"The Oldway and the New" is a 1912 campaign film put out by the Democratic National Committee on behalf of candidate Woodrow Wilson. The video portrays Republican challenger William Howard Taft as a tool of special interest and Wilson as a champion of working class citizens. Housed at the Library of Congress, it is the earliest known example of a political party or candidate using the medium of motion picture to communicate with voters.
In 1934, socialist author Upton Sinclair won the Democratic nomination for governor of California. Conservative studio bosses sought to defeat him. In 1988, Greg Mitchell wrote at American Heritage:
[Louis B.] Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to reach the masses beyond Hollywood with the message that he was a dangerous radical, and they would have to do it in a novel, exciting, and at the same time subtle way. Variety had issued a call: “With theatres available to provide Sinclair opposition, so far as propaganda is concerned, let the picture business assert itself.”
With only weeks remaining until the November election, an MGM director named Felix Feist, Jr., took a camera crew from Hearst Metrotone News (one of the leading newsreel companies of the day) up and down the state, filming interviews with prospective voters. Feist was following direct orders, it was later revealed, from MGM’s “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg. The raw film was processed through MGM’s lab, edited down to a few minutes, and added to the Metrotone newsreels, which were sent free of charge to theaters throughout California twice a week.
Louis B. Mayer and the movie establishment knew that to defeat Sinclair they would have to convey the message that he was a dangerous radical, and do it in a novel, exciting, yet subtle way.
Because newsreels had heretofore maintained a nonpartisan stance in election races, these shorts, based on an innocuous inquiring-reporter format, had an enormous effect. Well-dressed couples and prim, elderly ladies invariably endorsed Merriam. Disheveled, wild-eyed citizens with thick accents stood up for Sinclair. One man observed that Sinclair was “the author of the Russian government, and it worked out very well there, and it should do so here.”