Friday, 16 April 2021

1930 to 1945 by the numbers Part III (actors)

This is my third article about the box office hits of the period of 1930 to 1945, i.e. the years in which the studio system was at its prime. The first article was an introduction and the second was about the films, the studios/independent producers, and the genres and styles, of all the 165 films that I have included. Having now gathered the names of the leading stars in those 165 films, I will today present those names. Further analysis will come later, but a couple of things are worth pointing out already. The first noticeable thing is the remarkable popularity of Wallace Beery in the first half of the 1930s, in all kinds of films of which eight ended up on the top ten lists, and then his abrupt disappearance in the second half. Today he is not someone much talked about, unlike another remarkably popular actor, Clark Gable, whose reign at the top of the box office lasted the entire period in question (with 14 films at the top ten lists), and continued after 1945 as well.

Things were organised differently around actors and stars during these years. The star might be the whole raison d'être for the film, built around his or her unique profile, the star as genre, to a much wider extent than today. It was also common with pairing up actors, such as Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in eight films, to mentioned a pair that is remembered, or Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in eight films too, to mention a pair that is more or less forgotten (beyond some engaged fans), despite their exuberant successes from Naught Marietta (1935) to I Married an Angel (1942). These were mainly operettas, and both Nelson and MacDonald were singers first who became film stars later.

This is another thing that is different from today, that many of the big stars were not necessarily actors but singers, or dancers, or comedians, and who took their stage personas to the film screen. In that sense the films were pre-sold by the actors' fame prior to being absorbed by Hollywood.

An interesting kind of arrangement is the films when four or more of the biggest names appear in the same film, such as Dinner at Eight (1933) or Libeled Lady (1936). It is easy to understand the studios excitement (especially MGM) about putting four or five or six of their greatest stars in the same film, with their names taking up most of the poster. But these films were not necessarily more successful than those with only one or two major stars. Warner Bros. rarely did these things and were more focused on one star at a time in their films, or one male and one female star together, with some exceptions.

One of the many things that complicate the more general, simplistic view of Hollywood during this time is that how the different studios/independent producers managed and dealt with actors and stars differed. The conventional views of Hollywood are often based on how things were at MGM in the 1930s, regarding stars and many other things, and their way of doing things then is not applicable to all the studios, or to other decades. Another complication is that the discussions today about the stars is almost exclusively of it being a time of actors being under long, gruelling contracts with the studios, until Olivia de Havilland's successfully sued Warner Bros. in 1943. But throughout the 1930s there were several freelancers too. The most famous today is probably Cary Grant, but there were others such as Carole Lombard and Fredric March, and actors like Cary Cooper moving around between studios and having shorter contracts.

But all this is for later articles. Now I shall just provide all the films and all the stars. During the war years, in particular 1943, there were several films that had neither plots nor lead characters but were instead compilation films of musical numbers and such to entertain the troops. For them I have not written any names but only "multiple stars." The films marked with yellow are those I am unclear about their box office numbers but have reason to think they should be included. The top one is 1930 to 1937 and the other 1938 to 1945. How I have chosen the films, and the difficulties involved, is explained in the previous article.

Other than Beery and Gable one might also single out Gary Cooper (10 films), Spencer Tracy (nine films), Judy Garland (seven films), and Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert (six films each). 

This is a work in progress and there will be more articles over the coming months, with more analysis.


I updated the names in three boxes as I had got Colin Clive and Clive Brook mixed up, and Jane Wyman and Jane Wyatt. Apologies!

Links to the earlier articles:

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