Sunday, September 12, 2010

Warner Breaks James Cagney's Contract

Warner Bros. Publicity Still for Ceiling Zero

Around the time James Cagney was making the film The Crowd Roars, he started having troubles with the Warner Brothers studio brass. By now, Cagney had a few films under his belt which had earned the studio a decent profit, although, the studio still paid Cagney like a regular contract player. Cagney has said, "I realized that there were roughly two classes of stars at Warner's: those getting $125,000 a picture - and yours sincerely, who was getting all of $400 a week." Cagney, recognizing his value to the studio, decided to walk out. 

Warner Bros. Hollywood Theatre

A few years later, Cagney would again walk out on the studio when he learned that Warner's broke his contract. According to Cagney's contract he was to get top billing in his films. When the movie Ceiling Zero was released Cagney found out from his friend and co-star, Pat O'Brien, that Warner had placed O'Brien's name above his on the marquee of the Warner Bros. Hollywood Theater. Cagney sent a photographer to take a picture of the marquee and then took Warner to court. This was not about ego, but about money.

These were the studio days when actors worked six and seven days a week, from first thing in the morning until late in the evening or even the next day, with not much for breaks. So, Cagney's walkouts, although financially motivated, were also about being treated fairly.

In the above photo is the marquee of what used to be the Warner Bros. Hollywood Theatre, now owned by the Pacific Theatre company and operating as a church. It is this marquee that Cagney sent a photographer to capture Warner's breach of contract. The theater opened in 1928 and in 1951 was converted to showcase Cinerama films. The theatre was converted again in 1978 into a triple-screen theatre and finally closed for good in 1994, after the Northridge Earthquake.

In the 1940s, Carol Burnett, who grew up in Hollywood, worked as an usher at the Warner Theatre.

Looking East down Hollywood Blvd. at the Warner Theatre

On another note, maybe someone out there can help me out with the photo below. I picked up the photograph from an antique store. I know the man on the left is actor Pat O'Brien, but can anyone tell me the names of the two men on the right? Also, does anyone know any background on this image? I know that during the 1940s, O'Brien participated in USO events supporting the troops, so I'm guessing this is around that time.

Pat O'Brien on left looking at weapons.

Your thoughts?


G said...

I think the man in the middle is Eddie Rickenbacker, pilot.

Dr Bitz said...

James Cagney was a good guy. When he found out my Aunt was not going to get screen credit for designing his costumes in one of his pictures, he went to the director and pulled strings to have her get the credit she deserved, despite Edith Head's (who was taking credit) objections. Fair is fair and she got full credit for the show.

Robby Cress said...

Mike, thanks for the help. I think you could be right. I'll have to investigate Eddie a little more.

Dr Bitz, that's a great story. I've heard Cagney has always stood up for not only himself, but other actors and film crew. Thanks for sharing that anecdote!

Michael St. James said...

Cool photos and thanks for the back story! Many of today's actors have Cagney to thank for their multi-million dollar salaries. Please check out my blog,, when you get a free moment.


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