Book review of The Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

This book review of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents book review appeared in Media International Australia, issue 136, August 2010.  I am re-printing it here so that it is more easily accessible.

*****

Kemper, Tom, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010. ISBN 978 0 520 25707 8, xvii + 293 pp.

It is hard to believe that before Tom Kemper’s book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, there were no academic studies of the history of agents in Hollywood.  It’s not that agents have been ignored: numerous “how to” industry books have dealt with them; Nikki Finke’s tell-all Pay or Play: The Rise and Rise of the Hollywood Agent (1998) charts their modern successes; David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (2005) frequently refers to them; and there have been at least two recent books on super-agent Lew Wasserman.

But Kemper stands in a class alone.  He easily disproves “the standard conception of film history” that agents only became powerful figures in the 1950s with the establishment of MCA, and then ICM and CAA in the 1970s, and commences his study in the Hollywood studios of the late 1920s.  As such, Kemper’s work runs parallel to the historical Hollywood works by Tino Balio, David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Thomas Schatz and others, and gives unique and highly detailed insights.

With extraordinary detail, Kemper – a visiting lecturer at the University of Southern California – covers the period up to the 1950s, leaving subsequent developments for a future book.  Kemper’s great contribution is in showing how agency practices and business models – strategies like packaging, story approval guarantees, percentage points and freelance deals – were all first developed, tested and implemented in the 1930s.

Although Hidden Talent deals with a number of different agents and agencies, two agents loom large in the history: Myron Selznick (brother of David O.), the leading agent of the 1930s; and the contrasting Charles Feldman.  Kemper’s chapters take a mixed thematic and chronological approach, dealing with “the power of place”, boutique agencies, the contract industry, agents as producers and then finally the “new fortunes” in the 1940s, and the shift to the “corporate era” of the 1950s.

The book contains clear prose, never falling into deadly academic jargon that can drag film history books down, such as this colourful description of Myron Selznick:  “He rudely relished the power and fortune of his victories by grotesquely spilling cash, owning a fleet of cars, and imbibing biblically.” (p. 25)

One criticism:  While most of the agents of his period are Jewish, Kemper simply avoids the topic, noting that dealing with it is “another project” best left to the likes of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.  But what elements of Gabler’s assimilation thesis applied to the agents?  Part of our understanding of how Hollywood ran then is in fact based on both on who they were and why they became involved in the industry, not just how they did their jobs.  It is, of course, this “how” that Kemper succeeds in describing, with great breadth, depth and clarity.  He has mined extensive archives (accessing materials that will never make their way online) in Hollywood agencies, studios, guilds and associations.

There is a lot of loving – and highly illuminating – detail here, such as the inclusion of the floor plan of Myron Selznick’s specifically designed new agency officers in 1938.  This one graphic gives us more insight into organisational relationships than many thousands of words could describe.

Hidden Talent book cover

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