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

by Brian Gallagher

Part Seven: The re-emergence of Jimmy Stewart, who went on to become the leading male box office star of the 1950s, was emblematic of the growing power of individual stars, but even more indicative of the enormous, but largely hidden, power wielded by agents in the period.

For years, Warners and the other studios had anticipated losing a precedent-setting case to the actors who regularly sued them. That loss came in 1943-44, when Olivia de Havilland, upset about her constant loan-outs and the poor roles she was receiving when at the studio, filed suit against Warners:

. . . the courts finally sided with the plaintiff. Warners appealed, and in November 1943 the Superior Court of California agreed to hear the case. In May 1944 the court found Warners in violation of the state's antipeonage laws. This was a watershed event in Hollywood's history, a significant victory for top stars and a huge setback for the studios. (Schatz, 318)

For every Cagney or Davis intent on getting free of studio control, there was star in Hollywood who, like Gable at MGM, had managed to settle relatively comfortably into the system of studio control (in Gable's case, after some early, minor rebelliousness) and was not ready to take on the system in the 1940s. For many, the studio had become a community within a community, able to supply them with a public identity that, if not exactly the identity they wanted, at least paid well and was less work than trying to construct that identity on their own. By the mid-1940s, though, with more and more independent production companies working under contract to the studios, it was possible to take advantage of the greater freedom that had been won for actors. Some new actors, like Burt Lancaster, carefully began constructing careers that would distance them from any single company, avoid typecasting them, and carry them into the post-studio era. (E.g., Lancaster, after two "tough guys" roles at the start of his career, The Killers and Brute Force, took a pay cut to appear in Arthur Miller's All My Sons.).21

Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in Spirit of St. Louis

At the time of the de Havilland decision, Jimmy Stewart was off at war, but he was to become the star who perhaps most thoroughly benefitted from the shifting attitudes toward film talent over the next fifteen years. Stewart fell into the MCA fold in 1945, when his agent Leland Stewart (the "Toscanini of the Telephone" and Margaret Sullavan's husband) grew weary of running his talent agency and sold his list to MCA, where he stayed on as consultant. As they would a few years later with Davis, the powers at MCA were able to gain Stewart his freedom, although in this case their leverage was more evident:

When James Stewart returned from World War II, MGM tried to hold him to the years he had promised on his contract. It was inequitable, a penalty for war service, but it seemed inevitable. Stein and Wasserman thought otherwise. With their links to the East Coast band business it was simple to bring pressure on MGM, whose parent company [i.e., Loew's] needed MCA's help to fill its theaters. Stewart broke free of his contract. (Pye, 45)

Nor was Wasserman done working wonders for Stewart: in the early 1950s he arranged a deal with Universal that would, by 1955, make Stewart the industry's top box-office star. For all his Universal films, Stewart took no salary but a whopping 50% of the profits--and virtually all these films were hits. At Universal, Stewart did films (like Harvey and The Glenn Miller Story) that recalled something of the gawky, squeaky-voiced innocent of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), but he also starred in a number of westerns (like Winchester 73 and Bend of the River) which played to the neurotic side of his persona first fully exhibited in It's a Wonderful Life. Because his contract with Universal was nonexclusive, Wasserman was able to arrange for Stewart three highly visible and highly profitable appearances in Hitchcock films at (Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo). Wasserman even convinced Universal to allow Stewart's house director, Anthony Mann, to go with the star to MGM (for The Naked Spur) and to Columbia (for The Man from Laramie).22

Publicity photo of James Stewart for The Glenn Miller Story

If Stewart epitomizes the free-lance film star of the 1950s--supported, even controlled, by his powerful agent, and thereby able both to gain some measure of artistic control and to maximize his profits--his success very much reflects the new structures of control in Hollywood and the changing tastes of the film audience. Universal led the way to independent production as a way of studio life in a period when television was eating away at box-office revenues year by year.23 Since marquee value was the primary ingredient in selling films, first to the banks for financing, then to exhibitors, Wasserman had really offered Universal an irresistible deal, with no money up front: either Stewart was a big enough star to make a film profitable or Universal would not have to pay him at all. In steering Stewart so successfully through the Hollywood of the 1950s, Wasserman was really more like a producer than an agent in the older sense--except that he was more powerful than any real producer in the decade. He was probably, in fact, the most powerful individual in the Hollywood community.24

Yet, Wasserman could not have done what he did for Stewart without definite changes in the film audience's (and culture's) conception of stars, which brings me back to my starting point about stars being a jointly held "monopoly on a personality." However pre-selected and pre-packaged potential major stars were, it was still the audience's needs and desires, manufactured though they might be in a consumer culture, which decided among the candidates offered. Stewart in the 1950s was demonstrably middle-aged, yet the audience tolerated him as the twenty-five-year-old Lindbergh (in The Spirit of St. Louis) and "allowed" him to play romantic leads (often opposite actresses, like Grace Kelly and Kim Novak, barely half his age). Stewart's quirky impersonation of individuality now satisfied the audience in a way the more suave or gutsier or more glamorous leading men of past eras no longer did. Whether it was his slow, Eisenhower-like drawl, an edginess that reflected the age's nuclear jitters, his middle-agedness in a culture placidly mature (vide: Robert Lowell's lines, "These are the tranquilized Fifties,/and I am forty" [79]), Stewart's staunch identification with the military in a period of Cold War (he rose to colonel in World War II and stayed on in the reserve as a brigadier general), a combination of all these, or attributes and echoes less directly related of 1950s culture, the fact remains that there was clearly something more than just intensely clever marketing behind Stewart's success.25 Lew Wasserman undoubtedly had the power to make someone the leading male star of the period. That it ended up being Stewart was partly because his image served, however indirectly, some larger cultural need at that moment.

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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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