Casting



CASTING IN THE STUDIO ERA

During the Hollywood studio era, each company cast its films in-house, using mostly contract players. Sometimes, if the unit making the film felt that certain roles could not be cast with studio personnel, they looked outside for actors unattached to a studio, actors with nonexclusive studio contracts, or those whose home studio was willing to loan them out. The casting of the Hollywood-on-Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard at Paramount in 1949 is instructive. For the role of the delusional former silent movie star, director Billy Wilder (1906–2002) and producer Charles Brackett (1892–1969) looked for someone who actually had been as big a star as the fictional Norma Desmond. After interviewing a number of 1920s movie queens, Wilder and Brackett cast Gloria Swanson (1899–1983), who had retired from the screen in 1934. For the role of Max, Norma's servant, ex-director, and ex-husband, Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957) was cast. The former director, who supported himself in the sound era as an actor and had acted for Wilder in Paramount's Five Graves to Cairo (1943), returned to play a role almost humiliatingly like himself. Most of the other parts were cast in-house. William Holden (1918–1981), a journeyman leading man in routine pictures who had joint contracts with Paramount and Columbia, took over the role of the gigolo writer Joe Gillis after Montgomery Clift (1920–1966), the hot young free-lance actor who had first been signed, backed out. Sunset Boulevard , released in 1950, made Holden a major star. Betty Schaefer was played by Nancy Olson (b. 1928), a contract ingenue. In a film that called for real-life Hollywood personalities to play themselves, the most important of these roles could be cast with a contract employee, namely Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), who helped found Paramount and nearly thirty years before had made Gloria Swanson a star at the studio. The result is as perfectly cast a film as one can find.

The studio with the largest stable of actors, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), boasting of 'More Stars Than

Erich von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).
There Are in Heaven," worked its contract stable like a self-contained stock company. The "major minors," Columbia and Universal, relied upon and benefited the most from other companies' contract players. James Stewart (1908–1997), an MGM contract player from 1935 until his induction into the US Army in 1941, was mostly ill-used by his home studio, which could not determine his "type"—comic actor or romantic lead. Frank Capra (1897–1991), the anomalous star director at Columbia, asked to borrow Stewart for the male lead opposite house star Jean Arthur (1900–1991) for You Can't Take It with You (1938). Capra and Columbia borrowed Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), again opposite Arthur, in a film that turned out to be a star-maker for Stewart. Also in 1939, MGM loaned out Stewart to Universal for Destry Rides Again , a western comedy that launched the new career of Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992), the former Paramount star whom Universal had just signed. Both films clicked, confirming Stewart's comic gifts, his unique bashful magnetism, and his ability to project emotion, sincerity, and visionary passion. MGM, having been shown Stewart's value by the smaller studios, put his new stardom to proper use in The Shop Around the Corner and The Philadelphia Story (both 1940).

Sometimes, when seeking to duplicate the success of another studio, MGM was not above borrowing supporting actors whom a rival studio had made known in certain types of roles. Gene Lockhart (1891–1957) and Charles Coburn (1877–1961) played businessmen to whom the hero appeals for help in Twentieth Century Fox's Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), a major hit. MGM borrowed Coburn and Lockhart for its own biopic of an American inventor-industrialist, Edison the Man (1940).

During the studio era, and later on television, type-casting was the rule. Studio casting directors thought of Charles Coburn when looking for a wise, gruff, and lovable (or a roguish, gruff, and lovable) old man; Gale Sondergaard (1899–1985) fit the bill for an exotic or sinister "foreign" woman; C. Aubrey Smith (1863–1948) was Hollywood's embodiment of Merrie Old England; and so on. Marion Dougherty, one of the first independent casting directors in the 1950s and 1960s, compared casting in the studio system to "ordering a Chinese meal: one from column A and one from column B. That's why you'd see the same actor in the same kind of roles" (Kurtes, "Casting Characters," p. 40).



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