Hollywood Working Conditions

The Early 30s and Depressionin Hollywood

The early thirties proved difficult for Hollywood and, as the nationwide depression worsened, studios had to make large budget cuts. Danae Clark notes, “With a shrinking box office and with all available capital tied up, studio heads began tightening their control over production costs, and all studio employees from stars to extras felt the pinch of rapidly shrinking opportunities for employment, and decreased earnings'” (Clark, 41). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was brand new at the time and did not provide the representation sought by actors at the time. Actors were limited to voicing their complaints on a case by case basis, and lacked the collective representation necessary to create reform. Clark states, “By 1933, studios were boldly instituting salary cuts across the board. Although these cuts flagrantly violated the terms of actors’ contracts, the Academy did not intervene.” (Clark 43) The studios kept overwhelming control over actors. While studios blatantly violated the contracts given to actors, these contracts still gave the studios ownership of those they employed, meaning they could only work on films produced by the specified studio.

There were some exceptions. It was common practice for studios to send an actor to work for a different studio on a lower quality film as a means of discipline. This was occasionally beneficial to actors when such a film became an unexpected success, however, as Clark notes, “it usually impeded their careers” (Clark, 50). Producers and studio executives generally profited from this as the studio lending the actor charged a fee, and the studio borrowing generally received greater publicity for that film weather or not it was a success.

Hollywood studio 1930 40

MGM was one of the most powerful and most prestigious of all the major motion picture studios.

Image and caption by: Sharrie Williams

http://www.maybellinebook.com/2012/01/mgm-louis-b-mayer-maybelline-in-1930s.html. This site provides some good information regarding studios treatment of actors.

Studios were just as concerned with the image of their actors as the actors themselves. However, the studio often changed aspects of the actors persona such as name and background in an effort to glamorize the actor by creating an image for them. Nearly every aspect of an actor’s life was ruled by producers, and with the economic collapse, actors of all status took salary cuts dictated by producers.

Hollywood Actors certainly felt the squeeze of the depression, but those working earned far better money than most working class Americans at the time. While actors were subject to the mercy of studios, the better known names still earned a decent living. Clark states, “An estimated 71 percent of actors who worked in 1933 earned less than $5,000; only 12 percent earned between $5,000 and $10,000; and the high priced category of stars (those earning more than $50,000 per year) constituted only 4 percent of the total acting profession” (Clark 60). This 71 percent accounts for a wide range of actors. SAG had not yet enacted a policy preventing studios from hiring non actors as extras for reduced wages. Clark notes, “Part of the problem was caused by ‘coast bums’ who were willing to work for less, and had put experienced bit players out of work and driven down the average wage to $1.25 per day” (Clark, 48). In addition, many extras worked very few days out of the year, creating a vast majority of underpaid actors struggling to find work.


Image by:

This is a magazine article from November 1934 Photoplay Magazine, covering the recent cut of roughly 15,000 registered extras and bit actors. Around 17,500 extras were registered at the time.

The Late 30s, and the Rise of the Actor

It was not until 1937 that SAG achieved their Basic Minimum Contract  “ensuring minimum pay of $25 per day; $35 for stunts, $5.50 for extras.” (http://www.sagaftra.org/sag-timeline) In addition, the contract ensured that “coast bums” would no longer be hired in place of experienced actors. Although extras and bit actors remained powerless within the union, SAG independently policed studios, to ensure that their contract was obeyed. With SAG gaining influence, the late 30’s gave rise to some reform within the industry, and certainly provided an improvement in working conditions for all hollywood actors. Dr. Murray Ross writes, “Every actor was now entitled to a written contract, with working hours limited to fifty-four a week, and with the assurance of twelve hour rest periods” (Ross, 61-62).

Due to the lack of proper collective representation within the industry, actors rejected the Academy in favor of creating new organizations. In 1933 the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was formed. Until SAG became widely recognized. there were several actor unions in competition, but none held any real influence over producers. It was not until 1937 that SAG had enough power to threaten a strike too large for the studios to handle. After the studios and producers accepted SAG’s basic minimum contract in 1937 reforms continued, as the actors were gaining a voice in the industry. In the April 1938 edition of The Nation, Morton Thompson writes in his article Hollywood is a Union Town, “What the S. A. G. dictates, the producers do. The result has been a startling betterment of working conditions” (Thompson). It is important to note the conditions leading up to this success in regards to Hollywood’s role in Stage Door.

Stage door is set during the time of SAG’s rise, and the reform of Hollywood. Only a few years prior, actors had no rights, and were now gaining power within the industry. This was an electrifying time for all actors working in Hollywood. An aspiring actress like Jean would likely feel drawn to the opportunity of Hollywood due to the rising strength of actors unions. When Jean lands a seven year contract, she hits the jackpot. She is put on the fast track to becoming a major star in a time when actors were gaining rights in the industry and shaking off the oppression of producers.


The first board meeting of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 (seated left to right) Alan Mowbray, Lucille Gleason, Boris Karloff, Ralph Morgan, Noel Madison,(standing left to right) Kenneth Thompson, James Gleason, Ivan Simpson, Richard Tucker, Clay Clement, Claude King, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace, Arthur Vinton

Caption and picture: http://www.angelfire.com/art/acting/sag.html

Work Cited:

Clark, Danae. Negotiating Hollywood: the cultural politics of actors’ labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995. Print.

Ross, Murray, “Labour Relations in Hollywood” Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, vol. 254 november 1947 Stage Publications Inc., p. 58-64,  jstor.org, 02/25/13

“SAG Timeline | SAG-AFTRA.” SAG-AFTRA. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <http://www.sagaftra.org/sag-timeline&gt;.

Slide, Anthony. Hollywood unknowns: a history of extras, bit players, and stand-ins. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. Print.

Thompson, Morton. ” Hollywood Is a Union Town .” New Deal Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na38146p3