Star System


The emergence of publicly circulated knowledge about performers was foundational to the making of film stardom. In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood stardom reached its most systematic phase. During these decades the major vertically integrated studios all instituted arrangements for systematically cultivating and marketing star performers. Talent scouts were hired by the studios to search theaters and clubs for promising new performers. Once signed to a studio, performers would receive in-house coaching to develop their skills. Before a performer appeared in films, he or she might undergo vocal training along with singing and dancing lessons. Initially, a new performer would be tried out in several minor and supporting roles. Those performers who were regarded as star material would progress to lead roles in minor features before graduating to star in major productions. These arrangements provided the studios with systemized routes for the training and "apprenticeship" of performers.

b. William Clark Gable, Cadiz, Ohio, 1 February 1901, d. 16 November 1960

Although Clark Gable would obtain the title "the King" during his years in Hollywood, as a contracted performer at MGM, the dominance of the studio system would mean that Gable was always more ruled than ruling. After an unspectacular stage career, Gable secured a couple of supporting roles in film, with MGM then signing him to a two-year contract with six-month options at $350 per week. That year Gable made eight more films for MGM and two on loan to Warner Bros. as he became integrated into the studio system.

As an MGM star, Gable was paired with many of the studio's other contracted stars: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Norma Shearer. Repeatedly cast in romantic starring roles, he was frequently required to display a savage, sadistic attitude toward women. Although these roles contributed to making Gable a marketable star image, they equally limited his performance repertoire. In 1932 Gable commented to Photoplay , "I have never been consulted as to what part I would like to play. I am not paid to think."

Gable's individual career at MGM is indicative of the more general conditions defining the star system in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, and the contracting of Gable's labor illustrates the legal and commercial operations of the star system. Shortly after winning the Best Actor Oscar ® for his role in It Happened One Night (1934), a film he made on loan to Columbia as punishment for his objecting to being typecast by MGM, in July 1935 Gable signed a new seven-year contract with the studio. MGM held exclusive rights to the use of Gable's name, image, and voice. If Gable were injured or facially disfigured, the studio could suspend him without compensation. Gable would be billed as either star or co-star, with his name appearing on posters and other advertising in letters larger than that of other performers' names. He would work for forty weeks a year, making up to three films in that time.

Gable signed a new seven-year contract in January 1940, raising his salary, and a further contract signed in November 1946 granted him a percentage share in film grosses. In 1954, after MGM refused to renew Gable's contract, he signed for two films with 20th Century Fox. For the remaining six years of his life, Gable worked in the new freelance conditions of Hollywood stardom, appearing in productions for United Artists (e.g., Run Silent, Run Deep , 1958), Warner Bros. (e.g., Band of Angels , 1957), and Paramount (e.g., Teacher's Pet , 1958).


Red Dust (1932), It Happened One Night (1934), Manhattan Melodrama , Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Mogambo (1953), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Teacher's Pet (1958), The Misfits (1961)


Fisher, Joe. "Clark Gable's Balls: Real Men Never Lose Their Teeth." In You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies and Men . Edited by Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumin, 35–51. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1993.

Harris, Warren. Clark Gable . London: Aurum Press, 2002.

Spicer, Chrystopher J. Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

Tornabene, Lynn. Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable . New York: Putnam, 1976.

Paul McDonald

To secure and protect the potential marketable value of the performer's identity produced through this system, the major studios signed their most promising performers to contracts that spanned a term of up to seven years. Term contracts defined the legal but also the commercial conditions of the Hollywood star system in the 1930s and 1940s. A contract defined the terms by which a studio had the rights to commercially exploit a star's image or likeness. In signing a term contract with a

Clark Gable.

studio, a performer agreed to provide the studio exclusively with his or her services. If a performer advanced to the heights of stardom, he or she would be guaranteed riches and fame unknown in other arenas of the performing arts. However, the exclusivity of the personal services contract prevented the performer from seeking work with any other studio.

Alongside the legal and commercial functions, the term contract also served as an instrument of control. A studio could determine what films and roles a star would be cast in, frequently resulting in typecasting, against which many stars complained. Term contracts also served as instruments of discipline. As the emergence of star scandals beginning in the early 1920s destroyed the careers of some popular performers, the studios, to protect the marketable images they had so carefully cultivated and circulated, included morality clauses in contracts to guard against stars committing any damaging transgressions in their private lives.

Faced with the controlling terms under which they worked, many stars entered into disputes with the studios, usually over restrictive casting or when renegotiating their contracts. It was common for studios to loan out their stars to other studios but in certain cases this practice could be used as a way of disciplining a troublesome star by forcibly loaning out the performer to take an uninviting role for a lesser studio. In the most heated disputes, stars played what was the only card left for them—to withdraw their labor and refuse to work. However, in such situations the star could be suspended, with the period of the suspension then added on to the overall duration of the contract. The term contract was therefore both a blessing and a trap: it guaranteed performers regular employment on privileged terms but also granted the studio absolute control over their careers.

From the late 1940s the vertically integrated studio system was gradually dismantled. Hollywood was internally reorganized following the Paramount Decree of 1948, a Supreme Court antitrust ruling against the studios; external influences, including the impact of television, brought about a decline in the moviegoing audience. With film production consequently reduced, contracted stars and other leading talent became a hugely expensive overhead. From the end of the 1940s into the 1960s, the studios therefore gradually phased out the long-term contracting of stars. All performers, including stars, became part of a large freelance labor pool for the industry to draw on. Stars were no longer bound to the studios in the way they had been in the 1930s and 1940s. Freelance stars had greater freedom to select their roles and negotiate significant increases in their fees between films. They also obtained greater creative power through forming their own independent production companies. Without the term contract, the studios no longer had the means to control and discipline stars. Arguably, the star system was built on the very mechanics of that control, and so while Hollywood cinema has continued to be a popular cinema fronted by the images of stars, the rigid systemization of the 1930s and 1940s has been replaced by a looser system based on the circulation of a few major performers across the freelance labor pool.

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