When Hollywood Stars Were Studio Property
Because of the star system, classical Hollywood studios and studio executives saw performers as their property. To protect their investment in those whom they had groomed to the heights of fame, the studios signed them to often intrusive exclusive service contracts. Studios owned the commercial rights to their contracted performers’ image and likeness, and they could not work for other studios. To protect the marketable image created by the studios, contracts included morality clauses. Men had to appear as gentlemen. Women were never to leave home without makeup, and had to always dress stylishly and behave like ladies. The studios had absolute control over their performers’ careers, and that often lent itself to abuses. Those who angered their Hollywood masters were often punished with unattractive roles, or were loaned out to less prestigious studios.
Actresses were particularly vulnerable. Jane Greer, for example, caught the eye of tycoon Howard Hughes, who sponsored her entry into Hollywood. In exchange, he signed her to a personal contract – and told her he never wanted her to marry anybody. When she went ahead and married a singer, an enraged Hughes shelved her without any film work. She sued and got out of the personal contract, then signed up with RKO Pictures. So Hughes bought RKO, just to wreck her career. The star system got its first check in the late 1940s after the US Supreme Court ruled against the studios in an antitrust case. Television’s arrival also reduced movie audiences, which transformed contracted stars into expensive overhead. So from the 1940s to 1960s, studios gradually ditched long-term contracts, and Hollywood performers became freelancers, part of a large pool from which studios could draw.