During the Golden Years of Hollywood –the thirties and forties– each major studio had dozens of stars under contract. But who were the really important stars? the stars the studio couldn’t do without? Who were the box office draws?
Well, let’s go studio by studio starting with the biggies. At MGM in the early 1930s the big stars were Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler. Later in the decade it was Gable, Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy. But there was no question that Gable was the most important MGM star of the decade.
2oth Century Fox had Will Rogers and Shirley Temple. And in the late 30s Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and skating star Sonja Hiene joined the elite. But there’s no doubt the quintessential child star was the biggest star at the studio.
Over at Warner Brothers although James Cagney and Dick Powell drew audiences the real money maker for the studio was comedian Joe E. Brown. Paramount had Mae West in the first part of the decade and Bing Crosby, Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper in the late 30s.
RKO’s biggest moneymakers were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The big 5 studios had theatre chains to run their films. But Columbia and Universal had no theaters and had to rely strictly on product and distribution. In the 1930s neither studio had a large roster of stars but depended on loan outs and one shots. It was a director and not an actor who was the star at Columbia. Frank Capra‘s films gave the studio prestige as well as box office receipts.
Universal relied on Deanna Durbin to pay the bills. In fact during the early 1930s most studios were in financial trouble and it has often been said that Durbin saved Universal, Mae West saved Paramount, and Astaire and Rogers saved RKO.
In the 1940s Durbin was still making money for Universal but the comedy team of Abbott and Costello had supplanted her as the biggest stars at the studio.
And by the 1940s Columbia finally had a BIG star of its own, Rita Hayworth.
RKO had lost its stars, almost all of them, and relied on releases starring people they didn’t necessarily have under contract — people like Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant.
Over at MGM Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien and Greer Garson were big box office stars but The King, Gable still led the way. Even though he was off the screen for a few years during his service in World War II, on his return he bounced right back to being a top moneymaker and MGM star.
The war years had catapulted Betty Grable to the top ranks via her pin up status and her popular musicals. She was Fox’s biggest star of the decade.
Over at Warners Bette Davis and Jimmy Cagney had their followings but by far the Biggest star at the studio throughout the decade was Humphrey Bogart. It’s fun to remember that in the old studio system a man who’d once been a supporting player opposite Davis and Cagney could surpass their popularity.
And was it Bing or Bob or both of them together who were Paramount’s biggest star? Crosby had won the Oscar of course, but Hope had given the studio more publicity via his radio programs and USO tours. Then again let’s not overlook Gary Cooper.
And even Republic Pictures had its stars — Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and John Wayne.
Overall the biggest box office draw of those two decades was Clark Gable, BUT from the accountants’ point of view Mickey Rooney, Wallace Beery, Abbott and Costello and Gene Autry were more important. Why? Because their pictures were made for very little and grossed ten to twenty times their cost!