Breaching the Contract: The Evolution of Entertainment Agreements, 1907-1921

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Scholars have documented the history of cinematic actors’ unionization in the United States, focusing on the 1920s and the divisiveness between the Actor’s Equity Association and the Hollywood studios. Yet, few have taken interest in the particulars of the producer-actor contracts prior to this period or participated in detailed evaluations of their content, agreements which frequently contained contractual clauses that share striking similarities to those of prior theatrical industries. This paper addresses this scholarly gap through an investigation of the relationship between acting contracts across entertainment professions during the early 1900s, primarily analyzing the rise of “equitable contracts” within vaudeville from 1907-11, while also referencing a substantial legal review of stage and cinema cases from the mid-1910s, and a 1921 screen contract between Mabel Normand and Keystone Productions.

Specifically, I argue that clauses regarding a breach of contract between motion picture actors and producers – prior to cinematic contract solidification in the late 1920s – should not be isolated from earlier theatrical standards regarding an actor’s contractual default due to illness or unforeseen calamity. Emphasizing the interaction rather than the antagonism between the dramatic industries, I suggest that the relations between creative talent and managers within the United States in the early 1900s may be best understood as an evolution of interrelated legal and professional practices across entertainment trades, rather than isolated organizational systems segmented by each respective dramatic industry. This not only adds to existing literature documenting the fluidity by which theatrical personnel moved into motion picture production, but also disrupts scholarly generalizations which at times overly differentiate the motion picture industry from the stage during this period.

Hannah Garibaldi (University of California Santa Barbara)

Hannah Garibaldi is a PhD student in Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Film Studies from Chapman University. Her research interests include the influence of physical illness, injury, and disability on historical Hollywood film productions. Hannah is also professionally involved in audiovisual archiving, having worked at the Paley Center for Media and the UCSB Film and Media Studies Archive.