Studio to put rare papers up for bidding

Film toppers Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos have donated more than 200 rare documents from 20th Century Fox’s archives for an auction to benefit the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s insurance fund.

Fox is one of the first majors to part with studio-system star contracts and internal memos, most of which were signed by the talent. The documents should be worth a fortune to collectors, said Nicholas Lowry, president and principal auctioneer at Swann Galleries, who will oversee the auction on Jan. 25 in New York.

Among the most interesting: a 1946 internal memo advising that Norma Jean Dougherty was changing her professional name to Marilyn Monroe; Humphrey Bogart’s first studio contract, from 1930, when he was paid $400 a week and assigned the film “Up the River”; another from 1951, when Bogart got paid $17,500 a week for “Deadline USA”; a contract signed by Judy Garland to star in the 1967 film “Valley of the Dolls”; a termination letter drafted after she showed up for work inebriated; Marlon Brando’s 1951 contract for “Viva Zapata,” which paid him $10,416.66 per week, or just shy of $125,000 for the film; a Lucille Ball contract for the thriller “Dark Corner,” which paid her $5,000 a week, or $60,000 for the film.

Also: a Cary Grant contract for the 1948 film “I Was a Male War Bride,” which paid him $100,000, plus 10% of gross receipts if they exceeded $1 million, capped at $2.5 million; the 1935final contract signed by Will Rogers that at $1.1 million for 10 pictures was one of the first seven-figure deals dealt by a studio; and several missives involving Rita Hayworth, including signed memos in which she changed her name from Margarita Cansino to Rita Rubio on Jan. 31, 1935, and another issued days later, when she changed it to Rita Cansino (she didn’t switch to Hayworth until she was under contract at Columbia). There are also picture contracts for Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner and many others.

Lowry said Fox had opened up a treasure trove of genuine documents in a market fraught with fakes. Almost all of these missives were signed by stars in the presence of a notary public.

While some of the contract language is boilerplate stuff, stars who lament the recent studio crackdown on perks and salaries may find solace in agreements like the ones signed by Laurel and Hardy, who were required to furnish their own wardrobes for films. Bigger stars got duds but were told to provide their own underwear.

Grant was given an extraordinary star perk when the studio offered to give him a dressing-room phone, and Elvis Presley was given permission to violate strict grooming codes and wear his hair however he saw fit in 1958 as part of a contract signed by Presley and Col. Tom Parker for “Love Me Tender.”

“Fox’s heritage reflects Hollywood itself and our well-maintained document archives are a Tut’s Tomb of movie history,” Rothman said. “These papers are so cool that, as a fan of that history, I will have to restrain myself from bidding. This donation is intended to get the past out of file cabinets into the hands of film lovers, and let it serve the present through the MPTF. We also hope this auction might inspire other studios to follow suit.”

Motion Picture & Television Fund CEO Ken Scherer said the auction will kick off the fund’s emphasis on raising coin to help actors keep up health benefits when they aren’t working enough to qualify.

“People always think of the retirement home, but keeping people in a cyclical business insured before a health crisis occurs is also very important,” Scherer said. “Jim (Gianopulos) is on our board, and Tom (Rothman) is a supporter, and they came to me with this idea. You can buy costumes and memorabilia on eBay, but these documents are something else. Someone paid $1.2 million for Babe Ruth’s contract, and who knows the value of these items, many of which are pretty special and unique.”

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