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Some Historical Reflections on the Paradoxes of Stardom in the American Film Industry, 1910-1960

by Brian Gallagher

Part Six: In the 1930s and 1940s, the battles between individual stars and their studios, epitomized by the battles of James Cagney and Bette Davis with Warner Bros., were often battles that these stars won by losing and lost by winning.

Particularly in the 1930s, the Hollywood community was a society unto itself. Everyone had a clearly defined place in the pecking order: major stars had fame and money but little control, whereas major studio executives (and their bosses back in New York) had little fame (Selznick being one notable exception), but even more money and nearly absolute control. The star's only real weapon was a refusal to report for work, which meant suspension (no money and a bit more fame, but of the ambiguous sort). In the 1930s, the situation at Warners, the most like an assembly line of all the studios, was probably the most restrictive: Harry Warner's "extreme fiscal conservatism led to an extremely paternalistic attitude toward labor. Warner Bros. took on protracted court battles against James Cagney and Bette Davis rather than give them more artistic freedom. And the company opposed unions" (Gomery, 112).

Cagney was as much a battler off the screen as on. Three times between 1931 and 1936 he left the studio. As Kevin Hagopian notes:

Cagney's grievances were at the heart of the star system. First, he complained that no matter how much straight salary he received--by 1938, more money per week than anyone else on the lot--he was unable to share in the profits of films that did particularly well. Second, he was often dissatisfied with the writers and directors the studio assigned to his films, as well as with many of his leading ladies. Third, he believed the studio was conspiring to type cast him in gangster parts. This role went against his self-image of a quiet, retiring gentleman farmer and poet. Finally, Cagney's straight salary income was falling under higher and higher tax brackets. (19)

Much of the time Cagney suffered, at least as he saw it, indignities and deprivations at the hands of the studio bosses. For instance, in 1936, when Cagney was making $4,500 a week, the studio withheld $1,500 of that against illness and bad behavior. Moreover, Jack Warner refused to lend him out, so Cagney did not even get a chance to expand his repertoire of roles.19 It was at this point Cagney rebelled: he won a court order against Warners (for not paying him his market value) and was released from his contract. Working with his brother William (a former minor actor and now his business manager), Cagney signed an independent production deal (pledging to pay 50% of costs) with Grand National Films, the newest studio in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Grand National was an ill-conceived and badly organized attempt to challenge the oligarchy of the five major studios by creating a network of independent production units. The two forgettable films (Great Guy and Something to Sing About) Cagney made for Grand National received poor distribution (the majors probably saw to that) and the company, whose greatest asset had been Cagney, lurched toward merger (with Educational Films, an outfit making short films) in 1938 and bankruptcy in 1940. Several years before that, Cagney had returned to Warners, perhaps "chastened by the experience" (Hagopian, 20), but also soon in a much better position than when he had left the company:

The contract that William Cagney negotiated for his brother remains a model of its sort. Cagney agreed to make eleven pictures for Warners--two or three per year for the next five years--plus one to fulfill the previous contract. In return, the actor was to receive $150,000 per picture plus 10 percent of the grosses over $1,500,000. Twelve weeks of continuous vacation. . . were guaranteed. William Cagney was assured an assistant producership (on brother Jimmy's pictures). And the Cagneys were given story refusal as well as the option to submit ideas of their own. . . . But the most remarkable aspect of the document was a "happiness clause". . . whereby Cagney could cancel his Warners' contract after any motion picture or at the end of any given year if his relationship with the studio was determined to be "obnoxious or unsatisfactory to him." This was a breakthrough. . . a contract that was the envy of every motion picture star in Hollywood. (McGilligan, 109)

This pattern of defection and return was repeated on a larger scale in the next decade. In 1941, sensing that the time was now more favorable to independent production ventures (for one thing the government had started attacking the vertically integrated motion picture monopoly), and upset about how much of his enormous straight salary income he was losing in taxes, Cagney announced he was severing his ties with Warner Bros. and going independent. Again working with his brother, he founded Cagney Productions, Inc.20 and arranged to release its films through United Artists, having learned the lesson of compromise with the existing power structure.

Cagney and Sylvia Sidney in Blood On the Sun

Cagney and Annabella in 13 Rue Madeleine

Cagney Productions released just three films in the five years of its existence, 1943-48, although Cagney made a tidy profit when he "loaned himself out" to Twentieth-Century Fox for 13 Rue Madeleine in 1946. Only the first release, Johnny Come Lately, came close to fulfilling some of the reasons Cagney went independent: set in 1906, it featured Cagney as a warmed-hearted tramp who saves an old woman's newspaper. But after it was finished Cagney had the first of his ongoing problems with the distributor, since he steadfastly refused UA's desire to publicize the film with familiar images of a swaggering, brawling Cagney. No such problem arose with the next Cagney production, for the film itself was full of such images. Blood on the Sun (1945) is a jingoistic, racist (anti-Japanese) film in which Cagney, as a wisecracking, two-fisted newspaper editor, plays a rough version of his old Warner Bros. persona. What prompted the Cagneys to choose as their second film this crude original story, which so strongly contravenes Cagney's professed intentions for going independent, is something of a mystery, since they had already spent a small fortune securing the rights to a number of much more promising literary properties. It was one of these properties, William Saroyan's play, The Time of Your Life, that they chose, undoubtedly because of its "prestige" value, for what proved to be their last independent film. The rather stagebound film they produced did not rate very highly with the critics, and, more importantly, it did disastrously at the box office, barely covering its negative costs. By this point the relationship of Cagney Productions to UA, which had underwritten a fair share of production cost, was untenable. To get out of this fix, the Cagneys returned to Warners. But they hardly returned begging: James Cagney signed a non-exclusive contract specifying he make only one picture a year (at $250,000); Cagney Productions was reconfigured as a production unit on the Warners lot, with the power to acquire properties and supervise scripts; and Cagney was given a good deal more input on the films he made for the studio. The first of these, with Cagney and director Raoul Walsh working heavily on the later versions of the script, was White Heat. Cagney may have been forced back into his old persona, but he raised it to an archetype.

Bette Davis presents an interesting variation on Cagney's "success through failure" story in opposing studio control. Like Cagney, Davis battled Warners the whole time she was there, 1931-48. Besides regularly accepting suspensions, as she fought for better parts (and more money), she filed suit against Warners in 1936, claiming her contract was a form of "slavery." Although she lost, she was, again like Cagney, not punished, but essentially rewarded for her rebellion: directly after, Jack Warner bought her a prize property, Jezebel; in later years, Warners would give Davis her own independent corporation, "B.D. Incorporated," and 35% of the net profits from her pictures to keep her happy and working at the studio's behest. As Thomas Schatz observes, Davis' battles with the studio probably had more significance, especially in terms of reconfiguring her stage image, than Cagney's literally more successful attempts to break free:

Cagney's battles with Warners were well publicized, but Bette Davis's were equally intense and even more significant, not only in terms of her career but of the studio's house style as well. Cagney's victory over Warners [in 1936] was a hollow one; within two years he was back making the same kind of pictures he has sued the company to avoid. Davis, meanwhile, battled the entrenched Warners system and traditional male ethos, managing somehow to reshape her screen image into a star persona that was as powerful and provocative--and distinctly feminine--as any in the industry. (1988, 218)

Moreover, Davis came to be widely and positively regarded as an individual who successfully managed to buck the system. In a study of the popular discourse on Davis in the 1930s, Maria La Place argues, persuasively, for a strong gender reading of Davis as a woman/movie star who "came to signify rebellion against male authority, the demand for control over her work, the struggle for autonomy and artistic integrity. In the context of the Thirties, it is a remarkable kind of signification for a woman" (39).

In the mid-1940s, Davis would become a pioneer of another sort, being the first superstar to sign on with MCA, the talent agency (founded by Jules Stein and headed in Hollywood by Lew Wasserman) that would come to dominate the Hollywood scene in the following decade. In 1948, MCA was finally able to get Davis out of her contract at Warners, making effective use of the typical sort of squabble (here over Beyond the Forest) Davis had been having with Warners about mediocre films since the early 1930s. When Davis had to choose her all-important first picture as a non-contract player--much like Garland with A Star Is Born, Davis had an expectant public waiting for a bravura performance--she chose, very tellingly, the story of an independent, compelling, distinctly mannered stage actress, Margo Channing in All About Eve. (The film was made for Twentieth-Century Fox in 1950.) That many of the film's characters prey upon Margo Channing, exploiting her talent and taking advantage of her independent ways, was not without point as regards Bette Davis' own career.

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Go to:


Part One: The emergence of the star system

Part Two: The real, the "reel," and fan magazines

Part Three: The selling of stars

Part Four: The close-up and Alice Adams

Part Five: Cultural self-importance and A Star is Born

Part Six: Studio battlers--James Cagney and Bette Davis

Part Seven: The power of stars, the power of agents, and Jimmy Stewart



Works Cited

Brian Gallagher is a professor of English and film at the City University of New York (LaGuardia).

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