacted codes to regulate American industries — and the actors learned that studio lobbyists had heavily influenced the parts of the legislation affecting film production. For example, no actor would be allowed to earn more than $100,000 a year (about $2 million today), but there was no limit on what studio execs could make. You can imagine how that went over with Bette Davis.

It took four more years of struggle, but in May 1937, the studios finally recognized SAG as the union representing screen actors.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.