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article number 663
article date 05-09-2017
copyright 2017 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Silent Film During the "Orgy of Extravagance"; Great Titles, but Great Production Expenses . . . Low Profits, 1927.
by Benjamin Hampton

From the 1931 book, History of the Movies.

* * *

§ ONE of the many producers unable to survive the concentration of theater ownership and the excesses of the spending era was Herbert Lubin, who one day in 1925 found himself no longer engaged in the manufacture of photoplays, without money, and shouldered with corporations that had liabilities of a million dollars or so and a few doubtful assets.

He had long dreamed of building the world’s largest theater, and he made the dream come true—while out of funds and heavily in debt.

The Roxy, in the Longacre Square district of New York, is the substantial evidence of his accomplishment. Representing an investment of about $12 million, the Roxy is the most extraordinary of the hundreds of “palaces of the people."

◦ Its auditorium, seats 6,200 people, with room for an additional 2,000 in lobbies and lounge rooms;
◦ the stage is large enough for several hundred players and dancers;
◦ an orchestra platform, with three organ consoles and a hundred musicians, rises from the basement to stage level;
◦ there are dressing-rooms for two or three hundred actors, singers, and dancers, and
◦ offices for two hundred officials and employees.

8,000 people often assemble at one time under the Roxy roof.

Lubin was born in New York in 1886, and is in no way related to Sigmund Lubin, the Philadelphia film pioneer. He had the public-school training and the odd-jobs experience of a Manhattan boyhood, and then became salesman of real estate, life insurance, or anything else that he could sell.

The movies attracted him; he sold films for state’s rights exchanges, prospered, and engaged in buying and selling pictures.

Shortly after the World War he formed a producing company with Herbert Sawyer under the name of Sawyer-Lubin, distributing through First National and Metro. One of their stars was Barbara LaMarr and when costly pictures became popular, Sawyer-Lubin made a series of expensive productions starring her, obtaining the necessary capital in New York and New England.

The girl was stricken with an incurable disease, and unfortunate gossip, much of it unfounded, spread among movie fans and adversely affected her popularity. After a few months of suffering, she died, and as the death of a screen favorite means an immediate loss of audience interest in the celebrity’s productions, her films were assets of very doubtful value.

All of Lubin’s capital was invested in his companies, which now had liabilities of more than a million dollars, and practically nothing but the dubious earnings of La Marr pictures with which to pay them.

The star’s illness and death occurred at the time when First National, M-G-M, and all other leading companies had ceased distributing independent productions. Lubin’s chance of getting another opportunity to produce was very remote, and even if such an opportunity should arise, the difficulty of obtaining capital was almost insurmountable.

’The Girl from Montmartre,’ 1926Barbara La Marr in her last movie with Robert Ellis. First National.

While his prospects were at their blackest, Lubin was filling out the details of a vision of a great theater, the largest and finest in the world. Day after day he paced the streets in and adjacent to Longacre Square, studying real estate, asking prices, and building, in imagination, his titanic movie palace.

One day his wanderings brought him to the corner of Seventh Avenue and Fiftieth Street, where Bing and Bing, real estate operators, had bought the old street-car barns, covering a large block extending from Sixth to Seventh Avenues, and from Fiftieth to Fifty-first Streets.

A sign announced that they were offering the land in parcels. Lubin stopped on the corner and did some hard thinking.

The location was good, save for the fact that, according to the theater “sharps,” a house must be on Broadway to draw the crowds.

But this point did not worry Lubin. He would build a theater so attractive people would come from Broadway to see it. The real problem was where to find the money.

Money or no money, he decided to talk to the agent, and entered the small, temporary office in one corner of the old barn building. On the wall was a large map of the property, which Lubin studied for a few minutes, and, marking a piece of about an acre and a half, asked the agent, a pleasant, middle-aged man for the price of the parcel. A few minutes’ calculation placed the value of the marked acre at $3 million.

“What is your smallest down payment on it?” Lubin inquired and the pleasant realtor replied that $500,000 would be sufficient to hold the purchase for a reasonable time.

“I’ll take it,” said Lubin, and then he introduced himself to the surprised agent, William Guthman, who had never before sold so much real estate in five minutes, and outlined his dream of a great theater.

Guthman believed so enthusiastically in the idea that he agreed to execute an agreement of sale for a down payment of $25,000, Lubin binding himself to pay $100,000 each thirty days until the initial half-million should be covered, with customary terms thereafter. The agreement was drawn up and signed, and Lubin wrote his check for $25,000.

“I wish you’d hold this for a few days,” he said. “I haven’t that much money now, but I’ll raise it within a week.”

Guthman smiled and consented.

Lubin raised the $25,000 from friends in New York, and obtained the remainder of the half-million from the men to whom his producing company was in debt. Then all he needed was a million or so to pay the balance on the purchase price of the land, and ten or eleven millions more to build the theater and equip it.

Raising ten or twelve million dollars was not easy. In fact it was a task so difficult that Lubin had to perform miracles to accomplish it.

Paramount owned the Rialto and the Rivoli, and was building a magnificent 4,500-seat theater and skyscraper office building in Times Square at a cost of six or eight million dollars.

Loew was completing a large, modern house just across the way on Seventh Avenue, and through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer controlled the Capitol.

First National had the Strand.

Rialto Thetre, New York.

Motion-picture experts, bankers, and capitalists were exceedingly dubious about a venture that proposed to compete with these powerful corporations. Even if Lubin should succeed in building his giant house, there might be no producer from whom it could obtain a steady supply of high-class pictures. Each of the big companies would use its best productions on its own screens, and as Fox, the only important producer not already represented in the Broadway district, had announced his intention of building a new theater, his films would not be available to the Roxy.

Week after week, Lubin visited one investment banker after another, only to have each of them decline his proposition, but he plugged along, following every Wall Street lead he could discover, until he reached Charles Richardson of Pope, Richardson and Company, and Harold Roberts, of Mulliken and Roberts.

Richardson, before becoming a banker, had been connected with William Fox and had learned the possibilities and the psychology of the movie game.

Roberts had been business manager of ’Munsey’s Magazine’ in its youth, advertising manager of the Tobacco Trust, president of the Havana Tobacco Company, and publisher of ’McClure’s Magazine.’ His experiences had given him a broad point of view toward the entertainment industries.

These bankers listened to Lubin, and convinced of the soundness of his ideas, underwrote an issue of preferred stock with a bonus of common, in all about $5 million. S. W. Straus and Company, specialists in realty bonds, took the Roxy corporation’s senior security, a bond issue of $4.25 million, and Lubin raised the balance of the needed money by selling stock to friends, to manufacturers of seats, carpets and other equipment, to the architects, the builders and the excavators.

§ IN Stillwater, Minn., Gustav Rothapfel, a shoe repairer, had an active son named Samuel, who led a gang of youngsters in keeping Stillwater in hot water until the family moved to New York in 1894. Sammie joined the U. S. Marines, and after seeing the world for a while went back to citizen’s clothes and became a book agent.

In a mining town in Pennsylvania Sammie fell in love with a barkeeper’s daughter, married her, and joined his father-in-law in running the saloon. When screen movies appeared he persuaded his father-in-law to open a film show in an empty, room above the saloon.

He developed so many ideas about the exhibition of pictures that one little show shop did not hold him long. He moved to larger and larger theaters, until Mitchell Mark made him manager of the Strand, in New York, where he remained until Crawford Livingstone and Otto Kahn built the Rialto on the site of Hammerstein’s music hall, at Forty-second Street. Rothapfel became manager of the Rialto.

In the Rothapfel viewpoint there was no limit to the possibilities of popular entertainment. He wanted a great orchestra and fine music, great singers, a great ballet; if a picture was good, these additional features brought more people to the box-office, and if a picture was not good, the orchestra, the singing and the dancing, flowers and paintings in the lobby, and ushers trained to meticulous politeness, made patrons comfortable and happy and induced them to come again.

Although he became a very successful assembler of larger audiences, there were times when his expenditures for constantly more gorgeous entertainment brought acute distress to the owners of theaters in which his talents were displayed.

Rothapfel answered criticisms by insisting that lapse in profits was due not to his methods but to the size of the theaters; his entertainments, he declared, could draw more people than existing houses could seat.

Strand Theatre, New York.

When the Capitol Theater was built it was, with its 4,000 seats, the largest movie theater in New York, and Rothapfel, engaged as manager, gloried in the largest orchestra and largest stage he had ever had; his music and spectacular choruses and ballets attracted huge audiences, even though profits were sometimes reduced by his extraordinary expenditures.

When radio became popular, and many theater owners were fighting it as a menace to the movies, Rothapfel took the opposite view, and, deciding that broadcasting could be used to advertise his playhouse and himself, organized a group of air entertainers, “Roxy’s gang,” with Roxy himself as announcer.

His musical selections for orchestra and vocalists struck the popular fancy exactly right, and millions of sets tuned in weekly to listen to Roxy’s program, which included a glowing description of the current entertainment at the Capitol Theater.

§ LUBIN was personally acquainted with the managers of all the important theaters, and, reviewing the list, to select the most spectacular for the most spectacular house which he hoped to build, decided on Roxy as the only man for his theater.

Roxy knew New York, and New York knew Roxy. His ideas in entertainment coincided with Lubin’s, and in the new house he would have the things he had been clamoring for—the biggest auditorium, the biggest orchestra, the biggest stage, the biggest radio room—everything the biggest in the world.

Lubin concluded to see Roxy, offer him a large salary, a block of stock, a percentage of the profits, and to name the house after him. Rothapfel liked the idea, and after obtaining Lubin’s assurance that he would be permitted to spend any amounts to present his elaborate stage spectacles, entered into the project.

Throughout the undertaking, from inception to completion, Lubin preferred the emoluments of a promoter to the glory of an exhibitor, and remained in the background; Rothapfel was president of the company and the spotlight of publicity was centered exclusively on him.

Lubin was satisfied with his fee as promoter from the investment bankers, and with his control of the common or voting stock; he took no official position of any kind in the corporation.

Erection of the Roxy started in 1925; the theater was completed and ready for opening in the spring of 1927.

Building and equipping theaters is work of such infinite and peculiar detail that contractors will not undertake such construction for a specified sum. The Roxy was built on a cost-plus basis, and when the opening day drew near, Lubin knew that he faced a deficit—or an “over-run” in costs—of about $2.5 million, and an over-run is not a pretty thing to finance.

The bond bankers had protected themselves with an underlying mortgage, and the stock bankers had safegarded share-holders by making their preferred stock a lien junior only to the bond mortgage.

An over-run of $2.5 million simply meant that bondholders and preferred stockholders had just that much more property behind their securities, while Lubin, promoter and controlling holder of common stock, had to raise the money to take care of the over-run, or lose his holdings in a foreclosure procedure.

Secrets in the movie world simply do not exist, and everyone in Times Square and Longacre Square gossiped about the overrun, the general opinion being that Lubin would not be able to finance the additional sum. Other theater owners were sure that the money would not be raised and that even if it were and the theater opened, Roxy’s extravagance would run it into bankruptcy.

Wall Street unanimously declined to produce additional financing, and as the huge house moved steadily toward opening day, the specter of over-run haunted the young promoter through waking and sleeping hours.

Roxy Theatre, New York, under construction. "Wall Street unanimously declined to produce additional financing . . ."

During the later months of construction, A. C. Blumenthal, theater scout for William Fox, frequently visited Lubin, and joked with, him about the hard job of gauging an over-run in advance, the difficulty of this last piece of financing, and the uncertainty of obtaining pictures when all principal producers had their own theaters.

Blumenthal tried to induce him to sell his stock to Fox and to retire on his profits. Lubin invariably replied that he was perfectly willing to sell to Fox, but he insisted that the Roxy would prove to be a very profitable theater and he demanded an apparently impossible price for his holdings. Lubin’s own belief was that the Roxy’s box-office receipts would average $100,000 a week, a figure that would show a handsome profit on the total capitalization, including the common stock.

Blumenthal could not agree with this prediction of earnings. Theater receipts had increased enormously in the last few years, but, reviewing the intakes of the largest, most popular New York houses, very great optimism was needed to see the soundness of Lubin’s contention.

The Capitol had been remodeled and its seating capacity increased to 5,300. Its normal gross receipts were $50,000, running as high as $65,000 perhaps once a year, because of some extraordinary attraction.

The Strand, with 2,900 seats and normal receipts of $25,000 to $35,000, broke all records the week that Charlie Chaplin’s “Gold Rush” brought $72,000 to the box office.

The Rivoli had 2,200 seats, and its normal receipts ran $20,000 to $25,000, exceptional weeks bringing in as high as $35,000.

The bankers who had underwritten the Roxy bonds and stocks had accepted the calculation of experts that the Roxy could expect normal gross receipts of $65,000 to $70,000, and in exceptional weeks, $80,000 to $85,000.

As the theater neared completion, the owners of several chains located throughout the country looked with longing eyes at this titan and negotiated for Lubin with his stock, but they backed away when they learned the price.

Blumenthal persisted, scarcely a day passing in which he did not plead with Lubin to “get down to earth and name a figure that a sane man will pay.”

One night, a week before the theater was to open, Blumenthal took William Fox into the Roxy. A regiment of workmen was rushing day and night to complete the interior decorations, lay the last carpet, screw down the last chair.

An orchestra of one hundred and ten pieces was rehearsing. In a practice room a ballet master was training two hundred dancers. The superintendent of ushers was polishing his crew of one hundred and twenty young men to the highest lustre of courtesy.

Everywhere were the sights and sounds of tense activity so that at the appointed hour six thousand two hundred selected patrons would witness the inauguration of “the cathedral of motion pictures.” In the list of invited guests were high officials of federal, state, and city governments, great bankers, famous business men, notables from the world of science, literature, art, drama, music.

William Fox strolled quietly through the vast edifice, observing everything, and saying little. Perhaps memories crowded his mind. Thirty years is not a long time. His own first little show shops. . . a shooting gallery with kinetoscopes. . . . a nickelodeon. . . . The audiences of all his early theaters could have been seated in one section of this auditorium.

The cost of the Roxy represented a sum larger than the total investment in all his theaters, his studios, his exchanges, only a few years ago. Once, nickels were pushed into a flimsy ticket window by workingmen and children; and now first nighters were paying speculators ten to twenty-five dollars each for seats with the distinguished audience that would fill the Roxy next week. . . .

Roxy Theatre, New York; " . . . auditorium, seats 6,200 people, with room for an additional 2,000 in lobbies and lounge rooms;"

The movies had traveled a long journey in the three decades since William Fox first knew them.

Somewhere in the turmoil and confusion of the army of artisans and workmen, Blumenthal led his chief to a small man in shirt sleeves, perspiring and dust-stained, his normally husky voice hoarsened to a croak with nervous tension and lack of sleep—somewhere they found Herbert Lubin, and in a few minutes William Fox had bought the controlling interest in the Roxy corporations for about $5 million.

After debts were wiped out and settlements were completed, the Fox payments would deliver to Lubin more than $3 million for his promotional labors.

§ THE success of the Roxy theater exceeded the most optimistic expectations. Its gross business one week in its first year was $135,000; its average in-take was in excess of $100,100 a week.

The large attendance at the Roxy did not reduce attendance at neighboring theaters. Loew’s new house and the new Paramount, opening prior to the Roxy, were filled nightly, and the Capitol, the Strand, the Rivoli, and the Rialto continued to roll up big records.

Acquisition of the Roxy was an important event, but only one of many important events taking place in the affairs of William Fox. Able showman and vigorous fighter, Fox had always played a lone hand from the time he left the garment trades to become the antagonist of the patents trust and General Film.

Year after year Fox’s own studios manufactured successful box-office pictures with star material discovered or developed by Fox—William Farnum, Theda Bara, Tom Mix, Gladys Brockwell, and others—and Fox made large profits by exhibiting the films in his own houses and renting them to other theaters.

No stars except Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin ever earned more money per dollar of investment than Farnum and Theda Bara, and it is probable that Tom Mix brought more profits to his employer than any other star ever in the movies.

William Fox, Saul E. Rogers, his attorney from earliest days, and Winfield Sheehan, right-hand man and general factotum, comprised the inner cabinet, and these three were always sufficient unto themselves to cope with every emergency that arose in the turbulent trade.

When large capital was needed, Fox had obtained it from financiers, but always retained control of his corporations, none of the voting power ever leaving his hands.

After that memorable milestone, Armistice Day, when a new generation suddenly asserted its power and remade the movies to suit current desires, the closely knit Fox film family began to feel the pressure of the changed order.

Young people considered Fox stars out-of-date, and Fox pictures began to slip behind in public favor; his corporations continued to make money, but for a while they were dangerously near standing still, and in the film industry a lack of progress, or hesitation for a short time, had usually meant retrogression and defeat.

’Seventh Heaven,’ 1927 Fox Film staring Gladys Brockwell, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

While the changing tastes of the box office were diminishing his earnings, and the increasing costs of pictures were sending studio expense-sheets to the sky, Zukor, Loew, Mastbaum, and First National were hammering away at Fox’s theater position. Fox had been expanding steadily, but not at a pace sufficient to keep abreast of Zukor and Loew, and in many cities they had gone ahead of him by acquiring or building new houses that threw his own into the second class.

Suddenly and dramatically Fox seemed to awaken to the hazard of his position, and moved forcefully to reorganize his affairs. Winfield Sheehan was dispatched to Los Angeles, to take charge of the studio, and to live there and create a new order of picture-making; Fox, bestirring himself to observation and analysis of the theater field, brought A. C. Blumenthal from the west coast to Fox headquarters to hunt out desirable existing houses to be purchased and locations upon which others could be built.

One by one, Fox celebrities faded from the firmament. Fickle youth had distributed its diluted affections among so many exotic ladies, from Barbara LaMarr to Pola Negri and Greta Garbo, that Theda Bara, most famous siren, had disappeared while her professional ability was yet at its height. Married to Charles Brabin, a director, the great Theda retired to their home in Hollywood.

William Farnum, with health none too sturdy, returned to the stage.

Gladys Brockwell became a free-lance character actress in Los Angeles and built a new reputation for her self.

Tom Mix remained with Fox until 1928, when he transferred to F B O (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) for a year, and then “joined out” with Miller Brothers 101 Ranch and Wild West Show—which he had left years before to go with Selig. Later, when his friend John Ringling bought the Sells-Floto circus, Mix became its star.

Lee De Forest, scientist and inventor, had been experimenting for years with sound waves, trying to devise a method to record them on photographic film so that sound and pictures could be projected simultaneously. Theodore W. Case, an engineer in the Fox organization, had been tinkering away at the same problem.

William Fox decided that talking pictures must arrive before long; Case was provided with funds and equipment to speed up his experiments, and Fox acquired an option to buy De Forest’s patents.

Within a year Fox had made a new program and new policy for himself, and the revolution wrought in his operations was as drastic as that of Henry Ford in sending the old model flivver to the boneyard and designing a modern, stylish car to meet the new demands of the American people.

Winfield Sheehan’s administration of the Hollywood studio was quiet and non-sensational, but his results were startling. Somewhere in his career as reporter, Manhattan police-department official, and general handy man for William Fox, Sheehan had acquired an uncanny understanding of the popular mind and a sure hand in devising entertainment that would please it.

Fox pictures again leaped into the first rank of popularity, and his profits increased half a million to a million dollars a year.

Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno in ’It’; Paramount Studios, 1927.

Sheehan, arriving in Los Angeles at the time when the star system was beginning to crumble under the assaults of the all-star idea, abandoned the individual star method, concentrating on a search for good stories that could be made into effective continuities, and then selecting players who he believed could portray the roles.

The actresses and actors might be famous stars or leads, or they might be new and unknown aspirants; Sheehan cared nothing about their reputations if they were able to play the parts.

Minor roles were cast as carefully as the leads, as for example, in “What Price Glory?”, in which two experienced actors, Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe, and an unknown girl from Mexico, Dolores Del Rio, divided the honors so evenly that none could be called the star.

Another stage play, “Seventh Heaven,” by Austin Strong, was adapted to the screen by Benjamin Glazer, a Philadelphia lawyer turned playwright, and made into a picture by Frank Borzage.

Two unknown youngsters, Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, were found on the Fox lot working in small parts. Sheehan gave them the leads in “Seventh Heaven,” and the public made stars of them overnight.

In the theater department of his personal revolution, Fox expanded with a rapidity that took him into Wall Street to obtain twenty-five to fifty million dollars through public financing. Halsey, Stuart and Company became his investment bankers and shares of Fox corporations were listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Curb Market.

Wherever he needed theater representation, or where Zukor or Loew or First National had better houses than he, Fox speedily moved to place himself in position to cope with any competition. He built modern houses in important cities from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico.

With a succession of splendid pictures coming from Winfield Sheehan to the screens of fine theaters, Fox soon recovered his lost ground and in a few years was in a position to rival Paramount.

§ DURING the orgy of extravagance that obsessed the studios from 1922 until 1927, when talking pictures wrought a fresh revolution, the broadening of tastes, noticeable after Armistice Day, became so unpredictable that producers had nothing substantial upon which to base analyses or guesses.

Although June Mathis and other intellectuals had over-estimated the mental development of movie audiences, and had failed because of offering themes and treatments that only small groups of theater patrons were prepared to accept, there were definite signs that large sections of the public had passed through the infantile and youthful periods of screen enthusiasm and were entering into maturity.

Methods and rules that seemed, a few years earlier, to constitute a set of permanent principles, revealed themselves suddenly as practices subject to change without notice; on the other hand, producers could not safely dismiss any element as outworn as there was always the possibility that audiences might award a million to three million dollars of theater rentals to a competitor who had made a film out of the same out of date material.

The public attitude toward players had passed through note worthy modifications The inevitable candy sweet pretty girls and collar advertisement heroes of an earlier day were losing their popularity. Girls with charm, or the indefinable quality of sex appeal, could win a large following even though they did not qualify as pretty, and heroes might be “homely” and yet satisfy the romantic longings of ticket buyers.

Battling male stars now might safely present dirty faces and torn clothing; no longer was it necessary for the hero at the conclusion of a knock-down-and-drag-out encounter with two dozen villians in a western drinking hell to appear in his close-ups as though he had just left his valet.

It even became possible occasionally to modify the happy ending.

’Resurrection’ with Dolores Del Rio and Rod LaRoque. Directed by Edwin Carewe from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Produced for United Artists in 1927.

Nevertheless, while realism was apparently encroaching on the romantic idealism heretofore demanded by the movie public, audiences by the millions would pour into theaters to see a film based on a theme that had been pronounced hopelessly old-fashioned. A blind guess seemed to be as effective in predicting results as the most careful and intelligent analysis.

The fate of westerns illustrates the changes that were coming about in entertainment values. Cowboy thrillers had always been “sure-fire money-getters,” and their manufacture was one of the principal sub-divisions of the industry. Each large studio made several important westerns every year, and some small producers specialized in features of this class, the output of several grades totaling a hundred or more each season.

Broncho Billy retired in 1915-16, but a score of other heroes rose to popularity, Tom Mix and Bill Hart heading the list.

With a hundred or more stories of the same type coming to the screen each year for fifteen or sixteen years, the novelty of westerns was completely exhausted. Only a few basic themes were available, and the continuities had settled down to stereotyped forms; most westerns merely repeated the same formula and producers had to employ highly skilful writers to imbue the stories with sufficient interest to carry them.

Manufacturers of low-cost features could not afford to pay authors $10,000 to $50,000 for the use of their novels, and, as famous western stars believed that the interest of their followers was firmly set in personality admiration, making story-value of secondary importance, the major portion of the cowboy output persisted in retaining substantially the same production standards as had existed since the early days of features.

After audiences had seen the expensive productions of various themes, including westerns, for several years, the standardized cowboy films lost their magnetic power. Many movie-goers walked away from the “old reliables” and exhibitors became afraid of western subjects.

Studios concluded that the final curtain was about to fall on this class of entertainment.

And then, just when the end seemed in sight, Paramount made a large expensive production of Emerson Hough’s “The Covered Wagon,” directed by James Cruze, and to the surprise of the industry, it was received eagerly by audiences and earned several million dollars.

It did not, however, revive the vogue of the single-star, cowboy picture. Audiences continued to enjoy well-made, all-star plays from the novels of Zane Grey and a few other authors, but the demand for standard cowboy-star stories became so slight that within a few years Tom Mix, Bill Hart and all heroes of their type disappeared from the screen. *

* In the autumn of 1931, Carl Laemmle persuaded Tom Mix to return to the screen to make six pictures a year. Buck Jones, another former Fox cowboy star, appeared in Columbia Westerns in 1931.

This period of uncertainty prompted extensive experimentation. Costume and historical subjects, sacred and secular themes, exotic backgrounds, stories of the underworld, modern novels and plays—everything, in fact, that would pass the Hays censorship, was tested for screen possibilities.

Writers became skilled at producing smooth, swift-flowing continuities; architects and artists designed beautiful and convincing sets; directors had progressed in their technique to the point where good direction was common and extraordinary direction frequent; actors and actresses had learned their trades and competent acting became the rule rather than the exception.

The chemistry and engineering departments of film-making had made enormous advances. Machine makers, lens grinders, and electrical and chemical laboratories had developed tools so efficient and films so highly sensitized that expert camera men wrought new beauties of photography.

Cecil DeMille turned from society dramas to “The Ten Commandments” and created a spectacular photoplay that enjoyed long runs at spoken-drama prices.

’Underworld,’ with George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, and Clive Brook. Directed by Josef von Sternberg from a story by ben Hecht. Produced by Paramount in 1927.

Roy Pomeroy, a technical genius, made the camera perform stunts that seemed like miracles. He divided the Red Sea, permitting the children of Israel to pass over on dry land, and caused the waves to engulf the pursuing host; and when Moses received the tablets of stone on which the Almighty’s finger had traced the laws, the scene was one that fascinated scientists and frightened the superstitious.

Under the title, “The Phantom of the Opera,” Universal made a film in which Lon Chaney proved himself a master of physical and facial make-up. At the other swing of the pendulum Paramount took Herman Hagedorn, who had never been an actor, but resembled Theodore Roosevelt enough to be his double, and made an enjoyable picture of the Spanish War, “The Rough Riders.”

The stage led the screen in experiments to determine whether or not the public had recovered sufficiently from the shock of the World War to witness portrayals of its scenes. A play by Lawrence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, “What Price Glory?”, achieved great success on the stage, and picture producers saw a ray of hope through the fog of uncertainties that had been surrounding them.

If the public, drifting away from westerns and other melodramas, should now accept pictures of adventure, romance, and heroism in the World War, the screen could supply enough of this material to satisfy them for years.

William Fox bought the screen rights of “What Price Glory?”, but before he made it into a picture, King Vidor had taken “Plumes,” a novel by Lawrence Stallings, and with the assistance of the author and Harry Behn, a brilliant young continuity writer, produced for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer “The Big Parade,” that ran for two years in the Astor Theater, New York, at spoken-drama prices, and was comparably successful everywhere else in America.

Vidor’s negative cost less than $200,000; the gross receipts of the Astor Theater alone were more than $800,000. “The Big Parade” swept away uncertainties—the World War was a safe recipe for box-office success, and war pictures flooded the screen. William Fox and Winfield Sheehan, however, took their own time to produce “What Price Glory?” and when it appeared in 1926 it proved extremely popular.

The increasing interest of the public in aerial traffic carried the movies into the air. Aeroplane stunt artists from all over the world assembled at Los Angeles and sold their services to the studios by the day, the week, or the stunt. Melodrama, once achieved by a cowboy on a pony, transferred itself to the cockpit or wings of an aeroplane, where wild aviators took chances that sometimes ended in death.

Paramount consolidated thrills and heart throbs in “Wings,” a massive war and air production that cost $2 million but proved a profitable investment.

Will Hays put his foot down squarely when producers tried to adapt sex plays of the franker types from the stage, but Gloria Swanson defeated even the Czar of the Movies by screening Somerset Maugham’s play of the South Seas, “Rain,” under the title “Sadie Thompson.” True, Sadie’s bright crimson was toned down to a glowing pink, but the screen play eluded state and municipal censors and was eagerly received by audiences.

American movies had become a satisfying form of entertainment, but they were being created at costs that were neither profitable nor justifiable. In 1913-14, “The Birth of a Nation” cost $100,000 and made many millions for its owners and many millions for exhibitors.

The change in conditions in a dozen years is revealed by such expenditures as these:
◦ “Ben Hur,” $4,500,000;
◦ “The King of Kings,” $2,500,000;
◦ “The Trail of ‘98,” $2,000,000;
◦ “Wings,” $2,000,000;
◦ “The Rough Riders,” $1,600,000;
◦ “Old Ironsides,” about $1,000,000;
◦ “Beau Geste,” $900,000;
◦ approximately $1,000,000 was invested in each of many productions, such as Norma Talmadge’s “Camille,” “What Price Glory?”, Universal’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” and others.

The history of “Ben Hur,” the most expensive picture ever filmed, dramatized the uneconomic methods of the industry in the era of extravagance and waste. I have placed the cost of this production at four to five millions, using figures from the best sources available, but the real total may be greater; none but the high officials of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer know the exact figures.

’Ben Hur,’ photographing the chariot race. Francis X. Bushman as Messala.

The film was started by the Goldwyn corporation, prior to the merger of Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer; and studio officials, believing that authentic Italian backgrounds would be more convincing than sets constructed in Los Angeles, sent writers, technical men, directors, and players to Italy, where they met with political, labor and social difficulties that nearly wrecked the nervous system of every executive.

Enormous sums were spent without satisfactory results. When Louis B. Mayer entered the company, he reorganized the entire undertaking, practically starting anew, and made most of the final version of the picture in California. “Ben Hur” was a massive production, but had Mayer’s plan been followed from the start, the cost would probably have been somewhere around $2 million and possibly as low as $1.5 million.

Cecil B. DeMille produced “The King of Kings,” the life of Christ, at the next highest cost on record, $2.5 million. It is probable that no photoplay will ever excel “The King of Kings” in the authenticity and beauty of its settings, costumes, and other technical details.

Historians, artists, craftsmen and skilled workers in half a hundred trades cooperated to reproduce faithfully the settings. The exteriors and interiors of buildings, the garments worn by every character from Pontius Pilate to the humblest beggar, the vehicles, the wineskins, the weapons—each item that appeared on the screen was designed by experts and specially made.

No estimate of the technical qualities of “Ben Hur” and “The King of Kings” can be too high nor too enthusiastic; they were faithful, authentic, and awe-inspiring in their conception and execution. It is probable that they will stand permanently as the highest point of film production, and, if chemists should discover a way to preserve the photographic coating on celluloid, may be considered by future historians, together with Douglas Fairbanks’ superb fantasy, “The Thief of Bagdad,” as noteworthy achievements of the American civilization that inspired them.

§ THE development of widely diversified tastes in themes and treatments had its effect on the position of the stars. They now shared their glory, not only with a large number of other stars of equal magnitude, but with directors and writers as well. Nominally, the system continued to flourish, but the day was gone when any single player could hope to capture first place in the hearts of audiences.

As a result, salaries, too, became uncertain. Employers grew very timid about signing a long-term contract with any star at $100,000 to $20,000 a week. If the star made four pictures a year the salary alone would amount to $125,000 to $250,000 per picture; and most stars wanted to make only two or three pictures a year, in which event the salary item would be increased fifty to one hundred percent per picture.

A play loaded with one salary of $125,000 to $500,000 would reach a total cost of $750,000 to $1 million, and figures such as these had become too speculative for corporations that had to pay dividends to thousands of stockholders.

Several stars had reached a position in popularity at which they believed they were justified in receiving the highest compensation paid to any player.

Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore and Harold Lloyd were very successful, and a few years earlier any one of them might have expected to receive the salaries attained only by Mary Pickford and Chaplin.

’Sadie Thompson,’ with Gloria Swanson and Raoul Walsh. Directed by Raoul Walsh from the story by W. Somerset Maugham. Produced for United Artists in 1928.

Corinne Griffith and several other players had acquired large audience followings and believed that they were due for advancement to the “big money.”

For a year or so, stars and employers wrangled constantly over contract renewals, each side unable to recede from its position, and then Joseph Schenck contributed to the solution of the problem by forming an alliance with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D. W. Griffith in the United Artists corporation.

Schenck became the administrative and business head of United Artists, and broadened the scope of the organization to include important stars who had grown too expensive for producers to employ. By using their own money, or obtaining the necessary capital from financial connections, the players could make their own pictures as long as the public wanted to see them.

United Artists obtained, by purchase or lease, theaters in principal American cities and some in Europe, so that its photoplays were insured of first runs in its own houses. In this manner, the organization expanded until it was a large, self-contained business unit, combining production, distribution, and exhibition.

Norma and Constance Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, William S. Hart, Corinne Griffith, Ronald Colman and other stars became members of United Artists, and Samuel Goldwyn and Howard Hughes later transferred their productions to this organization.

Harold Lloyd formed his own company, distributing his pictures through Paramount.

The salaries paid to stars by employing producers settled to a basis of approximately $7,000 a week at the top—although Thomas Meighan, Pola Negri, Tom Mix, Colleen Moore, and a few others exceeded this figure—and ranging downward; $2,000 to $5,000 a week representing the average in 1926-27.

The employers were helped in the adjustment of salary matters during this period by the acceptance of American theater-goers of actors and actresses from Latin, Teutonic, Scandinavian, and Slavic countries.

The entrance of non-English speaking players to American studios in any considerable numbers was in itself an interesting evolution. From the beginning of film-making, although there never was any prejudice against foreign actors, the difficulty of directors and other staff members in making themselves understood to those with limited knowledge of English caused delays and expense that were avoided by employing Americans or players of British derivation.

The exceptions were a few Europeans who knew English. Able artists, such as Jean Hersholt, a finely trained Danish actor, and others who drifted into Hollywood, had difficulty in getting their feet on the ladder of success until they had become workably conversant with the language.

When Pola Negri, Rudolph Valentino, and other foreign actors began to appear in important pictures, their films were warmly welcomed by audiences in their own countries. Attendance at theaters in the native lands of the foreign players, and in nations of affiliated racial stocks, was greatly increased and as distributors were able to charge much higher rentals for their pictures, foreign artists began to have value in Los Angeles.

Producers scoured the studios and stages of Germany and Central European states, the Scandinavian peninsula, Mexico and South America for talent that could be transported to Los Angeles and fabricated into profitable export merchandise. Many of their discoveries pleased not only foreign screen audiences, but American movie-goers as well.

’What Price Glory?,’ with Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, and Mexican actress Dolores Del Rio. Directed by Raoul Walsh from the play by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson. Produced by Fox in 1926.

Wages in the United States seemed fabulous to the foreign players—at first. Many of them came to Los Angeles without contracts, and started the round of the studios as free-lances. Whenever the opportunity for a role appeared they promptly bid for it at lower salaries than established players were asking. The foreigners would accept $250, for example, for a part for which an American actor would insist on getting $500 to $750, and for a while there were bitter comments in the film colony on the “foreign invasion” and “price cutting.”

Producers or their scouts drumming up talent in Europe found artists very happy to accept contracts at wages that seemed like bargain day to the studio executives in Los Angeles, and while this cheery condition lasted, the employers were very proud of the boys and girls they had brought across the seas.

But as soon as the foreigners got their feet firmly planted on Los Angeles soil, they began to display an unfortunate familiarity with Los Angeles values.

One European actress discovered by an American producer traveling in Europe, was offered a contract with $300 a week the first year and $500 the second. Such sums were beyond the dreams of most players anywhere except in America, and she could not sign quickly enough.

In her first few American pictures she made a hit, and when soon a competing producer offered her thousands instead of hundreds she began to display extreme unrest. Her employer offered to revise the contract upward, but not far enough to meet his competitor’s offer. His star hesitated, and he threatened deportation if the contract were broken.

She earnestly assured him she would not break the contract, but soon thereafter her ability to understand English departed from her, causing many expensive delays in production. Surely there is nothing illegal in that? Certainly not! The producer compromised and raised her salary to a satisfactory figure,—and her knowledge of English suddenly returned.

Even after the adjustment of star salary levels had been more or less ironed out, the employers had to carry a heavy and hazardous economic burden in unexpired contracts with actors who were passing out of public favor. A producer paying $5,000 to $10,000 a week to a player over a period of five years, might find himself at the end of the third or fourth year with a star whom audiences had quietly abandoned, and before the termination of the contract the employer might lose more than all the profits he had made on the star during the period of his or her ascendancy.

This condition continued until 1927-28, when producers adopted a system of short-term contracts, usually for a year. Often the producer took an option on the player’s service for additional years with compensation increasing annually.

This system removed some of the hazards, but in 1928-9, when talking pictures had swept the silent film into the background, producers found themselves paying wages throughout a year to successful silent players who were not useable in the talkies.

’Chicago,’ with Phyllis Haver. Directed by Frank Urson from the play by Maurine Watkins. Produced by Pathé-DeMille in 1928.
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