A star & her agent: Carole Lombard and Myron Selznick

Carole Lombard in the Selznick International Pictures press office, c. 1938.

In Carole Lombard’s orbit of industry colleagues, her longtime agent, Myron Selznick, remains a surprisingly overlooked figure. The pair had a complex and often contentious professional relationship that culminated in a lawsuit over the legality of his firing in 1940. While Selznick often flies under the radar in the narrative about Lombard’s career, he was instrumental in her ascent to the peak of studio-era stardom: he negotiated salary increases at her home studio, Paramount and, later, her non-exclusive freelance contracts with studios such as Warner Brothers and Selznick International Pictures (SIP) (run by his younger brother, David). Notably, Lombard was hands-on in crafting all aspects of her stardom, but to understand the business behind her career, we needn’t look any further than Myron Selznick.

In the 1930s, Selznick was one of the top talent agents in Hollywood. In 1928 he established Joyce-Selznick Ltd. with his partner, Frank Coleman Joyce, and by the mid-30s they were earning nearly $15 million a year and boasted an impressive roster of clients including Kay Francis, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Charles Laughton. Upon his hiring in 1933, Selznick proved to be an immediate asset to Lombard’s career growth: he renegotiated her Paramount contract to raise her salary from $750 to $3000 per week in 1934. When that contract expired in late-1936, together they decided that her most strategic next step would be for Lombard to forego another long-term studio contract and go freelance. In the late-30s, freelancing was still a relatively new phenomenon among studio employees and was largely restricted to those at the top of the industry. For the actors that had the opportunity to freelance, the benefits were obvious: unlike long-term studio contracts, freelancing gave them greater creative control over their careers and more lucrative salary options. Freelancing meant that Lombard could pick and choose the films that she appeared in which, at the time, was a particularly appealing prospect. After a series of successful screwball comedies like Love Before Breakfast (Walter Lang, 1936), My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), and True Confession (Wesley Ruggles, 1937), she was eager to distance herself from her comedic persona in an effort to avoid being typecast. Lombard believed that freelancing would elevate her status within the industry, and Selznick helped get her there. Over the next 3 years, they negotiated a series of envious freelance deals, some of which included then-novel profit participation provisions, which meant that she earned a reduced base salary in exchange for a percentage of a film’s box office gross. For example, in her 1939 two-picture agreement with RKO Lombard received a $100,000 salary plus 50% of a film’s distribution gross once it recouped 1.7x its production cost (Carman 2016, pg. 75). Lombard was the first studio era star to have such financial provisions in her contracts, and it later became an industry standard amongst her peers. Freelancing and profit participation made Lombard the highest paid actor in Hollywood, earning an impressive $460,000 in 1937 alone.

Myron Selznick sketch by Al Hirschfeld.

In addition to freelancing’s obvious monetary incentives, this type of labor contract also gave stars like Lombard access to highly coveted “perks.” Lombard was a self-described publicity maven, so her 1937 contract with SIP included a provision whereby the studio publicity department head, Russell Birdwell, would personally oversee her publicity for Nothing Sacred (William Wellman, 1937). Selznick also secured Lombard the publicity rights for her image, allowing her to dictate the terms under which her name and likeness could be used to promote films. Like other freelancers of the period, her contracts included other appealing clauses like a mandated eight-hour workday, costume designer and cinematographer of choice (Travis Banton and Ted Tetzlaff, respectively), star billing, and co-star status – only when her acting partner was of the same star caliber.

Russell Birdwell and Carole Lombard, c. 1938. Photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Lombard and Selznick’s business relationship extended beyond star management. In 1938, along with Lombard’s ex-husband, William Powell, and director Ernst Lubitsch, they attempted to form their own production company called Ernst Lubitsch Productions, Inc. Their first venture was to be The Shop Around the Corner, adapted from the 1937 Miklós László play, Parfumerie, with Lombard and Powell as leads and Lubitsch directing. According to a 1938 news article in the French trade paper, La Cinématographie Française, the actors agreed to forego their salaries in exchange for a percentage of the film’s distribution totals. Unfortunately, both the film project and production company fizzled out, largely due to what Emily Carman describes as Selznick’s inability to secure funding (2016 pg. 75). Nevertheless, this venture confirms that Lombard respected Selznick’s multi-faceted expertise. With his business sense and industry connections, she believed she could expand her own power and influence in Hollywood.

From La Cinématographie Française (September 9, 1938).

Over time, Lombard and Selznick’s relationship soured. In addition to fears about being typecast, Lombard longed to prove that she was a versatile actress. Between 1939 and 1940, she entered what I call her “dramatic period,” during which time she made four consecutive melodramas: Made for Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939), In Name Only (John Cromwell, 1939), Vigil in the Night (George Stevens, 1940), and They Knew What they Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940). None did well at the box office, although on the whole, they received mixed critical reviews. Unfortunately, Lombard was the target of criticism that largely centered on the incongruity between her established screwball persona and her new dramatic image. In her review of Vigil in the Night, Eileen Creelman from the New York Sun lamented that Lombard “was so delightful in comedy that it seems a pity to coop her up in drama” (1940, pg. 13). Similarly, contemporaneous fan reviews suggest that audiences were unreceptive to Lombard’s dramatic shift, preferring her instead in familiar screwball roles. A letter from fan Dorothy Brooks Holcombe published in the December 1939 issue of Photoplay gives us a taste of that public sentiment. Writing about In Name Only, Holcombe suggests that Lombard had an “insufficient grasp of her role as the other woman,” and that although she “held her own in many a picture…she was a poor second to Kay Francis” (1939, pg. 5). Like Creelman, Holcombe’s issue largely stems from her perception of the kind of star Lombard should be; comedy, not drama, was her undisputed forte. In spite of her best efforts, Lombard became deterred from pursuing further dramatic roles and abandoned her new acting ambitions entirely. She returned to comedy for what would be her last few film roles: first, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) and, finally, the posthumously released wartime satire, To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942). And prior to her death in January 1942, she was preparing for her role in yet another comedy, They All Kissed The Bride.

The poor box office performances and lukewarm reviews of the aforementioned dramatic films stemmed from the public’s rejection of Lombard’s new screen persona. It is clear that there was a disconnect between the types of roles Lombard wanted to play and those which audiences expected from her. However, Lombard attributed her failures to Myron Selznick, believing that he was not doing enough to guide her at what she perceived was a critical juncture. Selznick’s personal turmoil adds a further layer to this complicated relationship: by the late-30s, he was struggling with alcoholism, and Lombard, along with several of his clients, feared that his excessive drinking was negatively impacting their careers. Selznick’s alcoholism compounded Lombard’s career disappointment, and he unfairly became a scapegoat for her lackluster dramatic endeavors. Eventually Lombard reached her breaking point, and in mid-1940, she sued his agency for an early release from her contract.

In early 1941, the case went to an arbitration board comprised of 3 members. Lombard’s lawyers requested that Selznick’s 10% cut on deals made in 1939 and 1940 be rescinded, and argued that his “lifestyle” was interfering with his ability to sufficiently manage her career. The board officially filed their decision in February, determining that Lombard was well within her legal right to terminate Selznick’s services. However, they noted that she owed him $27, 500 in back commissions to be paid over the subsequent five years. Furthermore, they ruled that Selznick’s agency had raised her star cache in Hollywood, and that his “lifestyle” had no bearing on her acting career or public image. In no uncertain terms, the board stated that Selznick’s private affairs were not a valid reason for dismissal. Trade papers of the day painted the board’s decision as a win for Lombard (see below), but it is clear by the language in the case file that her accusation about Selznick’s drinking was viewed unsympathetically.

From Film Daily (January 27, 1940).

Carole Lombard and Myron Selznick’s relationship may have ended on a bitter note, but for several years they worked harmoniously. Both star and agent understood the rules of the game, and together they devised the best strategies to develop Lombard’s star power in the studio system. Although Lombard is rightfully be celebrated for her independence and so-called “natural” business savvy, Selznick’s industry knowledge, connections, and influence elevated her stardom to unprecedented levels. In that respect, Myron Selznick was arguably Lombard’s most influential professional collaborator.

WORKS CITED

“Boos and Bouquets.” Photoplay, December 1939, pg. 5.

Carman, Emily. Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016.

Carole Lombard legal file. David O. Selznick Collection. Available at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin.

Creelman, Eileen. “Review of Vigil in the Night.” March 5, 1940, pg. 13.

“Myron Selznick et Ernst Lubitsch viennent de fonder à Hollywood un organisme de production en coopération.” La Cinématographie Française, September 9, 1938, pg. 25.

“SAG says Carole Lombard won in agent dispute.” Film Daily, January 27, 1940, pg. 2.

“‘Tomboy’ Carole Lombard Earned $2,000,000.” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 1942.

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