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The Star System in Place

studio contract warners stars

The acting profession in Hollywood consisted of four classes of performers. Supporting players performed the least important parts in pictures. Employed for as short a time as a week, a supporting player did not receive screen credit or even the assurance that his or her part would not be cut before the picture was released. Stock players were either promising beginners or experienced oldtimers and, as a group, formed a large talent pool from which the studio rounded out the cast of a picture. They received contracts of six months or longer and were paid from $50 to $350 a week. Featured players performed the principal roles and received screen and advertising credit. Their contracts went from year to year and specified a minimum and maximum number of pictures and a salary of so much a picture.

Stars constituted the elite class. Like other classes of performers, they were required to play any part the studio designated, although the biggest names might have the right to refuse a specified number of projects they deemed unsuitable. Paul Muni, for example, used his considerable prestige to accept only those scripts that dealt in some way with social problems. Stars might also have the right to approve the cameraman, but rarely their directors. Greta Garbo, for example, would work with only one cameraman, William Daniels. Stars received option contracts that lasted as long as seven years and were paid on a per-picture basis. As privileged members of the studio, they received a range of perks that could even affect the paint on their dressing room walls. Examples of such perks are fixed working hours of not more than eight out of any twenty-four-hour period with time out for afternoon tea; a dressing room decorated to the star’s satisfaction; arrangements for a personal maid or valet; and “greater prominence” in advertising, meaning that the star’s name had to be placed above all others in all advertising, in letters larger and of greater prominence than any other name.

“Free-lance” actors, as the term implies, hired themselves out to any studio and worked on a picture-by-picture basis. Their ranks numbered about forty stars and featured players, among them Fredric March, Ronald Colman, Jean Arthur, Aline MacMahon, Adolphe Menjou, Edward Everett Horton, and Constance Bennett. These players were almost continually in demand, especially by independent producers.

The total number of contract players in Hollywood during a given year came to around five hundred; the total on a studio’s roster varied from around fifty to one hundred. Of the grand total, thirty or so received star billing. A similar number would fade out for a while or forever. As they faded, stars usually remained under contract, but inevitably they were dropped from the lists. Then they had the option of offering their services to independent producers or of becoming free-lance supporting players. Sometimes, a waning star received a new lease on life at another studio. “Countless players have made good on the second Hollywood bounce,” said Variety and identified Warners as the “champ builder-upper.” In 1935, Warners had working for it a dozen players dropped by other studios, among them George Brent, Ricardo Cortez, William Gargan, Hugh Herbert, Bette Davis, and Paul Muni.

MGM had the largest and most prestigious stable of stars in Hollywood, which enabled it to produce nearly a third of the top-grossing films every year. Taking maximum advantage of MGM’s talent pool, Irving Thalberg instituted a “galactic” system of casting a picture, whereby two or more stars were teamed to increase its box-office power. Among such vehicles are GRAND HOTEL (1932), which starred Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Joan Crawford; RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (1932), which teamed the three Barrymores; and DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), which listed eight top names.

After the economic shakeout of the Depression, stars’ salaries rarely rebounded to the extravagant levels of the booming twenties. Leo Rosten’s survey of actors’ salaries showed that in 1939 only 54 class-Á actors out of 253 earned over $100,000. Claudette Colbert topped the list, with earnings of $426,944, followed in descending order by Bing Crosby ($410,000), Irene Dunne ($405,222), Charles Boyer ($375,277), and so on down the line. However, in “startling contrast” to these earnings, Rosten’s survey revealed that the median average salary for the group was $4,700, which meant that half the actors earned $4,700 or less and that half earned $4,700 or more. Excluded from these calculations were Page 157  the pittances paid to movie extras. In short, the acting profession in Hollywood remained a poorly paid one.

The fact that most directors, writers, and stars were temperamentally ill equipped to bargain with hardheaded producers explained the existence of the agent. Close to 150 registered agents worked in Hollywood. A dozen or so firms did most of the business, among them the William Morris Agency, Joyce-Selznick, Charles K. Feldman, and Leland Hayward. “In any business as sprawling, loose, and disjointed as show business,” said Fortune, “there must be an intermediary between the possessors of talent and the users of talent.” Agents represented actors, directors, and writers. As one agent described his job, “My occupation is representing clients, placing them advantageously, getting them the highest salaries I can, and maintaining the best possible working conditions for them.” Other agents provided “personal representative” and “management” services pertaining to almost every facet of the client’s career. Whatever his function, an agent took a 10 percent cut of all wages earned by his client during the term of the contract. This 10 percent fee, fixed by the Screen Actors Guild, was the maximum an agent could charge for his services.

As might be expected, studios held agents in contempt. It was not unusual for a studio such as Warners to bar an agent from the lot because he tried to get too much for his client. Before 1930 the majors had tacit nonproselytizing agreements with one another. “The understanding was that one studio would not hire actors away from another studio. When his contract expired, the star had to negotiate a new contract with the same old company; if he tried to get bids for his services, he found the other companies not interested. The star could only accept the offer from his old employer or become a holdout,” said Alva Johnston.

This cozy relationship was broken up by Myron Selznick. Warners had gotten a headstart on its competitors by innovating sound, but it needed stars to maintain its lead. Understanding this, Selznick offered the studio three of his clients—William Powell, Kay Francis, and Ruth Chatterton, all of whom were working for Paramount. “Tempted beyond their strength, the Warners hired them away from the rival studio.” 30 Paramount sued, but Warner quelled the controversy by agreeing to lend Francis to Paramount when it needed her. Clearly, nonproselytizing agreements were on their way out.

During the days of the NRA, producers tried to curb the power of agents by outlawing star raiding, but an executive order from the White House prevented them. The studios soon devised a way to get around the order. Talent was always scarce. Variety reported that “the complexities of casting… are so great that no single plant can cast its own productions from its contract list.” 31 It gave as a reason talking pictures, which made individualized roles much more important to the acting ensemble than they had been in the silents. Studios developed young talent and recruited personalities from the stage and radio, both at home and abroad, but nothing proved sufficient to meet all their needs. Rather than raiding one another to bolster star rosters, the majors found it easier and just as effective to lend one another talent.

As always, economics played a role. Try as they might, studios found it impossible to keep high-priced talent busy all the time. An idle star was a heavy overhead expense. Why not “loan out” the idle star and recoup the overhead? Studios devised various formulas to determine the fee: the most common one was to charge a minimum fee of four weeks salary plus a surcharge of three weeks; another was to charge the basic salary for however long the star was needed plus a surcharge of 25 percent. 32 Loan-outs kept RKO competitive and enabled Columbia and Universal to maintain their status as members of the Little Three. For example, Columbia borrowed most of the big names it needed for the Capra pictures—Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT , Gary Cooper for MR . DEEDS GOES TO TOWN , and Jimmy Stewart for YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU and MR . SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON .

Top-ranking independent producers like Selznick, Goldwyn, and Wanger, who released through UA, also regularly borrowed players. The majors were willing to lend them stars because these producers had longtime connections with the industry and had successful track records. Myth has it that the majors used loan-outs to discipline stars and to keep difficult people in line. But this argument does not make much sense, because it implies that a studio would risk its investment in a star by allowing him or her to appear in a second-rate picture produced by an inferior company. Actually, most stars were on the lookout for challenging parts and wanted the right to play them anywhere. One agent reported, “I have secured for a number of my clients contracts which permit them to play in one outside picture a year, on terms which they negotiate independently. Usually such permission enables the artist to appear in some favorite story or work for some favorite director, and the novelty of an interlude on a different lot breaks the monotony of constant association with too-familiar faces.”

Loan-outs frequently revitalized flagging careers. For example, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were in lulls when MGM and Paramount, respectively, sent them to Columbia to star in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT . Because of the film’s success, their careers took off. Bette Davis revealed her capabilities as a mature actress of great gifts when Warners loaned her to RKO to star inOF HUMAN BONDAGE . And on loan-out to Universal to star in MY MAN GODFREY , Carole Lombard found herself in her biggest success yet, which sent her asking price skyrocketing and won her contracts from several studios.

The loan-out policy of the majors had antitrust implications. In pressing the Paramount case, the Justice Department tried to prove that the majors, by limiting loan-outs primarily to one another, restrained trade at the level of production. The department observed that from 1933 to 1939 the majors (including Columbia and Universal) loaned actors, directors, writers, and cameramen to one another over two thousand times and to independents less than two hundred times. 35 The loan-outs to independents were made principally to UA’s affilated producers.

Why might producers balk at loaning stars to Poverty Row studios or newly arrived independents? Clearly, the majors believed that loan-outs could easily impair the value of their properties, either because the overall production standards of the company would suffer or because the picture might not be handled properly. The majors also believed—correctly—that Poverty Row studios did not have the financial means to borrow high-priced talent. Further-more, the majors knew that pictures produced outside the mainstream could rarely find first-run theater outlets and therefore had to be consigned to the low end of the market, which could ruin a star.

Periodically, courageous stars challenged the system by demanding bigger salaries, better roles, and more respect. The big battles took place at Warners and   involved two issues: the right of a studio to treat a star as chattel, as a mere investment that could be milked for all he or she was worth (product maximization); and the right of the studio to tack on suspension time at the end of a contract.

James Cagney started the first battle when he walked out of the studio at the start of a picture in 1932, claiming he was working too hard for too little money. Cagney’s original contract with Warners, which was negotiated by William Morris in 1930, paid him $350 a week to start and then rose in increments over the life of the contract. After Cagney made a name for himself in such pictures as THE PUBLIC ENEMY , TAXI! , and THE CROWD ROARS , Warners gave him a bonus that raised his base salary to $1,400 a week. But Cagney was not mollified; he wanted a new contract that started at $3,000 per week. Cagney said he based his stand “on the fact that [his] pictures, for the time being, are big moneymakers—and that there are only so many successful pictures in a personality. And don’t forget that when you are washed up in pictures you are really through. You can’t get a bit, let alone a decent part.”

After the dispute went to arbitration, Warners awarded Cagney a new contract that started at $1,750 a week. Warners also orally agreed that Cagney was required to make a maximum of four pictures a year. In 1935, Cagney again filed suit to break his contract. His stated rationale was that he had made fourteen pictures in three years and that contrary to the billing provision in his contract, he had received second billing on DEVIL DOGS OF THE AIR at certain theaters. Cagney was then earning $4,500 a week. Cagney told the court that “four pictures are enough for any actor whose career has advanced as far as mine.… When I signed the contract I understood my production schedule was to be limited to that number…. I feel an actor wears out his welcome with the public if he appears in too many pictures. In other words, the audiences get their fill, and turn in another direction.”

At the core of Cagney’s discontent was the studio’s practice of typecasting him in what he referred to as “dese, dem, and dose” roles and in inferior pictures in which he was teamed up with Pat O’Brien. The court ruled in favor of Cagney, stating that Warners had breached Cagney’s contract. 38 Claiming that the so-called advertising breach was inadvertent and casual, Warners appealed the case to the California Supreme Court.

Pending the outcome, Cagney went to work for Grand National, a new Poverty Row studio. Cagney had approached the majors but had gotten nowhere because if the state supreme court were to reverse the decision, any studio that employed him would be subject to damages and might lose the entire amount it had spent on production. Cagney made two pictures for Grand National. Said Shipman, “Neither was outstanding, and he couldn’t have been sorry when Warners made overtures—the case still not settled—to him to finish out his contract at $150,000 per film versus a percentage.” 39 Cagney received better assignments afterward, among them BOY MEETS GIRL (1938), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES THE OKLAHOMA KID (1939), and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939). However, Cagney remained recalcitrant and, when conditions were right, became one of the first stars to go into independent production.

Bette Davis, another Warners star, became dissatisfied with her roles and walked out on her contract in 1936. Bernard Dick described Davis’s relationship with the studio as one of the stormiest… that ever existed between a studio and its star; graphically, it would resemble a fever chart. Davis would no sooner make one good film than she would be assigned to a series of poor ones. As if to punish her for making OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934) on loanout at RKO because she could not find a decent script at her own studio, Warners released HOUSEWIFE (1934) immediately after her triumph as Maugham’s Mildred Rogers. After DANGEROUS [which won her an Oscar for best actress] and THE PETRIFIED FOREST came THE GOLDEN ARROW and SATAN MET A LADY (all 1936), which left her “unhappy, unfulfilled.” (Bernard Dick, ed., Dark Victory [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981], p. 14)

Returning to the studio after OF HUMAN BONDAGE , Davis received a new contract that raised her salary to $1,350 a week from $1,000, but the contract merely guaranteed feature billing in her pictures and did not reduce the number she had to make each year. Through her agent, she sent the following list of demands to the studio: a five-year contract at a salary that escalated from $100,000 to $220,000 per year; the right to make no more than four pictures a year; star or co-star billing; the services of her favorite cameramen; and “three months’ consecutive vacation each year with the right to do one outside picture.”

Jack Warner suspended her, characterizing her demands “as exorbitant and impossible.” He added that “she would remain on the suspended list until she returned to the studio to live up to the terms of her contract.” 41 The studio cut off her salary and announced its intention to tack on to her contract the time she spent on suspension. To circumvent the ban, Davis accepted a leading role in a picture to be produced in London by the independent producer Ludovico Toeplitz. Warner took her to court by filing an injunction. After a brief hearing in which the Warners lawyer characterized Davis as a “naughty little girl who wants more money,” the court granted the injunction, ruling that Davis must confine her services exclusively to Warners.

Davis accepted the judgment and decided on another approach. Through her attorneys she told Jack Warner that she would return to work without any “modifications” of her existing contract, but she also politely reiterated her case. Said Thomas Schatz, “[Jack] Warner held firm but he got the message; Davis might have lost this skirmish, but the war would go on. And Warner himself, having been without his top actress for nearly a year, was ready to compromise.” 42 To demonstrate his good intentions, Jack Warner bought her a property she had wanted, JEZEBEL . And Davis demonstrated her mettle by winning her second Academy Award playing the lead role. But “just when she thought the pattern of one mediocrity for every masterpiece had been altered,” she was given COMET OVER BROADWAY as her next picture. Davis refused the assignment and went on suspension in April 1938. After a month, she and the studio resolved their differences.

Now at the pinnacle of her career, Davis received a new contract that started out at $3,500 per week and gave her star billing. However, “by explicitly detailing her duties to the studio,” the contract was in some respects more restrictive: “Davis had to ‘perform and render her services whenever, wherever and as often as the producer requested.’ Significantly, these services included interviews, sittings for photographs, and the rest of the elements the studio could orchestrate   in its differentiation strategy.” Thereafter, Davis would receive more money and would make fewer pictures, but “she never did earn the right to choose her roles or to have a say in her publicity. On the contrary, as Davis’ name grew larger on theater marquees, the studio consolidated more control over her career.”

Not until Olivia de Havilland took Warners to court over its suspension practices was a star able to break any of the offensive terms of the seven-year option contract. Ruling in 1943 that Warners had violated the state’s antipeonage laws, the court decided in de Havilland’s favor, a decision the state supreme court affirmed in 1944. Schatz calls the decision “a watershed event in Hollywood’s history, a significant victory for top stars and a huge setback for the studios. No longer could Warners or any other studio tack on suspension time to the end of a contract, thereby preventing an artist from sitting out and becoming a free agent.” 44 It is difficult to attach such significance to the case, since every other provision of the option contract designed to keep stars in their place remained in force. It was not until the breakdown of the studio system itself during the fifties that the balance of power tipped in favor of the star.

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