Last week’s headline-grabbing articles about how few women featured in the rankings of top-earning movie stars, suggesting this was an age-old problem, overlooked one inconvenient truth. A century ago, actresses were the biggest earners in Hollywood.
In fact from Hollywood’s inception around 1910 and for the next sixty years actresses from Mary Pickford in the 1910s to Elizabeth Taylor either out-earned or equalled the male pay packets. I know. I wrote a book about it – When Women Ruled Hollywood (Baroliant, 2019). It was subtitled – “How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy – and Won.”
The simple fact of the matter is that a woman – Florence Lawrence – in 1910 became the first Hollywood star, on the princely (or should I say princessly) salary of $50 a week, at a time when 77% of the female workforce survived on less than $7 a week. She was the equal highest-paid earner of the day.
When movies began, movie stars were not as highly paid as those who worked on stage. But, again, women were by far the highest paid earners. The number one star in vaudeville – the U.S. version of music hall – was Gertrude Hoffman on, wait for it, $3,000 a week (about $90,000 equivalent now). In 1911 the number one spot was shared – by two women. Sarah Bernhardt and Gaby Deslys now took home $4,000 a week. The following year Bernhardt was top dog again, on $9,000 a week and the next year again as the highest earner she pulled in $22,000 a week.
Movie stars of neither gender were earning that much but everyone knew what vaudeville stars earned so there was no shortage of precedent for actresses in the burgeoning movie business to ask for more. They employed a simple technique. They held studios to ransom. Give me more money or I jump ship.
In 1915, Mary Pickford broke all records for movie star earnings by taking in more than $150,000 a year. This was far more than male sensation Charlie Chaplin and even as his salary leapt upwards so did hers. In 1918 she picked up $1.8 million a year.
Despite the advent of top males in the 1920s of the calibre of Valentino, Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert, women topped the earning chart once again. Gloria Swanson would have easily been the top-ranked earner had she accepted an offer of $18,000 a week but turned it down preferring to retain her independence. In her absence Corinne Griffiths came out of top with a $13,000 a week salary at First National.
In the early 1930s Greta Garbo topped the heap with $500,000 a year – for a 40-week deal. In 1935 Mae West took home $480,000, not just the highest earner in the movies, but the second highest earner, $20,000 behind publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the whole of the United States.
In 1936, when Gary Cooper came top with Ronald Colman second, women occupying the next three spots. In 1937 when Fredric March took the top spot, women placed, second, third, four, fifth and sixth. In 1938 Claudette Colbert was number one and Irene Dunne the topper in 1939.
Bing Crosby topped the bill in 1940, and the next year it was Colbert again. The war inflicted a number of anomalies on the business, mainly the arrival from radio of Abbott and Costello, top earners in 1942, with Fred MacMurray, without even taking top billing in most of his films of the period, hitting the earnings peak for both 1943 and 1944. Ginger Rogers was top in 1945, Joan Crawford in 1946 and except for a parachute payment to stop him leaving Warner Brothers Humphrey Bogart would have been pipped at the post by Bette Davis, with chanteuse Deanna Durbin top of the heap in 1948.
With demise of the studio system in the 1950s, female earnings tumbled except for Marilyn Monroe who ran top earners John Wayne and William Holden close. But in the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor out-earned everyone by a huge margin and Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Julie Andrews either earned or equaled the earnings of top male attractions like John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
The advent of action pictures, which sold more easily around the world than comedies or dramas, ensured that from the 1970s onwards men mostly ruled the earnings game. But still stars like Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock held their own. And it was not so long ago that it was the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, thanks to The Hunger Games franchise, beat everyone.
You can buy my book on Amazon for about £10 and $12.