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Reviewed by:
  • Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents
  • Lisa Dombrowski (bio)
Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents; by Tom Kemper; University of California Press, 2010

In his well-written and revealing book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, Tom Kemper recasts the standard story situating the Hollywood agent's rise to power in the 1950s, arguing instead that the functions and practices of the industry's "ten percenters" solidified in the 1930s. Drawing extensively from the personal and professional papers of Hollywood's leading middlemen, Kemper makes a convincing case for the valuable role played by agents at the height of the studio system, when the major studios wielded long-term contracts as a powerful tool to control talent and organize production. Through case studies of prominent and secondary agents and their work with specific actors, directors, writers, and films, Kemper illustrates how agents leveraged personal relationships, social networks, business and legal acumen, and forward thinking to negotiate advantageous terms for their clients and, in doing so, affect the practices of the industry as a whole. Hidden Talent thus expands on previous archive-driven explorations of the major studios that have focused on centralized management systems, suggesting that "this industry functioned through relationships and networks as much as through internal management within the studios" (26).

Kemper dates the prominence of the Hollywood agent to the late 1920s, when vertical integration and the transition to sound led to the consolidation of the motion picture industry into eight dominant firms. The most successful agents started by working within the film industry, then drew on their associations with studio executives and talent to build their businesses. Kemper suggests that agents worked in a symbiotic relationship with studios, providing streamlined assistance in scouting and managing talent, matching available clients with appropriate film projects, and acting as important sources of information. He wittily notes, "Other industries called this research and development; Hollywood called it lunch" (7).

At the same time, agents offered talent the promise of skilled career guidance, access to top studios and their films, and desirable contract terms. Kemper furnishes Clara Bow as [End Page 147] an unfortunate example of how stars without representation could fail to benefit from their popularity. After she became the "It" girl in 1926, Bow signed a contract sans agent with Paramount that earned her less than a third of what comparable stars received. Even stars with representation could fall behind their peers if their agents were not assertive or powerful enough. When Sam Jaffe, a "humble" secondtier agent, negotiated Humphrey Bogart's new Warner Bros. contract in 1942, after the actor's star began to ascend, his caution cost Bogart not only money but also the ability to freelance, limit the number of films he made, dictate screen billing, or influence role or story selection—all terms increasingly negotiated by top agents on behalf of their clients. Kemper offers case studies of William Powell, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne, and others to illustrate how aggressive agents in large firms could turn the studios' desire for top box office talent to their clients' advantage, massaging or significantly altering the option contract and enabling greater creative control.

The two leading men of Kemper's history are Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman, the most innovative and successful of Hollywood's studio-era agents. Selznick's close ties to the industry, ruthless negotiating strategies, and cutting-edge bureaucratic apparatus shot him to the top despite his disdain for his profession. Feldman, on the other hand, embraced his role as an agent, using his friendships with studio moguls, impressive charm, and sharp legal skills to loosen the strict controls of the option contract and promote "a limited notion of freelancing." Selznick and his producer-brother David's papers in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin and Feldman's collection at the Louis B. Mayer Library of the American Film Institute allow Kemper to recreate the agency structures, office practices, daily routines, and deal terms of the two men through reference to date books, phone logs, payroll books, talent scout reports, contracts, client lists, promotional materials, office memos, and personal correspondence. Kemper complements...


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pp. 147-149
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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