Some of Paramount’s highest paid

Previously I discussed the studio’s superstars. But how were they paid?

Well, Mae West was the top-earning female in America in 1935, with a whopping $480,000 at Paramount. The following year she made an additional $323,000. Carole Lombard was another one of Paramount’s best paid female stars. She netted $450,000 in 1936.

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But they weren’t the only two. The studio liked to reward its other popular leading ladies. When Sylvia Sidney did THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE; SABOTAGE; and FURY, she found $226,000 had been deposited into her bank account. Claudette Colbert’s bank book was just as impressive. By 1941, the lead actress was pulling down $390,000 annually. After she cleaned out the cash register at Paramount, she would freelance at Fox, MGM and RKO.

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Leading men, of course, did just as well. Fred MacMurray was still proving himself at Paramount in 1937. But he was paid $92,000 that year, a figure that would soon increase. Then there’s Bing Crosby, who actually had wide-ranging sources of income by 1940. In addition to acting, he was also earning song royalties, putting him in the neighborhood of $452,000. Fellow crooner Rudy Vallee had similar good fortune and was collecting $238,000 a year.

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Non-actors were being handsomely rewarded for their efforts, too. Director Ernst Lubitsch was making around $260,000 when he directed Marlene Dietrich in ANGEL. And writer-director Preston Sturges earned $113,000 at Paramount in 1941. This was the year he directed Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in the smash hit THE LADY EVE. But the lady’s real name was money, and there was plenty of her to go around for everyone.

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Paramount superstars part 2

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Betty Hutton had done some short musical films in the late ’30s, but her screen career was not going anywhere until she came to the attention of Buddy DeSylva. DeSylva was the executive producer at Paramount from 1941 to 1944. He cast Betty in a supporting role in Dorothy Lamour’s war-time picture THE FLEET’S IN. Betty was a smash and realizing she would fast become an audience favorite, DeSylva began to create musical comedy vehicles specifically for her. From 1942 to 1952, Betty made 18 films at the studio. A lot of them were huge box office successes, and one of them paired her again with Lamour, where they played sisters with Diana Lynn.

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Paulette Goddard was originally under contract to David Selznick in the late 30s, but her services were also shared with Charlie Chaplin. She did two films with the legendary comic, and both are regarded as classics. When she failed to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara, she headed over to Paramount, which proved to be a smart move. Starting in 1939, she had several comedy hits with Bob Hope, but she also was skilled at dramatic parts and adventure stories, which made her a natural lead for several Cecil B. DeMille pictures. During the next ten years, she appeared in 21 Paramount productions and though not every one of those was a hit, there was no denying that Paulette Goddard was one of the studio’s more important stars.

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What can you say about Bing Crosby that hasn’t already been said? But perhaps we can begin by saying he did not jump into the motion picture industry with a splash. In his first movie at Paramount, CONFESSIONS OF A CO-ED, he merely appeared as part of a musical group called The Rhythm Boys. It wasn’t until a year later that the studio featured him much more prominently in the first BIG BROADCAST movie, in 1932. But Bing quickly caught on, and soon he was Paramount’s biggest and most successful musical star. Over the course of 25 years, he would appear in 50 motion pictures for the studio– even earning a few Oscar nominations along the way.

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Mae West is another one that has had plenty written about her. The woman’s a legend. What’s interesting is that her film career at Paramount, and basically her screen career in general, was not too prolific. She made her mark fast, and it was a lasting mark, but her list of motion pictures is quite short. From 1932 to 1937, she only made eight films at Paramount (the first one was a supporting role). And after that, she did just another four, scattered across four decades. Yet there’s a reason we’re still discussing Mae West today. Maybe because she was so unique and special.

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Initially Jerry Lewis was part of a comedy team with pal Dean Martin, and when he was signed by Paramount in the late 1940s, it is safe to say he was not considered leading man material. But Jerry quickly proved how valuable he was to the studio, and even after he and Martin broke up in 1956, his movie career stayed hot. He directed his first picture in 1960 at Paramount. And before he was done with the company in 1965, he had been in 35 of the studio’s films, most of them quite profitable.

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Claudette Colbert started at Paramount when it was transitioning to sound and still had studios based in New York. From 1929 to 1944, she appeared in 26 motion pictures for the studio. In 1934, she earned an Oscar on loan out for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. But the Paramount films she made were her bread and butter. She worked with DeMille, Lubitsch, Leisen and Sturges– all the studio’s prestige directors. And she probably had the best leading men and greatest selection of scripts that any actress ever had at Paramount.

Paramount superstars part 1

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When I made a list of popular or influential Paramount movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood I knew I had to start with Gary Cooper. Coop’s career evolved quite a bit over the years, but his longevity is a tribute to his immense talent and loyal fan base. Those early hits at Paramount during the industry’s silent days paved the way. Altogether, the actor had 43 starring roles at the studio from 1927’s CHILDREN OF DIVORCE with Clara Bow to 1947’s UNCONQUERED with Paulette Goddard. He worked with the top directors and actresses of his generation.

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One of Coop’s costars at Paramount was Marlene Dietrich (they made two films together in the 1930s– MOROCCO and DESIRE). Dietrich was a European import, in the same way Greta Garbo had been for MGM. Dietich’s most frequent director during her early years in Hollywood was Josef von Sternberg, also under contract to Paramount. The actress made 13 pictures at the studio– most of them by 1936, but she did return to the lot in the late 40s to make a film for Mitchell Leisen and another one for Billy Wilder. In 1964, she had a cameo as herself in Paramount’s PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES. Dietrich always sizzled.

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Alan Ladd is someone who shot to stardom in the early 1940s, and he stayed on top for the next twenty years. His period at Paramount in the forties and early fifties was quite prolific. During this time, he played the lead in 27 Paramount pictures, from his breakthrough in THIS GUN FOR HIRE up to this most iconic role in SHANE a decade later.

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Bob Hope didn’t really hit it big in movies until 1938 when he was cast in Paramount’s THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938. This is the film where he first sang his signature tune Thanks for the Memory. From this point on, there was no stopping him. Usually featured by the studio in lightweight comical or musical fare, he headlined 40 films (many alongside his pal Bing Crosby) until 1958. Occasionally, Bob Hope tried dramatic roles but those were far and few between and usually did not win over audiences.

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Fred MacMurray made 35 films for Paramount from 1935 to 1955. He started as a musician and then began appearing in films in small supporting parts. But his fortunes improved when the studio cast him as a romantic lead to Claudette Colbert in THE GILDED LILY. He was an overnight sensation, and he and Colbert would go on to make many more films together. MacMurray was able to work well across different genres, and his popularity increased throughout the late ’30s and 1940s. By the end of his second decade in Hollywood, he began freelancing, but occasionally he went back to his old home studio.

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One of Fred MacMurray’s frequent costars in romantic comedies was Carole Lombard. Lombard had actually started in the movies during the silent days of the 1920s. But she found her groove in the talkie era and became very successful. Her popularity didn’t wane, and audiences grieved her tragic death in 1942. At Paramount, Lombard made 22 films from 1930 to 1937.

Who do you root for?

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Here’s the basic idea: A bad guy kills a good guy, and another good guy has to kill the bad guy. Might sound overwrought, I know– but this is often the dramatic set-up in classic films. Especially if the classic film is a western about vengeance.

But sometimes the back-and-forth gets a bit confusing, and it’s hard to remember who’s good (according to the screenwriter and director and the period in which the film was produced)– and who the audience should root for. There’s a film that I watched recently where it seems almost impossible to determine who to root for. The film? A Paramount classic from 1953.

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In ARROWHEAD, we have Charlton Heston as a white Cavalry scout who once spent several years of his childhood with the Apaches. He has since rejoined white civilization and he now has nothing but disdain for the native people around him. So by fifties’ standards, he is supposed to be the Injun-hating hero.

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Add into the mix Jack Palance as an Apache who was sent east to be educated by white men. But while he was at school in Pennsylvania, he refused to cut his long hair and act much like a white. Now he’s come home to Texas, where he will take off his hat, show off his long hair proudly and declare he is still Apache, which means instant conflict with Heston’s character.

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This all seems rather interesting, but then the script takes both characters in a somewhat vicious direction. Heston is given all kinds of dialogue that today seems quite politically incorrect, where he disparages the Apaches, calling one of them dirt. But the tipping point, where we learn who the filmmakers want us to root for, is when Palance goes into an office to meet a white guy he once played with as a child. He has decided that it was a mistake for an Apache to have bonded like a blood brother with a white man. Just as the man goes to call his wife and young son to meet Palance’s character, Palance pulls a gun out and shoots him at point blank range, instantly killing his old friend. It is depicted as a senseless brutal act.

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Of course, this sets into motion a series of scenes where Heston as the good guy must avenge the other white man’s death and bring Palance and his lawless Apaches to justice. As I said, it’s hard to decide whether either one of them should be who we root for. Do we root for Palance who is filled with his own blind rage against whites and trying to seek vengeance against those who have taken so much from his own people? Or do we root for Heston who supposedly has law and order (and civilization) on his side, but is filled with just as much contempt toward the natives? The picture below shows who was supposed to be seen as more heroic in the end.

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TCM’s 2015 Star of the Month honorees

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January: Robert Redford
February: 31 Days of Oscar
March: Ann Sothern
April: Anthony Quinn
May: Sterling Hayden
June: Pin-Up Girls
July: Shirley Temple
August: Summer Under the Stars
September: Susan Hayward
October: David Niven
November: Norma Shearer
December: Frank Sinatra

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I have to give TCM high marks for the Redford tribute, since it took us into the 70s (finally). I did enjoy Sothern’s retrospective, especially the day devoted to all those charming Maisie pictures, but much of it was based on the actress’ work at MGM– and we did not see that much of her 30s work from Columbia and Fox. Meanwhile, Quinn’s tribute was okay but missed a lot of his Paramount films. There should have been some of his early stuff under father-in-law Cecil B. DeMille, and the film he directed when DeMille was too ill– the 50s remake of THE BUCCANEER. Since Tony’s widow was helping cohost this event, it would have been much better to talk about how much his career was influenced by DeMille.

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The Sterling Hayden films were fine, but none of his Paramount films were shown. Where was MANHANDLED? Where was EL PASO? Where was FLAMING ARROW? You get the idea.

I did not care for the pin-up girls stuff, though I think others did. The reason it fell flat for me was that they went beyond the war years. After Grable and her contemporaries’ movie careers faded, we had sex kittens galore who were more pornographic centerfolds than the wholesome cheesecake posters you’d find in a serviceman’s locker in 1944. So I felt that the second half of the month was off. There were no pin-ups per se during the Vietnam years, and TCM implied there were.

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Shirley Temple’s month was a break-through. Finally, we had a Fox featured player as a Star of the Month. That’s progress, TCM! Even if half the month focused on her teen years with Selznick.

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In September, the Susan Hayward tribute was a long time in coming. TCM did right by her, for the most part, showing a fair number of her Fox films from the fifties. But missing were the Republic films she did, and a lot of the Paramount films, not to mention two great films she did for Walter Wanger at Universal– TAP ROOTS and THE LOST MOMENT.

David Niven and Norma Shearer were repeats, and I think Niven should not have been chosen. George Sanders would have worked better in October, in my not so humble opinion. As for December, we knew Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday would be something the channel could not resist capitalizing upon, and we would have scratched our collective forehead if he had been overlooked.

If they were in a movie together

Not long ago I wrote about stars that should have been teamed together. I mentioned what a great film noir or western would have resulted if Barbara Stanwyck & Robert Mitchum had been able to costar in a movie. And I also stated how Henry Fonda and Ginger Rogers should have had more than a vignette in TALES FROM MANHATTAN– that they should have been given a full-length rom-com or melodrama. Those are some of the missed opportunities from the golden age of Hollywood.

Here are some other star combos that were not attempted, and maybe it is for the best:

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First, can you imagine what kind of film would have resulted by teaming Cary Grant and Wallace Beery?

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On second thought, maybe it would have worked in a comedy…but I think their performance styles were too different.

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Or what about Doris Day and Lana Turner? Maybe they could have been cast as sisters.

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But something about it just doesn’t seem right, does it?

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Then there’s Lauren Bacall & Lizabeth Scott. I think their styles were too similar. In DEAD RECKONING, Humphrey Bogart is paired with Scott, but it could just as easily have been Bacall.

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How about Elvis Presey and Flipper?

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What would we have had? A wholesome family movie? But I am just not envisioning the king of rock ‘n roll singing to a bunch of girls alongside a dolphin. That probably wouldn’t have worked. Of course, I could be wrong.

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