By Tom Kemper
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!).