Like in the previous decade independent production in the 1940s succeeded in keeping American cinema away from the threat of standardisation that the films of the studios potentially represented. More importantly, though, in the second phase of mature oligopoly independent production ensured that American cinema would be free permanently from such a threat as it helped strip the major studios of their distinct identities. In this sense, top-rank independent production in the 1940s achieved something
Figure 1.2 At the zenith of independence. James Cagney and his sister Jeanne Cagney in a scene from Cagney Productions' The Time of Your Life.
much greater than introducing a marginal 'alternative' cinema or film culture. It laid the foundations for a filmmaker's cinema. Whether these foundations proved solid or not will be one of the subjects of the second part of this book.
Case Study: James Cagney at United Artists
Johnny Come Lately (W. K. Howards, 1943, 93 min.); Blood on the Sun (F. Lloyd, 1945, 98 min.); The Time of Your Life (H. C. Potter, 1948, 105 min.) - produced by Cagney Productions; distributed by United Artists.
James Cagney was the first major Hollywood star to create his own production company in the 1940s. Although there were other stars during the first phase of the studio period (like Gloria Swanson) who left the studios and formed their own companies in order to gain control of their careers, Cagney was the first one to exploit the specific market conditions that gave rise to the wave of 'hyphenate' filmmakers in the post-1940 years. Together with his brother William, they formed Cagney Productions and arranged a finance and distribution deal with United Artists. Even though it was William Cagney whose name accompanies the word producer in James's films, one can still nevertheless assume that James Cagney was the first major actor-producer in the 1940s.
Cagney had a long and very substantial record of problems with Warner Bros, the company that offered him his first contract in 1930. By 1936 he had left the studio three times after clashes with the studio heads about his salary, the number of films he was contracted to make per year, the quality of his films, the billing of his name, the marketing of his films, and most importantly the stereotypical roles he was given to play. Specifically, in a four-year period (1932-5) Cagney made nineteen films (approximately one third of his entire filmography), which on the one hand established him as one of the major stars in the studio and, eventually, increased his income exponentially. On the other hand, though, Cagney found Warner Bros' (and as an extension Hollywood's) system of mass-production degrading. For, despite the rise in his income and the growth of his stature as a star, his films were still made on the cheap, with little in terms of production values. Regardless of the quality of the productions however, Cagney's films returned profits consistently, making him a particularly valuable commodity for the studio, which used Cagney films to block-book lesser titles. For that reason, the studio was always ready to accept him back after each walkout and offer him increasingly improved contracts.
By 1939 Cagney was in the top league of star performers with a contract that granted him several powers (produce only A-class films, star in no more than three films per year, participate in his films' profits) and which would have earned him $1,650,000 from salary alone if he saw it to the end, until 1943 (Hagopian, 1986, p. 20). However, despite Warner's concessions, the studio was still trying to enforce on Cagney formulaic stories which highlighted the star's street-smart, tough-guy image as it was established in the early-1930s Warner films such as The Public Enemy and Smart Money (both in 1931). Desperate to shed this image and to acquire more control over his career, Cagney announced his intention to go independent in 1941 after completing Yankee Doodle Dandy, which gave him an Academy Award for Best Actor and enhanced his visibility as a top Hollywood commodity.
Cagney's move to independence coincided with the introduction of the Revenue Act of 1941. As he was the actor with the highest income in Hollywood during that year ($365,000) Cagney was in danger of being taxed on an 80 to 90 per cent rate. His decision to go independent then was also motivated by his desire to reduce his income tax bill as through Cagney Productions he would be able to present his earnings as capital gains and therefore be taxed at a much lower rate.
Although by that time studios like RKO, Universal and Columbia had made a number of deals with independent filmmakers, the Cagneys made a deal with United Artists. Having lost a number of independent producers to the other studios UA was desperate to attract new talent and therefore was prepared to offer finance as well as a distribution contract.
The deal between Cagney Productions and United Artists was for five pictures starring Cagney, and a number of other pictures produced by the brothers. The first money would be provided by the banks and guaranteed by United Artists, while Cagney himself would supply most of the second money, primarily through salary deferrals. UA would put in the remaining of the second money, including funds to purchase properties, and pay the salaries of contractees to Cagney Productions. In terms of distribution, UA would collect a 25 per cent distribution fee (much lower than the industry standard) which would go down to 10 per cent when a Cagney Productions film grossed more than $800,000. Finally, the production company would be entitled to 100 per cent of the film's profits while the Cagney brothers would not be liable for any debts incurred by Cagney Productions (Hagopian, 1986, p. 25). With such extremely favourable terms it was obvious that United Artists needed Cagney Productions more than the other way round.
The first film by Cagney Productions was Johnny Come Lately and it did represent a major departure from Cagney's image as it was shaped by his films at Warner. The star plays a drifter who arrives in a small American town and is persuaded by an elderly newspaperwoman to aid her in her battle against town corruption. Although this narrative premise suggests opportunities for numerous action sequences, the film denies Cagney fans this opportunity, until at least the final thirty minutes. Instead, the narrative focuses on the relationship between Cagney's character and the elderly woman, which is characterised by a barely disguised strong sexual tension. Furthermore, emphasis is also placed on his relationship with two other older female characters, while the narrative does not develop the obvious romantic storyline between Cagney's character and the newspaperwoman's young niece.
For this reason, when the fighting scenes do eventually appear they come as a surprise and seem to be at odds with the rest of the narrative. This is also reinforced on the level of the film's tone and pace which were too slow to 'have survived a big studio' (Agee quoted in Schickel, 1999, p. 130) and which allow the spectator to concentrate on the human relationships rather than the hero's quest. In this respect, when the pace picks up it signals a shift of the narrative's emphasis from the nuances of human relations to the straightforward question of whether the hero will achieve his goal.
Despite this perceptible change in the star's persona, the film was a modest success for Cagney Productions, grossing $2.4 million at the US box office. Critics, however, had mixed feelings about Cagney's break from tradition with the majority giving lukewarm reviews and the New York Post suggesting Cagney returned to Warner and make films like Yankee Doodle Dandy (quoted in McGilligan, 1975, p. 105).
If Johnny was Cagney's cinematic declaration of independence, Cagney Productions' second outing, Blood on the Sun (1945), could have easily been a Warner film. In Blood Cagney plays a newspaperman who tries to expose a Japanese secret plan to conquer the United States. This time, however, depth of character and human relations are largely disregarded in favour of an action-driven plot and war-time propaganda. With Cagney's tough-guy persona (accompanied by occasional displays of judo skills) dominating a conventional spy story it seems that the star reneged on his promise to avoid formulaic stories like the ones Warner used to assign to him. His fans, however, welcomed Cagney's return to form, making Blood on the Sun the most commercially successful Cagney Productions film, with a US gross of $3.4 million.
It would take three more years for the company to deliver a third film to United Artists. The film was an adaptation of William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life. The film focuses on people from all walks of life who frequent a saloon in San Francisco. Cagney plays 'Joe . . . whose hobby is people', a well-off street philosopher and permanent patron of the saloon who helps the other patrons with their problems, ambitions and desires. The film is organised in a series of episodes that involve Joe and one or more patrons each time, but despite the episodic structure it presents a number of similarities with Johnny Come Lately. Specifically, it features Cagney in another role that is radically different from his roles at Warner; it focuses again on the relations between characters rather than on any lineal development of a hero's quest to achieve an objective; and, interestingly, it also features a final section where Cagney is involved in a fight with the film's villain. And as in Johnny Come Lately the fighting sequence is at odds with the rest of the narrative which here features Cagney permanently sat on a chair drinking champagne and imparting wisdom.
The film represents the pinnacle of the star's independence. Aside from a stagey aesthetics (a product of a very faithful adaptation that earned the full approval of the playwright) which was against the realist trends of the time, and in direct contrast to the Warner aesthetic, the film was also as close to a family production and business as possible. Besides James and William Cagney, it featured Jeanne Cagney, the star's sister, in a central role, and Edward Cagney, the star's other brother, in the role of the assistant production manager.
The film however proved a major economic disappointment for both Cagney Productions and United Artists, grossing $1.5 million. With mediocre reviews and with audiences refusing once again to accept a different Cagney persona, The Time of Your Life became the last Cagney Productions picture for UA. The company moved back to Warner Bros which was once again ready to welcome the star back and to grant him terms similar to the ones he enjoyed at UA. Ironically, but certainly not surprisingly, the first Cagney Productions film for the studio was White Heat, arguably the star's most memorable personification of a gangster. It proved a huge box office hit.
3. Some historians have claimed that the Patents Company was formed by eleven members (Hampton, 1970, p. 66).
5. Hampton, 1970, p. 67. For the agreement between MPPC and Eastman Kodak see Bowser, 1994, p. 30.
10. For instance, independent exchanges chose also to supply theatres with entire programmes rather than just individual films, a practice introduced by the General Film Company (Izod, 1988, p. 29).
12. According to Izod, Queen Elizabeth did not prove successful as a road show prestige film, though Zukor made profits from the exploitation of the film in the states rights market (1988, p. 36).
13. According to Tino Balio block booking was used in the industry before Paramount's emergence but never as effectively and swiftly as Zukor used it (1976, p. 10).
16. Lewis, quoted in Koszarski, 1994, p. 73.
17. Balio, 1976, p. 13. This statement was signed by Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith and William S. Hart. By the time the company was incorporated in April 1919, Hart had pulled out.
21. For a discussion of prestige-level pictures in the 1930s, see Balio, 1995, pp. 179-211.
22. This description applies to producers like Goldwyn, Selznick and Wanger but does not apply to Chaplin or Pickford who were producing films irregularly.
25. The figures are taken from Koszarski, 1994, p. 9, Crafton 1999, p. 258 and Balio, 1995, p. 7.
28. Table 1.1 was compiled with data available in Balio, 1976, pp. 246-252.
29. The remaining forty-four were produced by non-American - especially British - production companies.
30. According to Balio, United Artists picked up for distribution about twenty-five films of dubious quality between 1928 and 1933 in order to increase the number of its yearly releases, which nevertheless remained well below the industry average throughout the 1926-39 period (Balio, 1976, p. 132).
31. Some of these problems included: the studios' battles over which sound system would be adopted by the industry; the upgrading of their production facilities; and the wiring of the theatres for sound.
32. The film was Goldwyn's Two Lovers and was released on 2 August 1928. The Jazz Singer opened on 6 October 1927 (Crafton, 1999, p. 211).
34. The figure is taken from Gomery, 1986, p. 125.
36. According to Matthew Bernstein, Paramount was the first one to initiate unit production, in 1926-7, as a response to the growing success of Loew's (MGM) which had started outperforming Paramount (Bernstein, 1993, p. 43).
37. The figures are taken from Schatz, 1996, p. 159.
38. The figure is taken from Schatz, 1996, p. 159.
39. For an elaboration of the benefits of the shift from central producer to the producer-unit system, see Benrstein, 1994, pp. 95-6 and Balio, 1995, pp. 75-6.
40. Some of these producers who were heading, for various periods of time, their own units were Frank Capra at Columbia; Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy and Henry Blanke/William Dieterle at Warner; and Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph Von Sternberg and Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount.
43. For an account of the JayPay Productions, see Bernstein, 1994, pp. 93-113. For details about the problems that The President Vanishes encountered with Paramount and the Production Code Administration, see Bernstein, 1994, pp. 97-102.
45. Having lost one of its most active producers (and president of the company), Joe Schenck, whose production outfit 20th Century Pictures merged with Fox in 1935, and despite signing David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, United Artists was still in desperate need of quality product. Walter Wanger, who had huge experience both as an in-house independent and as a unit producer, was a very appealing solution to provide the three to five additional films per year the distributor needed, which explains why the venture was financed by United Artists (see Bernstein, 1994, p. 115 and Balio, 1976, pp. 138-40).
51. According to Balio, despite its relatively marginal position in the industry, United Artists ranked third in terms of the companies who distributed the most prestige pictures in the 1930s (Balio, 1995, p. 205).
52. According to Aberdeen, top-rank independent producers perceived of the double bill as 'the stepchild of block booking' (2000, p. 69).
56. The only studio not to open its gates to independent producers in the 1940s was MGM.
57. The figure of $20 million is taken from Balio, 1995, p. 211. According to Joel Finler the film recorded approximately $31 million in rentals, which means that its gross was in the region of $60 million (Finler, 2003, p. 356).
58. The figures are taken from Gomery, 1986, pp. 34 and 52.
59. The figures are taken from Finler, 2003, p. 364.
62. The figure is taken from Aberdeen, 2000, p. 62.
66. For further figures and statistics about employment and salary averages during the war period, see Schatz, 1999, pp. 134-5.
68. Sergeant York and The Bells of St Mary were the number one box office hits in their respective year of release. See Finler, 2003, p. 357.
69. For a detailed discussion of this method of financing see Sanders, 1955, pp. 380-389.
73. Quoted in Aberdeen, 2000, p. 133.
76. The figures are taken from Balio, 1976, p. 188.
78. In 1944 the company showed $0.3 million net losses while during 1942, 1943 and 1945 it recorded meagre profits, which never exceeded the $1 million mark (Gomery, 1986, p. 175).
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