Sunday, March 7, 2010


Stars, Studio Press Agents, Coast Writers, All Join in Defense

By Chester B. Bahn
April 17, 1932

It may be that I am unduly suspicious, but it seems to me that Hollywood at this writing is industriously engaged in an organized, or if not that, then an unorganized movement to uphold the sizeable stipends which a free-spending Fourth Industry pays its studio aristocracy.

When Conrad Nagel, filmland’s charming ambassador to American fandom, assures that “headline salaries” actually reward but 23 out of 25,000 screen players; when studio press departments release stories purporting to show where the movie dollar goes; when Coast chatter writers are induced to dwell upon the fact that many film stars are broke despite their “telephone number” paychecks; when publicity men insist that still more cinema luminaries have exchanged those onyx sunken baths for cottage plumbing, what else can one think?

Cinemactors and cinemactresses, of course, are well within their rights when they strive to maintain salary levels, and inasmuch as producers have tacitly admitted that “names” are the most potent box office quantity, there would seem to be some justice in their contention that the economic pruning knife pass them by.

My quarrel, if any, is not with the movement, but with its propaganda, whether the latter professes to be factual or argumentative. For instance, Mr. Nagel’s emphasis upon the comparatively few players who are paid “headline salaries.” Hollywood’s envoy was exceedingly careful not to interpret the phrase in terms of dollars and cents; that was something he left for his auditors. But he did manage to convey the thought that the incomes of even the highest paid players were paltry indeed when compared with those enjoyed by leaders in commerce, industry and finance.

What, then, actually constitutes a “headline salary?” One thousand, two thousand, or five thousand dollars a week? Certainly it must be more than two thousand, for it would not be very difficult to list 23 whose weekly earning reach that figure; and if five thousand should be Mr. Nagel’s measuring rod, what about those stars who receive $10,000, more or less? Are their paychecks to be listed as “super-headline salaries?”

It all depends, of course, on the point of view.

To the non-professional whose total depression salary for the year 1932 will be less than one-half the sum Greta Garbo earns in six working days, even one thousand a week must appear a “super-headline salary.” And yet it was to them, if you please, that Mr. Nagel’s remarks were addressed on tour. Naturally their interpretation was one thing; Mr. Nagel’s, if given, would be another. Perhaps now you can understand some of the fan reaction which has seemed so curious.

I fear that Conrad did the Hollywood salary cause more harm than good by his references to the limited number of “headline paychecks” without defining his standard. To the “90 per cent” accustomed to regarding $52,000 a year as fabulous, the assertion that only 23 film players are richly rewarded had the ring of a lead half dollar.

Returning for a paragraph or two to the subject of “headline salaries,” I should say that these reputed paychecks would so qualify:

Marion Davies, $12,500; John Gilbert, $10,000; Maurice Chevalier, $10,000; George Arliss, $10,000; Four Marx Brothers, $10,000; Richard Barthelmess, $9,000; Norma Shearer, $9,000; Ruth Chatterton, $9,000; Constance Bennett, $9,000; Eddie Cantor, $8,800; Barbara Stanwyck, $8,500; Jackie Cooper, $7,500; Ann Harding, $7,000; Greta Garbo, $7,000; Joe E. Brown, $6,250; Edward G. Robinson, $5,500; Olsen and Johnson, $5,000; Pola Negri, $5,000; Lilyan Tashman, $5,000; Wallace Beery, $5,000; Ramon Novarro, $5,000; Tom Mix, $5,000; George Bancroft, $5,000; Richard Dix, $5,000; Lowell Sherman, $5,000; Ronald Colman, $5,000; Buster Keaton, $5,000; Gloria Swanson, $5,000; Billie Dove, $4,500; Dorothy Mackaill, $4,000; Ken Murray, $4,000; Warner Baxter, $3,500; Esther Ralston, $3,500; Chic Sale, $3,500; Estelle Taylor, $3,000; El Brendel, $2,500; Mitzi Green, $2,500; Alice White, $2,500.

Include $2,000 salaries in the summary and you have these additional names:

Benny Rubin, Mary Astor, Lois Moran, Edward Everett Horton, Gary Cooper, Nancy Carroll, Bert Wheeler, Janet Gaynor, Clark Gable, Edmund Lowe, Lupe Velez, Clive Brook, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Robert Montgomery, Richard Arlen and Spencer Tracy.

I accept no personal responsibility for the authenticity of these figures; they come from various respectable sources, including Variety, the Detroit Free Press and others. Re-reading the lists I notice the absence of such names as Will Rogers and Tallulah Bankhead; the former is paid $30,000 a week for 15 weeks by Fox; Miss Bankhead, I understand, receives $125,000 a picture.

And surely the stipends received by Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Marie Dressler, Lawrence Tibbett, Lionel and John Barrymore, William Powell, William Haines, Polly Moran and innumerable others whose names may suggest themselves to you are not exactly “chicken feed.”

If fairness it should be said that the salaries in specific instances may represent the sums paid for stage appearances between pictures; I very much doubt, for instance, if Jackie Cooper receives $7,500 each week from M-G-M.

I suppose that this statement will brand me an iconoclast, but I am of the opinion that Hollywood has been too apologetic all along when paychecks, real or fancied, are under discussion. I do not say that the year’s gross artistic labors of John Gilbert are worth a sum five times that annually paid the president of these United States for guiding the ship of State – that’s something else again – but I believe that Mr. Gilbert’s service at $10,000 a week netted a neat profit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at the time the contract was negotiated. That the talkies were to come along and wreck the studio’s investment does not enter into the case at all.

Instead of beating about the bush, hemming and hawing, and then finally stammering out lame excuses, Hollywood, when the subject of salaries is brought up, should speak right out. Player’s contracts reflect the box-office drawing power. If $10,000 is paid a particular actor or actress, it is because that money will be returned, with interest, by fandom. In the last analysis, salaries are dictated, not by studios, but by moviegoers. The princely paychecks [illegible line] … business standpoint, they are unassailable.

Critics of filmdom, it seems to me, would be on firmer ground were they to concentrate their fire upon studio wastage; certainly there is a fertile field for criticism when studios confess that expenditures of $200,000 and $300,000 have been necessary to salvage a given production.

It would seem, of course, that even the cinemactor forced to be content with $1000 a week could save a pretty penny for the approaching rainy day, but that is not so, if you will accept the propaganda flowing eastward by wire and mail these mid-April days.

Relman Morin, Coast writer, solemnly assures (via a Los Angeles daily) that “it’s a losing proposition to be a movie star,” and that “the average man, making $50 a week, can save more than the average actor, making $1,500.” And Dan Thomas, who “covers” filmdom for the NEA, spotlights “Hollywood paupers,” a species of humanity who are “by-products of the motion picture industry only.”

Mr. Morin, detailing the sad plight of the $1,000 a week laborer in Elder Hays’ vineyard, says:

“Take a $1000-a-week player. That might not have been terrific in the old days, but it’s highly substantial now. He gets $4,000 a month.

“HOME. Very few of them own their own homes. They rent, usually in Beverly Hills. The average bungalow in that district nicks ‘em from $500 to $1,000 a month to rent.

“AGENT. An agent’s fee is 10 per cent of the total salary. I don’t know anyone except Maurice Chevalier who struggles along without a business manager. There goes another $400.

“INCOME TAX. Under the new law, it runs nearly 20 per cent. Bang, another $800 shot. (We’ve now ruined at least $2,000 of that $4,000.)

“FOOD AND DRINK (particularly drink). Counting parties, this item will hover around the $500-a-month mark. You could list ‘entertainment’ as a separate item, and average $200 a month.

“CLOTHES. For an actress it will run at least $1,000 a month. The average actor spends from $500 to $700 a month. (Barometer says $3,000 or more is in other people’s pockets.)

“BEAUTY. Once again, you can count the man down. But the actress, with a masseur, a hair-dresser, a manicurist, et al., is doing well if she gets out for $200 a month.

“SCATTERED ITEMS. Such as servants, maintenance of the house, maintenance of a car, personal publicity, maintenance of a family (relatives,) charities and a couple dozen others. My manager-friend tells me the victim is lucky if he gets out for less than $1,000 a month on all of these.

“The grand total, in case you’ve lost count, is about $4,500.”

Mr. Morin, of course, expects you to shed an honest tear or two for the actor or actress who pays $500 to $1,000 a month rent and whose “food and drink (particularly drink)” expenditures hit $500 or better, and who must “keep up appearances” – servants, cars, etc. – at a cost of $1,000.

Here again, however, I fear Hollywood employs the wrong tactics. Oh, yes, I know that familiar argument which runs “If I fail to put on a ‘front,’ I am doomed; giving parties, driving expensive motors and all the rest are essential if I am to stay in the swim.”

Perhaps there are instances, too, where it holds true. Gloria Swanson is a case in point. There have been no end to stories regarding Gloria’s financial status. Many will tell you that she is, or at least was practically “broke.” Yet Gloria never has given up her beautiful Beverly Hills mansion, her imported limousine or her servants. From outside appearances there never has been a time when Rockefeller had a thing on her.

Had it not been for that continued display of wealth, many contend Gloria probably would not be in the picture business today. Swanson wearing the latest Paris creation and riding in a Rolls Royce has become almost a tradition in Hollywood.

But Swanson in a cheap ready-made suit, riding in a battered flivver, wouldn’t get past the studio gateman! She found that out once because she tried it for a lark. She dressed in cheap, poorly-fitting clothes, changed her hairdress and went calling on casting directors in search of work – using a fictitious name of course. None of them could be bothered.

On the other hand, lavish expenditures failed to bolster the careers of either Francis X. Bushman or Charles Ray. The former at one time had a fortune of $7,000,000; he spent them and today is a self-confessed pauper. His stellar career also has long since ended. Yet Bushman clings to “front” although it failed dismally to protect his film prestige; when he left the courtroom where he testified in his bankruptcy case, an expensive car and chauffeur were waiting at the curb.

Ray was another who falsely trusted “appearance for appearances sake.” A few years ago when Charles met with financial reverses he kept up the show to the very last minute. Before anyone dreamed of the condition of his failing bank account, he staged a party which seldom has been equaled for lavishness. Nothing was omitted – orchestras, entertainers, champagne and a lavish dinner being provided for the entertainment of his guests. Dancing continued until almost daybreak. And the next day newspaper headlines told those guests that Charles was bankrupt! He could have lived modestly for at least a year with what he spent on that one party, which presumably was designed to attract offers from those he entertained.

The bland assurance that, after all, player salaries represent but a small fraction of each dollar expended in movie making comes from the Fox Film Corporation. Sixteen coppers represent the actor’s split, covering not only the star paychecks but those handed feature players and extra players as well.


Amanda said...

Last 2 posts were fabulous! Great job!

GAH1965 said...

Thanks so much. They were pretty excting to come by in the archives. El Brendel making more money than Clark Gable! Who knew?