Here's what strikes on-screen can tell us about real-life Hollywood strikes Hollywood has churned out films that depict labor organizers as communists, and labor bosses as gangsters. So it should come as no surprise that real-life negotiations with the studios are so tricky.

Wonder where Hollywood's strikes are headed? Movies might offer a clue

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Film premieres cancelled, celebrities walking picket lines, audiences drifting away in droves and all sides calling the situation an existential crisis. If this were a Hollywood movie, it would be time to panic. But it's Hollywood reality - the monthslong writers and actors strikes. And it's been hard to guess where things are headed. Critic Bob Mondello says that for clues, he's been looking to movies themselves.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The image is iconic.


SALLY FIELDS: (As Norma Rae) I'm waiting for the sheriff to come and take me home.

MONDELLO: Sally Fields' Norma Rae atop her work table in a noisy textile factory. She has just been fired. The police are on the way, and she's holding up a piece of cardboard on which she has scrawled just one word - union. Every eye in the factory is on her, and one by one, her coworkers, many of whom she's angered and alienated, shut down their machines.


MONDELLO: The silence is deafening, a cinematic portrait of worker solidarity that moved 1970s audiences precisely because it was so rare. From the earliest days of Hollywood, producers and studios had done everything they could to demonize unions both on- and off-screen. A 1925 Disney cartoon, "Alice's Egg Plant," depicts a pointedly Russian Little Red Henski inciting a strike among Alice's previously happy hens. And outspoken anti-communist Walt Disney was still beating that drum two decades later when he testified to HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.


WALT DISNEY: The thing that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions and take them over and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant that I know are good 100% Americans are supporting all of those ideologies. And it's not so.

MONDELLO: Disney was hardly alone in seeking to counter union organizers. MGM's Louis B. Mayer told his biographer that one of the ideas behind the formation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that hands out the Oscars, was to encourage actors, directors, designers to think of themselves not as workers but as artists so they wouldn't join Hollywood's technicians in forming labor unions, all while Hollywood made films that depicted labor organizers as communists and labor bosses as thugs and gangsters.


LEE J COBB: (As Johnny Friendly) You just dug your own grave. Go fall in it. You're dead on this waterfront.

MONDELLO: In this one, director Elia Kazan, reviled by many in the industry for destroying careers when he named names to HUAC...


COBB: (As Johnny Friendly) You don't work no place. You're dead.

MONDELLO: ...Offered his 1954 drama "On The Waterfront" as a rebuttal. The film depicted Marlon Brando as noble for his character's testimony against corrupt union bosses.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Name, please.

MARLON BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) Terry Malloy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God?

BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) Right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I do.

BRANDO: (As Terry Malloy) I do.

MONDELLO: A less jaundiced view of unions was also released that year - "Salt Of The Earth," a story of Mexican American miners and their wives battling prejudice and unfair labor practices.


DAVID SARVIS: (As Alexander) Are you going to let us pass, or do I have to call the sheriff?

MONDELLO: It offered a more favorable view of unions created outside the studio system, said its producer Paul Jarrico, by artists who could no longer work inside it.


PAUL JARRICO: One of the reasons we made "Salt Of The Earth" after we were blacklisted was to commit a crime worthy of the punishment.

MONDELLO: The film used the actual mine workers and their wives, essentially reenacting their own 15-month struggle.


CHARLES COLEMAN: (As Antonio Morales) Mr. Barton, there's blood in that mine, the blood of my friends, all because they had to work alone.

MONDELLO: "Salt Of The Earth" is regarded today as a classic, though the major studios blocked it from being widely shown in the 1950s by threatening to boycott theaters that played it. The studio portrait of labor relations back then - factory worker Doris Day pushing for an extra seven and a half cents an hour in "The Pajama Game."


DORIS DAY: (As Babe Williams) The time and a half for overtime comes to exactly $1,705.48.


DAY: (As Babe Williams, singing) That's enough for me to buy a trip to France across the seas.

MONDELLO: Labor relations played for laughs with song and dance in 1957. The laughs had maybe soured for studio heads by 1960. That's when both the actors and the writers last went on strike together.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) Seven and a half cents doesn't buy a hell of a lot.

MONDELLO: In an odd twist, the head of the actors union who called for a strike in 1960 was Ronald Reagan, who would later campaign against big labor as president. In any event, there weren't a lot of jokey movies about labor for a while. But Hollywood never stopped making films about union corruption, from "Blue Collar," with its Detroit autoworkers, to Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," about a hitman who claimed to have killed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.


AL PACINO: (As Jimmy Hoffa) We're going at war with these people.

MONDELLO: Still, with the decline of the studio system, independent filmmakers began exploring labor stories that centered on the little guy in, say, the coal mining documentary "Harlan County, USA."


BILL DOAN: We've been put in jail. We've been shot at. We've had dynamite thrown at us. And then you don't want us to have nothing. Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Horn, I'm going to be standing right there on that picket line looking at you just as long as it takes.

MONDELLO: In the mining drama "Matewan," set a half-century earlier, James Earl Jones contends not just with management but with the guys down the mine who hurl invective at him, only some of it racial.


JAMES EARL JONES: (As Few Clothes) I can't help that the way white folks is. But I ain't never been called no scab, and I ain't fixing to start up now. I go ton for ton loading coal with any man here, and when I do, I expect the same dollar for the same work.

MONDELLO: That point is immediately reinforced by union organizer Chris Cooper.


CHRIS COOPER: (As Joe Kenehan) You ain't men to that coal company. You're equipment like a shovel, a gondola car, a hunk of wood brace. They use you till you wear out or you break down or you're buried under a slate fall, and then they'll get a new one. And they don't care what color it is or where it comes from.

MONDELLO: Now, a couple of things are worth noting. The first is that stories about strikes go back at least to the ancient Greeks. In 411 B.C., the comedy "Lysistrata" had war-weary Greek wives going on a sex strike to force their husbands to negotiate peace, a storyline Spike Lee adapted in "Chi-Raq" for gang wars in Chicago.


TEYONAH PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) And total abstinence from knocking the boots.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (As characters) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I mean, you really think something like that could bring peace?

PARRIS: (As Lysistrata) Y'all know the power we have over them withholding just a day. Imagine a month, a year. Oh, they going to bring the peace.

MONDELLO: Also note that this genre is more robust overseas. Sergei Eisenstein arguably started it with his 1925 silent epic "Strike," artful Soviet propaganda about class war between virtuous workers and vicious overlords. Foreign film stars have long embraced labor sagas - Gerard Depardieu in the French costume epic "Germinal," Marcello Mastroianni in Italy's "The Organizer." A whole subgenre of worker comedy sprang up in England - former steelworkers in "The Full Monty," out-of-work musicians in "Brassed Off," queer activists raising money for striking miners in "Pride."


MENNA TRUSSLER: (As Gwen) Dai, your gays have arrived.

MONDELLO: But another thing to note is that if money is the measure of these films, the studios are winning. Star-studded mob flicks are a blockbuster genre, and no matter how inclined audiences are to root for the little guy, human interest sagas can't compete commercially.


CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Jack Kelly) Are we just going to take what they give us?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters) No.

BALE: (As Jack Kelly) Or are we going to strike?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (As characters) Yeah.

BALE: (As Jack Kelly) If we don't act together, then we're nothing.

MONDELLO: Even when given the full "Little Mermaid," "Beauty And The Beast" treatment...


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (As characters, singing) Open the gates, and seize the day.

MONDELLO: ..."Newsies," which put New York's 1899 newsboy strike to music, was a box office flop for, of all studios, Disney. Still, you can't accuse the studio of burying it. Twenty years later, Disney's stage version played for a thousand performances on Broadway because that central story is still potent - David and Goliath, workers and bosses, artists and studios. I'm Bob Mondello.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (As characters) One for all, and all for one.

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