Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Selling Stars - The Economic Imperative, The Contract Controls, The Top Stars, Star Development, Conclusion

Forming the Screen Actors Guild

salaries producers actors’ sag

Actors had remained relatively docile employees until 1933, when producers responded to the bank moratorium by threatening to close the studios unless talent accepted a 50 percent pay cut for eight weeks. Following the lead of the screenwriters, a group of eighteen actors, among them Ralph Morgan, Alan Mowbray, and Boris Karloff, formed the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) on 30 June 1933. Over the next few months membership grew slowly to around fifty. But when producers drafted the Code of Fair Competition and blamed the financial difficulties of their studios on the star system, actors signed up in droves.

The moguls had written into the Code provisions barring star raiding, curbing the activities of agents, and limiting salaries. To prevent star raiding, a provision permitted a studio to keep a star in tow at the end of a seven-year contract by exercising the right of first refusal, which “amounted to professional slavery,” said the guild. To curb agents, producers planned on organizing a general booking office to broker talent. “All agents, in order to deal with the booking office, would have to be licensed by the booking office. This would put the actors’ representative completely under the thumb of the producer, make every contract a one-sided bargain, and in the end reduce compensation,” said the guild. And to limit salaries, studios wanted to cap earnings at $100,000 a year.

What really turned around SAG membership was a protest meeting held at the El Capitan theater in October 1933. Eddie Cantor, the new president of the guild, told the audience that the Academy was unable to represent the full interests of the actors and that the producers’ salary ploy was unconstitutional. One of the highest-paid entertainers in the business, Cantor had endeared himself to actors at an organizational meeting held earlier when he said, “I’m here not because of what I can do for myself, but to see what I can do for the little fellow who has never been protected and who can’t do anything for himself. If that’s not the spirit of everyone here, then I want to leave.” When Cantor called for “a 100% actor organization,” five hundred actors out of the more than eight hundred in the audience “flocked to the stage to sign membership blanks in the new Screen Actors’ Guild.” Among the prominent names signing up were Adolph Menjou, Fredric March, Robert Montgomery, Jimmy Cagney, Miriam Hopkins, Jeanette MacDonald, and Paul Muni.

Responding to the Code, SAG filed a brief with the NRA answering the charge that actors were being overpaid. By way of a preface, the brief said that “history shows that no agreement with producers is worth the paper it is written on”; that Hollywood’s code of ethics “is the lowest of all industries”; and that “every dishonest practice known to an industry… has been resorted to by the producers against the actors.” After this indictment, the brief presented statistics on actors’ salaries. In 1933 one quarter of the employed actors made less than $1,000, about half made less that $2,000, and approximately three-quarters made less than $5,000. These salaries were gross incomes. Ten percent of an actor’s salary went to an agent, and a significant amount went to maintain a proper wardrobe, which at the time was part of an actor’s working tools. Concerning performers in the highest income brackets, the brief underscored the fact that earning power lasted a short while: “If one takes a glance at any group of extras of today, he will find many of the stars of yesterday.”

By way of contrast, SAG listed the high salaries and profit-sharing plans of the top movie executives, the purpose of which was

not to show how much money executives make, but to give some idea of how ill it becomes these gentlemen to protest that the industry cannot afford fair working conditions for actors. It is even worse when we remember that most of the men who now run the business and assert that actors’ working conditions cannot be bettered, dragged the industry to the verge of bankruptcy, took their employees’ money for the purchase of stock at excessive figures, and made a record of financial ruin that has been seldom equalled in the annals of American business. (“Actors Report to NRA,” Variety, 8 January 1935, p. 11)

Counterattacking, the producers tried to “fragment the actors’ discourse of opposition” by asserting “their own morality, patriotism and commitment to quality motion pictures.” Using the trade press, fan magazines, and even films as platforms, they accomplished this by simply reducing actors’ complaints to the single issue of salaries. Producers argued that they, and not the actors, were the victims of unfair practices—that they “were victims of extravagance gone awry.” The principal cause of the industry’s financial problems was the astronomically high salaries demanded by stars, they said, and such greedy behavior was “out of step with the national recovery program.”

An example of these tactics is found in an article entitled “Figuring the Stars’ Salaries” that appeared in Screen Book. The article quotes a fan letter allegedly sent to a prominent, though unnamed, star stating that she and other loyal fans are disturbed by the big salaries the stars earn when theaters are closing and when so many people have fallen on hard times: “I don’t begrudge you your fine salary, but don’t you think all big salaries might be lowered a bit—maybe to $1,000 a week? If what the paper says is true, you earn in one week five times what most of us earn in a year!” 21 Another tactic of the studios was to appropriate the NRA’s WE DO OUR PART slogan and Blue Eagle insignia, using them in advertising and in pictures to garner favor with the public and the Roosevelt administration.

Eddie Cantor paid a visit to President Roosevelt, who was his personal friend, to plead the actors’ case. To avert a highly publicized labor dispute that might adversely affect public acceptance of the NRA, the president suspended the obnoxious provisions in the motion-picture code by executive order. However, during the days of the NRA, SAG failed to receive recognition as bargaining agent for the actors. Nor did SAG receive recognition when the National Labor Relations Act was signed into law in 1935; Hollywood’s response to the act was simply to ignore it.

But two years later, the Screen Actors Guild threatened to call a strike and finally won recognition on 15 May 1937. “The victories have been victories for the rank and file. For themselves the stars have asked and won next to nothing,” said the Nation . 22 The rank and file won minimum pay rates, guarantees of continuous employment, and twelve-hour rest periods between calls. Although successive contracts won benefits for all classes of performers, the relationship of the actor   to the production process remained unaltered; in fact, it was never an issue. The concessions had relatively minor economic impact on the studios, which explains why they were implemented.

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or