TCMFF 2019: Indulging My Love of Silent Films

By the time Sunday comes up during the festival, I’m always ready for a slower pace and this year was no exception. But even though I felt like I was taking things slowly, everything I did go to was absolutely amazing.

Kevin Brownlow Book Signing Larry Edmunds 2019 TCMFF

To start things off, I skipped the first couple blocks of movies to head over to Larry Edmunds Bookshop for a book signing and conversation between Cari Beauchamp and Kevin Brownlow. As a huge fan of silent film, getting to see Kevin Brownlow in person and hear him discuss his career was nothing less than an honor. There are so many movies I love that I’m able to see because of his work, I’m a huge fan of his documentaries, and he’s done so much incredible work to give silent films the respect they deserve, so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

During the conversation, he talked a bit about things like how he got started making connections with people who had been involved in silent films, the perils of meeting people who have zero credibility while doing research, and his ongoing struggles with studios over licensing and copyright for silent films. As many silent film fans are well aware, his 1980 documentary series Hollywood is a tremendous source of information, but has never gotten an official release on DVD or Blu-ray release because of problems over copyright, leading Brownlow to remark that pirates have done a wonderful job of making money off of that documentary.

Ben Mankiewicz and Angie Dickinson TCMFF 2019 The Killers

After that, I grabbed some lunch and went over to the TCL Multiplex for a screening of the 1964 version of The Killers. This isn’t my favorite version of The Killers, but just getting to see the discussion between Ben Mankiewicz and Angie Dickinson was great. One of the strangest things about this version of The Killers is seeing Ronald Reagan play a villain and Angie talked quite a bit about working with him and how he only agreed to do the movie to get out of his contract so he could start focusing on his political career. There is a photo of his character hitting Angie’s which he particularly despised because that wasn’t the kind of image he wanted have for himself going into politics.

Garbo Gilbert A Woman of Affairs

Once The Killers ended, I made a dash over to the Egyptian for a screening of A Woman of Affairs with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and live music conducted by the great Carl Davis. On top of that, there was a conversation between Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin before the movie, so this screening was pretty much a silent film fan’s dream. This was definitely the top screening of the festival I was most excited for this year. Before the schedule was announced, I had really been hoping for some Garbo and was absolutely delighted when they announced A Woman of Affairs because it would be my first time seeing one of Garbo’s silents in a theater. It was a pretty packed house, so I think it’s safe to say lots of other people were just as excited as I was. The real icing on the cake was when it was announced that a french horn player in the orchestra accompanying the movie was the great-grandson of John Gilbert. Now that’s the kind of extra touch that makes me love the TCM Classic Film Festival so much.

The Dolly Sisters 1945

Once A Woman of Affairs ended, I got right back in line at the Egyptian for the my last screening of the festival: a nitrate print screening of The Dolly Sisters with Betty Grable and June Haver. I usually like to end the festival on a lighter note so The Dolly Sisters fit the bill perfectly. It had been a long time since I’d last seen it; long enough for me to forget about that unfortunate musical number featuring blackface. But aside from that, those colorful scenes and glamorous costumes were a lot of fun to see on the big screen. It’s the kind of movie that had me already looking forward to next year’s festival as I left the theater.

TCMFF 2019: The Force is Strong With This Festival

On Saturday morning, I started my day off with a movie that would end up becoming my favorite new-to-me discovery of the festival: All Through the Night. Even though I’m a big Humphrey Bogart fan, I’d never seen it before and when I heard it was a comedic thriller that involved a gambler getting mixed up with Nazi spies after they kill the guy who made his favorite cheesecake, I was really intrigued. As tempted as I was to go see From Here to Eternity over at the Chinese theater in that same time slot, I’m really glad I went with All Through the Night because it was an absolute joy to see that one in a theater with a very appreciative crowd.

All Through the Night Bogart

All Through the Night was introduced by Michael Schlesinger, who has been lobbying to have this movie shown at the festival for the past 10 years because it has a history of being overlooked. To begin with, its release had rather unfortunate timing. The movie was filmed filmed before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but was released shortly afterward. So by the time audiences had a chance to see it, they were in a very different mindset than they had been a few months earlier. Schlesinger also explained that it tends to get left out of Bogart retrospectives because its director, Vincent Sherman, doesn’t have quite the same wide name recognition as, say, Michael Curtiz or John Huston. But at a festival like TCMFF, All Through the Night finally had an opportunity to be appreciated on its own.

When I read a little bit about All Through the Night, I was excited not just to see Bogart, but Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. A movie that features a good part of the cast of Casablanca, but was released shortly before Casablanca? That’s a pretty big selling point for me right there. But I somehow totally missed the fact that both Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers were in it, so when Michael Schlesinger mentioned they were in it, I was absolutely delighted. The plot, the cast, I was so into everything about this and I did not leave the theater disappointed. I never knew how badly I needed that scene of Humphrey Bogart and Phil Silvers beating up Nazis in my life

After All Through the Night, I had originally planed to check out Tarzan and His Mate, but ended up deciding to go get lunch instead. There was a huge line and the movie was being screened in the smallest theater of the festival, and even though in theory I could have gotten in, the longer I waited in line, the more I felt like lunch was a better call. But it worked out really well because it gave me a better chance to get in line early for Alicia Malone’s book signing in the lobby of the Roosevelt. I always enjoy the introductions she does at the festival and on TCM, so it was a pleasure to have a few minutes to chat with her.

From there, I headed over to the Chinese theater for another great new-to-me discovery for the festival, Working Girl. I’d been really curious about that movie for a while and since I was already planning to see two of the three Harrison Ford movies playing at the festival, why not go for all three. Before the movie, there was a discussion between Illeana Douglas and casting director Juliet Taylor, during which Taylor gave some brief insights into the process behind casting Working Girl and her working process in general. As for the movie, I absolutely loved it. It’s pure 1980s, but it still holds up extremely well in 2019. The characters are so entertaining and the casting was absolutely flawless.

Once Working Girl was over, I got right back in line at the Chinese to see the Burt Bacharach conversation before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Since I really wanted to see Star Wars that night and I wasn’t entirely sure what the line situation would be like, I wasn’t planning to stay for the whole movie. But I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see Burt Bacharach in person, especially since he’d be talking about the music for Butch Cassidy.

The discussion was absolutely fantastic. One thing I had never realized is that Butch Cassidy was actually only the second movie he had scored. His career is so incredibly prolific that it’s hard to imagine that such an iconic score came so early in his career. During the conversation, he also talked about some of the behind-the-scenes debates over whether or not the song “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” belonged in the movie and what it was like to go on tour with Marlene Dietrich. While he wasn’t a big fan of some of the songs she performed, he enjoyed working with her and getting to travel all over the world, including places where Dietrich was still very unpopular because of her support for American troops during World War II.

Star Wars A New Hope

I love Butch Cassidy so there’s part of me that wishes I had stayed and watched the whole movie because it would have been amazing to see it in that theater. But Star Wars: A New Hope is one of my favorite movies and even though it was the Special Edition, I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to see it on the big screen. The only time I’ve seen any of the original trilogy on the big screen was when it was re-released in 1997, so it had definitely been a while. And after seeing it in the Chinese Theater, where it very famously drew such huge crowds on its initial release, complete with a discussion between cinematographer Richard Edlund, visual effects artist Dennis Muren, and sound designer Ben Burtt, I can safely say that if I never have another chance to see Star Wars in a theater again, that’s okay because it’s going to be awfully hard to top that experience. It was an excellent way to end the day.

TCMFF 2019: From Grace Kelly to Mexican Wrestlers

For the first full day of festival activities, it always feels like the first block of the day is always a tough one and this year was no exception. Today, we started out with The Postman Always Rings Twice, Merrily We Go to Hell, and The Clock all up against each other at the same time. There was also High Society over at The Legion Theater in Hollywood Post 43 of the American Legion, a new venue at the festival. I absolutely love The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Clock, and I was curious to give Merrily a re-watch, but I decided to go with High Society instead.

Out of everything playing during that block, High Society was the movie that it had been longest since I last watched. And after ending the previous day with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I wanted to start the day off with something more lighthearted and fun. Most importantly, I wanted to be sure to check out the Legion Theater at least once during the festival and this seemed like my best opportunity to do so. Making a point to check out the theater was one of my best decisions of the festival because it was absolutely beautiful. The building itself is amazing with lots of very vintage touches, but the theater is just spectacular. The seats are comfortable, I had lots of legroom, and they have an excellent sound system. It was a wonderful theater to see a musical in.

Special Guest Kate Flannery speaks onstage at the screening of HIGH SOCIETY (1956) at Post 43 during the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. Image courtesy TCM.

Kate Flannery of The Office was there to introduce High Society and I really enjoyed her introduction. She talked about how she grew up in the same area that Grace Kelly was from and that made Grace a big symbol of hope for her. Kate’s parents were also very big fans of Grace’s and really admired the Kelly family in general. While she acknowledged that High Society lacks some of the qualities that made The Philadelphia Story so great, it was clearly a movie that means a lot to her and it was great to hear those very personal connections she has to it.

After High Society, I took a little bit of a break before heading over to the Chinese theater for Raiders of the Lost Ark. As much as I love Sunrise, which was also playing during the same block, the fact that Craig Barron and Ben Burtt were doing a presentation about the special effects in Raiders is what sold me on it. I’ve been hearing rave reviews about their presentations at the festival for years, but I’ve never managed to get to catch one of them before, so I was bound and determined to see at least one of the two they were doing this year.

When Barron and Burtt do their presentations during TCMFF, they usually discuss the effects in older movies that neither of them actually worked on, like The Adventures of Robin Hood or Gunga Din, dissecting the effects to figure out how exactly they were done. What made their presentation for Raiders unique was the fact that this was their first time doing a presentation about a movie both of them had actually worked on, so they came in with lots of inside stories about how certain visual and sound effects were achieved.

One thing they talked a lot about was how they perfected the gun-related sounds you hear in the movie. They went into a lot of detail about how different types of settings can make a big impact on how gunshots sound, how they tried different types of guns to get just the right sound, and how they got really good bullet ricochet sounds. The entire presentation was absolutely fascinating and anytime I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark from now on and I hear certain sound effects, I’m always going to remember exactly how they were created.

Once Raiders was over, I headed over to the multiplex for Day for Night, introduced by Eddie Muller and Jacqueline Bisset. When I heard Eddie Muller describing this as his dream event, I knew there was no way I could pass it up. He’s done so many incredible events over the years that if this was his big dream come true, I knew I had to check it out. It had been so long since I last saw Day for Night that it was like getting to see it for the first time all over again and of course, it was amazing to hear the conversation with Jacqueline Bisset.

If you were at TCMFF in 2018, you might remember that Jacqueline was scheduled to appear at a screening of Bullit, but had to cancel at the last minute. The first thing she did this year was explain and apologize for that. The day of the Bullit screening, she had injured her arm and felt awful about having to cancel, but she wanted to make sure we all knew she wasn’t in the habit of standing people up.

The conversation with Jacqueline Bisset went on for quite a while, covering not just her experiences working on Day for Night, but what it was like for her to work with the great George Cukor on Rich and Famous and a new project she was about to begin work on that she is very excited about, calling it one of the best roles of her career.

After Day for Night, my plans were pretty up in the air. Even though Road House was my initial choice, the longer I thought about everything else playing in that block, the harder it was for me to choose. In the end, though, I ended up choosing none of them because by that point in the day, I really needed a break to go get something to eat and relax a little bit. One of the best things you can do as a TCMFF attendee is learn to embrace the occasional breaks — especially if you plan on going all the way through to the midnight screenings. And that night’s midnight screening of Santo vs. the Evil Brain was one I definitely did not want to miss.

Before Santo vs. the Evil Brain began, one of the people giving the introduction made sure to make it clear to us that this is the kind of movie where audience participation is welcome and encouraged. And boy, did we ever participate with this one. This screening was an absolute blast. The movie was so perfectly suited for a midnight screening and the audience was completely into it. Was it an Oscar-caliber movie? Oh no. But after a long day of running around, a movie featuring a Mexican Luchador was exactly what I needed.

TCMFF 2019: Kicking Off the Festival in Style

Every year I attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, I like to arrive in Los Angeles the day before festival activities get started to give myself a little bit of time to get settled and spend time catching up with friends. This year, however, I didn’t have much time to rest before I got into full festival mode. 

Once I got into town, my first major event was to take a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library with my friend Nikki and other TCM Backlot members. I have several friends who have taken trips to the library to do some research over the years, so I’d heard amazing things about it and was thrilled to have an opportunity to see it for myself.

Margaret Herrick Library Exterior

If you ever have the opportunity to take a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library, I highly recommend it. Being able to explore their collections, even if just for a little while, is pure heaven for anyone with an interest in film history.

While the library itself is open to the public, this tour took us through many areas that the general public doesn’t get to see and each department we visited had a selection of items pulled for us to look at. We started off in their photo department, which is full of publicity photos, behind-the-scenes photographs, and other production-related images, such as continuity photos and so much more. From there, we headed over to other departments where we saw things like original posters, paper items they’re currently working on preserving, and original costume sketches. As someone who loves the art of costume design, I was absolutely delighted to have a chance to see original sketches for costumes from Gone With the WindThe Godfather Part 2, Lady Sings the Blues, and Blonde Venus. I’d seen reprints of those costume sketches before, but they looked even more beautiful in person.

To showcase a very small sampling of items available in their special collections, they pulled several original documents relating to movies being shown during the festival. Some highlights included production code office checksheets from Dark Passage, a 1934 letter stating that a movie based on The Postman Always Rings Twice would be totally unacceptable, a script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, plus many items related to Gone With the Wind, including the mourning brooch worn by Vivien Leigh in the final scenes of the movie.

Near the end of the tour, we got to see some highlights from their collection of magazines, ranging from vintage fan magazines to recent issues of publications like The Hollywood Reporter. We also got to see a selection of movie pressbooks, which included some interesting tips for theaters about how to market these movies. For example, the pressbook they showed us from The Maltese Falcon suggested that theater owners do a limerick contest. The real highlight of the tour was when everyone had a chance to hold a real Oscar statuette. It was definitely heavier than I was expecting. 

Hollywood Heritage Museum Lasky-De Mille Barn Sign At Night

Later in the evening, I headed over to the Hollywood Heritage Museum for a presentation about Gypsy Rose Lee, hosted by her son, Erik Lee Preminger, and Dita Von Teese. The majority of the presentation was a screening of a film Erik created about his mother’s life which features family photos, home movies, clips from TV appearances, footage of her performances, complete with commentary from Erik himself. Much like his mother, Erik is very witty and I easily could’ve listened to his stories all night.

Erik Lee Preminger and Dita Von Teese at Hollywood Heritage Museum

The home movies included in the presentation were a real treat to see. Some of the highlights included footage of Gypsy Rose Lee visiting the troops, footage from a show she did with Bob Hope, and Alice Faye and Tony Martin at 20th Century Fox, with Tony Martin doing a fake striptease for the camera. Being able to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum is always a pleasure and it was the perfect setting for an event like this. This year was my sixth time traveling to the festival and this event ranks pretty highly on my list of all-time favorite events. 

Festival activities got into full swing on Thursday evening and while lots of people were either around the pool at the Roosevelt for the Ocean’s Eleven party, at the Egyptian for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or lining up in the multiplex for the Boris Karloff pre-code Night World, I was in the bleachers outside of the Chinese Theater watching the red carpet arrivals for the big gala screening of When Harry Met Sally. The first few days I was in Los Angeles, winds were very strong and that led to some difficulties on the red carpet. But it was worth braving the wind to have a chance to see festival guests like Ted Turner, Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Mario Cantone, Dennis Miller, and Kevin Brownlow, as well as TCM hosts Alicia Malone, Dave Karger, and Eddie Muller. 

Once the red carpet had closed, I ended up getting some dinner before catching my first movie of the festival, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in the TCL Multiplex. Umbrellas is one of my all-time favorite movies; it’s the movie that helped really get me into foreign films and French films in particular. I’ve been wanting to see it on the big screen for years, but never had a chance to before now. I was not disappointed by the experience. Those stunning colors were made to be seen on the big screen. Between that and all the other events I attended before it, to say that this year’s festival got off to an incredible start feels like a huge understatement. 

My Choices for TCMFF 2019

TCMFF 2019

It’s that time of year again! The 2019 TCM Classic Movie Festival is already right around the corner and the full schedule was just released on Tuesday, which means I’ve been spending the past few days obsessing over it to figure out my plans. I’m a pretty big fan of this year’s schedule so, as always, I had a lot of hard choices to make. Even though I have a lot of blocks that will come down to how I feel that day, I at least have my options narrowed down. As of now, here are my very tentative plans for this year’s festival:

Pre-Festival

I’ll be getting into Los Angeles on Wednesday and once I get into town, it’s usually a fairly low-key day mostly spent catching up with friends and making appearances at various mixers. But this year, I’ve got some very cool things to look forward to once I get into town. First of all, my friend Nikki very kindly invited me to be her guest on a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library through TCM Backlot. I’ve heard a lot about the Margaret Herrick Library, so I’m definitely excited to be able to see it for myself. Later that night, I’ll be heading over to the Hollywood Heritage Museum for a presentation of Gypsy Rose Lee’s home movies and a discussion about her career with her son Erik Lee Preminger and Dita Von Teese. It should be a fascinating event!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg TCMFF 2019

Thursday, April 11

For the past few years, my opening night tradition has been to watch the red carpet arrivals, skip the first block of movies to get dinner, and then see something in the second block of movies. It works out really well for me so I think I’ll be sticking to it again this year. As much as I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I want to make sure I have plenty of energy for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at 9:30 PM. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I’ve been dying to see it on the big screen so this was an easy choice.

High Society Grace Kelly Bing Crosby

Friday, April 12

For the first full day of the festival, I’m pretty much just going to be winging it all day. The day kicks off with a really tough block of movies: The Postman Always Rings Twice, the pre-code Merrily We Go to HellThe Clock, and High Society. I’ve narrowed it down to The Clock and High Society. I love The Clock, but after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I can picture myself waking up in the mood for something more lighthearted, so High Society might be more up my alley. I also really want to make sure I have a chance to check out The Legion Theater, so High Society would give me a chance to do so.

After that, depending on how ambitious I am, I might check out the What’s Not to Love About Republic Serials presentation. But I’m also thinking that block might be a good time for me to get some lunch because it’s looking like I’ll be in for a long afternoon.

Next up is one of my most painful conflicts of the festival: Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Chinese theater with a presentation by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron up against a screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Sunrise is the one that I’d have fewer opportunities to see in a theater, but Raiders would be incredible to see at the Chinese Theater and I keep missing out on those Ben Burtt and Craig Barron presentations, even though I’ve heard great things about them. It’ll all depend on how I feel that day, but if I were making the decision today, Raiders would win.

Which ever movie I end up going with, it’ll be followed by another block that will probably be decided that day. At the TCL multiplex, they’ll have Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night up against Vanity Street and Open Secret. It’s been years since I last saw Day for Night so it’d be great to see it again, but I’d also be up for checking out two movies I’ve never seen before.

By the time I get out of either movie, it will be after 8:00 PM, so I’m thinking it’ll be a good time for me to quickly get something to eat before heading over to the Egyptian for Road House. After that, I’m totally in for the midnight screening of Santo vs. The Evil Brain. I’ve never seen it, but the midnight movies are always a blast so I’m excited for this one.

Star Wars A New Hope TCMFF

Saturday, April 13

When I first looked at this block, I was so excited about From Here to Eternity at the Chinese theater, that I almost completely overlooked All Through the Night at the TCL multiplex. I’m always up for checking out a Bogart movie I’ve never seen before, so All Through the Night wins out as my first movie of the day. After that is another one of my biggest conflicts of the festival: A Woman Under the Influence introduced by Gena Rowlands up against Tarzan and His Mate with a presentation by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron. I’ve been wanting to see more Gena Rowlands movies for a while so Woman Under the Influence could be a great discovery. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Tarzan and His Mate and it’s been a while since I last watched it. I’ll wait and see what kind of mood I’m in that day.

Up next is another toss up block for me. I could either go for Love Affair, which I know I love, or Working Girl, which I’ve never seen but been interested in seeing for a while. At the moment, I’m leaning more towards Working Girl. After that, it kind of depends on how early I want to line up for Star Wars. I’m really tempted by Wuthering Heights, but I’m concerned that the line for Star Wars might already be really long by the time that one lets out. Considering that festival passes sold out the day Star Wars was announced, I’m definitely expecting a big crowd for that one. More likely, I’ll either rush over to Club TCM to check out Hollywood Home Movies or go get dinner so I can be ready to line up nice and early for Star Wars. Although Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Nashville are both hard ones to pass up.

If I have the energy after Star Wars, I’ll be headed back to the TCL multiplex for the midnight showing of The Student Nurses.

The Dolly Sisters Movie Poster

Sunday, April 14

I usually don’t go into Sundays with a lot of firm plans in mind. I like to wait to hear what the TBAs are and I’m not sure what will be going on over at Larry Edmunds in the morning, so that leaves a lot up in the air for me. A Woman of Affairs and The Dolly Sisters are the only two things I’m totally set on. If I were to make my other decisions based on what I know will definitely be on the schedule, I’d also go with Mad LoveMagnificent Obsession, and The Killers.

The more I look at my plans, the more excited I am for this year’s festival. It’ll be my sixth year attending and I fully expect it will be a memorable one.

Box Office Poison: Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo Charles Boyer Conquest

At the peak of Greta Garbo’s career, she occupied a level of stardom that was unmatched by anyone. Not only was she making one acclaimed movie after another, the public was captivated by her elusive, enigmatic image. Norma Shearer may have been Queen of the Lot at MGM, but Greta Garbo was in a league of her own. Other studios tried to find their own versions of Garbo, but as often as she was imitated, she was never quite duplicated.

Greta Garbo came to the United States from Sweden in 1925 after Louis B. Mayer saw her performance in The Saga of Gosta Berling and was struck by her on-screen magnetism. After joining MGM, she quickly made a name for herself playing a series of vamp characters in movies like Torrent and The Temptress. Her rise to stardom took off like a shot when she starred opposite John Gilbert in 1926’s Flesh and the Devil, marking the beginning of an on-screen and off-screen relationship between the two stars.

As the 1920s wore on, her star only continued to rise, but by the end of the decade, the advent of talking pictures posed a threat to her white-hot career. Numerous other stars of the silent era saw their careers come to an end around this time because, like Garbo, they had come to America from Europe and had heavy accents. But Garbo was such a big star that MGM would’ve taken a big financial hit if she didn’t successfully make the transition to sound. So MGM took their time in finding the right vehicle for her to make her talkie debut in. Her big moment came in 1930’s Anna Christie and the wait was worth it. Anna Christie was a success and ushered in a new era in Garbo’s career.

In 1932, the time came for Garbo to negotiate a new contract with MGM. She was often frustrated by the roles MGM cast her in and longed for more creative control. And, of course, her megastar status merited a pay raise. MGM gave her both of those things and her new contract not only allowed her to choose her own projects, she also had say in her co-stars and her directors. By this time, she had also developed a very close friendship with actress/screenwriter Salka Viertel, who was extremely influential in shaping Garbo’s career choices.

Garbo Queen Christina

Not only did Viertel have a hand in writing several of Garbo’s films from that point on, she would give Garbo guidance about which projects she should and shouldn’t do and who she should and shouldn’t work with. The first movie Garbo made under her new contract, Queen Christina, was a commercial success, but it earned more in foreign markets than in the United States. This would become a recurring pattern during this stage of Garbo’s career and unfortunately, it’s one that would be a key factor in the decline of her career a few years later.

Many of the projects Viertel steered Garbo towards had a strong European appeal. Prior to her 1932 contract negotiation, most of Garbo’s movies earned more domestically than they did in foreign markets, or at least the two markets were pretty close. For example, Grand Hotel earned $1,235,000 domestically and $1,359,000 in foreign markets and Anna Christie earned $1,013,000 domestically and $486,000 in foreign distribution. On the other hand, Queen Christina earned $767,000 domestically and $1,843,000 foreign and 1935’s Anna Karenina earned $865,000 domestically compared to $1,439,000 foreign.

In 1936, Garbo had a career triumph starring in Camille opposite Robert Taylor. Producer Irving Thalberg took efforts to prevent the movie from feeling like just another stuffy costume picture and Garbo’s remarkably open performance is still regarded as one of her best. Camille went on to become a big hit both in the States and overseas. It was said to be her personal favorite of her own movies and she earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her work in it. However, Garbo was initially reluctant to make Camille. Thalberg wanted her to do Camille, but she was concerned it would be too similar to Anna Karenina and really wanted to do a movie about Marie Walewska, a mistress of Napoleon’s, instead. She only agreed to do Camille on the condition that she would also get to do the Marie Walewska movie as well. Ironically, this agreement brought her from a career high point to the first real low point of her career: 1937’s Conquest.

Up until 1937, Garbo was anything but Box Office Poison to MGM. 1926’s The Temptress lost $43,000, but that had been the only one and that loss is practically pocket change compared to the $1,397,000 that would be lost on Conquest. To help put that in perspective, when you adjust those amounts for inflation to reflect 2019 dollar values, that’s $604,671 lost on The Temptress compared to $24,939,125 lost on Conquest.

When the Independent Theater Owners Association included Garbo’s name in the Box Office Poison ad in May 1938, Conquest was exactly what they were referring to. It was the only movie she made in 1937 and she did not appear in a movie at all in 1938. Conquest cost $2.7 million to produce and a good portion of that went to paying its stars. Under her contract, Garbo earned $250,000 per movie and MGM had to pay $125,000 to get Charles Boyer for the role of Napoleon. Production also went considerably over schedule and both stars had clauses in their contracts that allowed them to get extra pay when production ran long. Garbo got an extra $100,000 on top of her usual salary and Boyer ended up being paid a total of $450,000.

Charles Boyer earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Napoleon, but audiences simply couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for Conquest. Many people found Boyer’s Napoleon more compelling than Garbo’s Marie Walewska, so for the first time, it was a Garbo movie that didn’t really feel like a Garbo movie. Given that the story of Conquest involved adultery and production codes were being enforced in 1937, writers were limited in what could be done with the script. However, what did make it into the final script wasn’t exactly engaging.

Not only was Conquest a major loss for the studio, by the time it was released, World War II was on the horizon and MGM realized they could no longer rely on European markets to pull in the profits Garbo’s movies needed. She needed a movie that would do very well in the United States. After spending much of her time at MGM playing characters like vamps, queens, and spies or starring in lavish costume pictures, it was time for the elusive, untouchable Greta Garbo to be brought down to Earth.

Just as thoughtful planning helped Garbo transition to sound films, it helped Garbo transition into comedy. Ninotchka was released in November 1939 and the delightful comedy helped bring Garbo back to the top of the box office. She had a great director in Ernst Lubitsch, a wonderful screenplay written by a team of writers that included Billy Wilder, and a perfect leading man in Melvyn Douglas. When Oscar season came around, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. When people talk about 1939 being Hollywood’s golden year, Ninotchka is one of the most widely cited examples supporting that claim.

Unfortunately, Garbo’s comeback would prove to be short lived. With the success of Ninotchka, MGM was eager to get her into another romantic comedy with Melvyn Douglas. Two-Faced Woman was released in 1941 and was a critical disaster. The plot, in which Garbo’s character pretends to be her fictional twin sister in an attempt to save her marriage, is sheer nonsense and many critics and moviegoers were appalled to see Garbo in such a ridiculous movie. It wasn’t Garbo’s finest performance, nor was it Melvyn Douglas’s, although Constance Bennett has some good moments in it. One critic described it as being as shocking as seeing your mother drunk. Other critics liked Garbo’s performance but hated the writing.

The reviews for Two-Faced Woman were the worst of her career. Garbo’s close friend Mercedes de Acosta later wrote that Garbo was humiliated by the reviews, but added, “I think Greta’s greatest regret was more in her own soul for having allowed herself to be influenced into lowering her own high standards.”

Two-Faced Woman also had the disadvantage of being released very shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the United States officially heading into World War II, Garbo knew it was time for her to take a break. She understood how important the European market was to her films and volunteered to bow out of films for the duration of the war. Louis B. Mayer agreed, but she never returned to MGM and Two-Faced Woman ended up being the final movie of her career.

Garbo hadn’t intended to fully retire from films after Two-Faced Woman, but any plans for films after that point never materialized. She continued to receive offers and in 1948, she filmed screen tests for what would have been an adaptation of La Duchess de Langelais co-starring James Mason and directed by Max Ophuls. However, funding couldn’t be secured and the project never happened, much to Garbo’s disappointment. Investors were concerned that she would no longer draw crowds at the box office. So while Garbo did briefly beat the Box Office Poison label, she never really escaped it, even after leaving Hollywood.

Box Office Poison Back Story: The Death of Irving Thalberg

Irving ThalbergAs we talk about the infamous Box Office Poison ad from 1938, it’s important to remember that the ad wasn’t solely based on movies released in 1938. The ad itself was published on May 3, 1938, so while movies released in early 1938 were certainly considered, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) also considered movies released a year or two earlier. And for some of the stars who were dubbed “Box Office Poison” in the ad, behind-the-scenes factors that may have contributed to their inclusion in that list happened well before the ad was published.

On September 14, 1936, MGM was suddenly thrown into a very uncertain position when Irving Thalberg, the studio’s former head of production, passed away at the age of 37. Thalberg’s death shook the entire film industry, but for several of the stars who were labeled “Box Office Poison,” it was the loss of a mentor who had played a pivotal role in shaping their careers. Some sources have said Greta Garbo was more upset by the death of Irving Thalberg than she was by the death of John Gilbert, who had also died in 1936. To Norma Shearer, it was also the loss of her husband and the father of her children.

Known as “The Boy Wonder,” Thalberg had built a stellar reputation for having genuine gifts for storytelling and film production at a remarkably young age. By the age of 24, Thalberg was MGM’s vice president in charge of production and it wasn’t even his first time being a top producer at a movie studio. Before meeting Louis B. Mayer, Thalberg had worked for Carl Laemmle as the head of production at Universal, where he was faced with daunting task of bringing Erich von Stroheim productions under control.

Just a few years after joining MGM, Thalberg’s work had helped turn it into the most successful studio in Hollywood. Under Thalberg’s guidance, the MGM produced some of the most significant movies of the silent film era, including The Crowd, The Big Parade, Ben-Hur, and Flesh and the Devil. Throughout the 1930s, MGM continued to thrive and Thalberg’s resume grew even more impressive with the additions of movies like Grand HotelMutiny on the Bounty, and A Night at the Opera.

Irving Thalberg Norma Shearer Louis B. Mayer

While Thalberg produced many noteworthy, critically acclaimed films during his career, not all of them were winners at the box office and that often put him at odds with Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was in charge of the creative side of MGM and Mayer was in charge of the business side and they often had differences of opinion about which movies the studio should be making. Thalberg certainly understood that MGM was a business and therefore needed to make money. But he also believed in occasionally taking a chance on projects that pushed boundaries or had artistic merit, even if he knew they might not be profitable. He insisted on making Tod Browning’s Freaks despite the objections of other executives. When King Vidor approached MGM about making the all-black musical Hallelujah, Thalberg recognized the value in it when Mayer and Nick Schenck didn’t. The Broadway Melody, a movie Thalberg intended as a low-budget experiment, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Mayer, on the other hand, hated the words “prestige picture.” Not only did he know prestige pictures were very likely to lose money, he just wasn’t a fan of the more artistic type movies. Irving Thalberg may have liked movies like The Crowd, but it was a far cry from the glossy, idealized view of American life Mayer preferred and would later become the studio’s signature style. The profit and acclaim earned by The Crowd did nothing to change Mayer’s opinion of the movie.

Irving Thalberg and the Marx Brothers

Thalberg and Mayer were both driven to create great movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they had the exact same approach to making them. MGM had earned the nickname of “Retake Alley” because of Thalberg’s famous willingness to reshoot scenes until they were just right, sometimes at great expense. He would put a lot of focus on casting and developing scripts. When the Marx Brothers came to MGM after their career began to flounder at Paramount, Thalberg helped bring their movies in a new direction and took the approach of allowing them to try new material for A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races out on the stage to figure out what worked and what didn’t. When Thalberg died, MGM didn’t really know what to do with the Marx Brothers and didn’t give them the kind of freedom Thalberg had to develop new movies. Groucho was later quoted as saying, “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them, but the fun had gone out of picture making.”

During Irving Thalberg’s funeral, it’s said that one executive commented to another, “They won’t miss him today or tomorrow or six months from now or a year from now. But two years from now, they’ll begin to feel the squeeze.” At the time of his death, Thalberg had several projects either actively in production or still in development and MGM’s remaining producers were left to figure out how to move forward with them — or if they would move forward with them at all. Some of those movies involved stars who would later be named “Box Office Poison” and will be discussed more in future posts. But trying to carry out Irving Thalberg productions without his unique vision or innate knack for storytelling wasn’t easy. The remark about how the studio wouldn’t really miss Thalberg until two years later was almost prophetic with the timing of the Box Office Poison ad.