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.
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Hollywood has been hitting the retread button for over a century. Today’s reboots and re-imaginings are nothing new. Although in the past the excuse was technological development, the splurge of remakes in the 1960s including Beau Geste (1966), Stagecoach (1966) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) were superior to the originals in one particular aspect – they were in color.
When silent films went from two-reels to four-reels and from six-reels to eight-reels, roughly the length of a modern picture, and when silent gave way to sound the remake business went into overdrive. The 80-minute Tess of the Storm Country (1914) starring Mary Pickford was transformed into a 137-minute version eight years later headlined by the same star. Zane Grey westerns starring William Farnum Raiders of the Purple Sage (1918), The Lone Ranger (1919) and The Last of the Duanes (1919) were remade as Tom Mix vehicles between 1923 and 1925 and toplining George O’Brien between 1930 and 1931. Over 120 remakes were made between 1928 and 1930, with around 80 per cent going out with the same title. There was another remake burst at the end of the 1930s including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Color was the prime instigator for the remake business in the 1960s. But you could also add the technological development of 70mm, the key element of roadshow pictures. Many big-budget films of the 1920s and 1930s had hit the box office target and with studios looking for as many sure-fire winners as possible it seemed sensible to give a new look to older projects. Ben-Hur (1959) could be seen as lighting the remake touch paper especially when it scored equally highly at the box office and the Oscars. MGM followed through with roadshows of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), one-third as long again as the 1935 original, Cimarron (1960) with an extra 20 minutes compared to the 1931 Oscar-winner. But the reimagining of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) ran about the same length as the Rudolph Valentino version of 1921 as did King of Kings (1961) compared to the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille version.
Prior to considering the expensive business of investing in a remake, studios had been able to rely on sticking out the old movie as a reissue, limited financial exposure often resulting in considerable box office. But it was impossible to sell silent pictures, excepting comedians like Charlie Chaplin, to a modern audience and many of the big hits of the 1930s had either been already sold to television or were considered dated by contemporary standards and although black-and-white films were still being made halfway through the decade (In Harm’s Way, 1965, for example) they were a difficult re-sell.
Far easier to revamp a well-known, perhaps beloved, product with the addition of color cinematography, better sound, and possibly with major stars in the vein of Marlon Brando (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). It also seemed the case that lesser stars could still prop a remake with little adverse effect on the receipts especially if the lower-priced actors substantially reduced the budget and consequently the income required to turn a profit.
Some movies appeared to be on an endless recycle. The Count of Monte Cristo (1964) had been filmed in 1956, 1954 and 1934, the latter starring Robert Donat. The Perils of Pauline (1967) had been remade twice since Pearl White had made the character her own in 1914. Back Street (1961) with Susan Hayward had been filmed twice before in 1941 and 1932. The Spanish-made The Last of the Mohicans (1963) starring Jeffrey Hunter was the fifth attempt at filming the famous novel after movies made in 1920, 1932, 1936 and 1957.
Some remakes changed their titles. Cary Grant comedy Walk, Don’t Run (1966) was based on The More the Merrier (1943), Stolen Hours (1963) with Susan Hayward on Dark Victory (19390 with Bette Davis, Doris Day vehicle Move Over Darling (1963) on My Favorite Wife (1940), and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1963) on The Old Dark House (1932). William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) starring Audrey Hepburn drew on These Three (1936), Uptight (1968) was a modern take on John Ford’s Oscar-nominated The Informer (1935), and comedy The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) with Don Knotts had its origins in The Paleface (1948) starring Bob Hope. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon (1950) retuned as The Outrage (196) starring Paul Newman. The Bonnie Parker Story (1958) was drastically retuned as Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was based on his own Lady for a Day (1932). Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965) took only three years to re-emerge as Jigsaw (1968).
Other studios decided the original title was too big an attraction to be discarded. Of Human Bondage (1964) with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey had been made 30 years earlier with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Night Must Fall (1965) starring Albert Finney had originated 27 years prior. Raquel Welch-starrer One Million Years B.C. (1966) had been slightly truncated from One Million B.C. (1940), Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson headlined The Killers (1964) based on characters originally essayed by Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner 18 years previously, Mayerling (1969) with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve had starred Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux in the 1936 version.
Horror was the most obvious genre to receive a revamp. Robert Bloch rewrote The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari (1962) forty-two years after the original. Hands of Orlac (1961) with Mel Ferrer had previously been known as Mad Love (1936). Herbert Lom reprised The Phantom of theOpera (1962) following on from Lon Chaney in 1925 and Nelson Eddy in 1943. French-made The Golem (1967) was based on versions screened in 1921 and 1937.
Some films were remade with music, Goodbye Mr. Chips – the Robert Donat, Greer Garson original belonging to 1939 – the most obvious example but The Sound of Music (1965) was essentially a musical version of the Germanic The Trapp Family (1956), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) set in Rome turned up as the musical The Pleasure Seekers (1964) set in Madrid, both films directed by Jean Negulesco. On the other hand, State Fair (1962), which had been turned into a drama in 1945 despite being based on a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, was restored to its roots.
Not every remake idea proved a slam dunk. Projects that failed to get off the ground included: TheBirth of Nation (1915), Ecstasy (1933), Metropolis (1927) to be directed again by Fritz Lang, Wuthering Heights (1939) to star Richard Harris, Dark Angel (1925 and 1937) with Rock Hudson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Crusades (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Roger Moore – although it was remade in 1968 – Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Jane Eyre (1943) to star James Mason, The Macomber Affair (1946) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Anthony Quinn was touted for a remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962) and Saul David planned a westernized version of that director’s The Hidden Fortress (1958).
French director Claude Chabrol had ambitions to make a version of Hamlet (1948) from Ophelia’s point of view though a Russian version appeared in 1964. MGM blocked a remake of Tarzan of the Apes (1931). Francis Ford Coppola proposed Heaven Can Wait, a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to star Bill Cosby. Stephen Boyd was mooted for a remake of The Quiet Man (1952).
Producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl, 1967) announced new versions of Casablanca (1942) and a Peter Collinson-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941). Musical versions were announced of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Our Town (1937), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Roman Holiday (1953), the latter to star Robert Redford.
SOURCES: Brian Hannan, Coming Back to a Theater Near You, A History of Hollywood Reissues, 1914-2014 (McFarland, 2016), p21, 27, 31; “Drift Towards Remakes Grows on Coast,” Box Office, March 11, 1939, p37; “That Birth of a Nation Title,” Variety, April 13, 1960, p6; “Sales Come-On But Never Mislabel Content – Hathaway,” Variety, October 26, 1960, p13; “Bischoff-Diamond To Make Charge,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p11; “Bash Vindicated – After 4 Yrs,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p5; “MGM Is Upheld In Suit over Tarzan,” Box Office, July 10, 1961, p13; “New Cycle of Classics for French Prods,” Variety, July 12, 1961, p16; “Dark Angel Remake to Writer Lee Mahin,” Box Office, December 18, 1961, pW-8; “Robert Blees Plans Remake of Macomber Affair,” Box Office, March 12, 1962, p16; “Anderson-U.A. Talk Wuthering Remake,” Variety, August 28, 1963, p22; “Spain’s Latest Western,” Variety, October 23, 1963, p18; “MGM Signs for 3 Co-Productions in Spain,” Variety, January 15, 1964, p22; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, February 10, 1964, p16; “Japanese Sanjuro Remake for Quinn,” Variety, May 5, 1965, p4; “Weintraub Sends Down L.A. Roots,” Variety, January 12, 1966, p5;“Universal Re-Do of DeMille 1935 Crusades,” Variety, April 13, 1966, p3; “Plan Rebel Without Cause For Remake As Musical,” Box Office, April 18, 1966, p9; “Lee Thompson Busily Reprints His Musical Version of Henry VIII,” Variety, April 27, 1966, p17; “U’s Future Parks 17 Vehicles,” Variety, May 25, 1966, p33; “Re-Do of Quiet Man,” Variety, March 5, 1967, p5; “De Laurentiis in New Par Dickers,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p5; “David to Re-Do Kurosawa Plot As U.S. Western,” Variety, June 12, 1968, p4; “Re-Do of Falcon,” Variety, July 10, 1968, p14; “Star In W7 Pic,” Variety, January 15, 1969, p3.
This weekend I am one of the very few male speakers at the “Doing Women’s Film and Television History” international conference being hosted by Maynooth University, Dublin, on July 10-11. Naturally it is a virtual conference but it is packed with speakers from all over the world who have been researching issues relating to women working in film and television. I am not an academic so it is signal honor for me to be invited to speak at a university-run conference.
My topic is “When Women Ruled Hollywood” which looks at female salaries in the movie business from 1910 to 1970. Although most people think women were hard-done-by in Hollywood and generally considered as second-class citizens, I found this was not at all the case. In the 1910s, Mary Pickford earned double the earnings of Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s, the top earning star of either gender was Corinne Griffith.s
At the start of the 1930s, Greta Garbo was the dominant figure when it came to salaries. In 1935 Mae West was the second-highest earner in the whole of America, beaten only by William Randolph Hearst, immortalised as Citizen Kane.
In the annual salary league for the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, Claudette Colbert (twice), Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Deanna Durbin all topped the rankings and in the years when males came out on top the female stars were not far behind.
While female salaries dipped in the 1950s, by the 1960s women were again beating the males at the salary game, Elizabeth Taylor way ahead of everybody, Audrey Hepburn on $1 million a picture, Julie Andrews out-earning Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and newcomer Barbra Streisand reaching unheard-of commercial heights.
I had written a couple of business histories of Hollywood, the research for which took me back to 1910 and in the course of writing those books I discovered information about salaries that would have been out of place in those works, so I dug around some more and came up with the information for this talk.
If you want an idea of my speech, you can check out this short sample on Youtube.
This Walt Disney version discarded much of Eleanor H. Porter’s original best seller not to mention a great deal of the tear-jerking section that played to superstar Mary Pickford’s strengths in the silent 1920 adaptation. Pickford was in her late 20s at the time and a movie mogul to boot (having launched United Artists) so had a depth of emotion Hayley Mills (aged 13 during filming) could not hope to match.
The screenplay is a good lesson in how to retain the essential element of a story – a positive-thinking orphan alleviates the gloom in an embittered town – while providing more for adult audiences. Disney assembled an awesome cast with three Oscar-winners – Jane Wyman (Best Actress, Johnny Belinda, 1948), Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1952) and Donald Crisp (Best Supporting Actor, How Green Was My Valley, 1942) – plus four-time nominee Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou.
Despite no Oscar recognition Nancy Olsen had been leading lady to the likes of Bing Crosby, John Wayne and William Holden. In effect, parents would be very familiar with the stellar supporting cast. Unusually for a kid’s picture, Wyman, Malden and Crisp each are given a reflective moment to prove they are doing more than taking an easy salary cheque.
At least in Hollywood terms (Mills made her debut the year before in the British Tiger Bay, 1959) Pollyanna falls into the a-star-is-born category. The actress acquits herself well, with her expressive face, while hearing the emotion she packs into the word “gorgeous” is word admission alone. With a healthy subplot about a town in thrall to matriarch Wyman, the weight of the movie does not fall on Mills’ shoulders alone and fire-and-brimstone preacher Malden and faded spinster Wyman are particularly good; Malden especially allocated more screen time than would be normal in a movie aimed at kids.
I have never read the book nor (to my shame) seen the Pickford version, so I came to the movie with low expectations, anticipating a lazy, maudlin effort. So I was quite surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it and was shocked by the final piece of action which turned the movie on its head. Sure, it relies on the feelgood factor but there is some decent stuff here – Pollyanna’s determination to find goodness in every event and every person takes her into some strange avenues – the rainbow playing on the walls, the “good parts” of the Bible – that these days makes for an entertaining matinee.