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When billing doesn't match screen time


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It works both ways...an actor with top billing when clearly they have a more supporting role. Or an actor with lower billng who has just as much screen time (if not more) than the top-billed star.

 

Chalk it up to studio politics.

 

*Category 1 (top billing but supporting part)*

 

Example A) Jean Harlow in LIBELED LADY

She has much less screen time than Myrna Loy, yet she has lead billing. Jean's role is a supporting one, it's the way the script is written. When MGM remade LIBELED LADY as EASY TO WED, they recognized this and gave Esther Williams (in the Loy role) top billing and Lucille Ball (inheritor of Harlow's role) second-tier billing.

 

Example B)Gary Cooper in THE WESTERNER

Even Coop himself complained about this role to Sam Goldwyn. He did not like playing a supporting character, when Walter Brennan had the main story as Judge Roy Bean. Yet, because Coop was the established Hollywood heavyweight, he gets lead billing.

 

Example C) Fabian in TEN LITTLE INDIANS

Fabian is third-billed, along with Hugh O'Brien and Shirley Eaton in this Agatha Christie adaptation. But his is the first character to be killed off, 27 minutes into the 90 minute film. There is an extended opening credit sequence, and when the characters all arrive at the mansion, they are all speaking at the dinner table. So the focus is not really on Fabian much at all in the scenes where he is present. He has a memorable bit playing the title song at the piano, then his death scene occurs a few moments later. He should've been tenth-billed, not third-billed. He probably completed his participation in this film in two or three days, then was on to the next project.

 

Example D) Janet Leigh in PSYCHO

As most people know, Leigh's character, like Fabian's in the preceding example, is killed off a third of the way into her film. Vera Miles, who plays the sister, has more screen time. At least Hitchcock tried to bill it correctly: he gives Leigh a special 'and starring' credit at the end of the cast in the opening shots. Still, if it had been a lesser known actress, there would've been no special billing and she would've probably been listed fourth or fifth, after Martin Balsam who plays the detective.

 

Example E) Edward G. Robinson in CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY

EGR does not appear until 45 minutes into this film, and it's a 104 minute film. I don't think I've seen another film where the top-billed actor missed the entire first half of the picture. Of course, he was a big name star at the time of the film's production and having him on board probably helped the studio finance and market it.

 

*Category 2 (lower billing but clearly a lead role)*

 

Example A) Shirley Jones in OKLAHOMA

Can you believe that she is fifth-billed?! Unbelievable. She should be second-billed, right after Gordon MacRae. But Hollywood vets Gloria Grahame, Gene Nelson and Charlotte Greenwood get billed above her. I understand it was her first motion picture and in the opening credits, she receives a special 'introducing' qualifier. But when the end credits roll, she's listed as a second-tier star. Even Greg Peck realized that Audrey Hepburn (in her debut in ROMAN HOLIDAY) deserved above the title status. I think Shirley should've gotten it, too.

 

Example B)S.Z. Sakall in OH YOU BEAUTIFUL DOLL

S.Z. is billed after the title, almost like a supporting player (which is what he was in most of his pictures). But in this film, he plays the lead character, a tin pan alley musician who wrote many successful tunes including the title song. Fox gives Mark Stevens and June Haver above-the-title status, since they are the young romantic leads of the picture. But I think all three should've been above the title. Sakall was cheated.

 

Example C) John Carradine in HITLER'S MADMAN

Carradine plays the title character in this film, and most of the action centers on him. He dies fifteen minutes before the end of the film, but still the top-billed actor (a young romantic lead) has less to do in this picture than he does. Carradine should've been billed first. This is a case of the studio (MGM) being afraid to let a character actor carry the picture, although the script clearly puts him in the lead.

 

Example D) Doris Day in ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS

It seems unfathomable, but Doris is fourth-billed in this musical comedy. It was her first major screen role, and like Shirley Jones, she has the lead female character. She should be billed second, after Jack Carson. As it is, she's listed after Carson, Janis Paige (second-billed) and Don DeFore (third-billed). DeFore has less than half Doris' screen time. Warners would not give Doris top billing until her fifth film, TEA FOR TWO. She clearly paid her dues.

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In most cases, an actor with higher box office appeal will get top/higher billing. Or a star can demand higher billing in his contract.

 

In FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, Lionel Atwill is listed above Bela Lugosi in the credits. However, in all printed material (lobby cards, posters, etc.) Lugosi is billed above Atwill.

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Sometimes it comes down to the way the film is being promoted which could explain Janet Leigh in Psycho. It also comes down to who is the bigger name star, for example the movie Working Girl, it was all too obvious Melanie Griffith was the lead in that movie but she was given third billing behind Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver who were bigger name stars at that time.

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Sometimes the opening credits and the end credits are in a slightly different order. This may be because a new opening was added later. Or because contractually, two stars that had equal power took turns being listed first.

 

It's interesting to look at how billing relates to advertising. A lot of Marilyn Monroe's early supporting roles are advertised to seem as if they are lead roles in the special Marilyn Collection issued by Fox. I can only imagine what the stars who are still alive think, or the relatives of the actual leads who have since passed away.

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Good point about the lobby cards and posters. I touched on that in another post when I mentioned advertising.

 

And sometimes an actor that is billed first is not the highest paid.

 

When I was on the set of Designing Women, it was the beginning of the sixth season. Delta had just been fired and Dixie Carter was now listed first in the opening credits, a position she held for the show's final two seasons. However, second-billed Annie Potts was earning more per episode because in the pecking order of Hollywood, she had extensive film credits and Dixie did not. So Annie's agent was able to command a higher salary although most people thought that Dixie was now the "star."

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Loy is billed correctly, though, in CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (second, after Clifton Webb). And in the sequel BELLES ON THEIR TOES, she is not promoted to the top position when Webb vacates the cast (his character died at the end of the first movie). Instead, Jeanne Crain leap-frogs over Loy to claim star billing. But considering the fact that Loy is missing for a good twenty minute chunk near the beginning of TOES, I would agree that Fox did it right by billing Loy second again.

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Peter Lorre in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR may get the top of the list for me. He has the titular role, but few scenes as he owed RKO two days on a contract. Nevertheless, he makes his presence felt.

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I can think of two examples from MGM musicals. The first is Cyd Charisse in "Harvey Girls."

She plays a prominent role in the story, has at least one solo spot, and is featured in another along with Garland and Virginia O'Brien. Her name does not even appear in the credits at the beginning, but she is mentioned in the closing credits. What's with that? The other is Vera-Ellen in "On the Town": Her role is just as important as any other in the cast. In fact, since she is the love interest of Kelly, who is definitely the star, perhaps her role is more prominent than Miller or Garrett. Anyway, in the opening credits, her name appears almost as a featured player.

 

Terrence.

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Most people who've seen KINGS ROW would be surprised that Ann Sheridan is the top-billed star. She doesn't even appear until an hour or so in the movie. Robert Cummings plays the main character and has the most screen time.

 

Ida Lupino was billed above Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA because she'd made a splash in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT. She was also billed over Robert Ryan in ON DNAGEROUS GROUND. In both cases the male star is the main character of the film.

 

Bette Davis was top-billed in WATCH ON THE RHINE, but she's playing a supporting role to Paul Lukas.

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In the movies I've seen, billing always correlates with star status and has nothing to do with screen time except for the fact that the top stars usually do have the most screen time. It would be more interesting to think of examples of movies where the bigger stars took lesser billing. I can't think of any off the top of my head, which brings me back to my initial point.

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> Sophia Loren in OPERATION CROSSBOW is another to consider.

 

Good example. She has a delayed entrance (we see her in a film clip when Peppard is studying the life of the man whose identity he will assume). Then another half hour passes before she finally appears. Then, a half hour later, she's written out of the story. Clearly, the producer of the movie (her husband Carlo Ponti) put her in the project to secure financial backers. But it's really Peppard's movie. Loren is great as always, but she's not in it long enough to really matter.

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Another perfect example is the Marx Brothers first movie, THE COCOANUTS - even though it is explicitly a Marx vehicle, the two romantic leads, Mary Eaton and Oscar Shaw, are not even given top billing, they even get the fade out!! I am not exactly naive about things like knowing movie stars and such, but who the heck are Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton???? (only being a little sarcastic - but not much!)

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*It works both ways...an actor with top billing when clearly they have a more supporting role. Or an actor with lower billng who has just as much screen time (if not more) than the top-billed star.*

 

The examples you mention have everything to do with boxoffice popularity and the salability of an individual performer. LIBELED LADY came from MGM, who promoted themselves as having "more stars than there are in heaven". So they use a powerhouse cast, and of course Jean Harlow is gonna have star billing, even if her role is not the biggest, strictly speaking (not every star had egos that made them turn down roles that didn't have the most lines). MGM billed it as having 4 top stars, and the introduction shows all four arm in arm. The remake, EASY TO WED, had Lucille Ball in Harlow's role. BUT, she did not have the star wattage that Harlow had had (not to mention much less boxoffice clout). In fact, MGM were at that time demoting her from one of their "stars" to a featured player, and her billing accurately reflected her position in the studio's hierarchy (as had Harlow's in the original).

 

Cooper, Fabian, Leigh and Robinson were all stars of some magnitude in each of these instances, so they were bound to get star billing to bring in the paying customers, no matter the size of their roles. It was a practice common at all studios back then, and was called 'boxoffice duty", where you used your big names to bolster expensive projects to minimize the risk with paying customers.

 

 

Shirley Jones and Doris Day were both silver screen newcomers. Not every newcomer to the medium was going to be top billed from the get-go (even for someone with a successful singing career like Day), because there was no guarantee that they could bring in paying customers. So established names were used (In ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS, Janis Paige was a known commodity, a popular performer often used by Warner's in their musicals, especially when paired with Carson and/or Dennis Morgan).

 

Same with others mentioned. Ann Sheridan and Bette Davis WERE both stars in 1941, so WB had them do boxoffice duty in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, to ensure that there would be paying customers, since Monty Wooley, while having become a Broadway name on the stage success of TMWCTD, and having done some featured roles in films, meant NOTHING at the boxoffice.

 

Ida Lupino was already making a name for herself when HIGH SIERRA was filmed; Bogart on the other hand, had been a featured player up until the success of this film. It was no accident, from Warners' point of view, to top bill her.

 

Just because you're a popular or recognized character actor DOES NOT mean a studio is going to entrust the success of a movie to you (and apparently that applied to 'Cuddles' Sakall and John Carradine). So of course you're going to give top billing to popular musical star June Haver and up-and-coming leading man Mark Stevens. Some character actors made the transition (Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Marjorie Main, to name three) and achieved star billing, but in each of these cases it reflects their popularity, that of true stars.

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*It's interesting to look at how billing relates to advertising. A lot of Marilyn Monroe's early supporting roles are advertised to seem as if they are lead roles in the special Marilyn Collection issued by Fox. I can only imagine what the stars who are still alive think, or the relatives of the actual leads who have since passed away.*

 

Marilyn was a star with the public AND the exhibitors well before the studio caught on. The movie theaters would often bill her first on their marquee, often overlooking the real stars of the films.

 

At least she usually has decent screen time in most of these. Can you imagine some of her other early films (some indies) that use her image to sell them, when her roles were really miniscule. I think the stars, then or now, knew that Marilyn became huge (during the making of CLASH BY NIGHT the press would only want to interview Marilyn, to the chagrin of the tops stars: Stanwyck to Douglas "It's like this Paul. She's younger and more beautiful than the rest of us"), and theatrical re-releases of her films then had her prominently featured in the advertising (a common practice when someone would make it big).

 

Edited by: Arturo on Nov 15, 2010 6:57 PM

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