December 3, 2022

Connections to silent film and Tammany Hall

This Syracuse Orangeman unearthed the records of Judge Robert F. Wagner Sr.’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1926 at Georgetown’s Lauinger Archives and Manuscripts Library. They grabbed his papers because, they said, “he was nominally a Catholic.” My grandfather, Maurice Bloch, at 36, was a few years behind Wagner at New York’s City College, however. Wagner brought Bloch up through Tammany Hall’s system. Bloch likely managed Wagner’s Judicial campaign in 1918 and then his 1926 statewide campaign; a ticket topped by Governor Alfred E. Smith seeking a fourth term. Bloch had been Smith’s legislative leader for the five years leading to Smith’s run. There were no outside consultants or pollsters. The county organization, Tammany Hall, decided who did what.

The copies of campaign papers I found were genteel not hostile. These men of Tammany Hall weren’t all gruff and grog as now depicted. It was an inclusive era of both interpersonal and electronic communications. Most everything in the boxes was meticulously preserved for posterity and, absent TV and social media, the media platforms were consistent with those consultants run today. Bloch appealed to Democratic Leaders cordially in 1926: “Hi, Pat, can you give me a read on the conditions in Buffalo. We all so want to help Bob.” But he used fighting words while speaking on the radio. (“He’s turning political summersaults!”) After winning, Wagner wrote people directly, telling them that he owed a debt of gratitude to Mr. Bloch.

But what blew me away was when I saw the page titled Judge Wagner’s Films New York City Distribution. OMG! I never knew my grandfather produced silent pictures for Senator Wagner. There were 328 theaters that played Wagner’s films in the five Counties (plus Yonkers). The movies must have played before silent movie programs. It can only be that the campaign’s films were silent. Only three sound films were released in 1926 and, according to Wikipedia, only the last one, Warner Brothers’ The Better Ol’, was released right before Election Day.

Over 70 percent of Wagner’s films were distributed into New York and Kings Counties. Copiously typed pages name theaters, address and a request for a recipient’s signature. Wagner, born in Germany, spoke with a pronounced accent yet faced prejudice despite his accomplishments as a progressive State Senate Leader who fought for and won the women’s vote in New York. His list of funders included Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Rosenman. His papers, to include a General Plan, were my treasure trove. In looking over the theater lists, I realized, if my grandfather’s campaign could give me each theater’s ticket sales per screening, I could compute his Gross Cost.

One banker involved with Wagner’s campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s Ambassador to Germany, James Gerard, was the subject of Warner Brothers’ first feature film, My Four Years In Germany.

Years after seeing Wagner’s Film Distribution and reading Gerard’s book, I found films taken at Warm Springs, GA after F.D.R.’s 1928 win. Bloch appeared in the films with Gerard and F.D.R. It shocked me that he was so at ease with these wealthiest of men. It made me wonder where F.D.R.’s 1928 campaign films were. Bloch, who managed F.D.R.’s campaign, had to have had used them, too. But alas, they weren’t at Hyde Park. I realized that they were with Wagner’s films, trashed likely. F.D.R.’s 1928 film program was Tammany Hall’s program. He played second fiddle to Smith during the campaign. The back drop of the films showing F.D.R.’s campaign team strategizing says Smith for President not F.D.R. for Governor.  Everyone on F.D.R. was put there by Smith. When F.D.R. took office in 1929, he made Bloch head of his “Albany Publicity Bureau.” But, the ’26 and ’28 campaign films were Tammany goods and they’re not in New York’s Hall of Records (read: The Sheriff’s Office).

In his Oral History at Columbia University, Ambassador Gerard, however, names the three most important points to winning elections: getting voters registered (to make their X); to get them out to vote on Election Day. He said that radio came last. In 1928, Gerard headed the Democratic National Finance Committee after Herbert Lehman vacated the job, running instead as F.D.R.’s Lt. Governor. Before Smith went west on his presidential quest and Lehman went Upstate with F.D.R., Smith asked Lehman if he could run the speech, he was going to give in Oklahoma City by him. When Smith finished reading, Lehman said, “Don’t change a word!” So, with Smith in OKC, Lehman, in New York, invited friends to his Fifth Avenue apartment to hear Smith’s speech; which came off badly. Lehman was embarrassed to have his friends hear the dud. Neither Lehman nor Smith considered at the run through how boisterous and menacing hooded men burning crosses could be.

Although Syracuse got whipped by the Hoyas on this research trip, a letter at Byrd Library from Binghamton shoe magnate, Endicott Johnson, didn’t make Smith’s losing sound too terrible, “Thank goodness you lost. Now you can come down to Florida and play golf with me.” But Smith lost both New York’s popular vote to F.D.R. and, more important, it cost him the Electoral Votes F.D.R. was supposed to help him win. This in part, was due to radio. F.D.R. calmed to Upstate voters who couldn’t tolerate Smith’s legendary Fulton Fish Market accent one more day.