Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood AgentsMost standard histories of the Hollywood motion picture industry date the rise of powerful talent agencies to the 1950s – the decade when the weakened major studios abandoned long-term talent contracts and MCA became a major industry player. In Tom Kemper’s eye-opening new book, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, he reveals that talent agents wielded power in Hollywood long before Lew Wasserman crossed the California state line. Kemper’s book examines the rise of talent agents in the late 1920s and their impact on the industry through the 1940s (a second volume covering the 1950s through the 1970s is already in the works). Exceptionally well researched and written, Hidden Talent is a major contribution to the field of American film history and suggests that the classical Hollywood period remains fertile ground for new research.

Kemper brings to light many hitherto unknown accomplishments of agents, but the book’s greatest contribution lies in its challenge to the traditional top-down approach to studying the classical Hollywood motion picture industry. In previous important works of Hollywood film history such as Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System or Douglas Gomery’s The Hollywood Studio System: A History, the authors ultimately ascribe control to studio management – the production chiefs and producers in Schatz’s case, the New York corporate chieftains in Gomery’s (1). Hidden Talent presents a more decentralised view of Hollywood in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Kemper conceives of “Hollywood as a business world embedded within a social network” and draws from the field of economic sociology, which studies “how markets remain deeply and internally structured as social systems” (pp. ix, x). This diffused industry operated through a number of players and venues, not simply from the corner offices.

Hidden Talent introduces readers to a range of figures they may not be familiar with, such as small-time agents Ivan Kahn and Sam Jaffe and writers’ agent Harold Swanson. But Kemper focuses most of his attention on the two biggest ten-percenters of this period: Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman. The Myron Selznick Papers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center and the Charles Feldman Papers at the American Film Institute provide the lion’s share of Kemper’s archival sources. He supplements these with other primary documents, such as contracts from the Warner Bros. Archive (USC) and Twentieth-Century Fox Papers (UCLA), several actor and director collections at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, and industry trade papers.

Kemper has the gift of the biographer (as well as the historian) and he draws rich portraits of Selznick and Feldman and the world they inhabited. Mercurial in nature and ruthless at a negotiating table, Myron Selznick alienated many in Hollywood as he made his clients and himself rich, demanding tough deal terms even from his younger brother, über-producer David O. Selznick. Kemper shows how Myron, like all the successful motion picture talent agents of the period, were insiders who grew out of the industry rather than outsiders who invaded it (the “invasion” metaphor was erroneously used in alarmist early-1930s news coverage addressing the rise of agents). Far more level-headed and personable than Myron was his chief competitor, Charles Feldman, whose client list included the likes of Howard Hawks, John Wayne and Irene Dunne and who forged close personal friendships (simultaneously business relationships) with Darryl F. Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner. Trained as a lawyer, Feldman excelled at obtaining outstanding contractual terms for his clients, which, as Kemper points out, meant more than high salaries. Feldman’s ability to negotiate backend percentage deals, prominent star billing, and short-term commitments (offering greater project selectivity) all made him one of the best reps in the business. In his discussion of Feldman’s use of the short-term contract, Kemper sheds new light upon the role of contracts in the Hollywood studio system, showing that many actors were able to avoid the long-term, seven-year option contracts that gained infamy through the lawsuits of Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.

The anecdotes offered in the book are frequently entertaining yet always serve a larger purpose – establishing the decentralised nature of the industry and pointing to the significance of agents within that industry. In his succinct case study of My Man Godfrey, Kemper discusses the way director Gregory La Cava and stars William Powell and Carole Lombard – all freelance Selznick clients – came to loan their services to the 1936 Universal screwball comedy. The film was not a Selznick “package” in the formal sense, but its reliance on freelance talent and innovative deals indicate that the studio mode of production in the mid-1930s was far less centralised than previous histories have suggested. In this case study and others, Kemper wisely avoids the temptation to shift gears into textual analysis; he thankfully does not try to position My Man Godfrey as a self-reflexive film about deal-making or waste words trying to argue that agents left imprints upon classical Hollywood mise en scène. In the 2007 anthology Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method, co-editor Eric Smoodin argued many important questions in film history must be answered without reverting to textual analysis, selecting essays that “demonstrate the possibility for film scholarship without films; for using primary materials other than films themselves for examining the history of the cinema in the United States.” (2) Hidden Talent is exactly the kind of work Smoodin and fellow editor Jon Lewis call for, and the two books make for an excellent pair of new investigations into American film history.

Kemper’s witty, engaging prose and skill as a storyteller make the book accessible to a wide audience. Scholars and students of the classical Hollywood period will certainly want to read it, but the book will also be of interest to those working in the entertainment industry, particularly motion picture talent agents. The next time you set foot in a talent agency, be prepared: you may walk down the hall and hear the expression, “that’s so Charlie Feldman!” as two hands slap in a high-five, or peek into a partner’s office and see Hidden Talent on the shelf next to The Genius of the System (a book that the smartest agents I’ve met have all read).

Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents by Tom Kemper, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009.

Endnotes

  1. Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System, Pantheon Books, New York, 1989; Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System: A History, BFI, London, 2005.
  2. Eric Smoodin, “The History of Film History”, in Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin (eds), Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2007, p. 2.

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