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Selling Stars - The Economic Imperative, The Contract Controls, The Top Stars, Star Development, Conclusion

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The conversion to sound and the ordeal of the Depression left the star system firmly in the grip of the producers. As Alexander Walker put it, “the star system in the 1930s gradually took on the reality, if not the appearance, of a star serfdom. Glamour was its camouflage and fame its dazzling illusion. But behind the grandeur of being a movie star in these years lay all the gradations of servitude.” 1 As Hollywood’s most treasured assets, stars were among the most highly paid people in the country, but within the pecking order of the studio, they had to conform to the dictates of the front office.

Describing his treatment as a contract player at MGM, Clark Gable said,

I have been in show business for twelve years. … They have known me in Hollywood but two. Yet as picture-making goes, two years is a measurably long time. Nevertheless, my advice has never been asked about a part in a picture. ? I found out I was going into SUSAN LENOX [1931, with Greta Garbo] in Del Monte. Read it in the paper. … When I walked on the set one day, they told me I was going to play RED DUST [1932, with Jean Harlow] in place of John Gilbert. … I have never been consulted as to what part I would like to play. I am paid not to think. (Quoted in Walker, Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon, [New York: Stein & Day, 1970], p. 252)

Echoing Gable, Bette Davis described her status at Warners:

I could be forced to do anything the studio told me to do. They could even ask a contract player to appear in a burlesque house. The only recourse was to refuse, and then you were suspended without pay. These original documents [option contracts] were so one-sided in favor of the studio that … when under suspension from your contract, with no salary, you could not even work in a five-and-dime store. You could only starve, which of necessity often made you give in to the demands of the studio. (Whitney Stine, Mother Goddam [New York: Hawthorne Books, 1974], p. 79)

This chapter enlarges the analysis of motion-picture production to encompass its most important component, the star system. The economic importance of stars had long been recognized by Hollywood and had influenced the development of the classical Hollywood style as well as the way the industry conducted its   business. During the thirties, the majors retained tight control over their wards, but took advantage of vertical integration by manipulating star images at every level.

The Economic Imperative

In the era of vertical integration, the star system affected all three branches of the industry. A star’s popularity and drawing power created a ready-made market for his or her pictures, which reduced the risks of production financing. Because a star provided an insurance policy of sorts and a production value, as well as a prestigious trademark for a studio, the star system became the prime means of stabilizing the motion-picture business. At the production level, the screenplay, sets, costumes, lighting, and makeup of a picture were designed to enhance a star’s screen persona, which is to say, the image of a star that found favor with the public. At the distribution level, a star’s name and image dominated advertising and publicity and determined the rental price for the picture. And at the exhibition level, the costs of a star’s salary and promotions were passed on to moviegoers, who validated the system by plunking down a few coins at the box office.

In economic terms, stars created the market value of motion pictures. 2 To understand how this worked, we must remember three things. First, affiliated theater chains were located in different regions of the country, so that to reach a national audience the majors had to exhibit one another’s pictures. Second, the majors rented their pictures to exhibitors a season in advance of production. And third, the majors used a differential pricing policy: flat fees for A pictures and percentage-of-the-gross terms for A pictures. No set price could be charged for the top-grade product because the market for this type of picture was difficult to ascertain. Charging a percentage was riskier than charging a flat fee, but in so doing, a distributor could reap the rewards of a box-office surge.

How did the majors determine the rental price for a picture, which is to say, the percentage terms for a new picture? They used star power—the ability of screen personalities to attract large and faithful followings. In practice, a distributor simply pointed to the past box-office performance of a star to justify the rental terms for his or her forthcoming pictures. An economist might say the distributor used star differentiation to stabilize the demand curve for class-A product.

Star differentiation did more than stabilize rentals; it also permitted the distributor to raise prices. Demand elasticity explains the phenomenon. “Demand elasticity measures the sensitivity of demand in relationship to quantity and change in price. Theoretically, if demand can be fixed by product differentiation, it then becomes less sensitive to increases in price.” 3 Thus, if a new picture contained a star with a proven box-office record, an exhibitor would likely be willing to pay a higher rental for it, feeling certain that the risk was worth it.

The majors buttressed this method of pricing by instituting elaborate and costly publicity campaigns that revolved almost exclusively around stars. Because these campaigns were designed to peak simultaneously with the release of a new picture, as will be discussed later, they funneled audiences into first-run houses. Owned almost exclusively by the Big Five, these flagship theaters charged the highest ticket prices and generated 50 percent of the domestic rentals. Elaborate publicity campaigns served an added function; a successful launching of a new release helped establish its market value in the subsequent-run playoff.

The Contract Controls

The economics of the star system is a necessary prelude to understanding how the studios safeguarded their most precious assets. The studios devised an ingenious legal document to control their high-priced talent, the “option contract.” This is how the contract worked. In signing an aspiring actor or actress, the studio used a contract that progressed in steps over a term of seven years. Every six months, the studio reviewed the actor’s progress and decided whether or not to pick up the option. If the studio dropped the option, the actor was out of work; if the studio picked up the option, the actor continued on the payroll for another six months and received a predetermined raise in salary. Note that the studio, not the star, had the right to drop or pick up the option. The contract did not provide reciprocal rights, meaning that an actor or actress could not quit to join another studio, could not stop work, and could not renegotiate for more money. In short, the contract effectively tied a performer to the studio for seven years.

The option contract did more than that: it had restrictive clauses that gave the studio total control over the star’s image and services; it required an actor “to act, sing, pose, speak or perform in such roles as the producer may designate”; it gave the studio the right to change the name of the actor at its own discretion and to control the performer’s image and likeness in advertising and publicity; and it required the actor to comply with rules covering interviews and public appearances. Another restrictive clause concerned picture assignments. If the aspiring star refused an assignment, the “studio could sue for damages and extend the contract to make up for the stoppage.”

The studios argued that the option contract was not as inequitable as it seemed   because developing talent was expensive and risky. If a new player clicked, the studio was justified in wanting to cash in on its investment. If a new player showed little or no promise, it made no sense for the producer to carry him or her for seven years. Be that as it may, stars exercised little control over production. Some stars had story-approval rights and could refuse to appear in an unsympathetic or unflattering role, but in that event, the studio simply assigned the role to another performer. And once into a picture, a star had no say in the interpretation of his or her role, let alone the script, since that was largely the prerogative of the director.

The Top Stars

The notion that the talkies destroyed the careers of many stars is wrong. “Sound gave some fading stars a new if brief lease of life; it increased the artistry of some of the established stars once they had proved they could ‘talk’; and it helped create new stars from among some, though by no means many, of the stage players whom Hollywood had recruited.”

Beginning in 1931, the Motion Picture Herald conducted an annual exhibitors’ poll to determine the ten best box-office draws. During the first half of the decade, the polls indicated that “down-to-earth” stars were the most popular. And at the top of the list was MGM’s Marie Dressier, who ranked number one in the polls for 1932 and 1933. A specialist in sentimental comedy, Dressler’s appeal was universal. Her first big hit of the decade was MIN AND BILL (1930), in which she and Wallace Beery played “two old soaks making do.” The role won her an Academy Award. MGM’s Wallace Beery made it to the top-ten list every year until 1935. Like Dressier, Beery was an experienced character actor. He sustained a faltering career during the transition to the talkies by playing lovable old rogues with hearts of gold. MIN AND BILL made Beery a star, a position that he solidified in THE CHAMP (1931), playing a dirty rogue with a heart of gold, a role that earned him an Academy Award.

In 1934, Will Rogers became the first male star to rank number one in the polls. By then, his annual income as a cracker-barrel humorist in pictures, radio, lecturing, and writing came to $600,000, making him one of the best-paid entertainers of the time. A failure in silent pictures, Rogers reigned as Fox’s biggest star, playing himself in a string of popular formula pictures from 1929 until his death in a plane crash with aviator Wiley Post in 1935. His biggest hits were STATE FAIR (1933) and JUDGE PRIEST (1934).

Child and adolescent stars led the polls throughout the decade. Fox’s Janet Gaynor, who took over Mary Pickford’s role as “leading waif,” was one of the biggest stars of the early 1930s, trailing only Marie Dressier in the popularity polls. In 1934 she became Hollywood’s box-office queen. Her biggest hits include DADDY LONG LEGS (1931) and TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY (1932), two Mary Pickford remakes, and STATE FAIR (1933), in which she shared honors with Fox’s box-office king, Will Rogers.

During the second half of the decade, child star Shirley Temple ranked number one four years in a row, from 1935 to 1938, and was “officially the biggest-drawing star in the world.” Born in 1928, Temple started her movie career in 1932 at Educational Pictures, performing in a series of shorts called   Baby Burlesks, which were takeoffs on movies. Fox signed Shirley Temple to a contract for $150 a week in 1934. She was six years old. Her first conspicuous role in features was in STAND UP AND CHEER (1934), a revue in which she performed the song and dance number “Baby Take a Bow.” Temple was billed seventh, but Variety called her the “unofficial star of this Fox musical.” After a few small parts at Fox, she was loaned out to Paramount to play an orphan who reforms a bookie in the Damon Runyon film LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934). This is the picture that made her a star. Fox rushed her into BABY TAKE A BOW (1934) and gave her top billing for the first time. Temple appeared in nine pictures in 1934. During the Academy Award ceremonies that year, she received a miniature Oscar for bringing “more happiness to millions of children and millions of grown-ups than any other child of her years in the history of the world.” 7 At the end of 1934, she ranked number eight in the polls. Afterward, her career took off.

By the end of 1935, Darryl Zanuck, the studio chief of the newly merged 20th Century-Fox, gave Shirley a revised contract that paid her $4,000 a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Under Zanuck’s supervision at Fox, she remade several Mary Pickford silent hits based on children’s classics—CURLY TOP (1935), a remake of DADDY LONG LEGS ; POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (1936); and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938), among others. HEIDI (1937), which was based on another children’s classic, was possibly her best picture. From 1934 to 1938, she was the number-one box-office attraction in the world. Her pictures routinely grossed from $1 million to $1.5 million on their first run alone. According to Robert Windeler, “Her pictures did even better on second and third runs. What made her box-office appeal even more extraordinary was the fact that her pictures were cheap to make, costing between $200,000-$300,000. They had simple stories, few sets, mostly indoor, and small shooting companies.” By 1939, she was earning $350,000 a year, the highest salary paid an adolescent star.

Shirley Temple slipped to number five in the polls in 1939 and was replaced by teenage star Mickey Rooney as the number-one box-office draw. Rooney became a star in the Andy Hardy series. The series began with A FAMILY AFFAIR (1937), a modest B picture based on a minor Broadway play about a small-town judge and his family who lived in Carvel, Idaho. The picture was a sleeper, and soon a series was in the making. By 1939, nineteen-year-old Rooney had become MGM’s “most valuable piece of talent,” and the Andy Hardy pictures, “the biggest money makers, in ratio to investment, in plant’s entire history.” 9 Rooney’s multiple talents enabled him to take on drama and musicals as well as comedy, and such hits as BOYS TOWN (1938) and BABES IN ARMS (1939) consolidated his success. In 1939, Rooney was earning over $2,000 a week.

Ranking alongside Mickey Rooney in public esteem was another teenage star, Deanna Durbin. In 1938 the two were awarded special Oscars for “their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth.” Born in 1921 and endowed with a remarkable singing voice, Durbin became nationally known performing on the “Eddie Cantor Radio Hour.” Signing with Universal in 1936, she became a motion-picture star with her first picture, THREE SMART GIRLS (1936), and placed the studio on firm financial footing for the first time in the decade. Praised for her charm, spontaneity, and naturalness, Durbin made five more pictures for Universal during the 1930s, ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL (1937), MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938), THAT CERTAIN AGE (1938), THREE SMART GIRLS GROW UP (1939), and FIRST LOVE (1939).

The reigning leading ladies of the era were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis. Garbo, said David Shipman, is “ultimately, the standard against which all other screen actresses are measured. Since the time of her second, if not her first, Hollywood film she has not been surpassed. For over 50 years the mystery, the enigma of Garbo has been a statutory feature of magazine journalism, her ability a source of wonder to critics.” Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Garbo topped the list of early foreign imports that consisted of Marlene Dietrich, Elissa Landi, and Lili Damita. MGM delayed her talkie debut as long as possible, thinking that her Swedish accent would prove fatal, but ANNA CHRISTIE (1930)—which MGM advertised with the slogan GARBO TALKS !—"proved that Garbo talking was an even more magical figure than Garbo mute."

Garbo reached her peak as a commercial property playing the role of prima ballerina Grusinskaya in GRAND HOTEL (1932). Her contract expired afterward, and there were rumors she might retire. MGM offered to raise her salary to $10,000 a week from $7,000, but she held out for an extraordinary contract “that would have caused an insurrection had it been published,” said Alexander Walker. Although Garbo’s box-office pull weakened in the United States, she remained enormously popular in Europe, where “her prestige was needed often enough to sell an otherwise indifferent package of films.” Recognizing this value, MGM awarded her new contracts and continued paying her top dollar for her services. Garbo received rave critical notices for such pictures as QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933), ANNA KARENINA (1935), and CAMILLE (1937), winning best-actress awards from the New York film critics and nominations from the film academy. However, a group of exhibitors listed her, among others, as “box-office poison” in 1938. Again her career was in peril, and again she threatened to retire. MGM revived her career by casting her against type in a Lubitsch comedy, NINOTCHKA (1939). MGM advertised the picture with slogan GARBO LAUGHS ! and world queued up to see it. Although Garbo received another Oscar nomination, her career suffered a fatal blow when the war closed foreign markets and MGM failed to develop a successful formula for her in the domestic market.

Joan Crawford easily survived the conversion to the talkies and, like Garbo, did not have to change her screen persona to do it. “The essential Crawford didn’t change, whether as dancing daughter, sophisticated heroine or tragic lady. She played one sort of American woman for fifty years … the working girl from the wrong side of the tracks, clawing her way to the top.” 12 As they say, the titles tell it all. Her hit films of the decade include OUR BLUSHING BRIDES (1930), PAID (1930), DANCE , FOOLS, DANCE (1931), THIS MODERN AGE GRAND H HOTEL (1932), DANCING LADY (1933), and LOVE ON THE RUN (1936), all made by MGM. Crawford sustained her tremendous popularity until 1937, when for the first time she did not appear on the lists of top money-making stars.

Norma Shearer, “the epitome of glamour, of feminity, of beauty,” was queen of the MGM lot. Thanks to brilliant handling by her husband, Irving Thalberg, she easily made the transition to the talkies by specializing in “restless, over-wealthy, over-sexed (by contemporary standards) women-of-the-world.” Playing such a role in THE DIVORCEE (1930), she won an Oscar for best actress and thereafter figured prominently on the popularity polls by starring in diluted screen versions of hit Broadway and London plays, such as PRIVATE LIVES (1931), STRANGE INTERLUDE (1932), and THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934). Her screen appearances became rarer after Thalberg’s death, but MGM ensured that each of them—ROMEO AND JULIET (1936), MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938), IDIOT’S DELIGHT (1939), and THE WOMEN (1939)—was an event.

After being plucked from Broadway by Paramount, Claudette Colbert won notoriety taking a bath in asses’ milk as Poppaea Cecil B. DeMille’s THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932). She became a great star in 1934 playing the title role another DeMille epic, CLEOPATRA , and on loan-out, playing in John M. Stahl’s melodrama IMITATION OF LIFE at Universal and in Frank Capra’s screwball comedy IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT at Columbia. She picked up an Oscar for her performance in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and was ranked number six in the polls. Specializing in screwball comedy thereafter, she became Paramount’s biggest female draw, winning a new contract in 1938 that made her the highest-paid star in Hollywood.

Bette Davis was the only Warners actress to make it to the ten-best poll. Like many stars of the decade, history has appreciated her talents more than either her home studio or her audience. Today, Davis is remembered as “the First Lady of the Screen”:

She broke the old mould for female stars: she didn’t want to get up on that screen and be decorative, to be glamorous like Garbo, to be sympathetic like Janet Gaynor, to pose as an actress like Norma Shearer: she wanted to act, to illuminate for audiences all the women Page 151  she found within her—waitresses, dowagers, spinsters, harridans, drunks. She fought to play them. All subsequent screen stars owe her a debt, in that she proved that an actress could be an excellent judge of material, and her dedication destroyed a lingering belief that stage acting was “superior” to film acting. (David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years [New York: Hill and Wang, 1979], p. 149)

After a false start at Universal, Davis signed on at Warners as a contract player in 1932. Warners experimented to find suitable roles to fit her talents without much success. The correct formula was found—by chance really—when she was loaned to RKO in 1934 to play Mildred, “the vicious, grasping waitress who enslaves Leslie Howard,” in John Cromwell’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE. Inexplicably, the Academy failed to nominate Davis for an Oscar, which stunned the film community. Pressure from Hollywood notables forced the Academy to amend its rules to allow write-in candidates, and Davis was placed on the ballot. However, she was beaten out by Claudette Colbert for her performance in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Back at her home studio, she won an Oscar the following year playing “a dipso ex-actress who throws a jinx on anyone who comes near” in DANGEROUS. Although she had become the queen of the lot, she never received royal treatment. Davis won her second Oscar for JEZEBEL (1938), which was Warners’ answer to Selnick’s GONE WITH THE WIND, then in preparation. JEZEBEL marked the beginning of a great series of Davis vehicles that Shipman described “as smooth as limousines, elegantly crafted, designed to display every facet of her talents.” Among these were DARK VICTORY (1939), THE OLD MAID (1939), and THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (1939). 13

Clark Gable, MGM’s first big male star of the era, represented a new type of leading man. Unlike the courtly and suave male stars of the twenties, Gable developed an image as a combination sexy lover and man’s man. Signing with MGM at the end of 1930, Gable played a series of minor roles as tough guys or gangsters. MGM soon groomed him as a leading man playing rough and tough opposite the studio’s leading ladies, as with Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE, (1931), Greta Garbo in SUSAN LENOX Norma Shearer in STRANGE INTERLUDE (1932), and Jean Harlow in RED DUST (1932). In 1932 he made it to the top-ten poll 1932 for the first time, ranking number eight. On loan-out to Columbia, Gable starred opposite Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and the Oscar it brought him revitalized his career. Starring in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), SAN FRANCISCO (1936), and GONE WITH WIND (1939), he ranked near the top of the polls for the remainder of the decade.

Spencer Tracy, considered an actor’s actor by his peers, was “one of the few actors whose career went only in an upward curve. Not all his films were hits, but his career had no reversals and he went from being a solid, reliable young actor to Grand Old Man of the movies.” Making a name for himself on Broadway starring in a gangster melodrama, THE LAST MILE, Tracy signed on with Fox and was typecast as a tough guy, playing racketeers and brutish convicts. Playing such a role on loan-out in Warners’ 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1933) made him a star. Moving to MGM in 1935, Tracy established himself as “the studio’s consummate dramatic actor” who made it to the upper echelons of stardom by receiving an Oscar nomination for best actor FURY (1936) and by winning back-to-back Oscars for CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937) and BOYS TOWN (1938). By the end of the decade, he was ranked number three in the polls behind Mickey Rooney and Tyrone Power.

Although James Cagney became a star playing gangster and tough-guy roles at Warners early in the thirties, he did not make it to the top-ten polls until 1935. He ranked tenth that year and then dropped out until 1939, when he placed ninth. Cagney made a name for himself in THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), playing thug with a taste for luxury who pushed a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face. Afterward, Warners rushed him into a series of vehicles that were made quickly and cheaply and that contained implied social criticism: he played a “bellboy supplying broads and booze” in BLONDE CRAZY (1931), “a cabdriver fighting the rackets” in TAXI ! (1932), a track driver in THE CROWD ROARS and a prizefighter in WINNER TAKE ALL (1932)—types of roles that Cagney called “dese, dem, and dose.”

After fighting Warners for better roles, Cagney was able to display a greater range of his talents, singing and dancing in the musical FFOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), playing Bottom in the Max Reinhardt production of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), and performing in the Broadway farce about Hollywood, BOY MEETS GIRL (1938). But it was in his archetypal roles that he made it to the top-ten polls in 1939—ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), about two boys who grow up together and part, one to become a hood (Cagney) and the other a priest (Pat O’Brien); EACH DAWN IDIE (1939), prison film with George Raft as a fellow con; and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), a historical gangster film.

Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn ranked as the new romantic leads. Both made names for themselves in costume pictures. Power became famous in the 20th Century-Fox biopic LLOYD’S OF LONDON (1936). Afterward, Darryl Zanuck varied the formula by starring him in a musical biopic, ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND (1938); a Western biopic, J ESSE J AMES (1939); and a historical biopic, SUEZ (1938), among others. Power barely made it to the poll in 1938, but in 1939 he moved up to number two. Flynn became famous playing opposite Olivia de Havilland in CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), Warners’ first swashbuckler of the decade. Warners varied the formula by teaming the two stars in such costume-adventure pictures as THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936), ADVENTURES ROBINHOOD (1938), and DODGE CITY (1939). Flynn made it to the box-office top ten for the first time in 1939.

RKO’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the most popular team of the decade. Performing together for the first time in FLYING DOWN 1933, TO RIO Fred and Ginger went on to become an institution dancing and singing in a series of great musicals, including THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934), TOP HAT (1935), and SWING TIME (1936). Shipman remarked that “as a team, they balanced each other: he was debonair, an unassuming and somewhat innocent man-about-town, bent on winning her chivalrously if possible, but if not, not. She was bright, sassy and suspicious, her chorine background somewhat shaded by his interest. He gave her class, and she gave him sex-appeal. … Both seemed delightful people, humorous, intelligent and charming.” 16 In 1935, Fred and Ginger made it to the top-ten polls, where they remained until 1937.

Star Development

To build a roster of stars, a studio relied on what Douglas Gomery calls “the spillover effect” of personalities recruited from professional theater, vaudeville, radio, and other forms of entertainment. Hollywood’s raid on Broadway began in earnest in mid 1928 and captured a new generation of actors that included James Cagney, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Clark Gable, and Mae West, among others. By 1934, Variety reported that “Hollywood is now 70% dependent on the stage for its film acting talent up in those brackets where performers get screen credit.”

Although vaudeville was on its last legs, it supplied Hollywood with many early sound stars, among them Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Joe E. Brown, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, Will Rogers, and Mae West. 46 And radio, which was becoming increasingly popular throughout the decade, supplied the movies a steadily supply of its stars—Kate Smith, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Ed Wynn. Even grand opera provided a few names. As musicals gained in popularity during the decade, studios widened their search and signed opera stars Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Nino Martini, and Gladys Swarthout, among others.

In her anthropological study of Hollywood, Hortense Powdermaker said she was surprised to learn that “while most executives swear by the star system, it is not a part of Hollywood custom to plan coherently even for the stars.” She stated a commonly held belief, but it needs revising. During the conversion to sound, Warners and Paramount devised a cost-effective method to test stage and radio talent. After refurbishing their East Coast studios, the companies cast stage and radio personalities in shorts—for example, in “canned vaudeville” or comic skits. If they passed muster, they were offered long-term contracts and sent packing to California for exploitation in feature films. Mae West is the best example of this strategy. After a successful test, Paramount gave her a contract that permitted her to write as well as to star in her own vehicles. In such hits as I’ M NO ANGEL (1933) and BELLE OF THE NINETIES (1934), she helped pull Paramount   out of the Depression to become the highest salaried woman in the United States in 1934.

Signing stars from other entertainment fields was one thing; making them palatable to movie audiences was quite another. Audiences did not necessarily overlap; in fact, they were often quite different. Moreover, an act in one entertainment form might not be easily adaptable to the norms of Hollywood narratives. Take the case of Eddie Cantor. A famous vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies headliner and one of the very first radio stars, Eddie Cantor starred in a series of musical comedies produced by Sam Goldwyn from 1930 to 1936. A small, dapper performer with popping banjo-eyes who skipped and sang during his routines, Cantor established a persona built around a mixture of blackface comedy, Jewish jokes, and sketches of New York types that was tailored to entertain high-class Broadway audiences.

Cantor’s first picture, WHOOPEE! (1930), was a literal transcription (in twotoned Technicolor) of his hit Ziegfeld show. Relating the adventures of a hypochondriac out West, the plot, in Henry Jenkins’s words, “served as an excuse to allow the versatile comic to slip in and out of a variety of disguises (a Greek short-order cook, a black-face minstrel, a tough-talking western bandit, a commercially-minded Indian, and a fast-talking Jewish peddler), to spit forth a rapid-fire barrage of wisecracks and bad puns, and to perform a number of fast-paced and sexually-suggestive songs.” Other production values included numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley and performed by the Goldwyn Girls, which Variety once described as “glorified girl show[s] in celluloid.” The picture did smash business in New York and broke house records in industrial cities with ethnic populations, but in the Midwest, South, and West the picture fared poorly. At the day’s end, WHOOPEE! made money, but Goldwyn needed to develop a formula that would “broaden Cantor’s appeal… without robbing his comedy of its energy and vitality.”

To make Cantor’s next picture, PALMY DAYS (1931), Goldwyn borrowed some of the techniques studios were using to make former vaudeville clowns like the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Jack Oakie palatable to abroad-based audience. Out went the Yiddish references as Goldwyn and his writers constructed a vehicle designed for the masses containing plenty of slapstick, chases, and tricks. The promotional materials devised by United Artists, the distributor of the picture, changed Cantor’s image by emphasizing his experience as a screen actor, by avoiding all references to his Jewishness, and by burying Cantor’s on-screen joking about sexual infidelity beneath a “blizzard of publicity about his long-time marriage and his five daughters.” 49 Cantor’s new image dissappointed New Yorkers, but PALMY DAYS did well outside the industrial Northeast, in those areas where WHOOPEE! had floundered.

Having devised a successful formula for his star, Goldwyn naturally repeated it in such pictures as THE KID FROM SPAIN (1932), ROMAN SCANDALS (1933), KID MILLIONS (1934), and STRIKE ME PINK (1936). All contained loosely woven plots that presented Cantor as a WASP character and that contained plenty of slapstick and stunts, such as a chariot race, a roller-coaster chase, and a bullfight. United Artists publicity campaigns tried to rekindle enthusiasm in the industrial North by touting the prestige and spectacle of the pictures, by hyping the Technicolor production numbers, and by sponsoring beauty competitions to discover new Goldwyn Girls for the pictures. These strategies worked to some extent, but as Page 163  Henry Jenkins noted, “with each subsequent Cantor vehicle, the gap, already visible in the box-office returns for PALMY DAYS , widened, with hinterlands engagements increasingly becoming the stable market for his comedies and his New York runs growing progressively shorter.”

Radio became a national pastime during the thirties. Some radio stars had enjoyed renown on the stage, and others became radio originals, created by the new medium. In either case, Hollywood wanted to absorb them. However, producers faced two problems: how to transfer a popular star from a medium that is primarily aural and that has its own set of performance conventions to a medium that is both aural and visual and that has a narrative tradition; and how to adapt a radio star to a motion-picture audience. Did the two audiences have the same demographic composition, age spread, and tastes? If they were different, to what extent? And how could one find out?

Hollywood devised two strategies to adapt radio stars to the movies. The first entailed building a full-length narrative around a radio personality and promoting the vehicle in the conventional manner—that is, by focusing all the attention on the star. Paramount tried this approach on Kate Smith after her appearance in THE BIG BROADCAST (1932). In this picture, she played herself and sang a   number much like she did on her radio show. To launch her as a full-fledged movie star, Paramount designed a vehicle, HELLO , EVERYBODY (1933), in which she played a farm girl who breaks into radio as a singer in order buy off land grabbers threatening to take her family’s property. It flopped. Using a similar strategy, Universal tried to launch Myrt and Marge, a popular mother-daughter radio team, in a B musical called MYRT AND MARGE (1934). In its review of the picture, Variety associated the team with “a whole list of radio folks who went to Hollywood, made one picture, and apart from a piece of change, did themselves little good.” 51 With the single exception of Bing Crosby this strategy of star development failed because radio personalities either lacked the acting skills to sustain a feature-length movie or performed roles that were out of character.

The second strategy to adapt radio stars was devised by Paramount to make THE BIG BROADCAST (1932). 52 A loosely woven musical inspired by the all-star cast and multiple-plot structure of GRAND HOTEL, the film provided the minimum excuse for a series of radio stars to perform their familiar routines. Using a radio station as the motivation for guest appearances, Paramount showcased a series of radio personalities—among them Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Boswell Sisters, and Kate Smith—by having each star introduced on camera by the same announcer who handled that function on the star’s weekly show. The formula had enough going for it to spawn a sequel, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933), and then a series .

Because the personas of stars in one medium did not always carry over into motion pictures, studios obviously had to build personalities from scratch. Describing the star-making process, W. Robert La Vine said,

A star was not born, but made. Hair was bleached or dyed, and, if necessary, to “open” the eyes, eyebrows were removed and penciled in above the natural line. Studio-resident dentists, expert at creating million-dollar smiles, capped teeth or fitted them with braces. Cosmetic surgery was often advised to reshape the nose of a new recruit or tighten her sagging chin. A “starlet” was taught how to walk, smile, laugh, and weep. She was instructed in the special techniques of acting before a camera, perfecting pronunciation, and learning how to breathe for more effective voice control. Days were spent in wardrobe, situated in separate buildings within the studio communities. ( In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980], p. 27)

To devise an appropriate screen image for an aspiring star, a studio would cast the player in a series of roles and test audience response to each by consulting fan mail, sneak previews, reviews, exhibitors’ comments, and the box office. In essence, producers attempted to mold their protégés to fit consumer interest. Once the correct formula was found, the ingredients would be inscribed in narratives, publicity, and advertising. Take the case of Bette Davis. Davis appeared in a series of unremarkable pictures from 1932 to 1935 as Warners searched for the correct formula. In one of her first assignments, CABIN IN THE COTTON (1932), Davis played a southern belle who attempts to titillate and cajole a poor sharecropper (Richard Barthelmess) into betraying his friends. At one Page 165  point she tells Barthelmess, “Ah’d love to kiss you, but Ah just washed mah hair.” Her vivid performance as a coquette elicited a strong audience response and led Variety to name her a box-office leader for 1932.

In her first starring role, Davis plays a liberated career woman in EX-LADY (1933) who is forced to choose between remaining a free-spirited single “modern woman” or becoming an “old-fashioned” married woman. The picture was panned by the critics, and Davis was dropped from Variety’s charts. In 1934, Warners loaned out Davis to RKO to play the part of Mildred, a mean, sluttish waitress who seduces and destroys a medical student (Leslie Howard) in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, a character that Variety described as a vamp. Audiences loved her in the role. Now that a successful match between narrative and actress hade been found, Davis showed signs of becoming an unqualified star.

Returning to Warners, Davis was assigned to play a vamp in a Paul Muni vehicle, BORDERTOWN (1934). She received featured billing. Cathy Klaprat points out that “although Bordertown appeared on Warners’ production schedule in June 1934, prior to the release of Bondage, … Davis was not cast as Marie until after her triumph.” Ads for the picture asked, “Who will be the real star of the film: Bette Davis or Paul Muni?” Campaign books told exhibitors to place signs in their lobbies asking patrons if Davis should have received star billing. Fans must have answered yes because for her next assignment, Warner’s starred Davis in DANGEROUS (1935) playing another vampish role, an alcoholic actress. Anticipating that DANGEROUS would be a hit, Warner’s held up its release until the last week in December, the final week to qualify for an Oscar nomination. Warner’s strategy was designed to keep the picture fresh in everyone’s mind during the evaluation and voting period for the awards. It worked; Davis won her first Academy Award for best actress. Although Davis’s Oscar was generally regarded as a consolation prize for not being nominated for OF HUMAN BONDAGE, the process of fitting actor to character as determined by audience demand had been a success.

Having discovered the correct role, the next step was to create a fit between a star’s personal life and his or her screen persona. The intent was to convince audiences that the star “acted identically in both her ‘real’ and ‘reel’ lives.” 54 Fusing actor and character was the function of a studio’s publicity department. To begin the process, the department manufactured an authorized biography of the star’s personal life based largely on the successful narrative roles of the star’s pictures. This material was disseminated to fan magazines, newspapers, and gossip columns. The department then assigned a publicist to the star to handle interviews and to supervise the star’s makeup and clothing for public appearances. Finally, the department arranged a sitting for the star with a glamour portrait photographer to create an official studio image.

During Davis’s blond coquette period, from 1932 to 1934, pressbooks touted her as a sexy blond and showed photos of her wearing bathing suits, low-cut gowns, and revealing blouses. Little personal information was revealed, indicating that Warners was still searching for the right image. After OF HUMAN BONDAGE, her publicity changed. Davis was no longer displayed as a blond in come-hither poses; her hair became darker and she wore tailored suits. Authorized stories also changed. Modern Screen, for example, “avowed that Davis was fiery, independent, and definitely not domesticated (all qualities she displayed in her films).” Motion Picture Classic portrayed her as “hard-boiled and ruthless, Page 166  determined to get what she wants (all traits which motivate many of Davis’ actions in her vamp films).” 55 Similarly, stories transposed character relationships from her films to her personal life. For example, one article asked, “Will Bette wed George Brent?” and displayed a publicity still from JEZEBEL showing the two in an embrace. The question would remain on everyone’s minds because Brent played Davis’s leading man ten times.

The influence of the star system on the narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema was profound. Classical Hollywood cinema was protagonist-centered, and studio practice dictated casting a star in the principal role. The interrelationship of the two are described by Cathy Klaprat:

The goals and desires of the protagonist generally motivate the causal logic of the action and, consequently, the structure of the narrative, the components of which included plot, the behavior of the characters in their relationship to the star, as well as the settings for the action. Thus, we can see that if the protagonist was constructed by the traits and actions of star differentiation, then the narrative was structured by the star. (“The Star as Market Strategy,” in Tino Balio, ed., The American Film Industry, rev. ed. [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985], p. 369)

To illustrate this practice, take the case of JEZEBEL (1938). A vehicle designed for Bette Davis, JEZEBEL was based on the play by Owen Davis and produced to capitalize on the interest in David O. Selznick’s GONE WITH THE WIND, which was in development. William Wyler directed. Like GONE WITH THE WIND, JEZEBEL takes place in the Civil War-era South and has a headstrong heroine as the protagonist. An examination of the development of the property from a play, through four screenplay drafts, to the finished film reveals how the studio tailor-made the project to fit Bette Davis’s screen persona as a vamp.

Owen Davis’s play is a historical drama depicting society in transition in the antebellum South; in contrast, the motion picture is essentially a character study. In the development of the shooting script, the structure of the story was changed from a late to an early point of attack that initiates the action at the moment of conflict. In essence, the studio de-emphasized the historical milieu and concentrated on the melodrama. The action has a bipartite structure built exclusively around Bette Davis’s role of Julie Marsden. The first half shows us a reckless, daring, but basically sympathetic Bette Davis before her great mistake, appearing in a red dress at the Olympus ball. The second half shows us the results of that mistake; her apology to Pres (Henry Fonda) dressed in white, her revenge, and her redemption.

This structure allows us to witness character development in much the same way that the passage of time from the pre-Civil War era to Reconstruction reveals change in GONE WITH THE WIND . Take, for example, the way Julie is introduced. In the play, Julie simply walks on stage and is greeted by the other characters. In the film, Julie rides up to the plantation on a wild horse, which a young black servant has trouble controlling after she dismounts. Strutting up to the porch, she stops a moment to shout orders at the carriage driver and then whips her riding crop over her shoulder and hikes up her train before entering. We have been introduced to a confident and self-assured Julie Marsden. When   she strides through the living room greeting the guests, the contrast between Julie’s riding habit and her guests’ more formal attire reveals her disregard for social conventions, an attitude that is upsetting to some of the women present.

Another early incident is the Olympus ball sequence. In the play, the dress incident is talked about, not enacted. Julie tells us it happened “one night” rather than at an important society event. The “wrongness” of the dress was simply a matter of personal taste—Pres simply did not like the daring low front of the dress—rather than a flaunting of social convention. And Julie’s memory of the incident focuses on a personal hurt rather than a public scandal. In the film, the dress incident reveals not merely a conflict between two lovers but also a struggle between Julie and New Orleans society. Aunt Belle of the film tells us that wearing a red dress to the ball would “insult every woman on the floor.” Thus, the Olympus ball sequence has taken on greater significance: it pits Davis against society in a way that is consistent with the “outcast” quality of Davis’s roles in OF HUMAN BONDAGE and her other films.

Davis earns the name Jezebel by manipulating the events leading to the duel that takes Buck Cantrell’s (George Brent) life. In the play, Julie has a rather passive role in the affair. Pres tells her he still loves her and even kisses her, but when they are discovered by his wife, Amy, he is embarrassed and makes his apologies, at which point Julie slaps him, an understandable reaction. In the film, the incident has been substantially changed to make Pres an innocent victim of Davis’s advances. Pres makes no declaration of love to Julie, nor does he reveal any romantic feelings for her; it is Davis who takes the initiative. She Page 168  dominates the conversation and taking him unawares, kisses him passionately. Pres tears himself away from her, and as he stalks out of the room, a close-up shows the anger and contempt he feels. Humiliated and rebuffed, Julie decides to get her revenge. She manipulates Buck into challenging Pres to a duel by intimating that Pres, under the influence of brandy, improperly made advances. Narrative strategies similar to these were used to construct the Davis persona in pictures such as DANGEROUS, THE LETTER , IN THIS OUR LIFE , and DECEPTION .

After developing an effective narrative formula for a star, a studio would naturally want to cash in on its good fortune by repeating the formula in as many vehicles as possible. In this fashion a star could be “milked dry like a vein of gold is pinched out,” said Variety. 56 The best performers chafed at being stereotyped. Repeating the same role deadened the spirit and prevented a talented performer from reaching his or her full artistic potential. However, studios justified this practice with the explanation that star development was risky and required an enormous amount of money. To tamper with success after having discovered an effective formula would be foolhardy. Yet, if a studio cast a star in the same role again and again, it ran the risk of satiating audience demand. The problem became how to extend the life of a star while simultaneously producing sufficient numbers of vehicles to diffuse the high salary costs.

To conserve resources, producers relied on product variation. As Darryl Zanuck put it, “there is no reason why, with proper care, a star cannot remain popular well beyond the traditional span of five years. To that end, care must be exercised in story selection. Vehicles must be varied.” In practice, this meant diversifying character traits of roles “while at the same time invoking the familiar expectations associated with star differentiation”—the same-but-different principle.

Warners had the most success varying Bette Davis’s vamp roles by offcasting her as the good woman. The practice started in the forties. For example, THE GREAT LIE (1941) contains a triangle plot formula, but now Davis played a sympathetic woman with maternal and noble instincts. Mary Astor took the unsympathetic part, a brittle, selfish, and spoiled woman. However, publicity continued to refer to Davis as a vamp. One ad reads, “Contrary to the former Davis pattern, Bette Davis’ new film does not find her killing anyone or acting nasty.”


In place for decades, the star system played a crucial role in the motion-picture business. The economics of the system explains in part the industry’s resistance to unionization during the thirties. Contrary to public perception, Hollywood attempted to rationalize the development of stars just as it had attempted to rationalize other aspects of production. The methods were “unscientific,” but no surefire way to create motion-picture personalities has yet been found. Why the public eagerly supported the star system is beyond the purview of this study. The point to be underscored is that the majors exploited this affinity for stars at every level of their operations.

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