6The Economic Imperative
The Contract Controls
The Top Stars
Forming the Screen Actors Guild
The Star System in Place
Promotion at the Production Level
Promotion at the Distribution Level
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,
New York: Stein & Day, 1970], p. 252">
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.
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 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."4
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.5
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."6
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.8
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."10
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.11
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 Hhotel (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 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 Hap Pened 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.14
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."15
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 I die (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, Jesse James (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 Robin Hood (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.
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.17
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.18
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."19
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."20
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.
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.23
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.24
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.25
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.26
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 the pittances paid to movie extras. In short, the acting profession in Hollywood remained a poorly paid one.27
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.28
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.29
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."33
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.34
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."36
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."37
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
University of Wisconsin Press, 1981], p. 14">
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."43
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.
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."45
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 1934.47
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."48
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 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."50
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 (see Chapter 7), 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 (see Chapter 7).
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 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.53
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, 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 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.57
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."58
Nothing was too private if it interested the public, nothing was too trite if it got copy, and nothing was too exaggerated if it sold a ticket. It was this kind of material that freely found its way into any newspaper, magazine, or radio station in the country. Good, bad, or ridiculous, someone would be willing to read it, enter it, or buy it. No single audience was ever exposed to all the promotional material created for a motion picture. Publicity announcing a premiere drew an exclusive opening-night crowd. Previews of coming attractions whetted the appetites of loyal fans. Magazine articles, Sunday features, and news items stoked the interest of casual moviegoers. And, of course, movie ads in the local newspaper kept audiences in touch with the current fare. These were the common, expected ways to present the latest Hollywood feature to the audience and together with publicity stunts, trivia contests, merchandising tie-ins, and the like, they constituted motion-picture promotion.59
The publicity department of a major studio was organized like the city room of a newspaper. Publicity directors such as Howard Strickling at MGM, Edward Selzer at Warner's, Tom Bailey at Paramount, Harry Brand at 20th Century-Fox, and Russell Birdwell at Selznick-International functioned as editors who assigned stories and reviewed finished copy before it was released. They also personally handled front-office news concerning such matters as the hiring and firing of key studio personnel, the acquiring of important properties, and the financial affairs of the company. A suicide, a messy divorce, or a scandal turned their job into public relations with the goal of protecting the image of the studio or of salvaging the reputation of a star.
Working under the publicity director were the unit reporters, who covered the big pictures, and publicists, who were assigned to individual stars. Unit reporters were almost always former newspapermen and rarely earned more than $150 a week for the usual six-day week they put in. A unit reporter prepared a synopsis of the plot and special-interest stories about the production and its stars for use by newspapers. A publicist's job was to handle the public relations of a top star and sometimes even his or her private financial affairs.
To satisfy the huge demand for information about stars, other sections of the publicity department supplied fashion layouts for fan magazines and planted tidbits with gossip columnists Louella Parsons, Sheilah Graham, and Hedda Hopper, among others. Gossip columnists typically commented on affairs of the heart. They seldom dug up information on their own but relied on news from the studios. Studios and stars were happy to cooperate since even unfavorable publicity in a gossip column kept the name of a star in print and the myth of Hollywood alive.
The still-photography department supplied the iconography for promotion. Photographs were the physical artifacts of the motion-picture experience. During each major production, a still photographer took stills of every key scene to be used for lobby displays, advertising, and poster layouts. To service pulp magazines and newspapers, the studio needed high-contrast photos in shallow focus.
For fan magazines and glossy publications, the studio needed higher-quality photos, which were the special province of glamour portrait photographers. These photographers had the task of capturing in a single image the screen persona of a star. As John Kobal put it, "they had nothing to do with making movies, but everything to do with the selling of the dream that movies meant." The most skilled of these portrait photographers—Clarence Bull at MGM, George Hurrell at Warner Bros., Ernest Bachrach at RKO, and Eugene Robert Richee at Paramount—experimented with "backgrounds, shapes, textures, lighting, and produced a unique genre which not only served a specific function, but—unlike many of the films of the period—survives as an art form."60 All photos were taken by an eight-by-ten-inch large-format camera. After a negative was processed, artisans retouched it to eliminate excessive weight around the waist, hips, throat, and shoulders by scraping the negative and stippling it (adding new dot patterns to the negative). They also removed lines and skin flaws from the face. After all physical imperfections were removed, the negative was airbrushed to give the face an alabaster appearance on the prints.
Glamour portraits served many purposes, but the main one was satisfying the needs of fans. Margaret Thorp observed the scene and said,
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1939], p. 96">
Fan mail comes into Hollywood's studios daily by the truck load. Special clerks are needed to sort it on each lot. A conservative estimate puts the letters addressed to players at a quarter of a million a month. A top star expects about three thousand a week…. The bulk of the mail, at least 75 per cent, is made up of requests for photographs or for some personal souvenir. (America at the Movies [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1939], p. 96)
Fan magazines were the most voracious consumers of publicity. Photoplay, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, and other such magazines had monthly circulations of nearly a half million each. Each magazine usually contained at least one signature of photos that were specially printed on gravure presses to ensure high-quality reproduction. Fans wanted color photos that were clear and suitable for framing on a bedroom wall or pasting in a scrapbook, and were willing to pay extra for such magazines.
Stories in fan magazines dealt with romance, marriage, children, divorce, and death. Adult stars such as Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Errol Flynn made the best copy, along with such child stars as Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney. "Every aspect of life, trivial and important," said Thorp, was "bathed in the purple glow of luxury." The magazines revealed that Bing Crosby bred racehorses, that Shirley Temple had 250 dolls, and that Joan Crawford had a famous collection of sapphires and diamonds. Clothes were "endlessly pictured and described, usually with marble fountains, private swimming pools, or limousines in the background." Regardless of the luxury depicted, one purpose of these articles was to bring the image of the star down to earth: "She takes care today to make it known that she is really a person of simple wholesome tastes, submitting to elegance as part of her job but escaping from it as often as possible. It soothes the fans to believe that luxury is fundamentally a burden."61
Hollywood's publicity machinery was thus designed to mesh comfortably with merchandising tie-ins. If advertising attempted to associate consumer products with romance, marriage, and sexual fulfillment, it found a handmaiden in the movies. Ranked second only to food products in the amount spent on advertising, the cosmetics industry signed stars to appear in literally hundreds of thousands of ads—"ads which dutifully mentioned the star's current film"—making cosmetics synonymous with Hollywood.62 Stars also dutifully provided testimonials for ads hawking soap, deodorants, toothpastes, lotions, hair preparations, and other toiletries.
Fashion specialists tried to popularize the latest creations to come out of Hollywood's costume design shops. "Vogue printed Adrian's sketches for Camille (1936) and Marie Antoinette (1938). Luise Rainer primped for photos in a room full of spectacularly plumed hats from The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Marlene Dietrich appeared in layouts in splended Russian sables and brocades designed by Travis Banton for The Scarlet Empress (1934)." Gimmicks such as these were supposed to generate commercial spin-offs. For example, Adrian's "little velvet hat, trimmed with ostrich feathers," which Garbo wore "tilted becomingly over one eye," created a vogue for the Empress Eugénie hat. "Universally copied in a wide price range, it influenced how women wore their hats for the rest of the decade," said Edward Maeder. Walter Plunkett's wardrobe for Gone With the Wind "produced a merchandising blitz unequaled in the history of period film publicity tie-ins. Brassieres and corsets, dress patterns, hats and veils, snoods, scarves, jewelry, even wrist watches, were marketed as 'inspired' by the film."63 No dress in the 1930s was as copied as the Scarlett O'Hara's barbecue dress.
The power of the movies to popularize fashion styles was harnessed by Bernard Waldman and his Modern Merchandising Bureau. According to Charles Eckert, he played the role of fashion middleman for most of the major studios:
By the mid-1930s Waldman's system generally operated as follows: sketches and/or photographs of styles to be worn by specific actresses in specific films were sent from the studios to the bureau (often a year in advance of the film's release). The staff first evaluated these styles and calculated new trends. They then contracted with manufacturers to have the styles produced in time for the film's release. They next secured advertising photos and other materials which would be sent to retail shops. This ad material mentioned the film, stars, and studio as well as the theaters where the film would appear. ("The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window," p. 8)
Waldman branched out by franchising a business called Cinema Fashions Shops. By 1937, more than four hundred official Cinema Fashion Shops were in operation (only one was permitted in each city) and an additional fourteen hundred stores were handling a portion of the star-endorsed style lines. As a result of Waldman's merchandising efforts and the studios' willingness to publicize costume designs, the names of the leading studio designers, notably Adrian of MGM, Orry-Kelly of Warners, Edith Head of Paramount, and Walter Plunkett of Selznick, became as familiar to shoppers as the stars themselves.
Hollywood added a new dimension to its advertising efforts during the thirties by taking full advantage of radio. If Hollywood wanted to exploit radio stars in the movies, radio also wanted to exploit movie stars for its own purposes. By the mid thirties the two industries had developed a symbiotic relationship. The radio audience had an "insatiable interest in the stars, scripts, and formulas developed by the movies," said Michele Hilmes, but the two networks could not effectively exploit this interest until 1935, when AT&T removed the double transmission rates, which required networks to pay for the transmission of a broadcast both to and from New York. When AT&T dropped the rates, NBC and CBS built new studios in Los Angeles and "produced a veritable deluge of programming."64
Hollywood talent and source material was used in four types of programming. Musical variety shows such as Maxwell House Coffee's "Show Boat," "The Rudy Vallee Show," and "Kraft Music Hall" combined big names, lesser stars, and regular performers in a mix of music, comedy, dialogue, and vignettes. Dramatic series such as Campana Balm's "First Nighter" and DuPont's "The Calvacade of America" showcased top dramatic stars. "Cavalcade of America," which presented historical dramatizations, "built up a reputation for thorough and accurate research as well as dramatic appeal," said Hilmes and "attracted stage and screen actors who had formerly remained aloof." Among the stars who portrayed historical figures on the program were Clark Gable, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Lionel Barrymore, Dick Powell, Tyrone Power, and Edward G. Robinson. Hollywood gossip columns hosted by Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell, and others found an eager listening audience for their tales of Hollywood life. From the studio's perspective, radio gossip and talk shows were found to be as effective as promotion in the print media.65
The movie adaptation was particularly effective as a publicity device. The "Lux Radio Theater," hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, represented "the culmination of its type" and remained one of the most popular shows on the air. The show was divided into three acts with breaks for commercial messages and interviews conducted by DeMille with that evening's stars. Most adaptations were broadcast after the release of a film and served to boost theater attendance. Among the hit pictures adapted for the program were Dark Victory, with Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy; The Thin Man, with William Powell and Myrna Loy; and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with Gary Cooper.
Promotion emanating from the studios was concerned primarily with creating and maintaining star images. Promotion at the distribution level was concerned mainly with advertising and publicizing new releases. The publicity campaign for a picture was formulated in Hollywood as it went into production and was developed and executed in New York at a company's distribution headquarters prior to its release. Hollywood and New York were both concerned with promoting stars and with hyping the new release, but promotion at the distribution level was aimed at motion-picture exhibitors as well as the public.
Vertical integration ensured that the majors controlled every facet of promotion in their attempt to funnel as many patrons as possible into their first-run theaters. To keep the process free from political or censorship harassment, the majors submitted all advertising materials to the Advertising Advisory Council (AAC), a wing of the Production Code Administration, for approval prior to its distribution. Advertising materials included posters, sketches, publicity stories, poster art, accessories, pressbooks, and exploitation ideas. The majors adopted the Advertising Code in 1930 and made the review process mandatory in 1933. The Advertising Code addressed many of the same concerns as the Production Code, such as respect for religions, national feelings, and the law. Similarly, both codes prohibited profanity, vulgarity, and nudity. But as Mary Beth Haralovich points out, "the Advertising Code is a general call for good taste and the honest representations of films while the Production Code is much more specific in what constitutes good taste."66
A promotion campaign began prior to the release of a new picture and was aimed at multiple segments of the audience. Although motion pictures were theoretically designed to reach an undifferentiated mass audience, a uniform campaign would be unsuccessful. Hollywood had already determined that a gala premiere could launch a picture with the biggest bang. And it was a longtime practice to stage such galas in New York and Hollywood. During the thirties, Hollywood added imaginative permutations to its stock of gimmicks.
Warners' launching of 42nd Street in 1933 started the trend. Because this backstage musical boosted "the New Deal philosophy of pulling together to whip the depression" and because Warner Baxter, its star, "played a role that was a patent allegory of F.D.R.," the studio dreamt up the idea of linking the picture to the excitement surrounding Roosevelt's inauguration.67 Near the eve of the inauguration, Jack Warner and a contingent of studio stars boarded a gilded and decorated train in Los Angeles, the 42nd Street Special, bound for Washington. General Electric put up money for the stunt in exchange for the advertising. As the train sped across the continent, "its radio broadcasted Dick Powell's jazzy contralto, GE ad-copy, and optimism…. When the train arrived at a major city, the stars and chorus girls motored to the largest available showroom and demonstrated whatever appliances they found themselves thrust up against. In the evenings they appeared at a key-theater for a mini-premiere." Describing the stunt as "unique in the history of 'personal appearances,' " Motion Picture Herald reported that "thousands have crammed railroad stations to get a glimpse of the trainload of stars. In small towns, where the train stopped only ten minutes, entire populations turned out to accord a welcome."68
Arriving in Washington in time for the inaugural parade and ceremonies, the stars made personal appearances later that evening at a local theater. The entourage then proceeded to New York in time for the premiere on 9 March. Charles Eckert has described these festivities:
On March 9 bawdy, gaudy 42nd Street looked as spiffy as a drunkard in church: American flags and red, white, and blue bunting draped the buildings; the ordinary incandescent bulbs were replaced with scintillant "golden" GE lamps; a fleet of Chrysler automobiles (a separate tie-up) and GE automotive equipment was readied for a late afternoon parade which would catch those leaving work. In the North River a cruiser stood at anchor to fire a salute—a great organ-boom to cap off a roulade of aerial bombs. As the train approached New York from New Rochelle, a pride of small airplanes accompanied it. Once it arrived, the schedule was as exacting as a coronation: a reception at Grand Central by Forty-Second Street Property Owners and Merchants Association, the parade, a GE sales meeting at the Sam Harris Theatre, and the grand premiere at the Strand. ("The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window," p. 3)
By the end of the decade, studios regularly preceded the New York and Hollywood openings with a world premiere staged in a city or town connected in one way or another to the subject matter of the picture. Gone With the Wind's premiere in Atlanta is the most obvious example of the practice, but such treatment was also given to Dodge City, Union Pacific, and Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939.69
To distribute its regular class-Á product, the majors used tried-and-true practices and procedures. Prior to the release of a picture, the distributor placed ads in trade papers such as Variety and Motion Picture Herald to kindle exhibitor interest. After an exhibitor booked a picture, he received the official pressbook, containing order forms for posters, lobby cards, and stills and pre-written publicity stories that he could place in the local newspaper.
Advertising reflected the exchange values studios used to differentiate their products. According to Janet Staiger, these values consisted in part of stars, genres, "realism," authenticity, and spectacle.70 The pressbook for Warners' Captain Blood (1935) illustrates just how these values were incorporated into motion-picture advertising. Directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring two up-and-coming young stars, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Captain Blood initiated Warners' swashbuckler series. To call attention to the spectacle in the picture, catchlines on posters read,
See—A Whole City Built in Splender to Show You How "Blood" Razed it with Cannonfire!
See—The White Slave Markets of the Caribbean Reproduced in All Their Infamy to Show You Why "Blood" Hurled Defiance at an Emperor!
See—Priceless Galleons Launched and Manned to Show You How "Blood" Blew Them to Bits!
To call attention to the novelty, a publicity release related that "the entire studio found itself struck with amazement over the quaintness of the costumes." To call attention to the authenticity, a story for a Sunday feature recounted the history of piracy and discussed legendary pirate heroes. Referring to the appeal of the genre, a catchline read "Exciting as Your Childhood Dreams … Thrilling as the Ring of Steel on Steel … Romantic as Red Sails in the Sunset!"
The pressbook promoted Errol Flynn as a "carefree adventurer and a rogue to opportunity." A pre-written story entitled "Errol Flynn's Life One of Astounding Adventure" revealed that Flynn was a former Olympic boxer, a wanderer, and a British stage actor. Described as "tall and handsome, lean and brown, with a flair for romance and a craving for excitement," Flynn is quoted as saying, "I would give a leg to play [the part of Blood], but I figure I haven't a chance. I'm an unknown." As Margaret Sullivan noted, "It was the perfect statement to follow two full columns extolling his exploits. He is the young unknown fighting for success against all odds. He expects nothing to be given to him but given a chance he will prove himself."71
The pressbook suggested a range of stunts an exhibitor might use to attract different segments of the audience. For example, to attract children, it suggested staging a pirate parade: "If you're having a pirate party for the kids, try to get them to parade to the theatre in their pirate costumes. By pulling a few strings, Boy Scout band may add a little music, while notables at theatre give ducats for best costume." To attract adolescents, it suggested holding a pirate song contest: "Using pop music alter the words into pirate song." And to attract educated men and women, it advised a music plug over radio: "On local radio get orchestra or choral group to perform numbers from Pirates of Penzance."72
In terms of advertising strategy, such promotional gimmicks avoided deep-seated attitudes and worked on curiosity and association. Because the choice of seeing a movie rarely involved an attitude change, a simple message with appealing language, content, and form was deemed enough to kindle interest in a picture. It was thought that once a film became a curiosity it was an easy matter to draw associations to it because there was no predisposition to avoid it.
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.
"Selling Stars." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/selling-stars
"Selling Stars." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/selling-stars
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