June 18, 2013
Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents
Posted on Jan 28, 2010
By Tom Kemper
Saddling John Wayne: Dietrich Rides Again
In his later years, John Wayne feigned complete bafflement when he claimed that after all of his time in the film business, he still didn’t know what an agent did. But Wayne knew all too well, for his relationship with Feldman spanned the richest period in the actor’s career, lasting well into the 1960s and ripe with correspondence, consultations, conflicts, and consolations—no passing affair but a long-term meaningful relationship. Of course, admitting to a dependency on handlers like agents amounts to acknowledging a certain lack of independence, a chink in the armor of machismo Wayne wore with such confidence. Feldman played a strong role in navigating Wayne’s access to stronger, richer material; in partnering the actor with creative personnel to accentuate and buttress his skills; and in gaining the actor industry attention and a degree of autonomy as his career developed. Acquiring Wayne in the late 1930s represented yet another one of Feldman’s acts of thievery, so transparently that he wound up in courts over the infidelity. But Wayne’s career strategy in the early 1940s typified Feldman’s strategies in the synergy between his production company and his talent agency.
Marlene Dietrich, another one of Feldman’s recent acquisitions, lured the young cowboy-actor into Feldman’s stable—at least, according to Sam Morrison, Wayne’s cuckolded agent at the time. In papers he filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court in October 1941, Morrison claimed that Dietrich had used “undue influence to weaken and undermine the mental capacity” of Wayne, leading the actor to abandon Morrison and flee to Feldman, while under the spell of Dietrich, Feldman’s client and alleged emissary in this illicit enterprise. Morrison had lithely managed the young actor’s career throughout the 1930s, as Wayne drifted in and out of minor roles in studio films and major roles in minor films. Tellingly, one mid-1930s article on agents mentions Morrison’s office and passingly refers to a young actor John Wayne waiting impatiently to see his agent. When Wayne landed in Ford’s “Stagecoach”—produced by Feldman’s good friend Walter Wanger—his ambition, very likely, began to outweigh his patience with his agent. But this discrepancy only found expression, however, when Wayne encountered another species of his acting breed who had recently revamped her career by switching her representation to Feldman: Marlene Dietrich. This adulterous agency tale, like any good melodrama, requires some backstory.
Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents
By Tom Kemper
University of California Press, 312 pages
Feldman roped Dietrich as a client in 1938, long after her reign as a genuine star in films such as “The Blue Angel,” “The Scarlet Empress,” and “Shanghai Express,” even while some of these films met with decidedly mixed commercial and critical responses. By the decade’s end—and possibly the end of a career—Dietrich’s allure melted into “box office poison,” according to exhibitors, who placed a full-page ad declaring so in 1937, her temptation-tangled delivery grown tired and campy—particularly in a period dominated by earthy, vernacular actresses like Feldman’s own Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne.
Dietrich entered Feldman’s orbit through one of the many innovative production set-ups the agent Feldman explored in the late 1930s. In 1938, Feldman had entered into discussions with Universal’s Joe Pasternak about a potential production partnership, wherein the producer, Feldman, Feldman’s associate Ralph Blum, and Henry Koster would form “a great “United Artists’ type of set-up.” While this grand design never materialized, Feldman became a regular provider of talent to Pasternak’s Universal productions. Both Pasternak and Feldman recognized the potential for Marlene Dietrich to return to the screen. Feldman felt that her films needed to balance out Dietrich’s exoticism by regularizing her material, by replacing, for example, the phony veils and European lighting that surrounded her earlier image with robust American settings, genres, and characters. Feldman’s pitch, ever alert to the ways in which stars represent constructions—that is, objects shaped by the screenplay, the co-stars, the production quality of films—as much as real figures (real personalities, looks, and talent), convinced the cautious actress. Selling Dietrich on this game-plan, Feldman sold her on his agency as well. He immediately set her up in Pasternak’s “Destry Rides Again,” a comedic but rugged little western. Cast as a saucy French salon owner and free of European silky cobwebs, the film surrounded Dietrich with a spirit of the frontier, and an American love interest in Jimmy Stewart. Off her pedestal, Dietrich proved equally sure-footed in the pioneer’s dust.
Feldman repeated this formula in her follow-up film, “Seven Sinners” (1940), with the pioneer spirit transformed into a no less solidly American Navy drama. In fact, Feldman developed the screenplay through his production division and with his screenwriter clients. With Jimmy Stewart tied up in another production, Feldman naturally turned to one of his own clients, Tyrone Power. Feldman had purchased Power’s contract in 1938 for $30,000 from agent Ruth Collier (Dana Andrews came over from Collier as well in another deal); Power refused the role and went off to make a series of films for Feldman pal Darryl Zanuck at Fox. Feldman then turned to another “client,” John Wayne, now consulting with Feldman, but still contractually tied to Morrison.
Having performed this little combination on “Seven Sinners,” Feldman next paired Dietrich and Wayne in two more of his screenplay properties, “The Spoilers” and “Pittsburgh,” both in 1942. Feldman’s emphasis on controlling one’s career by independently selecting projects impressed both Dietrich and Wayne. It pushed Wayne to work on his persona more actively—his notorious gait, his delayed delivery, his pose—an attentive tailoring and self-consciousness encouraged by Dietrich during their short relationship on (and off) the set of the Feldman productions. To Wayne, Dietrich represented an example of a performer calculating the careful construction of a consistent and coherent screen persona and always retaining a strong say in her career, even when she followed Feldman’s advice. Hitherto an actor who stumbled through roles as they came to him, Wayne recognized the importance of building a persona by selecting roles carefully and establishing a certain continuity to his characterizations, even as the roles shifted in different films. One couldn’t rely entirely on agents—Wayne understood that much through his frustrations with Morrison—even those as responsive and committed as Feldman; actors needed to show a commitment to their career. Thus, Wayne took a greater interest in the development of scripts and the overall production process. At the core of this new approach, Feldman aided and abetted Wayne in this direction.
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