restricted access 6. A “ ‘Her-Own-Company’ Epidemic”: Stars as Independent Producers
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chapter six A “ ‘Her-Own-Company’ Epidemic” Stars as Independent Producers A fter 1916, when Hollywood emerged as the moviemaking center of the world, the most powerful individuals were not the nascent movie moguls but the stars of the screen. In the mid-1910s, top stars Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin recognized their worth by demanding, and receiving, exorbitant salaries. Soon more stars demanded gigantic pay hikes. Studios capitulated because proven stars were required. But money was not enough. Beginning with Pickford, actors and actresses demanded control of stories, directors, cast, and even distribution practices within the major studios. In a few cases they got it. But stars and near-stars had another option. Between 1916 and 1923 a second wave of screen actors stampeded to a newly flourishing independent market. Since Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company was defunct, this new independent market consisted of small companies operating outside of, and in competition with, the largest studios. These new star-producers, along with activists and famous names from other fields, created their own companies, where they, or their advisers , could call the shots. The new independent market had the same effect as the old; it put large companies in a double bind: the more popular their stars became, the more likely the stars were to capitalize on that popularity by fleeing to the independent market. Only now the stakes were much higher. Just when the largest Hollywood companies enjoyed a healthy global market and greater respectability on Wall Street, this new wave of renegade stars weakened the established studios by heading for the freedom of the open market in what Photoplay dubbed a “‘her-own-company’ epidemic.”1 Women played a prominent role in the majority of these companies, and the challenge posed by these entrepreneurial stars was almost certainly part of the reason larger studios moved toward vertical integration in the 1920s. Granted, a number of vital elements inspired studios to expand into theater ownership and distribution, but the advent of the star-producer, and the need to curtail the independent market, was a factor. By the mid-1920s, actors had little alternative but employment by the handful of major studios, and their contracts were on the studio’s terms, not the actor’s. But for an extended moment, at least, the “her-own-company” epidemic suggested a different future for Hollywood, a future in which the female stars would play powerful and creative roles behind the screen as well as on it. <= According to a contemporary film-producer-turned-historian the tumultuous changes that rocked the film industry after 1916 began when Mary Pickford’s mother overheard a few Paramount salesmen talking. “As long as we have Mary on the program,” they claimed, “we can wrap everything around her neck.” The salesmen referred to the distribution technique of block booking. Distributors like Paramount, which handled features produced by Famous Players–Lasky, sold films by the block: if theater owners wanted a Pickford movie, they had to take the program of films Paramount offered with it. Charlotte Pickford logically concluded that if an entire program of movies depended on Mary’s popularity, her daughter deserved more. Adolph Zukor, head of Famous Players, agreed. On January 15, 1915, Mary Pickford signed a new contract; she was to receive double her former salary, or $2,000 a week, and, in a stunning display of her newly recognized power, half of the profits from her films.2 Pickford’s 1915 contract only hinted at what was to come. Charlie Chaplin , who made $150 a week in 1914, and $1,250 a week in 1915, easily negotiated a $10,000-a-week salary and a $150,000 bonus from Mutual in 1916.3 Not to be outdone, Pickford’s mid-1916 contract called for $10,000 a week plus a $300,000 signing bonus, a 50 percent share of the profits from her films, and the creation of the Pickford Film Corporation. This contract not only made Mary Pickford the highest-paid star in Hollywood, but it also made her a quasi-independent film producer, with the power to choose her own stories, directors, and cast.4 Pickford and Chaplin were the most powerful individuals in Hollywood because by the mid-1910s industry insiders believed that stardom could not be manufactured. To everyone’s surprise, stage stars generally failed to impress movie audiences. Many were famed for their vocal qualities, and others, past their prime, were unable to replicate their youthful stage Stars as Independent Producers 155 appearance on the screen. Baffled film producers concluded that it was the audience who ultimately made the star.5 This understanding inflated the value of screen favorites, and by 1916 proven movie stars knew that they had producers over a barrel. With Pickford and Chaplin as their models, actors with a public image began demanding vast increases in salaries. By 1917 players accustomed to making $150 or $250 a week were making $1,000 to $1,500 a week. “Within an hour after a star received the promise of a raise,” remembered Benjamin Hampton, “the secret was known on every stage and in every dressing room.” By the next day “a dozen or more cases had to be settled, or the players walked out to find employment with a competitor.”6 A disgusted Photoplay writer editorialized that otherwise intelligent studio managers had “fallen for actors’ graft like children.”7 Stars began using their leverage to reshape the industry to their advantage . Their first target was block booking. Stars complained that they received the weakest scripts while their films were used to sell the product of the entire company. Audiences, they feared, would soon associate their names with poor products. Mary Pickford once again set the precedent by forcing Famous Players–Lasky to market her product separately as a more expensive “star series” in 1916. Higher prices meant that more money could be spent on better productions for the star, which, potentially, would generate an even higher salary. Distributors panicked at the star series idea. Who would want to buy their blocks of films if the most popular stars were missing from the program? W. W. Hodkinson, president of Paramount Pictures Corporation, which distributed the Famous Players–Lasky films, refused to cooperate with the star series idea. The head of Famous Players–Lasky, Adolph Zukor, swiftly acquired a 50 percent share of Paramount stock and forced Hodkinson to resign. Within a few years Famous Players–Lasky movies would simply be known as Paramount films.8 Famous Players–Lasky’s acquisition of Paramount achieved two ends. First, it was more efficient for a studio to distribute its own films. Second, Zukor was right: audiences were willing to pay more to see their favorite stars. But although the higher-priced star series brought in more income, the revenue was still not enough to keep pace with rising costs. Star salaries were but one component. After the wild success of Birth of a Nation (1915) and other elaborate feature films, studios competed with each other on the basis of stars and enhanced production values. To attract audiences, stories had to be meatier, sets more polished, costumes more authentic, directors more professional, camera operators more creative, and even character actors and extras had to demonstrate real talent. To ensure that stars remained 156 “A Business Pure &Simple” favorites,andtoencouragethefurtherpopularityofnear-stars,moviemakers harnessed story, makeup, sets, costume, and lighting to make the most of the leading players. Distribution, advertising, and exhibition practices focused on the star of the film, while publicists planted stories in fan magazines.9 These elements came at a price, and together with star salaries, the cost of making the typical movie more than quadrupled after 1915.10 A pre-1915 two-reeler could be made for a few thousand dollars. By 1917 the average feature film cost between $20,000 and $40,000, and special features cost far more.11 Within a few more years production costs would jump again. In the past many manufacturers ground out cheap serials and short films to fund expensive feature productions. But this was not enough. By 1916 major studios like Famous Players–Lasky, Universal, Vitagraph, and Trianglebeganstreamliningproductionmethodstosavemoney .Thecollaborative filmmakingstylethatdominatedtheprenickelodeonerawasincreasinglyreplacedbythecentral -producersystem.12 Underthissystemefficiencieswere reaped when a central producer, studio head, or production head oversaw all of the studio’s ongoing productions. Directors lost oversight of scripts, casts, props, locations, costumes, and other production details, which were delegated to specialized departments. Although there were exceptions, directors now received fleshed-out scripts from the studio’s continuity writers with instructions for every scene. Studios established rigid schedules for shooting days and required that all expenses, props, and locations be authorized in advance.13 Stars, accustomed to a degree of creative input, also suffered. At most studios actors and actresses could no longer collaborate or even haggle with directors since the directors themselves were under orders. Now stars had to appeal to the central producer—a more formidable proposition—if they did not like the story assigned to them. The rules changed even for top stars and directors. In 1916 Mary Pickford wisely protected her power to choose story and director by making it part of her contract.14 As one might imagine, the stars were not shy about voicing their disapproval over the imposition of what they often referred to as factory methods . The new efficiency methods were, like block booking, believed to cause poor quality. At Universal, where even the studio tour was cancelled in the name of efficiency, a “big shakeup” erupted in the summer of 1916. Among those rumored to be leaving were directors Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley , Otis Turner, Henry McRae, and Hobart Bosworth, plus actors Robert Leonard, Matt Moore, Jane Gail, Mary Fuller, Stella Razeto, and her husband director E. J. Le Saint. In the end only Grace Cunard and Francis Stars as Independent Producers 157 Ford stormed out in protest, but thinly veiled revolts by actors and directors over the erosion of their control were taking place elsewhere.15 As studio relations worsened, the market for independent productions expanded. Between 1916 and 1923, independent film distributors included Universal,Pathé,W.Hodkinson,F.B.Warren,WilliamL.SherryService , Superpictures, Warner’s Features, and First National.16 In addition, the states’rightsmarket,whichsoldtherighttodistributeafilmbyterritory,took a chance on nearly any independent product. As Alfred A. Cohn of Photoplay remarked, “It’s a mighty poor film that cannot see the light of the projection room via the states rights route.” But states’ rights distribution was by no means just for poor quality films. On the contrary, established studios sold exceptional films through the states’ rights system because the potential returns were much higher than through standard distribution channels. Cohn claimed that “in one instance a five-reel film which cost to produce less than $10,000, was sub-rented in one group of states for the sum of $175,000 merely on the publicity of its New York showing.”17 Although the price of filmmaking was daunting, the open market was a powerful lure. LewisJ.Selznick(fatherofDavidO.)wasthefirstindependentproducer to exploit the fortuitous intersection of an open market and disgruntled stars. Selznick stunned the industry when he created a company for film star Clara Kimball Young in 1916. Young, a former Vitagraph star, reached the pinnacle of stardom with the World Film Corporation, formed by Chicago mail-order king Arthur Spiegel, theatrical impresario William A. Brady, and Selznick in 1915.18 When World Film allegedly fired Selznick for excessive self-promotionin1916,heretaliatedbytakingYoungwithhim,creatingthe Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation.19 At this time only Mary Pickford had her own production company, and industry leaders were not pleased at the suggestion of a trend.20 If Clara Kimball Young had her own company, every star would want one. Insiders comforted themselves by asking, “How many Youngs or Pickfords are there in America?”21 As it turned out, there were many. With his wide connections and his own line of film exchanges, Selznick quickly set up independent companies for actresses Kitty Gordon, Norma Talmadge, Alla Nazimova, and director Herbert Brenon.22 It is difficult to know how the established producers felt about this challenge, but the writer of one editorial described the new female star-producer as “the bane of the industry”: At present, four more producing companies headed by women [in addition to Pickford and Young] are actually grinding out plays; one stage star of picture 158 “A Business Pure &Simple” repute is forming her own company, and a lovely minx with whom the country in general has become acquainted only in the last year has a company with a famous director. The motion picture star-system now imminent is as preposterous, anarchistic and insidious an evil as has ever been introduced into dramatic art in America. The power of combination and co-operation, in the arts and in business, is the premier discovery of this era. These alleged artists would drag film-making back to its days of solitary, suspicious feudal inefficiency.23 Within months, the second star-producer movement was in full swing. Joseph Schenck, former booking manager for Marcus Loew’s theatrical enterprises , amusement park developer, and an old friend of Selznick’s, became a film producer when Selznick encouraged him to promote Vitagraph player Norma Talmadge. Schenck married Talmadge and then created the independent Norma Talmadge Film Co. in 1917. He also created a company for her sister, Constance, another former Vitagraph player. The Talmadge sisters exercised some influence over story material, and they received a percentage of their films’ profits, but Schenck enjoyed near total creative control . The Talmadges did not mind, and Schenck proved himself an excellent producer. Schenck formed two companies for male stars as well: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company and Buster Keaton Comedies (another family affair, since Keaton was married to Natalie Talmadge, another sister).24 But overall, companies formed for female stars dominated the movement. The successful exhibitor and distributor Louis B. Mayer imitated Selz­ nick when he created Anita Stewart Productions, Inc., in 1917. Two years earlier Mayer had broken into the production branch of the industry at Metro. With only one lackluster project behind him, the serial The Great Secret , he convinced Stewart, a popular “high-class” Vitagraph actress, to take a chance on independent production under his guidance.25 Mayer offered Stewart three times the money she was making each week at Vitagraph and a company in her own name. Stewart, who was dissatisfied with her directors at Vitagraph, was granted control over stories, cast, and directors. In the summer of 1918 Stewart began making Virtuous Wives, the first of fifteen films produced by Anita Stewart productions.26 By the middle of 1917 a “‘her-own-company’ epidemic” raged among actresses.27 The independent companies created by Selznick, Schenck, and Mayer were not created by the stars themselves, but they proved to stars who wanted to create their own independent companies that it could be Stars as Independent Producers 159 done. Small firms formed around the star-producer appeared (and disappeared ) with regularity during this period. Deposed Paramount president W. W. Hodkinson formed a company in 1917 to offer independent filmmakers both production financing and distribution.28 Robertson-Cole, a banking and export company, entered the film business in 1918, “acting as a banker and exclusive agent for manufacturers of high-grade pictures.”29 In 1921 the Great Northern Finance Corporation offered funding for production , distribution, and exhibition.30 With financing, studio rental space, and ready distribution outlets the freedoms and possibilities of the independent market were irresistible. Stars who formed, or who were planning to form, their own companies included Olga Petrova (1917), Marie Dressler (1917), Bessie Barriscale (1917), Lois Meredith (1917), Marie Doro (1918), Gail Kane (1918), Louise Glaum (1918), Virginia Pearson (1918), Theda Bara (1919), Alma Rubens (1919), Leah Baird (1920), Madame Mureal (1920), Ethel Clayton (1920), Irene Castle (1920), Justine Johnstone (1921), Juanita Hansen (1921), Mae Marsh (1921), Vivian Martin (1921), Dorothy Gish (1922), and Priscilla Dean (1923).31 By the early 1920s a number of male stars, such as Sessue Hayakawa, Tom Mix, J. Walter Kerrigan, and Jack Pickford , also formed their own companies, but women dominated the trend.32 <= Faced with massive defections, studios quickly dismantled the more odious aspects of their efficiency efforts. Companies like Famous Players–Lasky and Metro returned to the earlier mode of production for their most popular stars and directors, creating quasi-independent companies that functioned in essentially the same way as the earlier director units. In these companies stars typically exercised some choice in the matter of story, cast, and director , and they usually earned a percentage of the profits from their films. At Famous Players–Lasky new quasi-independent companies were headed by (among others) Marguerite Clark, Geraldine Farrar, and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as by directors D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.33 In 1917 the two-year-old Metro company announced that it was creating units headed by Edith Storey, Viola Dana, and Emmy Wehlen. In 1918 actress Peggy Hyland , a former Vitagraph star, was given her own company at the Fox Film Corporation.34 Although little is known about most of these companies, it appears that stars exercised at least some degree of creative control within the companies formed under their names, either by choosing their own stories , casts, and directors or by delegating these decisions to male producers and managers of their choice. 160 “A Business Pure &Simple” With the expansion of the independent market, the screen was theo­reti­ cally wide open. Rank amateurs were being squeezed out because of the increased cost of filmmaking, but anyone able to draw financial support could still make it to the screen.35 As in the early 1910s, women who were not screen stars figured prominently in post-1916 filmmaking ventures. Two women joined a growing effort to reach ethnic audiences by creating companies geared toward Asian Americans. Mrs. E. L. Greer headed the Fujiyama FeatureFilmCompany,whichwasformedin1916 toproducefilmsinJapan for U.S. release, and Marion E. Wong became president of the Mandarin Film Company, established in Oakland in 1917. Both companies, however, were short-lived.36 America’s entry into World War I inspired other women filmmakers. In 1916 Agnes Egan Cobb, first noted in 1913 as the only female sales manager in the industry, produced America Preparing, which depicted the training of U.S. troops. For unknown reasons it was her only venture into production . By 1921 Cobb was head of the New York–based Motion Picture Enterprises, apparently a sales company, listing branch offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, Yokohama, London, and Montreal.37 Rita Jolivet, an actress who survived the sinking of the Lusitania, turned her experience into a WWI propaganda film with her husband. Lest We Forget (1918) featured a re-creation of the Lusitania disaster. Jolivet explained: “If I could make every woman understand how much her services are needed if only to save a teaspoonful of flour a day,” her purpose in making the film would be fulfilled .38 The members of the Stage Women’s War Relief organization, all prominent stage actresses, funded a motion picture theater for soldiers at a large New York hospital and produced twelve films. Stage stars volunteered to appear in the company’s films, one of which was written by its president, Rachel Crothers. Film veteran Eugene Spitz supervised production at the Estee studios in New York City, and they were released on the Universal program.39 One interesting example from this era is the Helen Keller Film Cor­ poration, which made the autobiographical Deliverance (1919).40 Film importer and producer George Kleine financed the film, but the origin of the Helen Keller film company itself is unclear. According to the New York Times, which took great interest in the film, Keller “actually supervised the production of the entire picture, often causing changes to be made in the arrangements for certain bits of acting and setting.” “It is my life,” she told the Times, “and it must be shown just as I have lived it.” George Foster Platt directed Keller by explaining what action he wanted and then cued her by Stars as Independent Producers 161 a system of stamps on the floor.41 Deliverance was called one of the “triumphs of the moving picture,” but despite critical acclaim, the film was a financial failure. The Times’ gentle criticism—that “in places it is overburdened with moralizing, and its optimism is sometimes spread too thickly”—hinted at the cause.42 Years of exhibiting Deliverance to schools and colleges could not make up the difference. By 1928 George Kleine claimed that he was left “about $64,000 in the hole.”43 Stage entertainers also leapt into independent film production. Metro created a production unit for a Hawaiian dancer and café proprietor known as “Madame Doraldina” in 1919.44 Doraldina made at least two features for Metro in 1920, the Hawaiian-themed Passion Fruit and The Woman Untamed , the latter awkwardly described as a film in which the actress “lands among the cannibals but she has strange influences over them and this leads to a strange romance.”45 The next year she announced that she was “seeking a suitable vehicle for her first stellar production under her own banner,” but no further productions appeared.46 Doraldina’s self-promotion paled next to that of vaudeville star Eva Tanguay, who formed a company in 1916 after “waiting vainly for some moneyed film magnate to meet her price of $10,000 a week.” The popular Tanguay, who reputedly spent more than any other vaudevillian on publicity, thus produced her first film, Energetic Eva, with her own money. Little is known about the film or how it was received .47 When Tanguay announced that she was returning to vaudeville, Photoplay observed that the waters of independent film production “must have been chilly.”48 Tanguay returned to independent production once more in 1917 in The Wild Girl. This time, however, her company was under the aegis of Lewis J. Selznick.49 Although the market was fluid, and financing and distribution deals were available, making pictures as a star-producer was much more difficult than collecting a weekly salary from an established studio. Many of the stars who left the comfort of the studios regretted their decision. Others truly preferred control irrespective of the consequences and pushed ahead despite the obstacles, illustrating the strong desire of many stars to control their own work and shape their own films. <= The career of Nell Shipman, one of the few star-producers who left behind a detailed account of her activities, illustrates the formidable problems facing the star-producer. In 1919 Shipman, a minor Vitagraph star and an experienced scenario writer, partnered with nature writer James Oliver 162 “A Business Pure &Simple” Curwood.WhenCurwoodwantedtomakehisownsequeltothe1915Vita­graph production of God’s Country and the Woman, a film based on one of his novels, he wanted Shipman to star in the film, since she had played the starring role in the original. Shipman also brought to the new company her skills as an experienced scenarist. Back to God’s Country (1919) proved a boxoffice success despite the fact that Curwood detested Shipman’s treatment of his novel. According to Shipman the author was angry over the powerful role given to the heroine; the hero of the original short story was a dog. Curwood vowed never to work with Shipman again, but Shipman was now happily typecast as his popular “Girl from God’s Country,” a plucky, outdoorsy , serial-type action heroine. Furthermore, Shipman was convinced that she could successfully produce her own Curwood-style outdoor films. She established Nell Shipman Productions in 1920 and installed herself as producer, writer, editor, and star.50 Her partner, codirector, and live-in companion was Bert Van Tuyle, the dashing but hard-drinking production manager she fell for on the set of God’s Country and the Woman.51 Shipman’s first independent film was Something New (1920). Although ShipmanwroteascenarioinvolvingaNewWoman–styledaredevilheroine, it was a thinly disguised advertisement for the Maxwell automobile and not really what she originally had in mind for a Nell Shipman production. But flush with cash after this extended commercial, Shipman started The Girl from God’s Country (1922), exploiting her taste for the Curwood-type story and her proven popularity in the role. According to Kay Armatage, Shipman and Van Tuyle formed a board of directors in Spokane, Washington, and the budget of $250,000 was to be raised through stock sales.52 Shipman played a dual role as the white daughter of an airplane manufacturer and as the “half-breed” daughter of a native of the North, shot in double exposure . Despite the wilderness theme, the film contained scenes of luxury that required expensive sets and costumes, airplanes, an expanding zoo of wild animals, and a well-paid crew. Ultimately it cost twice its estimated budget . Van Tuyle and Shipman spent four months editing the film (apparently twice as long as the estimated time for the entire production). The finished film, at twelve reels long, premiered at Clune’s Broadway Theater in September 1921. A reviewer noted it would have made a fine serial and paid particular attention to Shipman’s trademark work with wild animals.53 Shipman discovered that even for independents, financial entanglements meant giving up some control. After the extremely long feature premiered, Shipman caught a showing and discovered that the distributor had excised three reels of footage without her permission—a direct violation of Stars as Independent Producers 163 her contract. Whether it helped the film is impossible to say; the reviewer for Variety, who may have seen the original twelve-reeler, advised Shipman to “stick to acting in the future.” In any case a furious Shipman claimed to haveboughtfull-pagenoticesinvarioustradepublicationsaskingexhibitors to boycott the “slaughtered” film. (Armatage blames the overly long, overbudget film on Van Tuyle’s “delusions of grandeur,” but Shipman’s efforts to keep the film intact suggest that she shared his vision.) For these actions, Shipman claimed, she was drummed out of certain powerful sectors of Hollywood . Ultimately, when Shipman and Van Tuyle refused to edit the film themselves, the company canceled its contract and took control of the film and its distribution. Shipman and Van Tuyle made no money from the film.54 Their next film, The Grub Stake (1922), was a convoluted melodrama with elements of white slavery in a Klondike setting. The financial backing for this project was precarious. Shipman and Van Tuyle sold their California home and automobile and put their household goods in storage. They sold $180,000 in shares to three hundred businessmen, all of whom wanted to know how their money was being spent. This became a serious problem when Shipman ran out of funds before shooting was finished. Too intimidated to ask for more money, Shipman sent her cast home minus two week’s pay after the film was finished. The disgruntled actors lay in wait, planning to seize the negative when Shipman arrived in Hollywood to edit the film. Shipman managed to get the finished film to New York, where negotiations between producers and distributors took place. A novice, Shipman fell for the poker faces of the trade show audience and sold distribution rights for The Grub Stake to the first bidder. She soon realized she had been taken. The price was far too low. The only profit she made was $4,500 for her personal appearances in connection with the film.55 Financially diminished, but still hopeful,ShipmanbuiltarusticstudioatPriestLake,Idaho.Thereshehoped to film more outdoor spectacles, but the rigors of the Idaho wilds were more than she had estimated. Her last two films were made while her company wasalmostcompletelybroke.Whenfinished,thefilmswerequickly“given” to Selznick to distribute. Nell Shipman Productions collapsed in 1924, and Shipman returned to Hollywood to work as a scenario writer.56 Clara Kimball Young was a far greater star than Nell Shipman, and unlike Shipman she enjoyed a period of great success as an independent producer. But she also made films with male partners, and here, too, it is tempting to at least partly blame her personal ties for her ultimate failure. In 1916, when Lewis J. Selznick left the World Film Corporation and created the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation, he appointed Young vice president 164 “A Business Pure &Simple” and treasurer, while he assumed the office of president.57 Young, like many actresses, “helped revise and reconstruct dozens of stories” earlier in her career , and judging from her later statements it appears that she had strong production ideas.58 The Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation released four successful seven-reel features: The Common Law (1916), The Foolish Virgin (1916), The Easiest Way (1917), and The Price She Paid (1917). In the summer of 1917 Young sued Selznick for fraud, claiming that he denied her a “voice” in her own company and hid her share of the profits through a “manipulation of corporations” when he set up Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises , Inc., as distributor. She only received her actress’s salary of $1,000 a week.59 Because Young’s contract did not expire until September 1921, Selznick countersued for breach of contract. Selznick stated that Young received 499,000 shares of stock in the company, and furthermore, she was now taking the advice of Harry Garson, whom she “induced” her company to elect to its board of directors and with whom she was now planning to produce films.60 Just two months after Young sued Selznick, Moving Picture World reported that Young had “finally realized her ambition to be the head of her own producing company,” with Harry Garson as business manager. Young established an office in New York City, and according to Moving Picture World, she chose her own stories, casts, and directors.61 A few weeks later Margaret I. McDonald of Moving Picture World interviewed a “businesslike ” Young, who waxed forth on interiors, exteriors, and the transition from stage to screen but said nothing about her new company.62 The powerful Adolph Zukor created the C. K. Y. Film Corporation to distribute her product , and Young leased studios to make ten feature films, some of the most critically acclaimed of her career, including The Road through the Dark (1918) and Cheating Cheaters (1919). Garson announced in 1918 that Young would build “her own studio” in Pasadena, but their plans changed: Garson and Young sued C. K. Y. Film Corporation for “flagrant violations of the terms” of their contract in January 1919. Ironically, that company was under the supervision of Lewis J. Selznick, who distributed her films through Select Pictures Corporation. Select owned all of its stock of the C. K. Y. Film Corporation outright. It appeared to be another “manipulation of corporations.” As he did earlier, Selznick countersued for breach of contract. In June of 1919 Selznick won a settlement in which Young was to pay the C. K. Y. Film Corporation $25,000 for each of her next ten pictures. A week later Garson created a new producing firm, the Fine Arts Film Corporation, exclusively for Young, who now worked out of the Harry Garson Studios in Los AngeStars as Independent Producers 165 les. Her films were distributed by another new firm, Equity Pictures Corporation .Underthisconfigurationshemadehermostfamoussurvivingfilm, Eyes of Youth (1919), which included a young Rudolph Valentino. The period 1916 to 1920 was the peak of Clara Kimball Young’s career as an actress and an independent producer and perhaps as the dominant filmmaker partner. When a U.S. district court judge found that Young and Garson were illegally keeping the profits of her films, rather than distributing to Selznick his $25,000 per picture, it was Young who received $114,000 of the profits, to Garson’s $75,000.63 Despite her legal problems, Young kept making films and renewed her contract with Equity for a year in December 1920. Moving Picture World reported that she was still choosing her stories and cast, as well as taking an interest in “photographing, color, and developing .” But she no longer chose the director, as Harry Garson himself directed her films, including Hush (1920), Midchannel (1920), and The Soul of Rafael (1920).64 Clara Kimball Young’s career reached its pinnacle during the war years. As late as 1921 thousands entered a contest to draw her famous eyes, the mayor of Houston presented her with the keys to the city, and a ten-week publicity tour in that summer created headlines and hundreds of columns of print. But these activities were due to the abilities of Equity’s publicist, Milton Crandall.65 Young suffered under Garson’s poor direction, and their finances were in shambles. According to historian Henry R. Davis, at one point Selznick promised to forgive Young all her debts if she got rid of Garson , and Adolph Zukor remarked that he would pay her $7,000 a week and 25 percent of the profits from her films if she would do the same.66 By October 1921 Young and Garson failed to repay $15,000 in promissory notes, prompting yet another lawsuit. Young made three more silent films, but Garson ultimately lost his production company, and her popularity waned. By the mid-1920s she worked onstage in touring companies and in vaudeville , and for a time the sharp-witted Young lived with her aunt in the Algonquin Hotel at the height of the Round Table.67 <= Independent production was difficult, especially without powerful allies . Fortunately, the independent movement received an enormous boost in 1917 when a group of angry theater owners created First National, a distributor -exhibitor combination that sought high-class independent product for its lucrative first-run screens. Zukor instigated the creation of First National when he began using 166 “A Business Pure &Simple” strong-arm tactics in 1916 and 1917. He tried to force theaters to book only Famous Players–Lasky/Paramount product by threatening to “prefer” theaters that did so, hinting that exhibitors who refused would no longer receive the popular Paramount product. This put exhibitors in a tight spot. Although their first instinct was to boycott FPL/Paramount for Zukor’s aggressive arrogance, his studio still had the biggest stars in the movies. If competitors got Zukor’s product, how could exhibitors keep their patrons? And even if they kept their patrons, how would they find enough features to make up for the loss of Paramount films?68 The owners of several important first-run theaters realized that if they created a distribution system among themselves and recruited top-notch independent producers, they could afford to shut out the obnoxious Zukor and keep their screens “free.” On February 1, 1917, twenty-three exhibitors with a total of 117 theaters formed First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, Inc. The franchise members agreed to show all the films First National would provide (not enough to monopolize the screen), and they agreed to organize their own exchanges to sell or rent the pictures to other exhibitors, or subfranchises, in their territories. Exhibitors were free to rent films from any other exchanges, but now they secured a reliable source of non-Paramount product.69 In effect exhibitors fought Zukor on his own terms: as he integrated forward with the acquisition of the distribution company Paramount in 1916, becoming a producer-distributor, First National exhibitors integrated backward, becoming distributor-exhibitors. As of that time, no single company had attempted to do all three: produce, distribute, and exhibit. It must be remembered that First National was established, above all, to protect the exhibitors’ freedom to choose what to put on their screens. But to would-be independent producers, at least half of whom were female stars, First National was a godsend. By 1918 First National snapped up the two most popular stars in Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. First National attracted the two top stars in Hollywood by granting them comfortablebudgets,allowingthemcompleteartisticfreedom,andensuring that their products would be distributed to first-run theaters. Chaplin, who made two-reelers, still the standard format for comedies, received $125,000 to produce each film, while Pickford received $250,000 up front for each of her features. After 30 percent of the profits were subtracted to cover distribution costs and all other costs were accounted for, First National split the profits equally with its producers. With some two hundred first-run theaters controlled by First National, both Chaplin and Pickford expected Stars as Independent Producers 167 tomakeabout$1millionayearfromthisarrangement.70 Inaddition,LouisB. Mayer contracted with First National to release Anita Stewart Productions, and in December of 1918 Norma Talmadge Productions Co. signed a twoyear contract with First National. Joseph Schenck bragged that the lucrative deal would fulfill “an ambition I have cherished for more than a year” to “pay the price demanded for big stories” and make “bigger pictures.”71 With the rise of First National the independent producer stood on equal footing with the old-line producers. Because most of the strongest independent producers , Chaplin excepted, were those promoting female stars, First National appeared to assure the future not only of the independent movement but of an industry in which some women enjoyed as much—if not more—power than men. As soon as First National flexed its muscle, the established studios, particularly FPL/Paramount, moved in to destroy it and the power of the stars.72 Many industry insiders realized that even First National resented the way stars’ salary demands inflated film costs. And many realized that a merger between First National and FPL/Paramount would cripple the independent movement and with it the leverage held by movie stars. Even in its infancy First National was not trusted by the producers who fed it. Paranoia deepened when conversations allegedly overheard at First National’s 1919 exhibitor’s convention indicated that a proposed merger was in the works, one that would allow studios to “tell the stars just where to get off in the matter of salary.”73 According to Charlie Chaplin, when he, Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks (now Pickford’s husband) heard the rumors, they hired a female detective to check the facts. While dining with the spy, an unnamed “executive of an important producing company” bragged that “he and his associates were forming a forty-million-dollar merger of all the producing companies” and that “they intended putting the industry on a proper business basis, instead of having it run by a bunch of crazy actors getting astronomical salaries.”74 Shortly thereafter, Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, William S. Hart, and D. W. Griffith organized United Artists, a company created to finance and distribute their independently made films. Their signed statement claimed that they were taking this step to end the coercive practice of block booking and to “protect the great motion picture public from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment.”75 The big merger never took place. Instead, Zukor now found himself facing not only First National but United Artists, a small company with powerful star appeal. By 1920–21 the biggest box-office draws in the movies 168 “A Business Pure &Simple” worked independently. At United Artists the most popular names on the screen worked for themselves. At First National stars working for their own independent production companies included Norma and Constance Talmadge , Katherine MacDonald, Mabel Normand, Miriam Cooper, Mr. and Mrs. Carter De Haven, Marguerite Clark, Florence Vidor, Anita Stewart, Pola Negri, Hope Hampton, Colleen Moore, Louise Glaum, and Annette Kellerman. First National also attracted the best directors: Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett, Marshall Neilan, Jane Murfin and Larry Trimble, Hobart Bosworth, King Vidor, J. L. Frothingham, Allan Dwan, Maurice Tourneur, and Allen Holubar, who worked in partnership with his wife, star Dorothy Phillips.76 All the while, however, Zukor worked on an alternative plan. He would test the underlying validity of the star system itself. Jesse Lasky was one step ahead of him. Lasky spearheaded a view of the director as the pivot of production and exceptional directors (like Cecil B. DeMille) as worthy of top billing, instead of the star. A 1915 letter from Lasky to Samuel Goldwyn claimed, “You know the public go to see a Griffith production, not because it may have a star in the cast, but because Griffith’s name on it stands for so much. It seems to me that the time has come for us to do the same with Cecil’s name.”77 In 1918 DeMille got his chance to make “all-star” (really no star) films at FPL/Paramount. Zukor built Famous Players by attracting three-quarters of the industry’s top stars, but if DeMille was successful, the results would take power back from the stars and return it to the studios .78 DeMille’s “all-star” productions, which included his postwar marital farces such as Old Wives for New (1918), were enormously successful. Spending only $40,000 to $70,000 a film, he was able to earn $350,000 to $380,000, or about the same as a star vehicle costing many times more to produce. Following his lead, other notable FPL/Paramount directors, including D. W. Griffith (before his move to United Artists) and Lois Weber, were entrusted to make films without stars. Ultimately it was FPL/Paramount director George Loane Tucker who gained sudden notoriety for the extraordinary success of his no-star film, The Miracle Man (1919). The film cost only $120,000 to produce and earned an astounding $3,000,000. The relatively unknown Betty Compson, who played the female lead, was paid only $125 a week for her work on the film.79 In 1920 Famous Players– Lasky announced the abolition of its star system.80 This was hyperbole; a major component of the “all-star” strategy was the judicious development of selected players by the studio. The “all-star” film was based on the premise that the best directors on the lot could create the stars of the future—and pay Stars as Independent Producers 169 them cheaply while they did so.81 After the success of The Miracle Man Betty Compson became a star, and by 1920 she had her own independent production company, but the writing was on the wall.82 The success of The Miracle Man placed the power enjoyed by Hollywood stars in jeopardy. A movie did not need an established star to reap huge returns at the box office. Moreover, the studio, as much as the public, held the power to confer stardom by placing actors in the right vehicles and under the right directors. After 1920 the quasi-independent production companies created for stars within the major studios began to disappear. Stars still received more freedom and rewards, but the heyday of the star-producer inside the major studios was over.83 The independent market still existed outside the major studios, but that market was in jeopardy as well. If major studios produced, distributed, and exhibited films in their own theaters, where could independent films go? Some studios, like Vitagraph, had their own showcase theaters years earlier, but a chain of theaters controlled by a major producer could shut out independent producers. Several theater chains owned by several major studios could shut down the independent market altogether. Historians agree that Zukor’s decision in 1919 to begin buying and controlling first-run theaters was inspired by his battle with First National. Wall Street underwriters Kuhn, Loeb, and Co. arranged a loan for Zukor of $10 million to integrate forward into exhibition. With this money he not only built Paramount-controlled theaters, but he built them—or threatened to build them—in the same neighborhoods as First National franchises.84 The only way for First National to effectively fight Famous Players–Lasky/ Paramount was to become vertically integrated itself. Although First National had its own producers, this was not easy. Since First National’s raison d’être was to fight the powers of integrated firms like FPL/Paramount, it was deliberately decentralized.85 Nevertheless, in 1919 First National centralized control, renaming itself Associated First National Pictures. The controlling owners placed company stock in a voting trust to guard against takeovers, and the firm’s distribution exchanges were placed under the purview of the expanded head office.86 In 1922 First National brought its quasi-independent production companies to the same Burbank studio.87 After the move to Burbank these companies remained intact, at least in name. Once there, however, First National slowly began to impose the central-producer system, the dreaded “factory methods,” thus undermining its independence. From the point of view of its exhibitors, exchange managers, and producers, First National was begin170 “A Business Pure &Simple” ning to look a lot like Paramount. Some were upset, but others undoubtedly saw that the entire industry was becoming centralized. Many of the founding members of First National were exhibitors, after all, who had become powerful by transforming their individual theater businesses into regional chains.88 Although few recognized it at the time, this was the end of the World War I–era independent movement and the end of the line for female -headed production companies. The fate of Corinne Griffith productions illustrates these developments. In1923theVitagraphstarleftherstudio(andherhusband)toformCorinne Griffith Productions, Inc., with Edward Small and Charles R. Rogers acting as business managers. Griffith’s personal contract with Corinne Griffith Productions,Inc.,wasstandard:asthestar-producersheenjoyedapprovalof story, director, and male lead. But Griffith’s contract contained a significant new clause. In the event of a creative dispute First National held the right to make final decisions. This clause was much more explicit in the contract drawn up between Small and Rogers and First National. First National had the “power to make all contracts and incur all expenditures, and disburse all funds,” and most important, First National retained the right to supervise production.89 Several weeks into the making of Black Oxen, her first film for First National, Griffith realized that she possessed almost no creative control .90 Unaware of the details of the contract between her business managers and First National, Griffith sent a letter to Small and Rogers accusing them of giving First National “personal supervision” over all her films without her permission. “Excepting for the right to approve stories,” she claimed, “none of you have anything whatever to say about the production of pictures.” Claiming breach of contract, Griffith stopped working.91 Three weeks later Griffith sent a terse apology. She realized that neither she nor her business partners retained the degree of creative control enjoyed by star-producers just a few years earlier. In her apology, Griffith agreed that First National “will do the submitting of stories, directors and actor to perform in the male leadingpartstome,”andsheagreedtomakeherfilmsonthesamelotasother First National units.92 Corinne Griffith Productions lasted, at least in name, until 1925, but her company clearly did not give her the power enjoyed by earlier star-producers . Griffith was conceded some creative control but within strict boundaries that would not interfere with efficient production practices. In her 1925 contract she was allowed to choose one of four stories, one of three directors, and her own leading man, as long as he did not demand a salary higher than he had received in previous films. All of these choices were to Stars as Independent Producers 171 be made within stringent time limits. Worst of all, First National denied Griffith the greatest financial asset of the star-producer, a share of the profits . On straight salary now, Corinne Griffith exercised no more power than any other star at a major studio, despite having her “own” production company .93 Anita Stewart’s affiliation with Louis B. Mayer and First National did not pan out as she had hoped either. Granted her own company and allegedly given creative control, Stewart was coerced into accepting mediocre scripts that could not be fixed by high production values or top-rated directors (including Lois Weber). After her contract with Mayer expired in 1922, she left to join William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan studio, where she made three films and then faded from view. She later wondered if she would have been better off staying with Vitagraph.94 FirstNational,thebanneroftheindependentmovement,becameanother producer-distributor-exhibitor combination. At the production level it imposed economies of scale by centralizing filmmaking activities and limiting the creative freedom of its employees. It had its own distribution system, saving the expense of a “middleman,” and its own chain of first-run theaters, just like Famous Players–Lasky/Paramount. Even the source of the star’s power, audience demand, appeared to dissipate after the war. “The only plays that have been a great success recently,” said Jesse Lasky in 1920, “have been those that have had a big, popular theme and have been well cast and directed.”95 For the next two years the trend continued. Many insiders blamed the postwar Hollywood scandals. Stars once envied for “living like gods and goddesses in their gorgeous mansions , with their swimming pools, costly limousines, and luxurious clothes” looked like obnoxiously spoiled children.96 Others thought that movie audiences were showing signs of “maturity.” The end result was the same: it appeared that postwar audiences did not always place the stars’ names above all other considerations when choosing a film.97 By 1922 the trend was confirmed. Moving Picture World reported a “world-wide” survey conducted by producer Thomas Ince that established “beyond dispute the new tendency on the part of the public” to “accept big pictures without outstanding stars.”98 In an apparent effort to begin fresh, Famous Players–Lasky formed the Paramount School at its Astoria studio, where twenty-four young “winners” of a national search assembled to learn acting, makeup, costume, dancing, driving, and other screen crafts. At the same time, the studio announced that Paramount actors were “expected to 172 “A Business Pure &Simple” play any part assigned to them,” since “ability to do good work can be demonstrated as well in a small bit as in a leading role.”99 <= Perhaps the most important factor in the apparent decline of Americans’ love affair with movie stars came from the rise of the “picture palace” after World War I. Now there was something even more spectacular than the star to encourage patrons to go to the movies. Modeled on elaborate opera houses and legitimate theaters, the new picture palaces offered luxury to the masses. Marbled bathrooms, crystal chandeliers, and velvet draperies pleased the eye, and a coterie of uniformed ushers made sure that each patronwasseatedincomfort .Asthe1920sdawned,thesepicturepalacesmultiplied and became even grander, many of them designed to place patrons in an exotic environment—an Egyptian temple (Grauman’s Egyptian, 1922), an Italian garden (Houston’s Majestic, 1923), or Oriental splendor (Grauman ’s Chinese, 1927).100 The picture palaces themselves now became the main attraction. Half the evening’s entertainment consisted of slickly produced live acts featuring locally or even nationally famous musicians, singers , dancers, and actors.101 Patrons came not just for the movies but for the whole experience. By 1925, when Chicago chain Balaban and Katz merged with FPL/Paramount to create the huge Publix Paramount chain, its slogan was “you don’t need to know what’s playing at a Publix House. It’s bound to be the best show in town.”102 As new producer-distributor-exhibitor combinations appeared, they no longer focused on capturing stars but on building huge new picture palaces. Exhibitors integrated backward to obtain a steady source of films for their screens, while producers concentrated on buying or securing access to firstrun theaters. Marcus Loew, owner of the largest chain of luxury theaters in New York, bought the ailing Metro in early 1920 to secure a source of films, and movie producer Samuel Goldwyn had gained an interest in about thirty theaters by 1921. In 1924 Loew’s, Inc., bought out the struggling Goldwyn Pictures, acquiring its huge Culver City studio, and it bought Louis B. Mayer’s small but efficient independent operation. Loew named his large new production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; thus MGM was formed to supply films for Loew’s theaters rather than vice-versa.103 By the time the dust settled in the late 1920s, there were five “majors”: Paramount , MGM/Loew’s, Warner Brothers (which bought First National), 20thCentury–Fox,andRKO,allofwhichhadtheirownchainsoffirst-run Stars as Independent Producers 173 theaters. United Artists was an exception. With its high-quality product and star appeal, United Artists was able to supply not only its own theaters but other first-run theaters as well. The relatively theaterless Universal , however, became only a minor production studio, whose product was aimed at the subsequent-run neighborhood theaters.104 The huge producer-distributor-exhibitor combinations with their lux­ urious picture palaces eliminated the individual star-producer on three counts. First,thepicturepalacescreatedadifferentkindofdemand—thatforthe show, not just the star. Second, by roughly splitting the market among themselves, the new majors cooperated more than they competed.105 Movie stars were still valuable, and were well compensated, but the outrageous competitive bidding for their services ended. Third, and most important, the control of first-run theaters enjoyed by the integrated majors made it harder for independent productions to reach first-run screens. Without lucrative first-run exhibition, production financing was nearly impossible to secure.106 The majors still needed some films made by independent producers to fill their screens, however. In1925 and 1926, 248 of 696 new releases were independently distributed through the states’ rights method, but as the scale of the industry grew, the smaller independents were marginalized.107 Indeed , the new majors argued that they were doing the industry a service by eliminating its shakier elements, and many investors agreed.108 And with stardom no longer the only means of winning at the box office, most surviving star-producers were lumped in with other “fly-by-night” companies.109 By1925evenJosephSchenckofUnitedArtists,thecompanybegunbystarproducers , said, “It would be a good thing if the so-called ‘independents,’ who are raising so much agitation about being put out of business, actually were out of business.”110 By 1925 investors were more interested in whether the director was a “successatkeepingwithintimeandcostschedule”andinthedistributionarrangements than they were in whether or not a picture boasted a star. Small independents, including star-producers, began to vanish, while investors and major studios applauded the “maturing” of the industry.111 By the midto -late 1920s, even states’ rights distributors, traditionally the most open to any kind of producer, began favoring the larger “poverty row” companies like Columbia and Monogram over the individual producer.112 <= There was one promising place where the ambitious star-producer might go in the 1920s, but it was by invitation only. From the beginning the part174 “A Business Pure &Simple” ners of United Artists—Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Griffith (who left for Paramount in 1924)—recruited the biggest names in Hollywood to join them. United Artists offered partial financing and distribution, and by 1926 it had its own small chain of first-run theaters and distribution arrangements with the major studios.113 The original partners envisioned UA as a company run by independent stars and directors who worked for themselves, but they initially attracted producers. Joseph Schenck transferred Norma and Constance Talmadge from First National to United Artists in 1924, and a few years later he convinced Buster Keaton to move to UA. Producer Samuel Goldwyn joined UA in 1925 but only wanted to release films he financed elsewhere. Two authentic star-producers did join the ranks of United Artists in the 1920s, however, and both were women.114 Alla Nazimova, a stage phenomenon who shot to film fame in 1916 in the pacifist War Brides, joined United Artists in 1922. At this time UA was just emerging from a rocky adolescence, in which it had difficulty breaking into first-run theaters and attracting investors. In fact, UA had tried to recruit Nazimova, a powerful star, much earlier. Nazimova, who made $13,000 a week at Metro and headed Nazimova Productions, was in the same league as Pickford and Chaplin, with a reputation as a legitimate “artiste” to boot. Nazimova hesitated to assume the risks of independent production at first, particularly since UA producers were required to invest much of their own money in their productions. But she thought her films for Metro (1918–21) were lackluster, and in 1922 she took a chance with UA, believing that she could do better on her own. As a UA partner Nazimova released a film version of her stage triumph, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1922), and then quickly launched her most grandiose personal vision, Salome (1923), a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play.115 Salome is remembered today as a campy and over-the-top indulgence; in 1923 it was radically highbrow. Nazimova’s friend Natacha Rambova (wife of Rudolph Valentino) designed the fantastical and sensual Aubrey Beardsley –inspired costumes and settings, and Nazimova, as the lithe Salome, appeared in a brief shift and a bubble headdress. In Wilde’s play Salome is King Herod’s stepdaughter who desires the imprisoned John the Baptist. When King Herod sees her in the dance of the seven veils, he promises to give her whatever she desires. Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist , which she kisses after his decapitation. As Patricia White notes, Nazimova ’s Salome was rife with homosexual as well as heterosexual overtones (she was known for her lesbian affairs).116 Hiram Abrams, president of Stars as Independent Producers 175 United Artists, reportedly objected to releasing Salome, but Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks “declared themselves for it in every way.”117 A producer , probably Abrams, summed up the shaky position of most UA producers when he said, “‘She’s putting up all the dough herself. If they flop [A Doll’s House and Salome], it’s her hard luck.’”118 Indeed. Audiences were put off by Salome’s pretentiousness and stayed home in droves. Nazimova lost everything. Although she continued to act, primarily on the stage, she never recovered financially.119 Gloria Swanson was a huge star when she joined UA in 1925. Ironically, Cecil B. DeMille’s “all-star” (no-star) postwar marital farces had turned Swanson into the biggest star of the decade. To keep her, Paramount offered to raise her salary from $6,500 a week to $18,000 a week, and then a flat $1 million a year, but Swanson believed that Paramount’s strategy would soon burn out her stardom. In her mind the potential rewards of becoming an independent producer were worth the risk: “I hated making four pictures a year. At UA I could make one or two a year . . . I hated making silly formula pictures to please the studio and the public. At UA I could choose my own stories. I hated contracts and red tape and tight leashes. At UA I would be my own bossand the equal of the founding artists.”120 Swanson’s 1925 UA contract stipulated six films, $100,000 of preferred stock, and the creation of the Swanson Producing Corporation.121 Swanson soon found that she “could never expect to do anything simply again.” Renting a studio, hiring a director, and finding her cast were all more difficult than she had anticipated. Her first film, The Love of Sunya (1927), took nine months to make instead of six weeks, and her next, Sadie Thompson (1928), ran into tremendous turbulence from the Hays Office, which insisted—to Swanson’s bitter anger—on corresponding with UA manager Joseph Schenck instead of Swanson herself. “They refuse to recognize me as a producer,” she complained to Schenck. “They expect you to handle me like a silly, temperamental star.”122 The Love of Sunya opened the $10 million new Roxy Theater, the world’s biggestpicturepalace,andthecriticallyacclaimedSadieThompson—saidtobe the best film of Swanson’s career—made over $850,000 at the box office.123 But by then Swanson was happy to turn over financial and production matterstoBostonbanker ,filmproducer,andsoon-to-beloverJosephP.Kennedy: “I was perfectly delighted to be asked to stop doing what I know I had never done well, anyway.” Her first UA project with Kennedy at the helm was the $800,000 disaster Queen Kelly (1928–29). Bombastic director Erich von Stroheim, known for his attention to detail and excessive retakes, pushed 176 “A Business Pure &Simple” the film way over budget and his “artistic” touches made it impossible for the film to pass muster with the censors. Swanson finally walked off the set, but it was too late to save the film. Schenck continued to support Swanson by giving her a contract for two more films in 1931. Swanson did not have to risk any of her own money in these films—no doubt to her relief—but she was put on straight salary. For her last UA film Swanson tried her hand at production again, this time in Britain to make Perfect Understanding (1933). The production was a mess, and Swanson was dangerously in debt when it was finally completed; nevertheless, the film made a small profit. Swanson was cured of producing for good, but her career went into decline.124 <= By the mid-1920s, stars were still well paid, as they were still a necessity, but they had lost most of their clout behind the camera.125 At MGM, for example, stars “had precious little control over their individual careers or their pictures,” according to Thomas Schatz. Only two stars dared challenge Louis B. Mayer and production chief Irving Thalberg in the 1920s—Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo. After becoming a star in late 1926, Garbo demanded a raise from $600 to $5,000 a week. When Mayer refused, she left for Sweden , and after seven months Mayer acceded. Gish’s dispute, over creative control, did not end so happily. Gish made two “brooding dramas” in the mid-1920s: The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), both directed by Victor Seastrom. Well-made films, they were too dark for Mayer, who ordered happier endings. Although both star and director protested, it was to no avail. Gish and Seastrom never worked for Mayer again.126 Gish lost her battle, as did most stars, because stars were no longer the currencyofHollywood—first-runtheaterswere.Ratherthancateringtothe needs of the star, now stars fulfilled the need of the studios, which was to fill the auditoriums of their theater chains. To do so efficiently, stars were increasinglytypecastinthe“sillyformulapictures”thatSwansonhated.Scenario departments rarely even bothered to show interesting material to stars anymore, since most stars had lost the power to choose their own stories.127 The hallmark of the reduced status of the star was the famous sevenyear contract, which became standard by the end of the silent era. After the imposition of this contract, as Cathy Klaprat argues, stars became wellpaid “indentured employees, placed in a subservient position.” Stars were contractually tied to the studios, and with a weakened independent field there was little temptation to leave. The studio, however, could choose to keep or drop the star each year. Morality clauses dating back to the postwar Stars as Independent Producers 177 scandals gave studios the right to immediately cancel the contract of any stars that incited “public hatred, contempt, scorn, or ridicule,” and with regard to actresses a weight limit was sometimes included as well. When a star’s option was picked up for another year, he or she would get only the increase already stipulated in his or her contract. No star could renegotiate a contract midyear to “capitalize on a sudden surge of popularity.”128 By the mid-1920s, stars were stripped of the means to gain leverage behind the camera. They could not shape their own image because the studio had exclusive rights to a star’s services, name, and likeness. They could not bargain for more creative control by threatening to leave for another studio. And they could no longer demand their “market price” (the rationale for the huge raises of the 1910s) without being in breach of contract. Because it was through acting, and especially stardom, that most women gained a measure of power in the film studio, the decline of the star-producer closed a critical door for women in Hollywood. No star would ever become as powerful as Mary Pickford, and never again would stars dictate en masse strategic decisions regarding the production, distribution, or exhibition of movies. Although occasional female stars, like Greta Garbo, would so captivate the public’s imagination that they once again enjoyed a measure of creative power, they were the exception rather than the rule. By the mid-1920s, stars were employees, plain and simple, albeit with generous paychecks. Of course, not all women in the American film industry were stars or even actresses. Yet the same developments that served to contain the creative power of stardom—the central-producer system, vertical integration, the rise of the picture palace, and the seven-year contract—had similar effects on other women in the industry. As filmmaking got “out of the class of a game and more in the class of a business,” to quote one contemporary observer, women working exclusively behind the camera also found their situation changing distinctly for the worse.129 178 “A Business Pure &Simple” ...


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