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Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

By Tom Kemper

Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’
Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’

Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (University of California Press, 2009), did research for his book in the Ransom Center’s film collection with funding from the Warren Skaaren Film Research Endowment. He shares some of the surprising information he discovered while working with the Myron Selznick papers and the David O. Selznick collection at the Center.

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This “Hollywood first” coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks), it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

That digging led me to the Myron Selznick papers at the Harry Ransom Center, where I discovered incredible documents on the achievements of this leading agent in the 1930s. Selznick arranged packages of clients for productions (stars like Carole Lombard and William Powell and directors like Gregory La Cava or George Cukor), earned them shares in the film’s profits, and maneuvered short-term contracts for Hollywood artists—actions we tend to associate more with modern Hollywood than the classical period. Yet all are documented in the treasure trove of the Center’s archives.

One of the best moments for me as a researcher came when I discovered the files for the opening of Selznick’s London branch. There I discovered a long document in which he outlined, as a model, the operations of his Hollywood office. It gave me an invaluable historical perspective on the files as well as a blueprint for my research. I had a wonderful time at the Ransom Center and can’t wait to return (in Hollywood fashion, I’m writing a sequel to my book!).

Art Director: Set design for boathouse in "Rebecca"

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
The art director, in creating the environment that a character inhabits, reveals much about a character’s personality through the type of house, the style of furniture, the pictures on the walls, and even the items on the coffee table or in the kitchen sink. Furthermore, the sets designed by an art director must correspond to the geographic and historical context of the story.

Here, producer David O. Selznick writes in a memo to director Alfred Hitchcock and art director Lyle Wheeler that their movie’s title character, Rebecca, would have decorated her boathouse in a style reflecting her personality, and that the inside would look much different from the outside.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
“I have been thinking about the furnishing of the boathouse,” Selznick writes, “and I feel that we may be missing an opportunity here in not dressing the interior as incongruously with the exterior as possible. I think that it was after all Rebecca’s pet rendezvous and she would certainly have done it up beautifully. I have accordingly asked Wheeler to submit some new sketches on this.”

This is just one item from the “Art Director” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.

Actor: Gloria Swanson discusses DeMille, acting technique in audio clip

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
The contributions of the actor can be seen throughout the Making Movies exhibition. The primary and most visible interpreter of character is the actor, who interacts with or is affected by every creative artist on the production team.

Gloria Swanson’s performance as the aging film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) is now widely regarded as one of the most powerful in the history of film. The inner life of the character was first developed in the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who tailored specific details to Swanson’s own life and career. But Swanson also drew on her own experience as a silent-screen film actor when she relied primarily on facial expressions and pantomime to convey emotion and action to the audience. Her perfect balance of all the aspects of Desmond’s character created a truly memorable performance.

In this audio clip, Swanson talks about working with director Cecil B. DeMille and the violin players kept on the film sets to help actors get “into the mood” for happy or sad scenes. She also discusses acting technique for silent films with subtitle cards.

This audio excerpt is just one item from the “Actor” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few days as part of “Script to Screen.”

Red Carpet Countdown

By Christine Lee

Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'
Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'

The Harry Ransom Center extends a big thank you to the many generous sponsors who are helping us turn the Making Movies red carpet premiere into an amazing event. Cornucopia is providing a gourmet popcorn bar full of sweet and salty treats. Guests will also receive gift bags compliments of The University of Texas Press, the Blanton Museum of Art, ROSCAR Chocolates, Austin Monthly, Skin by Anne Webb, I LUV VIDEO, and Téo Gelato.*

One lucky guest will also win a “Hollywood Getaway.” Guests at the opening may enter to win two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines to LA and a two-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, plus a year of free rentals at I LUV VIDEO, two SXSW Film Festival Passes, a year membership to the Austin Film Society, and a year membership to the Harry Ransom Center, along with a Ransom Center hat and sweatshirt.

*While supplies last.