Box Office Poison: Mae West

Mae West

While she is now remembered as one of the biggest icons of the 1930s, and of classic cinema in general, it’s easy to forget that Mae West’s film career was actually pretty brief. She only appeared in twelve films, fewer than Luise Rainer, who was also among the stars dubbed Box Office Poison in a 1938 ad published by the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA).

Mae West was a master of shaping her public image through her trademark quips, often playing up the magnitude of her success. If it’s easy to forget that her film career was less than prolific, it’s even easier to forget that she was ever labeled “Box Office Poison.” She created something of a Midas-esque image for herself, with anything she touched turning to gold. When you do even the most basic level research into Mae West, you’ll inevitably find things about how her movies were credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy, how she took credit for discovering Cary Grant, and a few witty remarks she made about how censorship made her rich.

Some of these claims are easy to fact check. All you need to do is look at Cary Grant’s IMDB profile to see that he had appeared in several movies before She Done Him Wrong, including Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich. As for the claim that her films saved Paramount from bankruptcy, the You Must Remember This podcast episode about Mae West and the book Hollywood Babylon touches on that. However, quotes like, “I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it,” are interesting given that it’s widely accepted that censorship was a contributing factor to the decline of her film career.

Mae West Cary Grant She Done Him Wrong

There’s no dispute around the fact that censorship played a huge part of Mae West’s career. And there’s no questioning that she did successfully capitalize on it at times. But it was something of a double-edged sword; helping her at times and working against her her at others. During her time on Broadway prior to going to Hollywood, Mae made a name for herself by writing and starring in plays notorious for their controversial content. Her 1927 play The Drag, for example, had a financially successful tryout run, but a play about gay people that featured a drag ball scene was too controversial to be able to open on Broadway at that point in time.

Not all of her stage shows were hits, but she came to Hollywood with some real successes to her credit. Once she started working in films, she got off to a great start by stealing the show in 1932’s Night After Night and by adapting her stage hit Diamond Lil into She Done Him Wrong, which became one of the top grossing films of 1933 — after a few modifications to appease the censors, of course. She outdid herself the following year with I’m No Angel, which became Paramount’s top grossing film of 1934.

From then on, Mae was stuck working against a combination of unrealistically high expectations from Paramount and production codes that were now being more strictly enforced. She often talked about how she would intentionally include lines she knew censors would demand to be cut because they would distract their attention from the less provocative lines she wanted to keep. But the more movies she made, audiences became increasingly less receptive to the toned down version of Mae’s persona.

Mae West Belle of the Nineties

Belle of the Nineties was her follow-up to I’m No Angel, and while Paramount considered it a disappointment at the box office, it was still profitable and drew very sizable crowds in many cities. One theater in Atlantic City played it twelve times a day to keep up with demand. But even with production codes being enforced, protesters still came out to complain and Paramount’s publicists got to work trying to create an image of Mae West being an upstanding, moral woman at heart.

1936’s Klondike Annie, an adaptation of Mae’s play Frisco Kate, was the movie Mae was most proud of, but it was essentially the beginning of the end of her film career. Since the story involved religious workers, an interracial affair, and Mae’s character being on the run from the law, it was highly scrutinized by the Hays Office. Even once it was approved for release, many other organizations complained, some saying the story as a whole was completely unacceptable and no amount of cuts could make it redeemable in their eyes. William Randolph Hearst waged his own war against Klondike Annie, refusing to allow advertisements for it to run in his papers. Paramount found a way to work around Hearst’s ban, though. Rather than advertising Klondike Annie by name, they ran ads telling people to call for information about an important feature.

In spite of negative reviews from critics, being banned in some areas, and Hearst’s best efforts, the Motion Picture Herald reported that Klondike Annie earned $2,500-$8,000 over average per box office. Variety also credited Hearst’s campaign with generating interest in Klondike Annie. But even with any success it had, it still wasn’t another I’m No Angel.

Klondike Annie Lobby Card

By that point, the relationship between Paramount and Mae was becoming strained. Ernst Lubitsch was in charge of Paramount’s productions by then and Mae wasn’t happy with the way he was running things or the suggestions he had for her films. And any publicity Mae was generating from her battles with censors just wasn’t worth it for Paramount anymore. Not only was she still drawing protests, she posed a larger problem for the industry as a whole.

One of the key reasons why the Box Office Poison ad was published in the first place was because the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) objected to the practice of block booking. Block booking was a practice in which theater owners were forced to book groups of movies at a time. This would involve packages of movies that were expected to be big hits and others that weren’t. If independent theaters wanted to show the surefire hits, they had to show some of the lesser movies, too.

There’s also the fact that the popularity of some stars could vary from location to location, depending on local tastes, and independent theater owners wanted more control over the movies they showed. Greta Garbo‘s movies, for example, tended to be more popular in big cities and in Europe than in small towns and rural areas. In the case of Mae West, her suggestive persona cemented her place in pop culture history, but made her a target for the ITOA.

Even before the Box Office Poison ad was published, the ITOA had been highly critical of Mae West. They argued that she was the very personification of immorality in film and block booking forced them to screen her films even if customers in their communities would stay away because of moral objections. During a 1936 sub-committee hearing in the U.S. Senate, with the Klondike Annie controversy fresh in everyone’s minds, the ITOA used her movies as a prime example of why they wanted block booking to be abolished. During that hearing, Paramount responded by submitting evidence that there had not been a single exhibitor cancellation of a Mae West movie. On the other hand, movies of the “quality type that have good moral standing” like Abraham Lincoln and Alice in Wonderland faced lots of cancellations.

Even though the ITOA lost the battle that time — block booking wouldn’t be prohibited until 1948 — Mae was still a target for them by the time the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938. In response to the ad, she stated, “Why, the independent theater owners call me the mortgage lifter. When business is bad, they just re-run one of my pictures.” She also noted that the entire American film industry was in a lull at the time and added, “The only picture to make real money was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and that would’ve made twice as much if they’d had me play Snow White.”

Mae West Every Day's a Holiday

Until 1937, Paramount had been able to use Mae’s box office performance to respond to those criticizing the moral content of her films; arguing that many people clearly did not find her movies objectionable. But while Mae still had her fans, many of them recognized that her movies just weren’t what they used to be. When Every Day’s a Holiday was released in December 1937, many theaters only played it for a single week and it became her first real box office dud. On the other hand, She Done Him Wrong spent a month in some theaters when it was released.

With the failure of Every Day’s a Holiday, Mae parted ways with Paramount and made a couple more movies at other studios. Most notably, there was 1940’s My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields. While My Little Chickadee was a box office hit, she did not enjoy working with Fields and was even less impressed when his performance got better reviews than hers. Three years later, she made The Heat’s On for Columbia and for the first time, she did not write any of the dialogue in one of her movies. But when that failed to make an impression, she went back to performing on stage and found success in theatrical plays and nightclubs. After an extended break, she did appear in two more films, 1970’s Myra Breckinridge and 1977’s Sextette. Neither one was a financial success, but over time, became known as cult classics.

Mae West Sextette

My Thoughts on TCMFF: Special Home Edition

Every year, the TCM Classic Film Festival has a theme. Had the festival gone on in Hollywood as intended this year, that theme would have been Grand Illusions: Fantastic Worlds on Film. When this year’s festival became an at-home festival, there wasn’t one defining theme connecting the movies aside from the fact that they were all screened at previous festivals or slated for this year’s festival. For me, though, the overwhelming theme ended up being Rediscovery. Out of all the movies I was able to watch during the at-home festival, only one was new to me: Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. But most of the movies I was able to catch were ones that I was overdue to revisit.

When I do the festival in person, I really like to check out a mix of old favorites and things I’ve never seen before. But even though this year ended up skewing heavily toward things I’d seen before, I was able to approach many of them with a fresh perspective. It’s been a few years since I last watched the 1954 version of A Star is Born from beginning to end and it’s probably been ten years since I last saw Network. I couldn’t even remember the last time I watched Deliverance.

As someone who has attended the festival for several years, the schedule for the at-home version also took me on a trip down memory lane. A Hard Day’s Night reminded me of my first ever trip to the Chinese theater and the Faye Dunaway interview brought back memories of how excited I was to be at the taping for it. And then there was the time I saw the line for the first Double Harness screening and just said, “Hahahahaha…no.” Even though I wasn’t able to attend the festival in person this year, it was really nice to have so many great memories to look back on.

The thing I loved most about this at-home festival is how nice it was to just relax and go along with the scheduled programming. I’ve been working from home for a little over a month now and in that time, I’ve ended up putting a lot of thought into the movies I watch. Anything I wanted to watch had been divided into one of three categories: familiar movies I can listen to while working, movies to watch during evenings/weekends, and movies I wanted to save for the at-home festival I was planning before this version of TCMFF was announced. With all that to keep in mind, it was very nice to have few days during which I didn’t have to actively think about what I wanted to watch next.

I also really enjoyed seeing the footage of interviews, introductions, and other events from previous festivals that were broadcast between films. If anything, I wanted to see more of those in their entirety as part of the over-the-air broadcast. However, lots of great things were uploaded to TCM’s YouTube channel instead, like a Club TCM interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne’s conversation with Jean-Paul Belmondo before a screening of Breathless, and a discussion with Norman Jewison, Lee Grant, and Walter Mirisch before In the Heat of the Night on opening night of the festival in 2017. At most, some of those uploads may have been previously available to TCM Backlot members, but there’s a lot on there that I don’t recall ever seeing before.

As far as supplemental content in the live broadcast went, my favorites were the interview with Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau after North By Northwest and the spot they put together to run after Singin’ in the Rain. The Singin’ in the Rain one was really a highlight, featuring footage of Debbie Reynolds from a previous festival along with other archival interview clips of Cyd Charisse and Donald O’Connor.

The thing I missed most in the at-home version of festival was the representation of the midnight screenings. It’s not easy to stay up for those midnight screenings during the festival, but if you can pull it off, they can easily be some of the most fun and memorable events of the festival. Creature from the Black Lagoon was definitely a good late night movie, but not nearly as off-the-rails as some of the ones that have turned up in the midnight time slot during past festivals.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most about the at-home version of TCMFF is how quickly it all went by. When I attend TCMFF in person, time flies and it’s completely understandable why: it’s the culmination of months of anticipation and excitement around getting spend some time surrounded by good friends and good movies in a city I only get to visit once a year. But even doing the festival at home, where my only changes of scenery came by moving from one room to another, it still kept me engaged enough that Sunday afternoon caught up to me way faster than I expected. Even though I wasn’t able to spend time with my friends in person this year, I’m glad this version of the festival still gave us a way to connect on some level.

My Choices for the TCM Classic Film Festival: Home Edition

TCM Classic Film Festival Home Edition

Like many other people, I was completely heartbroken to hear the news that the 2020 TCM Classic Film festival would be cancelled this year due to the coronavirus outbreak. Was I surprised? No, not even remotely close. Even under normal circumstances, I usually hear about multiple other attendees coming down with colds shortly after getting home from the festival, so in light of this year’s events, cancellation was definitely the right call.

In the days leading up to the cancellation, I had been very carefully thinking about what my plans would be if TCMFF didn’t happen. I entertained the idea of going to a different film festival, but with so much uncertainty, I wasn’t comfortable with making other plans that involved travel. Then I figured I would take some time to have my own personal film festival at home instead. But then TCM announced that they would be doing a special at-home version of the festival and I was absolutely delighted.

From April 16-19, Turner Classic Movies will be playing a selection of notable films that have played at the festival in previous years, as well as a handful of movies that had been slated to play at this year’s festival. In a virtual press conference I was able to participate in, Charlie Tabesh, the Vice President of Programming for TCM, talked about how they worked to make this event feel more special than watching a typical weekend of movies on the channel by using existing material to enhance the experience and better create a virtual festival experience. There will also be new introductions by Ben Mankiewicz. Throughout the virtual press conference, it was apparent how much the festival means to TCM’s staffers, so I’m very excited to see how this all works together.

The full schedule is available on TCM’s website, but I wanted to highlight a few of the things I’ll definitely be tuning in for:

Metropolis screening at 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival
2010 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. 4/25/10 ph: Edward M. Pio Roda

Thursday, April 16

TCMFF typically kicks into high gear on Thursday evenings and this year is no exception. The first night of the at-home festival includes a selection of movies from the first festival in 2010, including an 8:00 PM screening of 1954’s A Star is Born, which was the big opening night film that year. It will be followed by a screening of Metropolis starting at 11:00 PM. If you haven’t seen the Luise Rainer: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival interview that was recorded before a screening of The Good Earth in 2010, it’s worth setting your DVR for.

Eva Marie Saint and Ben Mankiewicz at 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival
HOLLYWOOD, CA – APRIL 27: Actor Eva Marie Saint and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz attend the screening of ‘A Hatful of Rain’ during Day 2 of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 27, 2018 in Hollywood, California. 350620. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TCM)

Friday, April 15

This is my favorite day of programming of the festival. Since I’ll be working from home this day, I love that a lot of the movies on during the day are ones that I can be entertained by just by listening to them. At 12:30 PM, there’s A Hard Day’s Night, which is a special one for me since it’s the first movie I ever had the pleasure of seeing in the Chinese Theater during the 2014 festival. It’s followed at 2:00 PM by the Eva Marie Saint: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival interview recorded at the 2013 festival and North by Northwest at 3:00 PM. At 5:45 PM, there’s Some Like it Hot, one of my all-time favorite movies.

The prime time lineup kicks off at 8:00 PM with a screening of the documentary Harold and Lilian: A Hollywood Love Story, which had its west coast premiere at the 2016 festival. This is a very genuinely fascinating documentary about film researcher Lilian Michelson and storyboard artist Harold Michelson. If you’re a Twitter user, Raquel from Out of the Past will be hosting a live Tweet of the movie along with director Daniel Raim, so be sure to follow along.

From the late night block, my favorite is the 1:45 AM screening of Grey Gardens. I was lucky enough to be able to see this at the 2014 festival with Albert Mayseles in attendance. As a big fan of the Maysles Brothers, it was one of my all-time favorite festival experiences. At 3:15 AM, there’s a screening of 1933’s Night Flight, which isn’t a great movie, but I recommend it in this context because it’s a really good reflection of why the festival is so important for lovers of film history. Due to legal issues, Night Flight had been out of public circulation for over 50 years. But once those issues were resolved, it was able to screen at the festival in 2011, giving fans a chance to finally see it for the first time.

The Passion of Joan of Arc at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
The screening of Voices of Light: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) on Friday at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival In Hollywood, California. 04/29/2016 PH: Tyler Golden

Saturday, April 18

This morning’s line-up is a great reflection of the “discovery” types of movies that work their way into festival schedules. At 8:00 AM you have Mad Love, which played at the festival in 2019, followed by Double Harness at 9:15 AM. For those who were at the festival in 2016, Double Harness is somewhat notorious. That year, it had been scheduled to play in the smallest theater of those being used at the TCL Multiplex. Since this is the kind of festival where people can get very enthusiastic about lesser-known pre-codes, a very long line of people showed up to get into a very small theater. I distinctly remember walking by, seeing the line, and deciding the much shorter line for The Way We Were looked way more appealing. At least this time, nobody has to worry about being shut out!

At 10:30 AM, there is a half-hour block of Vitaphone shorts that were part of the 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone presentation in 2016, including one with Baby Rose Marie and Lambchops with Burns and Allen. While it’s not part of this block, I very highly recommend also checking out The Beau Brummels featuring the vaudeville duo Shaw & Lee. That one was also among the shorts shown during that presentation and it brought the house down. It remains one of my favorite festival discoveries.

After that, there are a whole lot of movies you just can’t really go wrong with, like Sergeant York at 11:00 AM, Safety Last! at 1:15 PM, and They Live By Night at 2:45 PM. I’ll also be tuning in for the Faye Dunaway: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival interview at 4:30 PM and reminiscing about how amazing it was to be there for that taping in 2016.

In prime time, you have Casablanca at 8:00 PM followed by The Magnificent Ambersons at 10:00, both of which will have introductions co-hosted by Peter Bogdonavich. As much as I love both of those movies, I may skip one of them in favor of putting on my Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc, because I know I won’t be up to catch it at 4:15 AM and I’ve been thinking of that movie a bit lately.

Julie Andrews Victor/Victoria

Sunday, April 19

At 2:00 PM is a screening of Red-Headed Woman, which was an absolute blast to see at the festival in 2017. Starting in prime time and going into the overnight block, they’ll be showing a few movies that were scheduled to play at this year’s festival, including The Hustler at 9:45 PM, Baby Face at 12:15 AM, Bardleys the Magnificent at 1:45 AM, and Victor/Victoria at 3:00 AM. Since animator Floyd Norman was set to be saluted this year, there’s also Floyd Norman: An Animated Life at 8:00 PM. Since I won’t be able to stay up for many of the things I’m most excited for in today’s line-up, I may get out my DVDs of things like Baby Face and Bardleys the Magnificent to watch them earlier in the day instead.

Other Ways to Bring the TCMFF Experience Home

The movies are just one part of the TCMFF experience. More than anything, I’ll dearly miss seeing all of the friends from all over the world that I spend time with during the festival, so I’m glad to have the official at-home festival to provide a common experience for us to share, even if we can’t share it in person this year.

Every year, there are certain places I always look forward to visiting while I’m in Hollywood for the festival. And even though I’m not able to visit them in person, I’m glad I had ways to support some of my favorite businesses and organizations from home this year.

For many TCMFF attendees, a visit to Larry Edmunds Bookshop is a must, whether it’s for their special events on Sundays during the festival or just to pick up some new books or movie posters. If there’s anything in particular you’re looking for, contact the store and they can ship it to you. You can call them at (323)463-3273 or send an email to info@larryedmunds.com.

I also love being able to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum and seeing the Lasky-DeMille Barn. This year, they’ve created an online gift shop with new and used books, some signed books, posters, note cards, DVDs, and more.

Every year, people who attend the festival often like to decorate their pass lanyards with different movie-themed pins. Many of those pins are made by Kate Gabrielle, so even though we don’t have passes to wear this year, there are still plenty of awesome pins, buttons, and other accessories that all reference classic films that you can use to jazz up your bags, jackets, and so much more.

Also, if you’d like to get a more authentic Hollywood Boulevard experience during the at-home festival, I recommend playing this song in between movies. It’s definitely a song a lot of festival attendees are very familiar with.

Will There be Other At-Home Events from TCM in the Future?

During the virtual press conference I attended, it was said that this year’s at-home edition of the TCM Classic Film Festival is something of an experiment and that audience reactions will help guide their decisions about whether or not similar events could come later on. So if this is something you really enjoy, be sure to let them know on social media or through their website.

Box Office Poison: Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer occupies a very unique place in film history. While her Hollywood career was far from prolific, it is extremely notable. Today, she is perhaps most widely remembered for being the first person to win back-to-back acting Oscars for her roles in 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld and 1937’s The Good Earth. That first Oscar win for The Great Ziegfeld came just a little over a year after she made her film debut alongside William Powell in Escapade, marking an extremely meteoric rise to stardom. But almost as quickly as her career began, it began to come to an end and in 1938, she was one of the twelve stars dubbed “Box Office Poison” by the Independent Theater Owners Association. Two years later, she left Hollywood behind.

It’s extremely difficult to talk about Luise Rainer without talking about Greta Garbo. Not only were Garbo and Rainer both under contract to MGM at the same time, Rainer was effectively brought to MGM for the purpose of turning her into a successor to Garbo.

Throughout the 1930s, Greta Garbo was one of the biggest names under contract to MGM. But she notoriously did not play the conventional movie star game. She didn’t answer fan mail or sign autographs and very rarely spoke to the press. Even though she was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and won an honorary Oscar, she never once attended a ceremony. She very rarely appeared at other industry events like film premieres. However, being such a big star also gave her the power to make life more difficult for Louis B. Mayer. Garbo fought to be paid what she knew she deserved and to have more control over the films she made.

Since Garbo played by her own rules, Mayer was interested in finding someone else who had the same type of appeal that Greta Garbo had, but who would also be more willing to do the sorts of things that movie stars typically do. When Rainer caught the attention of an MGM talent scout, Mayer thought she was exactly what he was looking for in that regard. However, this was a plan that would later completely backfire on him.

When Luise Rainer came to Hollywood in 1935, MGM got right to work trying to mold her into the image they wanted her to have. As she was originally from Austria, MGM had her work with coaches to improve her English and she made Escapade shortly after arriving in Hollywood, a remake of a film she had made while working in Europe. Even though she had starred in the original version of that movie, she only ended up starring in Escapade after Myrna Loy dropped out. But it all worked out because Rainer made a great impression on audiences and critics.

On the surface, it looked like Luise Rainer was poised to have a storybook tale of Hollywood success. But she wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of doing films in the first place and once MGM’s publicity machine kicked into high gear, she quickly started becoming uncomfortable with her new role as movie star. And with her two subsequent films, The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, and the two Oscar wins that came with them, she had become even more dissatisfied. (For more on the role MGM’s campaigning efforts played in her two wins, I highly recommend Be Kind Rewind’s video essay on the subject.)

While Garbo rarely spoke to the press, Luise Rainer would do interviews — but she didn’t make any false pretenses about loving Hollywood. Interviews weren’t her thing and neither were big industry events. She went to the Oscar ceremonies to accept her awards, but in 1938, she had to be dragged there.

When she won her Academy Award for The Good Earth, she had fully intended on staying home that night. But when Louis B. Mayer found out she would be winning that night and she wasn’t there, someone was sent to her home to get her to the ceremony. In a recap of the ceremony, Variety wrote she was, “rather hurriedly dressed in a long-sleeved pink crepe gown. She did not bother with makeup or pause to more than comb her hair.” On top of everything else, her personal life was very strained at the time. A Guardian article quotes a 1999 interview in which she explained that on the night of the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony, she had just had a fight with Clifford Odets, her husband at the time, and he had to drive her around the building three times before she had composed herself enough to go inside.

In later years, Luise Rainer would say that winning back-to-back Oscars felt like a curse for her film career because it made the studio think they could throw her in anything and she would make it work. Looking back on her career, she would often explain that at MGM, she felt like she was just another tool in the factory without any agency over the direction of her career. She longed to play people like Madame Curie and to do movies like For Whom the Bell Tolls, but she was never able to.

When she went to Louis B. Mayer and told him that her “source had dried out” and she wanted to quit, it led to an argument that involved Mayer telling her, “We made you and we can kill you.” The films she made at MGM after The Good Earth were rather lackluster and Rainer herself said of them, “…except for The Great Waltz, the stories and the ambiance was not very good. I didn’t like it, and I wanted to get back to Europe.”

1938 was the last year Luise spent at MGM and by the time the Box Office Poison ad was published, her films had indeed taken a downturn at the box office. As lavish as The Great Ziegfeld was, it still managed to make a profit for MGM. The Good Earth, while very successful, was simply too expensive to have any hope of turning a profit. Her next two films, 1937’s The Emperor’s Candlesticks and Big City, were both profitable, if not as acclaimed as her previous films. But 1938’s The Toy Wife, The Great Waltz, and Dramatic School all failed to break even. She would describe being cast in The Toy Wife as being a failed punishment because, while it wasn’t a good movie, she at least greatly enjoyed working with Melvyn Douglas. In 1940, she moved from Los Angeles to New York City and made one more movie, 1943’s Hostages, for Paramount before taking an extended break from film acting.

Luise Rainer’s career is a prime example of how powerful MGM’s approach to developing new stars could be — and how powerful the system could be if turned against a star who didn’t stay in line. However, she also acknowledged that her film career ended because she wanted it to end. In 2010, Vanity Fair invited Luise Rainer to answer the Proust Questionnaire in honor of her hundredth birthday. When asked what she considered to be her greatest achievement, she said, “I could say such and such a film or something, but I can also say that it has been to overcome situations that would make me unhappy.”

Box Office Poison: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

If there was one group of people hit particularly hard by the Box Office Poison ad of 1938, it was Hollywood’s glamour icons and Marlene Dietrich was unquestionably one of the most glamorous of them all. While now regarded as being one of the most unforgettable stars of the 1930s, the film legacy of Marlene Dietrich has greatly benefited from critical re-evaluation over time.

Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood in 1930 following the release of The Blue Angel to continue making movies with her director/mentor Josef von Sternberg at Paramount Studios. After arriving in America, Dietrich and von Sternberg made six more films together, most of which are celebrated by cinephiles today. However, initial critical reception to their films was something of a mixed bag.

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

Right out of the gate, Dietrich and von Sternberg had a smash hit with Morocco, earning Academy Award nominations for both Dietrich and von Sternberg, and breaking box office records at the Rivoli Theater in New York and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Paramount had been making big bets that Morocco would turn their new star into a huge success and it was a gamble that paid off. Morocco‘s success at the Rivoli Theater in New York even convinced Sid Grauman to reconsider his anti-Paramount sentiment and allow Morocco to have its Hollywood premiere at the Chinese Theater, making it the first time a Paramount film would have its Hollywood opening in the Chinese Theater.

Morocco was followed by 1931’s Dishonored and 1932’s Shanghai Express. Today, Shanghai Express is regarded as one of von Sternberg’s greatest masterpieces, and while some critics at the time appreciated it, others called it a trashy, mindless adventure story and some complained that Dietrich’s posing was tiresome. A critic for Vanity Fair was downright vicious in their critique of Shanghai Express, writing, “In the early days of his career, Sternberg presented…the honest American idiom of the open attack. But soon, he was cultivated by the cult…He traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, whom he has made a paramount slut. Sternberg is, by his own tokens, a man of meditation as well as action; but instead of contemplating the navel of Buddha his umbilical perseverance is fixed on the navel of Venus.” Despite the critics, Shanghai Express went on to become the top grossing picture of 1932.

Marlene Dietrich Shanghai Express

Shanghai Express may have been able to weather the critics, but Dietrich’s subsequent collaborations with von Sternberg did not. Blond Venus, The Devil is a Woman, and The Scarlet Empress were all expensive productions that were not overwhelmingly received by audiences. 1933’s The Song of Songs, Dietrich’s first Hollywood film made without von Sternberg’s direction, also failed to take the box office by storm.

Dietrich had some success at the box office again in 1936’s Desire, but even after making her last film with von Sternberg, Dietrich continued to end up in movies that were so expensive to produce, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to be profitable. The Garden of Allah, released in 1936, originally had a budget of $1.6 million, but it went over budget by $370,000, which is about how much money the movie lost.

1937’s Angel would end up being the breaking point in Dietrich’s relationship with Paramount Studios. Angel paired Dietrich with director Ernst Lubitsch and Paramount had high hopes that Angel would be a prestige picture for the studio. It was not.

Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas in Angel (1937)

By the time Angel went into production, Lubitsch was stuck in the midst of battles with the studio that made it difficult for him to give movies the highly polished touch he was famous for. When he assigned writer-producer Benjamin Glazer to work on Angel, Glazer quickly walked off the project when he realized how much control Dietrich would have. Shortly after Lubitsch took the reins, Dietrich was left coping with the death of John Gilbert, who she she had been seeing at the time.

From then on, production continued to be on the stormy side and Glazer’s concerns over Dietrich’s control proved to have merit. Lawrence Langner of the New York Theater Guild visited the set of Angel and would later tell a story about how a dispute between Dietrich and Lubitsch over a hat Lubitsch wanted Dietrich to wear led to reshoots costing $95,000. (According to some sources, the hat Greta Garbo wears in Ninotchka, the movie that redeemed her reputation after the Box Office Poison ad, is a near replica of the disputed hat from Angel. However, I’ve also seen sources that say Garbo designed the Ninotchka hat herself, so it’s difficult to tell how accurate this bit of trivia is.) Making matters worse were complaints from the Hays Office over the film’s content, leading to even more costly changes.

Upon its release, Angel actually got some praise from critics, earning positive reviews from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. However, those reviews did not help turn it into the box office darling Paramount had been hoping for. Instead, it marked the end of Dietrich’s time at Paramount with them buying out her contact for $250,000.

One of the most frustrating things about Marlene Dietrich is the fact that she often gladly bent the truth when reality didn’t fit the image she wanted to project. For a prime example of this, look no further than Maximillian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene. Over the course of Schell’s interviews with Dietrich, she makes a wide range of claims that include things that could easily be disproved through simple fact checking, such as her insistence that she didn’t have a sister, and statements that would later be contradicted when things she herself had written in private were made public. During the documentary, she insists that she didn’t really care about her career and never took it seriously. But when her daughter, Maria Riva, published her book about her mother in 1993, she included an excerpt of a letter Dietrich had written to her husband, Rudi Seber, after the Box Office Poison ad was published, which paints another picture:

“I have already used up too much time and money hoping that the studio would come up with something that could erase the ‘Box Office Poison’ but they have nothing to offer. I have been advised, discreetly, that they are willing to pay and forget it, but that for appearances, I must have a lawyer write to them, etc.

The $250,000 will keep us going for a while. Something will come up eventually, and then things will be all right again. I have to believe that Hemingway was right when he said that it did not happen only by Jo’s hand, that much came from inside me.

Here it is very expensive but you know the mentality of the studios. I don’t dare have the smell of ‘has been’ or even ‘out of work star.’ So, I’m spending what I have in order to appear very glamorous, when really I am lonely and bored and — to you I can admit it — frightened.”

Riva also recalled Dietrich making a phone call to Seber, during which she made statements along the lines of:

“Papi, we are leaving America. They say they can’t sell Dietrich films anymore. Those idiots, all idiots, of course, they can’t sell them…because they are bad — nothing to do with Dietrich. Even Garbo is on that list. The pop-eyed one, that is possible, who wants to pay money to look at her — but Hepburn? Yes, she is named, too. Not to be believed!”

“The pop-eyed one” mentioned in Riva’s recollection of this phone call seems to refer to Bette Davis, who Riva cites as being included in the Box Office Poison list. While this is inaccurate, I am willing to believe that Dietrich did privately express those general sentiments about the list.

After the failure of Angel, Dietrich packed up her dressing room at Paramount, left Hollywood behind, and set sail for a European vacation. In her book, Riva stated that, “Once in New York, my mother enjoyed herself enormously. Being ‘Box Office Poison’ might damage her fame in the ‘nickel-and-dime’ people category, but could not influence the rarefied circles she preferred to move in.” 

As tumultuous as this time was for Dietrich’s career, it was effectively the beginning of one of the most significant chapters of it. She certainly had options available to her, but one potential career pathway was one that was completely out of the question.

Back in her home in her home country of Germany, Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, desperately wanted her to come back and start appearing in German films again. Goebbels promised her that if she returned to Germany, she could be the queen of German cinema. Since Dietrich despised the Nazis, and had even been actively helping people fleeing the Nazis to get out of Europe, she refused. Instead, she started Americanizing her image, much like Greta Garbo had done after the publication of the Box Office Poison ad.

Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again

During her trip to Europe, she received an offer from Joe Pasternak to come work for Universal for a significantly lower salary than she had been receiving from Paramount. While initially reluctant to accept the offer, Josef Von Sternberg encouraged her to do it, telling her, “I made you into a goddess. Now show them you have feet of clay.” It proved to be a good career move, as her first movie at Universal was 1939’s Destry Rides Again co-starring Jimmy Stewart. Not only was it a box office success, it helped her reshape her public image.

While Destry helped revive her film career, it wouldn’t be long before Dietrich chose to use her stardom to serve a greater purpose. When the U.S. became involved in World War II, she quickly threw her time and energy into supporting the war effort. She had become an American citizen in 1939 and was actively involved in selling war bonds, volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen, and performing for Allied troops fighting overseas. She put her life in serious jeopardy by doing shows in places that brought her close to active combat areas. Billy Wilder later remarked that Dietrich spent more time at the front line than Eisenhower. In addition to her live shows, she also recorded songs as part of the Musak Project, which were intended to have a demoralizing effect on enemy troops. In recognition of her service, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1947. Dietrich considered her wartime work to be the proudest achievement of her career.

Marlene Dietrich with Allied Troops in WWII

Once the war was over, she made a few significant films, such as Stage Fright, A Foreign Affair, and Witness for the Prosecution. However, films became a less important part of her career than they had been before the war. Instead, she focused more energy on being a touring performer. She began doing live shows in 1953 and continued taking her show on the road until 1975 when she was injured after falling off of a stage. After making her final film appearance in 1979’s Just a Gigolo, she retired from public life to live in her Paris apartment.

Book vs. Movie: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

When Fast Times at Ridgemont High was released in 1982, Universal didn’t have high hopes for its success. But from its initial limited release, it grew to take on a life of its own and went on to become one of the most celebrated high school movies of all time and helped launch the careers of several actors. Fast Times was based on a book of the same name by Cameron Crowe, but while the movie has cemented its own place in film history, the book is considerably more elusive.

In the fall of 1979, 22-year-old Cameron Crowe enrolled as a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego so that he could spend a year undercover and turn his observations into a book that gave an honest look at what being a teenager at the time was really like. Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story was published in 1981 and despite the success of the movie, the book did not stick around on store shelves for very long. It hasn’t been in print since around the time the movie came out, so for fans of the movie, copies of the book are very hard to find — and typically very expensive when they can be found. I’ve long been curious to see how the book compared to the movie, so when I found a beat-up copy for a fair enough price, I couldn’t resist checking it out.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High A True Story Book Cover

As far as film adaptations of books go, Fast Times at Ridgemont High largely stays close to the source material. Some creative liberties are made, but pretty much everything that happens in the movie does happen in the book. At times, the movie follows the book closely enough to feature small details described in the book, such as some of the graffiti seen in certain scenes or the fact that Mike Damone explains his five-point plan to Mark Ratner by demonstrating with a cardboard cutout of Debbie Harry in front of a music store. And while there are scenes in the book that weren’t in the theatrical cut of the movie, some of them were filmed and included in TV edits of the movie. (As of this post being published, some of these scenes can be seen on YouTube.)

For the most part, a lot of the differences between the book and the movie aren’t hugely significant. For example, in the book, Stacy and Linda work together in an ice cream parlor, not a pizza restaurant, and Ratner and Damone had met while working at some Sea World-type park. Damone isn’t even a ticket scalper in the book version; a separate character named Randy Eddo is. But Randy Eddo is a pretty minor character in the book so combining the two characters doesn’t change a whole lot. In another minor change, nobody at Ridgemont High had cultivated the Pat Benetar look in the book. The book version mentions some people copying the look of Robin Zander from Cheap Trick, but considering that Pat Benetar is now most decidedly better remembered as a style icon of that era, it’s a change that aged well.

Spicoli’s interview dream sequence is featured in both the book and the movie, but in the book version, he’s being interviewed by Johnny Carson, not Stu Nahan. However, you can’t say they didn’t try to stick to the book on this detail. Johnny Carson was approached to be in the movie, but turned down the offer.

In some cases, there are scenes in the book that also happen in the movie, but they involve different characters. The scene where Spicoli has a pizza delivered in the middle of Mr. Hand’s class is easily one of the most famous scenes in the movie, but in the book, it’s Damone who has pizza delivered in the middle of class. Mr. Hand isn’t involved in the scene, either; the pizza is delivered during a biology class with Mr. Vargas, who is only mildly fazed by the stunt. During the movie version of the scene when a robber comes into the convenience store while Brad is working, Brad and Spicoli have a brief conversation just before the hold-up, but in the book version, Spicoli has absolutely nothing to do with this part.

One of the most interesting things about reading the book version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High is that it gives you a chance to learn more about certain character backstories in ways that the movie doesn’t get into. Linda is the biggest example of this. In the movie, Linda shows a lot of disdain for high school boys, but it comes across like her character just thinks she’s too sophisticated for them. The book explains where her loathing of high school boys comes from and that story is surprisingly dark. In junior high, Linda got into dealing drugs and partying with guys in high school, who left her in a mall parking lot one night after she overdosed. After that, she realized how immature high school boys really are and started hanging around with Stacy because she was much more straight-laced than her old friends. Charles Jefferson also plays a bigger role in the book than in the movie and has a pretty wild story that involves events like commandeering a public bus and being involved with a robbery at a Radio Shack.

Even though the movie does a good job of sticking to the book, there are some big differences in how certain storylines are carried out, such as Stacy’s pregnancy. In the book, Damone flakes out giving her a ride to the abortion clinic at the last minute, so Stacy reschedules her appointment and he flakes out on her again the second time around. The only person she is able to find who can give her a ride at the last minute is Ratner, who doesn’t catch on to why she really needs a ride until much later. After that, Stacy has an opportunity to call out some of Damone’s character flaws during a classroom exercise. Damone also later ends up working at the same ice cream parlor as Stacy, who gets promoted to manager and seems to enjoy getting to have the upper hand on him at work.

If you’re enough of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High fan that you want to feel more immersed in the world that these characters exist in, it may be worthwhile for you to track down a copy of the book. Even though the movie does follow the book pretty closely, the book does include plenty of scenes that were completely left out of the movie, like a school trip to Disneyland for Grad Night and Brad’s after-prom party. It also goes into quite a bit of detail about the student culture and social hierarchy at Ridgemont High and some of the more peripheral characters in the movie. There are also a few more characters mentioned in the book who are not featured in the movie at all, so the book might give you the wider look that you’re looking for.

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.