book review: Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

by Tom Kemper

There are many ways to discuss the golden age of Hollywood, but to my knowledge, no one has ever charted this territory by exploring the rise of talent agents during the 1930s, and how they affected the running of the studio system. Tom Kemper was researching this subject for a dissertation and thought his subsequent book would come up to the present day, but found such a wealth of first-hand material on the 1930s and 40s that he decided to focus on that period for the first of a two-volume history. His key subjects are two of the most famous and influential agents of their time, Myron Selznick and Charles K. Feldman—figures who were stars in their own right. As it happens, both men left behind massive…

…archives, including records of meetings and telephone calls, but apparently no one (until now) has bothered to examine them. This makes Kemper’s work both groundbreaking and valuable.

Do you know why some major stars like Carole Lombard started making fewer films per year after 1936? (Selznick realized that the new tax laws made it disadvantageous to earn more than a certain amount in any calendar year. This also led to clever restructuring of his clients’ payout from the studios.) Do you know why George Stevens happened to direct Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama? (They were both Feldman clients, and he brought them together on this project as a package—just one of many he engineered from his vast stable of clients.) The book is filled with such insights as to how and why some careers soared while others suffered.

Agents were all but nonexistent in the silent-film era, but came into their own in the 1930s, amidst a great deal of debate and controversy. Kemper covers this period and explains how the best and the brightest not only withstood the initial rebuke of the Hollywood moguls but eventually persuaded some of them that they could be of use, in a mutually beneficial relationship. Nor does the author ignore the importance of social skills and sheer force of personality that made Selznick and Feldman so successful. (Specific comparisons to the work, and income, of rival agents is particularly revealing.) He also details how and why such established New York talent agencies as William Morris and MCA didn’t flourish in movieland at this time.

There is a lot of detail to wade through, but I learned something new in every chapter. Hidden Talent is a fascinating chronicle of the business side of Hollywood.(University of California Press)

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May 2024