Bringing to light an often-ignored aspect of Hollywood studio system history, this book focuses on female stars who broke the mold of a male-dominated, often manipulative industry to dictate the path of their own careers through freelancing.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
During the heyday of Hollywood’s studio system, stars were carefully cultivated and promoted, but at the price of their independence. This familiar narrative of Hollywood stardom receives a long-overdue shakeup in Emily Carman’s new book. Far from passive victims of coercive seven-year contracts, a number of classic Hollywood’s best-known actresses worked on a freelance basis within the restrictive studio system. In leveraging their stardom to play an active role in shaping their careers, female stars including Irene Dunne, Janet Gaynor, Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, and Barbara Stanwyck challenged Hollywood’s patriarchal structure.
Through extensive, original archival research, Independent Stardom uncovers this hidden history of women’s labor and celebrity in studio-era Hollywood. Carman weaves a compelling narrative that reveals the risks these women took in deciding to work autonomously. Additionally, she looks at actresses of color, such as Anna May Wong and Lupe Vélez, whose careers suffered from the enforced independence that resulted from being denied long-term studio contracts. Tracing the freelance phenomenon among American motion picture talent in the 1930s, Independent Stardom rethinks standard histories of Hollywood to recognize female stars as creative artists, sophisticated businesswomen, and active players in the then (as now) male-dominated film industry.
Finalist for the Theatre Library Association's 2016 Richard Wall Memorial Award
- Introduction: Independent Stardom Is Born
- Chapter One. 1930s Hollywood: The Golden Age for Talent
- Chapter Two. The [Freelance] Contract in Context
- Chapter Three. Labor and Lipstick: Promoting the Independent Persona
- Chapter Four. Independent Stardom Goes Mainstream
- Appendix One. Key Freelance Deals of Independent Stardom Case Study Stars, 1930–1945
- Appendix Two. Motion Picture Archives and Library Materials Consulted
Independent Stardom Is Born
By the late 1930s, the actress Carole Lombard had achieved A-list film stardom through what appeared to be an unconventional path in the Hollywood studio system: freelancing. As a free-
lancer or “free agent” (in the industry parlance of the time), Lombard chose her own film projects and negotiated individual deals with multiple studios. Moreover, her freelance contracts contained numerous provisions that guaranteed her creative control over her career and star image.1 She retained the power to choose the director, cinematographer, costar, producer, screenwriter, story, costume designer, makeup artist, hairstylist, and even her publicist. She also negotiated a “no loan-out” clause, meaning the studio could not outsource her contract to another studio.
In addition to ensuring that Lombard was one of the highest paid actors of the period, these provisions enabled her to reach the apex of her career. She cemented her reputation as Hollywood’s top comedienne in Nothing Sacred and True Confession (both released in 1937, the first directed by William Wellman and the latter by Wesley Ruggles) while also establishing her ability as a dramatic actress in Made for Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939). All of these films were part of three-picture deals that she negotiated concurrently with Paramount Pictures and Selznick International Pictures (SiP). By the time she negotiated with rko Radio Pictures in 1939 for another freelance deal, Lombard not only earned $100,000 per film but also got a cut of her film’s box-office profits. Reflecting her unusual status within the industry, Lombard’s high earnings and professional accomplishments appeared to generate as much public interest as her love affair with Clark Gable (who became her second husband). Indeed, in 1939, the popular film fan magazine Photoplay extolled the actress’s freelance achievements before her personal life, noting that Lombard “freelances, she draws approximately one hundred thousand dollars per picture, plus profit percentage. Last year her income totaled nearly half a million, and, in addition, Hollywood’s most box-office screen lover [Gable] is also [the] number one man in her life.”
Lombard was in the vanguard yet again when in 1940 she and her agent, Myron Selznick, crafted a “contract like no other” with rko that included a new profit-participation deal.3 For her last two films in this agreement, the actress relinquished her $100,000 flat-rate fee in exchange for a $25,000 advance against her projected $150,000 interest in the film distributor’s gross, which equated to instant earnings for the actress as soon as these films were released.4 This “percentage deal” contract, personally negotiated by Selznick and rko president George Schaefer, also included a number of specific terms such as story approval and a billing clause that she could only costar with an established leading man; it specifically designated the fourth picture as a “Lombard-Hitchcock” collaboration (Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941, the only Hollywood comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lombard’s new percentage deal was how it safeguarded the actress’s gross earnings from Hollywood’s monopolistic distribution and exhibition practices. Her 10 percent share included earnings from both domestic and foreign box-office receipts, including any specialty (i.e., higher-priced) road-show screenings at rko theaters, and an arbitrated share of the studio block-booking packages of her films.5 Her renegotiation proved to be a worthwhile financial move, with her total earnings amounting to approximately $133,000 for Mr. and Mrs. Smith and $91,000 for They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940), roughly the equivalent of her usual $100,000 flat fee.6 In addition, these earnings were taxed at the capital gains rate of 25 percent versus the 77 percent tax rate for personal income at the time. Indeed, Lombard’s keen apprehension of industry know-how extended to production as well as contract negotiations. Kanin called her “the best producer in the business since Irving Thalberg.” He also explained, “She has great intuition for which writer to get on a script. She knows what kind of story to do and can give pointers to its structure. And she’s a great saleswoman. She has one of the best agents in the business but she really does not need one. She makes her own deals and does as well as anyone could.”
Lombard’s remarkable career, and the exceptional degree of control she exerted over it, runs counter to conventional narratives of the Hollywood studio system, which depict film stars as studio property and de facto indentured servants. It also challenges the commonly accepted periodization that locates the development of Hollywood talent freelancing within the postwar era by emphasizing two key events: the California Supreme Court’s 1944 “De Havilland Law,”8 which ruled in favor of actress Olivia de Havilland in her suit to end her contract with Warner Bros.; and the innovative percentage deal that Lew Wasserman negotiated for actor James Stewart for Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950).
Carole Lombard was far from alone in her successful freelance labor practices; indeed, she was part of an overlooked but significant trend of female independent stardom in 1930s Hollywood. Constance Bennett, Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Janet Gaynor, Katharine Hepburn, and Miriam Hopkins all participated in “net”-only profit-sharing deals similar to the one that would make headlines for Stewart fifteen years later, earning a percentage of their films’ overall gross profits after the initial production costs had been recouped.
Independent Stardom is the term I use to describe this alternative freelance path in 1930s Hollywood. This not only resulted in better salaries for these actresses, but also garnered them more control over their careers. In addition to the actresses mentioned above, Ruth Chatterton, Dolores del Río, Ann Harding, Ida Lupino, and Barbara Stanwyck all achieved varying levels of economic and professional independence through their active negotiations with film corporations over the course of the 1930s and, in some cases, into the 1940s. To minimize the risks of freelancing (giving up the job security of a long-term studio contract, along with the status conferred by association with a major studio), these women employed a number of strategies. They worked with prominent, prestigious, independent producers such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn, as well as with the shrewd talent agents Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman; they remade their on-screen images by personally choosing to “off-cast” themselves in new and different leading roles; and they made multiple pictures at a time for a variety of studios.
The omission of these women from the narratives of Hollywood history is striking and raises important questions in regard to film historiography and American cinema. The phenomenon of female independent stardom in pre–World War II Hollywood presents a rich field of investigation for several reasons. Significantly, it offers scholars the opportunity to rethink the experience of star “serfdom” in the Hollywood studio system as a process of collaboration and negotiation with producers and major studios that afforded women tremendous professional opportunities. It likewise proves compelling from the perspective of film historiography, as it constructs an alternative experience of Hollywood, principally in regard to gender and contract-labor conditions. These were business-savvy women who challenged the hierarchical and paternalistic structure of the film industry. They took a proactive role in shaping their careers through their freelance labor practices, thereby dynamically participating in what Thomas Schatz has called (quoting André Bazin) the “genius” of the studio system: its fusion of art, human labor, and commerce on a massive scale. What is particularly striking about these female stars, however, is that they worked independently during a time when studio heads and producers presumably controlled and manipulated stardom as part of their oligopolistic business practices. Consequently, independent stardom changes the way in which we think about stardom, gender, and power dynamics in 1930s Hollywood, and calls for a new perspective that recognizes the place of women and their pioneering freelancing in American cinema and US labor history.
This book’s methodology mobilizes a broad spectrum of archival research—studio contracts and legal documents, industry trades, newspapers, and fan magazines—to unearth the story of independent stardom in Hollywood. I make extensive use of contracts and studio memos pertaining to stars’ film contracts and their negotiations with agents, studio executives, and producers to attain them. The financial nomenclature of contracts and studio legalese tends to be relegated to footnotes in most studies on stardom and classic Hollywood, but here they are foregrounded as crucial to our understanding of the contractual, cultural, and legal terms of independent stardom. This multifaceted archival approach also raises the issue of access to studio archives as they relate to questions of film historiography, specifically which studios’ historical legal and production materials are available for this kind of research. In this regard, of the major Hollywood studios, the Warner Bros. Archives (Wba) at the University of Southern California is the only accessible archive, housing the production, distribution, and exhibition records that document the activities of a vertically integrated studio. It should come as no surprise, then, that a great deal of scholarly work on studio-era stardom focuses on Warner Bros. stars—especially James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland. Moreover, these stars’ very public battles with the studio over its oppressive suspension policy and binding long-term contracts generated a great deal of press in the industry trade magazines, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, both of which are readily available digitally or on microfilm. Given this visibility and ease of access, it is not surprising that these events have been well documented. However, as Tom Kemper notes in Hidden Talent, his insightful study of talent agents, these three Warner Bros. stars’ careers “betray poor management, a dimension that is generally elided in most histories on classical Hollywood.” Thus, they are far from exemplary cases, making the attention they receive in most film histories somewhat misleading.
Among my goals in Independent Stardom is to cast the widest net possible in terms of accessing archival studio collections that contain substantial contracts, legal records, studio memos, or payroll cards using readily available collections as well as those that are less utilized or incomplete. Looking at a variety of stars (employed at or by various studios) as case studies across a range of primary sources contributes to what Eric Smoodin calls the “textuality of the historical field” by supplying “new subjects and modes of historical inquiry.”14 In addition to Wba, this study makes use of the legal files of the Twentieth Century-Fox Collection;15 the employee payroll cards of the rko Radio Pictures, Inc., Studio Collection (1922–1952) housed at the uCla Performing Arts Special Collections; and the legal files and studio memos from the David O. Selznick Collection (which also contains documents from his business partner Jock Whitney and his brother, talent agent Myron Selznick) at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Margaret Herrick Library houses some mgm legal department records as well as Paramount production materials, select contract summaries, and an impressive array of popular fan magazines from the 1930s, while the United Artists Collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research contains the company’s corporate records from its founding in 1919 until the early 1950s.16 The uSC Cinematic Arts Library’s Archives of Performing Arts contain a sampling of records from mgm, Universal, and Twentieth Century Fox.17 The consultation of a wide array of primary materials enables us to recast the Hollywood star story from one of servitude to free agency.18 Independent Stardom’s “rewriting” of American film history seeks to interrogate past historical assumptions and create a nuanced understanding of how independent stardom functioned in the studio system and provided an opportunity for female empowerment in Hollywood.
Recasting Hollywood Independence
In addition to establishing the historical significance of the overlooked phenomenon of independent stardom, this book also asks the crucial question of why this “traditional” historical narrative has dominated. To begin to answer this question, we need to revisit the two celebrated markers of star independence in studio-era Hollywood: Olivia de Havilland’s legal victory over Warner Bros., and James Stewart’s profit-sharing deal at Universal. These events have been misrepresented in histories of American cinema as the initial flashpoints of freelance Hollywood, when in actuality they are the culmination of the self-determining actions and negotiations of women in the 1930s. Indeed the California Supreme Court verdict that became known as the “De Havilland Law” signified an important victory for top stars and a substantial setback for film corporations, as studios could no longer prevent an artist from “sitting out” a contract to become a free agent.19 Nor did stars have to resort to lengthy court battles as the most viable way to win control over their careers at the expense of their screen exposure. (De Havilland herself remained off-screen for nearly three years while her case went all the way to the California Supreme Court.)
Likewise, female independent stardom in the 1930s preceded what has often been lauded as the pivotal achievement of actor independence in studio-era Hollywood: the deal-making tactics of James Stewart and Lew Wasserman, his maverick agent. In 1950 Wasserman negotiated a lucrative freelance deal with Universal Studios for the actor to make Winchester ’73, winning him a sizable percentage of the film’s box-office earnings. We might ask why this is considered the first significant instance of profit sharing among Hollywood stars given the fact that numerous prominent female stars had freelanced and negotiated for a percentage of their films’ profits a decade earlier.
To understand this lapse in American film history, we must juxtapose the contractual terms of Stewart’s deal with those of the top female stars in the 1930s. What made Stewart’s agreement so remarkable is the exceptionally large salary that he earned from his 50 percent cut of the net profits from his Universal films Winchester ’73 and Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950), which amounted to more than $600,000.21 This deal enabled the actor to reduce his exorbitant personal income tax, as his percentage was taxed at the much lower capital gains rate; this strategy also protected Universal from additional financial risk by not having to supply the actor’s salary up front, ahead of the production.22 The generally accepted ramifications of Stewart’s deal in 1950 are that it generated the most lavish sum of money for a freelance actor’s profit-sharing agreement, signified the demise of long-term contracts for talent, and substantially altered talent salary negotiations in Hollywood. However, while we should not dismiss the significance of Stewart’s Winchester ’73 deal as a reflection of postwar star muscle, it did not garner major headlines in the industry trades, nor did it send shockwaves around the film industry in 1950. Its overstated importance seems more of a manufactured publicity story engineered by the legend of postwar, agency-driven Hollywood rather than one of historical actuality.
In fact, such deals had been a long-standing practice for powerful stars as far back as 1919, when Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith all self-produced and distributed their films after forming their own studio, United Artists (UA), as an alternative to the emerging, vertically integrated studio-system model.24 This move guaranteed that any profits from their films would go directly to them. Even after the major studios solidified their monopolistic control over Hollywood filmmaking after the transition to sound in the late 1920s, there remained autonomous avenues in the star system. For instance, upon their arrival in Hollywood, the soon-to-be screen stars Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck (both Broadway actresses) rejected long-term contracts with major studios. Stanwyck worked at an array of studios from the very beginning of her career (UA, Columbia, and Warner Bros.), while Dunne negotiated a two-year contract with rko that retained her right to return to New York to act in plays between film productions.
Independent Stardom’s historiographical intervention also extends to star studies and our understanding of Hollywood stardom. As Paul McDonald notes, there has been a tendency in academic star studies to separate the stars’ images from the film industry that employs and sustains their labor.25 While there is significant literature on individual stars in relation to their screen performances and their cultural images (most prominently, Richard Dyer’s seminal text Stars), these works tend to eschew issues of contract labor—in particular, freelancing—and how a star’s individual agency impacted her career and public persona.26 Similarly, most studies of screen actors’ labor in the 1930s, particularly Danae Clark’s Negotiating Hollywood, emphasize collective-bargaining labor organizations like the Screen Actors Guild (Sag) and focus less on the efforts of individual stars and the strides they made toward professional independence in Hollywood, in addition to omitting any discussion of gender.27 The studies that do focus on individual stars and their place in the industry tend to concentrate primarily on their failed attempts to get out of their seven-year standard contracts. By default, these historical accounts have depicted Hollywood as an all-powerful “grand design” business structure that dwarfed the individual efforts of stars to attain agency within the studio system.
Furthermore, these works do not fully consider the impact that freelance women had on the star system during the 1930s. In this regard, the phenomenon of independent stardom and the opportunities it afforded women in Hollywood extends the vibrant discourse of feminist film historiography in its focus on the underemphasized achievements of women as editors, directors, screenwriters, and producers during the 1910s and ’20s. Furthermore, this vein of scholarship also underscores the importance of primary research in constructing these histories, including written memoirs, fan magazines, audience studies, advertisements, and screenplays. Yet these studies tend to stop short of examining women’s contributions to Hollywood cinema during the sound era and beyond, after the film industry became a big-business enterprise. On this point, Karen Ward Mahar, in her book Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, contends that by the mid-1920s female star power had “diminished, the independent movement had ended, and the gendered studio emerged” to produce a thoroughly masculinized film industry that minimized women’s opportunities for the creative crafts behind the camera.30 However, they were a mainstay in front of the camera in the following decade of sound cinema, when female stars truly did rule the Hollywood screen as top box-office attractions.31 Thus, if we probe further and go beyond the screen to examine the behind-the-scenes negotiations, we find that star autonomy remained intact for some women in the 1930s. In many ways, Independent Stardom picks up where Mahar’s book leaves off; the “independent movement” had not ended, nor had the “gendered studio” snuffed out female autonomy in Hollywood, especially if we examine the occupation most available to women during this time: acting/stardom.32 As Independent Stardom argues, women’s off-screen agency persisted in the 1930s, especially because of the freelance career choices that enhanced their professional opportunities, all of which are illuminated in the studio contracts and legal documents examined in this book.
Starring in a Different Story
Independent Stardom delves deeper into the careers, depictions of stardom, and audience fascination with these freelance actresses of the 1930s. Professional agency is the phrase I use to refer to how these stars used the legal terms of their labor as actors and their unique creative public personae—their “celebrity” images—to attain increased professional visibility in the Hollywood film industry. They did this by bargaining with major studio executives and producers more on their own terms. Together with their contract labor and screen images, their independent stardom engendered a new kind of image (and commodity) in the Hollywood market: the female free agent.
Along these lines, Independent Stardom also explores the plausible reasons as to why women were the ones to dominate independent stardom at first. Chapter 1 considers the industry milieu of 1930s Hollywood to highlight how female stars negotiated the independent avenues made available to them in the studio system. At the time, the industry presumed that women moviegoers made up the overwhelming majority of the motion picture audience in the 1930s; as a result, films were tailored to female consumers and thus gave privileged status to female actors. Likewise, as chapter 2 underscores, women outnumbered their male star counterparts in the freelance realm, thereby making independent stardom in studio-era Hollywood truly a female phenomenon. This is illustrated by the remarkable freelance career trajectories of key female stars over the course of the 1930s, which can be traced in the terms of their individual contracts. Janet Gaynor, Miriam Hopkins, and Carole Lombard each began as studio employees who had long-term option contracts by 1930, but they all decided against re-signing long-term studio contracts in order to become free agents from the mid-1930s onward.33 In contrast, Constance Bennett, Irene Dunne, and Barbara Stanwyck signed limited, non-option contracts beginning in 1930 and were freelancing at several studios by the middle of the decade.
Independence, however, meant different things for different women. In this regard, Independent Stardom considers the flipside of independence in the studio system, as freelancing was not necessarily the ideal choice for working Hollywood women. Indeed, the combination of steady employment and a dependable weekly salary guaranteed by a long-term studio contract was a desirable option to many aspiring actors during the 1930s. (In fact, the major studios employed approximately 500 actors on such contracts.) While the top Hollywood talent bracket had the discretion and leverage to choose freelance employment over a long-term contract, most did not have this option. Chapter 2, then, also considers the reverse experience of Hollywood freelancing through the case studies of the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and Mexican actress Lupe Vélez. While freelance labor was liberating for Anglo A-list stars, actresses of color often experienced an imposed independence that was not necessarily their ambition or personal preference, but was instead determined by Hollywood’s institutionalized discriminatory business practices. Put simply, free agency was a hindrance, rather than an advantage, to their film careers.
But for those women who benefited from freelancing, independent stardom represented the opportunity to take ownership of their off-screen images as well, mainly through advertising campaigns, film fan magazines, and studio publicity, as well as in national newspapers and magazines. In this way, they effectively became architects of their images by correlating their contractual agency with their creative-image commodity. This is the focus of chapter 3, which analyzes how these texts depict a synergy between these women’s careers and their star personae by reporting on their freelance contracts alongside the more traditionally “feminine” aspects of each star’s career—that is, glamour and romance. Thus, the fan and popular press characterized these Hollywood women and their impressive careers as an average experience for the modern working American woman in the 1930s. I argue that these women’s self-promotion of their freelance personae in the popular press reveals how this type of labor became a significant characteristic of their star celebrity that, in turn, further “sold” them to their fans.
Independent Stardom reveals the challenges, merits, and stakes of independence that female stars experienced in 1930s Hollywood. Ultimately, the book aspires to dispel the notion that there was no true agency available to working women in studio-era Hollywood. In fact, this was quite the contrary for a cadre of A-list actresses in the 1930s.
“Carman upends conventional wisdom in this valuable and informative historical study of the business practices of freelance actresses during the 1930s.”
“Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System (published by University of Texas Press) tells a story that can shift perspectives on how Golden Age Hollywood operated.”
The Shepherd Express
“Carman’s work is important, not only as an alternative history of Hollywood labor, but also as guide for working on workers in early cinema.”
Media Industries Journal
“Carman’s study revises common conceptions of Hollywood stardom as a top-down process in which studios controlled stars and constructed their images and governed their labor with iron fists. Through really smart and sharp archival work, Carman fully reworks this picture and shows how a number of women stars in the 1930s were able to pretty much take control of their careers (what films to be in, what image to present to the public, etc.) and make of Hollywood a site of personal entrepreneurship as much as corporate strategy. This is a very important rewriting of Hollywood film history.”
Dana Polan, Professor of Cinema Studies, New York University, and author of Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940–1950 and Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of U. S. Study of Film