"Acting is such a test of self-confidence when there isn't such a thing as a contract," reflected studio system veteran Marsha Hunt, who acted under contract for 20 years, from 1935 through the 1950s. "You sit by the phone and wait for your agent to call. And there are all these auditions and readings now that we never had to do before. Under contract the assumption was that the studio believed in your talent, and only if there was a big reach of casting did you have to make tests. You were cast and you went to work and that was it."
Most actors these days can scarcely imagine what it was like when acting was a day job from the 1920s to the early '50s—with a weekly paycheck for a minimum of 40 weeks out of the year, a measure of job security, and an employer who hired you, not with the current role in mind but with a vision of your potential career. Once you were under contract—even as stock player—you would not have had the kind of control over your destiny that you have now; but you had a steady paycheck for at least the following six months, and you had something few young actors have today: the notion that somebody very important and powerful believed in you.
For some, the studio days are remembered as oppressive, creatively limiting, and caste-like. For others, those were the halcyon days, sadly gone forever—or are they? With an increasing amount of power in increasingly few hands, with the new possibility of producers partnering up with mega-agents and packaging up their stables of stars and supporting actors, will a similar kind of vertically integrated system emerge?
Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, pointed out the way in which the standard agency practice of "packaging" can lead to a similarly oligarchic situation.
"Agencies get packaging fees for putting together TV series in which they have a vested interest in combining the writers, producers, and talent, all among their clients, whether that makes the best product," said Kaplan. "Now it's possible that if an agency becomes the investor/producer of something, it will say that it's in its own interests to package from its own clients. What if there's a role in something where the best performer for it is represented by another agency? Would an agency, in a completely disinterested way, be able to say, 'Yes, of course we're going to go for that other person and not be able to commission their salary,' or are they going to say 'Look, here's our stable and we're going to use it?'"
Nevertheless, the consensus is that the days when producers had enough control to keep actors under contract are gone for good. "The studio system was very paternal," said Screen Actors Guild historian Valerie Yaros. "You had the dad—L.B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, whoever—at the head. And you were the children. And that's the way it was. But now can you imagine having a dad over Julia Roberts? They will never have the control over the actors that they had then. Once you've tasted freedom and you own your own production company, then you're your own person. You're not going to go back to the studio system."
Indeed the recent passing of former mogul and MCA head Lew Wasserman reminded us that since the studio days, things have changed a great deal in this town in multiple ways. Some lament that the days of genteel Hollywood giants have come to an end. Long-time agent Phil Gersh and Hunt both pointed out that the typical studio exec used to be a dealmaker who knew the movie-making industry inside and out. But these days even studio execs are beholden to decision-makers much higher up on the food chain: corporate executives who think in terms of the bottom line and have little knowledge of the creative process. While no one would deny that studio-era execs were interested in making a buck, Gersh and Hunt bemoaned that things are even worse now. Said Hunt, "Now the studios are owned by conglomerate corporations that haven't a clue about art or movies as an art form. They only know what makes money: sex, violence, and fright."
Someone To Watch Over Me
"Right now—to use the old phrase—it is a jungle out there," said Hunt. "I have seen brilliant work by actors whose work was new to me, and I have made note of their faces and watched for them—and they're never to be seen again. And that's such a loss. Such a waste. There's no master plan for that career—to nurture it, to develop it, to find the right things to build it and give it its full flower. That's what studios did for players."
Indeed, in the studio days, young, inexperienced contract players were put into an extensive apprenticeship program to prepare them for stardom. The studio invested in elaborate grooming and drama coaching, and taught them the craft of moviemaking and how to conduct themselves.
"You were taken care of," said Yaros. "Everything was done for you. If you needed speech lessons, you got speech lessons. Your hair was always done for you, your makeup was done for you."
The studio's drama coach oversaw a training program that included much more than acting classes. In Ronald Davis' indispensable read Glamour Factory, MGM coach Lillian Burns remarked, "If Ava Gardner didn't know how to hold a champagne glass, she had to learn. Many of these youngsters had not come from the background Katie Hepburn did. They had to learn about antiques, about music, about culture. That was part of their training. By developing the person, you were developing the talent."
Drama coach Phyllis Loughton, who was at Metro and later at Paramount, even mounted plays at the studio three times a year and invited studio producers and directors. She reportedly held the philosophy that while film acting was different from stage acting, actors needed to learn to use their voices and bodies.
Studios offered classes in singing, dancing, etiquette, fencing, horseback riding, swimming, boxing, languages, how to dress, taking care of clothes, makeup, skincare, and fitness. Most lessons were optional, but an ambitious player could attend classes four or five hours a day when not making movie.
In order to break into the studio system, actors would have to pass the all-important "test." Even prior to the test, an actor's agent would often negotiate a contract with the studio, which would either be "exercised" by the studio—if the talent was hired after the test—or torn up. A photo test was followed by a sound test, in which actors would read a short scene from a play or earlier picture. Actors who photographed well but had little acting experience would read first with a drama coach, who helped prep them for the test and determine if they were ready for one at all.
If the actor's test was approved, the actor was signed to a seven-year contract with "options." Salaries depended on experience and ranged from $75 to $100 a week. Every six months, the studio could either drop the actor completely or offer the performer a raise.
"Actors made a living wage," recalled Hunt. "It was quite possible to buy a home—not an elaborate one but still a home. You didn't get rich. In fact very few stars got rich unless they had brilliant business managers who invested carefully for them. But I don't think most people went into films back then to get rich any more than you went into the theatre to get rich."
One of the difficult things about the studio system was the possibility of getting stuck under contract at a studio that lost interest in you, pigeonholed you, or didn't see your full potential as an actor. Many actors became stars only after they were able to switch studios. Upon request, studios were able to release actors from their contracts and frequently loaned them out.
"Betty Grable and Ann Sheridan were under contract at Paramount while I was, making a fraction of my salary under what was known as a stock contract," said Hunt. "Stock contracts were given to attractive young people with promise, and they did everything from bit roles to a lot of publicity. Not many people graduated from that category because the studio thought of them that way. It took 20th Century Fox to make a major star of Betty Grable and Warners to make a major star of Ann Sheridan."
There are other famous examples. Debbie Reynolds signed with Warner at a time when they had nothing for ingénues. Warner dropped her; then MGM picked her up for musicals. Betty Garrett wandered around the Metro lot for a year without working. She was under contract but hadn't yet been "discovered."
While stars could possibly use their power to be selective about the roles they took—Paul Muni, for example, insisted on working in socially relevant films—more often than not, actors were assigned roles. Said Hunt, "To be assigned a role when you were under contract was not asking if you would like to do a role, but telling you. You could not refuse. You had no pick and choose unless you were a top star."
Hunt recalls a time when she asked Paramount if she could do more character roles and not simply romantic lead roles in B-films. "I did have a problem with the sameness in these roles," said Hunt, "and they never understood that. They thought I was ungrateful. I did 12 films playing the leads at Paramount in the first two years. After I complained, I did nothing in the third year. They kept me sitting there. And I didn't realize this was happening. I think I was being put on the bench to discipline me.
"They finally gave me a loan out to RKO and dropped the option. There I was: a has-been at 20, an interesting plight. After a year and a half of freelance, I began at MGM and they gave me all the things that Paramount didn't. I was playing everything there was to play and couldn't have been happier."
Hunt's experience illustrates a key point about the studio days: Treatment often varied widely from studio to studio. At one end, Warner Bros., known as the "builder upper," had a dozen players working for it who had been dropped by other studios, among them Bette Davis and Paul Muni. Yet Warners also happened to be notoriously bad in its treatment of actors. Thomas Schatz' book Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s describes Warner Bros. as "ruthlessly cost-efficient" with a "factory-oriented mass-production mentality." Tight budgets and formula scripts seemed to be the norm.
At the other end of the majors was MGM, with the largest and most prestigious stable of stars—"all the stars in the heavens," it boasted—enabling it to produce one third of the top-grossing films every year. Known as the Tiffany's of the industry, MGM put out high-end films that included costume dramas, literary adaptations, historical epics, and musicals. It was also known as the best place in town to work.
"MGM was famous for treating people well," said Hunt. "I had been doing work at poverty row studios when I found an interesting role at MGM that only worked one day. On the way to work I lectured myself. I said, 'Remember this is a bit part. Don't expect any kind of treatment such as you're used to.' And to my amazement, when I got there, there was a canvas director's chair on the set with 'Miss Hunt' stenciled on it. Now of course that was painted over the next day, but by gosh somebody gave the order to give me a chair of my own for that one day's work. To treat a bit player with such respect was something I never forgot. Obviously. This is half a century later, and I'm still remembering it."
While it is tempting to take an overly nostalgic view of the past, it's hard to ignore that the studio system offered middle-class actors a kind of stability they have not known since.
"'Continuity' is that word that comes to mind when I think of the studio system," said Hunt, "that sense that there was a stream of progress in an actor's career. It didn't always happen. A lot of people were put under contract and ignored. They just got lost in the shuffle, or the right opportunity never came along. It didn't mean stardom if you were under contract. But it did give you that safety perch for a while."
The idea of that "safety perch" is perhaps not just something to look back on longingly. It's an idea we can use in determining not only what kind of system is emerging in Hollywood today but also what kind of system is ultimately best. The glory days of MGM seem proof that job stability, quality treatment of actors, and great films once went hand in hand. Yet what a modern studio system might look like remains to be seen.