Dec 10, 2013
Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents
Posted on Jan 28, 2010
By Tom Kemper
One of the key films in Wayne’s gradual ascension to stardom remains 1944’s “Tall in the Saddle.” As Gary Willis has noted, “Tall in the Saddle” marks a transformation in Wayne’s on-screen persona, providing “a first glance at what would be Wayne’s later persona.” But Feldman’s fingerprints are all over this film, even though neither he nor Wayne produced this film. Director client Edward L. Marin (brother too of Ned Marin, vice-president of Feldman’s agency) helmed the film. It was produced by Robert Fellows, who worked as an associate producer under Feldman on Pittsburgh—Wayne and Fellows first met on the set of “Seven Sinners”—and later joined Wayne’s production company. The film also starred Ella Raines—borrowed from Universal—a client who came to Hollywood as a protégé of Feldman client, Charles Boyer (Feldman placed her under contract with Boyer’s independent production company, which loaned her out for productions).
One of Wayne’s most formative and influential collaborators—on this film and subsequent productions—also came from Feldman’s stable: client Paul Fix. Wayne worked closely on developing his acting with coaching and constructive commentary by Fix, another actor from Pittsburgh, and an aspiring screenwriter, a career path also managed by Feldman. Wayne consulted with Fix as he shaped “Saddle” ’s main character around Wayne’s strong points as an actor. This practice fit Feldman’s notion of carefully tailoring roles to define a star’s persona. Moreover, Feldman client Loretta Young (a recent acquisition from Selznick’s agency) suggested Fix as Wayne’s acting coach. “Duke was bright enough,” Fix said, “but he didn’t know how to move, what to do with his hands, and after three lines he was lost.” Wayne and Fix worked out a set of signals for steering Wayne’s performance from the sidelines. For example, when Wayne was overdoing the famed “furrowing” of his brow, Fix would put his own hand to his head. “I was on the set with Duke for years and nobody ever caught on.” A few did: Wayne and Fellows—through Feldman—later put Fix under contract to their production company. Fix’s contributions, then, did not end with the screenplay. He shaped the character to Wayne’s persona, as the actor and Fix refined it. And, since Fix advised Wayne on the set, he contributed to shaping Wayne’s performance as well (Fix also played a small role in the film)—once again, Feldman played matchmaker for his clients.
Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents
By Tom Kemper
University of California Press, 312 pages
Granting Wayne a degree of autonomy in his producing deal at Republic magnified the agency’s role in trolling for material for their client. In fact, Feldman’s agency picked up the “Tall in the Saddle” story for Wayne through an agent at the Small agency. Feldman’s agent worked out a deal that granted Wayne a three-day option on the material—a Saturday Evening Post serial—during “which time John Wayne will endeavor to set up a deal with a studio” to purchase the story at the asking price of $15,000. The short selling window likely indicated confidence that Wayne would quickly set up the story with Republic. But the memo revealed how much and how early Wayne remained in control of the project; at the same time, the memo recorded the role the agency played in scouting material in its developmental form for Wayne to work with and shape into serviceable vehicles for his talent.
To the industry at large, Wayne’s work as a producer confirmed his growing sense of the control over his career. Almost every review of 1947’s “The Angel and the Badman,” and usually at the start of the review, noted Wayne’s status as a producer on the film. Furthermore, Feldman orchestrated rounds of interviews and publicity around Wayne highlighting his new production deal and noting his roles with Dietrich. While “Angel” qualified as a genre film, Wayne’s first project as a producer marked a certain level of ambition. Some critics noted this distinction in that the film’s narrative portrayed Wayne’s gradual dismissal of the life of violence. The Los Angeles Times review called it “very probably Republic’s sweetest western; it is certainly one that no other studio would disdain,” thereby elevating the film above the studio’s typical fare. The Hollywood Reporter noted, in a full-page survey, that “Angel” received great reviews from New York critics, regionally isolated as highbrow country. One New York critic noted that “producer Wayne has seen to it that actor Wayne gives a good performance,” a split-identity emphasizing the dual dimensions that distinguished Wayne’s new persona. This perspective perfectly chimed in with Feldman’s strategies in burnishing Wayne’s new charisma in the industry. Even while this critic noted, as many did, that the film dragged, his critique remained consistent with Wayne’s new image: “actor Wayne should have pointed out to producer Wayne that the picture is too talky, moves too slowly and runs too long for what is still, after all, a western.” This ventriloquist critical mockery nonetheless adheres to Wayne’s dual roles and his new status. Noting this distinction served Wayne in that it signified control over his career and roles. This perspective transformed Wayne into a productive entity (a producer), not merely a passive actor—and served to heighten his aura.
Years earlier, a 1941 magazine profile of Wayne referred to him as “the fastest-moving leading man among the come-uppers on the Coast,’ and particularly emphasized his co-starring gigs with Marlene Dietrich, cashing in Wayne’s association with a bona fide star. Many of these stories played up Wayne’s appearance in “Stagecoach” and his friendship with John Ford, a tactic that again associated Wayne with A-list talent, thereby raising Wayne’s profile in the industry. A Hedda Hopper article repeated the Ford-Wayne relationship in terms of Wayne’s producing career, with Herbert Yates—always a collegial business associate of Feldman’s—the Head of Republic Studios, calling Wayne a potential triple threat: producer, actor, and director—an exaggeration of the deal terms heartily participated in for public relations and a studio head seeking to flatter one the studio’s most important assets.
By 1944, Wayne cracked the box office top twenty-five—at twenty-four—and climbed steadily to the top by the end of the decade. Wayne’s careerist escalation coincided with Feldman’s resuscitation of Marlene Dietrich, and, in characteristic fashion, Feldman merged these two professional projects—Wayne’s reconstruction and Dietrich’s resurrection. From Feldman and Dietrich, Wayne learned to take more command of his career: through advice on his performance, his manners, his delivery, and careful selection of roles and stories, and greater leeway to exercise such practices through the control granted in contracts. Directly and indirectly, Feldman played a role in all of these areas, and pushed the actor into new professional and contractual terrain in the years to come.
Click here for more information about Tom Kemper’s “Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents” on the book’s Amazon page.
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