H’wood earning questions

Past paydays define top tier

Nowadays, what someone earns in Hollywood is a touchy subject. But it wasn’t always quite so contentious.

It’s a hot potato because those in the top tier — in most all businesses, not just Hollywood — are paid disproportionately more than everybody else.

Thus the stunning figures bandied about for Exxon’s Lee Raymond recently, as well as the $20 million pocketed in 2005 by News Corp. chieftain Rupert Murdoch, Viacom’s Tom Freston and CBS’ Leslie Moonves — not to mention the starriest of stars, whose paydays rival the gross domestic product of Leichtenstein.

Before Hollywood went corporate, there was arguably a more equable distribution of the moolah — and it was much easier to get access to the figures. Variety did so throughout the 1930s, publishing a full-page rundown of showbiz salaries that topped a minimum threshold.

In 1937, for example, that bar was set at $15,000 per annum, which would be analogous to, say, $250,000 in today’s dollars. By 1938, with improvements in the national economy, the threshold was raised to $75,000.

There were a couple of moguls who made out handsomely, or at least like the Redstones and Murdochs of today.

Louis B. Mayer made a whopping $1,296,503 salary, the bulk from his top production role at Loews and the rest as VP at MGM. (After U.S. and California taxes, however, he was reckoned to have pocketed just $345,000.) The other big earner in ’37 was the less well-known Loews/MGM exec Robert Rubin, whose pre-tax salary was $754,254.

Variety did not do the legwork for this chart; it was courtesy the U.S. Treasury Dept., which published a 1,132-page opus detailing the 50,000 folks across the country whose salaries topped $15,000 that year.

Just as today, many of them were in showbiz, with the key studios — MGM, Paramount, Warners and Fox — accounting for perhaps half the total employees raking in these healthy salaries.

More stunning still, 40 of the 63 salaries over $200,000 in the country were paid to folks in the entertainment biz.

Take the stars listed under the MGM banner, which was the largest single dispenser of $15,000-plus salaries in the U.S., with 240 well-paid employees. (Dupont and Metropolitan Life came in second and third, respectively.)

Among the most highly compensated thesps were Greta Garbo ($472,000), Joan Crawford ($362,000) and Jeanette McDonald ($238,000), who outearned Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell and Lionel Barrymore that year.

There were also many execs and creative types whose salaries ranged between $50,000 and $150,000 as the movie biz boomed in the late ’30s.

Leaving aside the obvious female stars, however, there were hardly any distaff names on the list of 1,000-odd top showbiz earners — few if any women execs, directors, writers or producers. It was a male industry, and the women who worked in it were generally paid less.

It’s hard to say how accurate the chart is, though it purports to include whatever bonuses and secondary income these folks pocketed. Among the oddities, Zeppo Marx is said to have earned $78,383 that year, but his freres Groucho, Harpo and Chico are nowhere on the chart. Oliver Hardy made $101,200 but sidekick Stan Laurel only got $75,000.

Full disclosure existed back then too: Variety publisher Sid Silverman is listed as taking home $60,000 — the same amount as Cary Grant and Major Bowes, but considerably less than gossip columnist Walter Winchell ($151, 699).