Startling Star Salary: Week of June 21st, 1919

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Mary Miles Minter

One hundred years ago this week, Mary Miles Minter signed a “startling” contract, and Grace Kingsley had the details:

The little girl with the biggest motion-picture contract in the world—that’s Mary Miles Minter. But she pays a stern price for it, inasmuch as her personal life is ordered by the rules laid down in the contract, and she is even forbidden to wed during the life of the agreement.

By its terms she will receive in three years the sum of $1,300,000. She is to get $250,000 for her first five pictures, or $50,000 a picture. For the second five she will get $300,000, or $60,000 a picture and for the third five $350,000 or $70,000 a picture, and for the fourth five, $400,000 or $80,000 a picture. No chances were taken with Miss Minter because she happens to be a minor. While she was represented by O’Brein, Malevinsky and Driscoll, the contract was drawn that her every act will come under the supervision of her employer, Mr. Zukor.

A sensational feature provides that, though Miss Minter is but 18 years old,* and therefore might be expected to love social gaiety, she is to order her life according to a set of rules which provide she shall live the quietest kind of a home life, never to be seen in public when it is possible to avoid it, and never associate in public with stage offscreen folk. Also—and this might not be pleasing to a lot of screen stars—she is to receive no interviewers.

Minter was to start work on June 30th, but until then she was on vacation with her mother in Atlantic City, “enjoying to the full the only free social life she is to be allowed to know during the next three years.”

1.3 million dollars was at that point the largest amount promised in one contract to an actor, but others had gotten paid more per film. For example, in 1918 Mary Pickford signed a contract with First National that paid $675,000 for three films, plus half the profits. Minter’s deal was particularly astonishing because her most recent salary at American Films was $2250 a week.

 

Kingsley didn’t ask why Adolph Zukor was willing to pay so much, but Variety was happy to speculate on what film people were calling “Zukor’s madness:”

One explanation is furnished by his former star, Mary Pickford, in letters she has sent to friends here in the East. Whether rightly or wrongly, Miss Pickford is under the impression, an impression strengthened by those few in Zukor’s confidence who have breathed a word about the matter—the impression that the head of Paramount is willing to go to any length and spend any amount of money to replace Mary Pickford in his list of picture offerings. Miss Pickford has been informed that Zukor is “so sore” at her for leaving his management that he will go a long ways to “get even.” (June 13, 1919)

I bet she stopped writing to those friends. Even with a well-funded advertising campaign and complete control over her public image, Zukor wasn’t able to make Minter as big a star as Pickford. The first film she made under her new contract was her biggest hit: Anne of Green Gables, directed by William Desmond Taylor. Now she’s mostly remembered for her relationship with him and for being implicated in his still unsolved murder in 1922. We can’t be sure, but maybe if she’d had more freedom under her contract to socialize away from work she might not have become better known in true crime circles than film histories. She did make 18 of the 20 films under her contract, but the studio dropped her in 1923 and she retired.

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Dempsey–Willard Fight by James Montgomery Flagg

Kingsley mentioned a forthcoming all-star boys road trip:

Carter de Haven, co-starring with his wife in feature comedies at the National studios, will be among the many notables attending the little fracas in Toledo the fourth of next month. He intends leaving on the billion-dollar special, which has been arranged for by the most stellar lights in the photoplay firmament. The train will provide every known deluxe feature. Continuous dining service will be had, not to mention a completely stocked buffet and additional servants to minster to their every want.

Those included in the passenger list, beside Mr. de Haven, are Wally Reid, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Ray, Douglas Fairbanks, Jesse Lasky, Cecil De Mille, Dustin Farnum, William Farnum, Roscoe Arbuckle, Jack Pickford and Sid Grauman.

It sounds like the set-up for a one-act play! The “little fracas” was the heavyweight boxing championship held on the Fourth of July in Toledo, Ohio between Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard. It was promoted as “the fight of the century.” However, I haven’t found any evidence that they actually went—nearly five days on a train is a long time to be away from work, even with a buffet. Dempsey beat Willard in three brutal rounds.

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Francis MacDonald played the cad

This week Kingsley saw a movie that made the audience want to yell “That’s good! Hit him again!” It was called The Divorce Trap and

you should have heard the laughs and delighted applause yesterday when the caddish young man, who had tried to frame for divorce the young wife who had tried her best to reform him, got his just deserts, which included a swift kick from his own dad. Naturally the story is a sordid one, but it is tremendously realistic…the manner in which the lightning justice of its events are recorded, make for a certain finesse and high-mindedness of general effect.

This lost film was sold as a serious drama, but it’s a shame that more tragic villains don’t get their due with a kick in the pants.

 

Kingsley told a story that demonstrated how much more relaxed studio security was in 1919. Nine-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr. visited his dad’s workplace dressed in a wild West suit just like his father’s, then:

Little Doug disappeared for a whole half-hour. At the end of that time he reappeared, led by a farmerish looking individual.

“This your boy really?” he demanded of Doug Sr.

No need to answer, as the boy made a frantic and affectionate dive for his dad.

“Well, I found him on these togs out front,” said the man, “and when I asked him who he was, he said Douglas Fairbanks. Poor little tad, I said to myself, to be crazy and him so young! Well, the movies does do it to ‘em, but not usually at his age! Then he explained his dad was named Douglas Fairbanks, too—and I see the point at once, I did, and here he is!”

It seems that kid supervision was more relaxed then, too.

 

*Actually she was 17 at the time, but the age of majority was 21 then.

 

“Adolph Zukor Determined to Supplant Mary Pickford,” Variety, June 13, 1919.

“Testimony in Film Star’s Suit Opens,” Los Angeles Herald, May 19, 1920.

“Zukor Gets Mary Miles Minter by Million Dollar Contract,” Variety, June 27, 1919.

 

5 thoughts on “Startling Star Salary: Week of June 21st, 1919”

  1. I liked your comment re: a villain getting a kick in the pants. That is a very satisfying thing to see in a film.

    As for Mary Miles Minter, wow! That is STILL a lot of money. Inflationcalculator.com says $1.3M is worth over $19M US today. I know many current celebrities are paid that sum – and more – for one film, but it’s still a lotta dough.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate the backstory on Mary Miles Minter’s salary. Such a strange and fascinating story. It’s interesting to hear that Zukor had such high hopes for her, yet she never hit the heights of fame as Mary Pickford did. Thanks for putting this piece together!

    Like

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