Upton Sinclair at the Movies

Oct. 17, 2013
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Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! was the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood, and director David Schimmer has spoken of adapting Sinclair’s most influential novel, The Jungle. But who remembers that the muckraking author took an active hand in filmmaking?

That’s one of the revelations in Lauren Coodley’s cogent, critical biography, Upton Sinclair: California Socialist, Celebrity Intellectual (published by University of Nebraska Press). He played Socialist leader Eugene Debs in a 1914 version of The Jungle, “the first full-length prolabor film.” Variety condemned the indie production: “The Jungle is not a feature picture of wild animals, just about wild socialists.” Other trade journals recorded “intense pressure” to keep The Jungle out of cinemas, yet it remained in circulation for many years, playing mostly to labor audiences.

Many of Sinclair’s novels sold well and received positive notice, making his work attractive to Hollywood. MGM’s Irving Thalberg purchased rights to Sinclair’s pro-temperance novel, The Wet Parade, even though he disliked the author’s politics and barred him from the set. Sinclair’s relations with Hollywood were contentious; Thalberg hired him to write a screenplay on the rich and the poor but never produced it. He was friends with Charlie Chaplin, who talked him into financing Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s Thunder Over Mexico, but the moguls fought hard against the author’s campaign for the California governorship.

Filmmaking was, of course, a small part of Sinclair’s prolific life. Coodley’s biography focuses on his role in the radical movements of his time, his success in drawing attention to social issues and his failure at creating a utopian community. Coodley finds his attitude toward women remarkably enlightened, and explains his support of Prohibition on the example of his father, who died of alcoholism. Eventually, Sinclair tempered some of his views, rejecting Communism while maintaining support for civil liberties, civil rights for African Americans and trade unions. He died in 1968, having authored over 80 books. A Walt Disney version of his ecologically aware children’s novel, The Gnome-Mobile, was released one year before his death.


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