Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, Tom Kemper

Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (Cover)

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9780520257078
US$21.95 (pb)
(review copy supplied by University of California Press)

Were Tom Kemper naming his book right now, he might be tempted to title it ‘The Social Network’,d befitting the nexus of personal connections that formed the basis for the rise of Hollywood talent agents in the 1930s. Drawing on the internal office files of key agencies during the period, Kemper’s book represents a significant contribution to the history of Hollywood agents, which, as he points out, tend typically to extend only as far back as the 1950s and the corporate powerhouses MCA and William Morris. In researching this period, Kemper discovered a rich and hitherto untapped history of agency activity stretching back several decades, attesting to the crucial role of agents within the studio system. In so doing, the book is of real value in enhancing our understanding of the day-to-day operations of studio era Hollywood, which evidently relied upon agents to fulfill key functions to an extent previously overlooked. Kemper’s description of an ‘agency syndicate’ complicates the standard picture of the dream factory, demonstrating the extent to which it routinely outsourced managerial activities to those beyond its gates. While it may be simpler (and more entertaining?) to characterize agents as parasitic interlopers, Kemper persuasively demonstrates how the organizational and commercial logic of a stable studio system produced the functions agents served, and it was canny insiders who were the first to exploit the possibilities that opened up, using existing contacts and social connections to secure the role.

As with most gripping Hollywood stories, Kemper’s has at its heart two protagonists of contrasting qualities and temperaments, in this case Myron Selznick and Charles Feldman, the two foremost agents of the period. Selznick, older brother of David, became an agent after failing as a producer, and Kemper cites envy over his brother’s success and disdain for his own profession as essential facets of his character, shaping his rise and fall (alcoholism precipitated his early death in 1944). Selznick’s favored work locale was his beach house, where twelve telephones in nine rooms kept him at the heart of things; as Kemper notes, circulation of this fact made good copy, but it captures the essence of agency activity, which was to operate as an ‘information exchange’, and he uses Selznick’s agency files to lay out the methodical and meticulous approach to tracking the schedules and commitments of clients, with a phalanx of executive and field agents charged with keeping abreast of studio activity, production developments and so forth. At the top of the pyramid stood Selznick, using his connections to attract star clients, arrange personal introductions and broker deals, and employing his pugnacious character in the service of tough contract negotiations. By contrast, his nearest rival Charles Feldman cut a smooth and dashing figure; as Kemper puts it, he ‘constructed his own distinguished persona within the industry: gentlemanly, charming and learned.’(p.73). A former lawyer to a raft of Hollywood talent, Feldman sashayed into agency work with the aid of his social skills and legal acuity, employing the latter in the careful scrutiny of studio contracts. Though they may have had contrasting styles and approaches, what both Selznick and Feldman promised clients was greater creative control in their dealings with the studios, and what is remarkable about Kemper’s account is the extent to which they were able to deliver on that promise, developing strategies such as percentage points, story approval, and production packaging which are customarily understood as innovations of a later era. Overturning perceptions of the ‘cast iron’ studio contract, Kemper offers a fascinating array of case studies that attest to the ability of agents like Selznick and Feldman to shape a star’s career within the studio system. In Feldman’s case, Kemper also stresses the creativity of his input; for instance persuading Jack Warner to reshoot and re-edit scenes of Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep (USA 1946) in order to increase the value of the film and the star, demonstrating the way in which an agent’s activity worked to build “a client’s persona, brick by brick”(p. 215).

While the dealings of the two leading agencies are perhaps predictably the most spectacular, Kemper also fills out the story of a range of smaller operations among the hundred or so he says were in Hollywood by the mid 1930s. Again, success in this lower echelon required nurturing mutually advantageous working relationships, often with independent producers, as was the case with Ivan Kahn and Edward Small, with the onus on identifying potential stars (as with Kahn and Don Alvarado and Gilbert Roland) and carving out a niche. Harold Swanson, who shaped an outfit focusing on representing writers, is offered an example of how this could be done most successfully. Kemper notes that most small agencies were vulnerable to star raiding, and it is clear that more powerful agents such as Selznick and Feldman could broker much better deals. He provides the interesting example of Humphrey Bogart, picked up as a client by Sam Jaffe in 1937, and who remained with Jaffe into the early 1940s, even as roles in films such as High Sierra (USA 1941) and The Maltese Falcon (USA 1941) made him a star. Details from Jaffe’s files show not only that he negotiated deals financially inferior to those possible by the leading agents, but that his shortcomings delayed Bogart’s career trajectory, in that he was unable to insist upon contractual clauses guaranteeing the kind of creative control available to stars at the top agencies, a fact that casts new light on Bogart’s career trajectory. Such high-profile cases catch the eye, but Kemper is at pains to stress the routine nature of agency work in this period, arguing that “any section of any of the standard histories of classical Hollywood that deals with a particular film production or creative personality could easily be expanded to include the role than an agent played in those events” (pp.xii-xiii). In a book about the art of persuasion, there is no chicanery necessary to convince the reader of that, just scrupulous archival research offering an important new perspective on the dynamics of production in the studio era.