Box Office Poison: The Ad That Started it All

Box Office Poison 1938

In Hollywood, a catchy line can last forever. Whether it’s a line of dialogue from a movie, a clever tagline, or a statement made during an interview, those sorts of things can become permanently associated with a movie or an actor. While this is often for good — look no further than the many lists of memorable movie quotes that have been published over the years — it can also potentially be a curse. In 1938, a select group of actors and actresses would find one of those catchy lines casting a dark shadow over their careers: “box office poison.”

1938 was hardly a banner year for the American film industry. It had its notable films, but it was a very tumultuous time for studios. With World War II looming on the horizon, the political climate in Europe was beginning to interfere with foreign distribution and things weren’t much better at home, either. Box office attendance was dwindling, a fact that couldn’t solely be blamed on the economic situation at the time. The idea of going to the movies was beginning to lose its appeal to many people because they were afraid they wouldn’t get their money’s worth.

While industry insiders were desperately looking for ways to get people back into movie theaters, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) responded by putting the blame on certain film stars and the studios for paying them what ITOA considered to be inflated salaries. On May 3, 1938, ITOA published a now infamous full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter which labeled stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Kay Francis, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn, as box office poison. Harry Brandt, who wrote the ad on behalf of ITOA, criticized movie studios for putting stars, “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned, but whose box office draw is nil,” in major productions.

The “box office poison” hook was a catchy one and it quickly caught fire. For an ad that was run in a trade publication and was specifically directed at people working in the industry, the ad got a surprising amount of attention outside of that circle. Within four days of the ad’s initial publication, the story was reported on by over thirty newspapers across the country with some of those papers publishing multiple pieces about it.

Within the film industry, reactions to the article were mixed. For some, the ad became a tool to negotiate for lower salaries. Hedda Hopper wrote that the ad wasn’t exactly new information to people working in Hollywood. The stars did have their defenders, though. In some cases, agents representing stars named in the ad threatened to sue. Louella Parsons wrote, “There is nothing the matter with any of these stars that a good picture won’t cure.” On May 12, 1938, The Film Daily published an article by Chester B. Bahn, which opened with the following statements:

The Film Daily Box Office Poison

If anyone was hoping the commotion surrounding the box office poison ad would quickly die down and be forgotten, they were in for a disappointment. It was significant enough to merit a mention in Louella Parsons’ year-in-review column published on December 31, 1938. In fact, it was the first event to be mentioned in her column, ahead of other notable stories such as Jackie Coogan suing his parents for squandering the money he earned as a child actor, Clark Gable announcing he was getting a divorce to marry Carole Lombard, and Hedy Lamarr’s rise in popularity. In May 1939, Movie Mirror magazine published a “where are they now” article about the stars mentioned in the ad to investigate whether or not they really lived up to the “box office poison” moniker. The conversation continued into 1940 with Harry Brandt being forced to defend the ad a year and a half after its publication when Ed Sullivan called it an attack on the stars.

Over 80 years later, the box office poison ad now occupies its own place within film history; a very rare feat for a trade ad. With so many iconic stars from the 1930s included in it, anyone with an interest in classic Hollywood has likely heard of it. And thanks to a memorable scene in Mommie Dearest and a reference in FX’s Feud: Bette and Joaneven people with a passing knowledge of Hollywood history have a basic awareness of it.

After all these decades, the ad is still a fascinating topic to revisit. While being labeled “box office poison” became a career-defining moment for some of the stars mentioned, it barely made an impact on the legacies of others. What’s even more interesting is to examine the careers of each star mentioned in the ad to see exactly what was going on in their careers in the time leading up to the ad’s publication. Were their careers really in such bad shape or was ITOA overreacting? Might there have been other factors that led to their inclusion in the ad? This post is the first in a series where I look at just that. Stay tuned for posts about the careers of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Luise Rainer, Kay Francis, John Barrymore, Dolores del Rio, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Norma Shearer, and Edward Arnold during the year 1938 and whether or not the ad shaped their careers going forward.

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Sentimental Journey: Wartime Nostalgia & Three Christmas Classics

Judy Garland Meet Me in St. Louis

If there’s anything Christmas movies are known for, it’s for having heartwarming, sentimental themes. Of course, there are some notable exceptions out there, but those themes can be found at the core of many of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. Every holiday season, millions of people get hit with a wave of nostalgia that makes them crave the wholesome, heartfelt entertainment that Christmas movies typically have to offer. While that’s a trend that never truly goes away, it can become particularly apparent when times are difficult, such as during times of war.

During the 1940s, World War II had a profound impact on the life of every American, whether they were serving in the war or back on the homefront. As the holidays approached, people were understandably longing for past Christmases that were spent together with family and friends. Even the most lighthearted movies can be a reflection of the era in which they were produced and 1940s Christmas movies are no exception. In fact, it was a driving force that helped make some of our most cherished holiday movies and songs so popular.

Bing Crosby Singing White Christmas in Holiday Inn 1942

Holiday Inn (1942)

In 1940, Paramount Studios commissioned Irving Berlin to write a series of holiday-themed songs to use in a movie about an inn that only opened on holidays. While Holiday Inn was a box office success on its release, becoming one of the most successful movies of 1942, one of those Irving Berlin songs would go on to eclipse the movie’s success.

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling record of all time and is widely considered one of the most significant American songs ever recorded, but Crosby initially didn’t think the song was anything exceptional. In fact, it was expected that the song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from Holiday Inn‘s Valentine’s Day number would be the biggest hit from the movie’s soundtrack. But while the movie was being filmed, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and moviegoers were in a different place by the time the movie was released. “White Christmas” struck a nerve with people who wanted to go back to simpler, safer times.

Considering the resonance it had with people during World War II, its prominent use in White Christmas twelve years later was much more than just an excuse to get Bing Crosby to reprise his signature song and sell more copies of it. It was a natural choice for a movie about two World War II veterans who reunite with their commanding officer.

Meet Me in St. Louis Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Judy Garland Margaret O'Brien

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

During the golden age of Hollywood, each of the major studios had their thing they were known for. Universal had their horror movies, Warner Brothers had their gritty gangster movies, and MGM had musicals. Louis B. Mayer was very big on producing wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy and Meet Me in St. Louis is a prime example of that.

Meet Me in St. Louis follows the lives of the Smith family over the course of a year as they face an upcoming move from St. Louis to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Given the span of time the movie covers, it’s not strictly a Christmas movie, but the scene in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien is enough to make it a holiday classic.

With audiences longing to be reminded more innocent times, Meet Me in St. Louis was exactly what many moviegoers were looking for at the time, but “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” took that yearning to the next level. The version performed in the movie, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, blends a message of hope with a twinge of sadness. The original version of the song was decidedly less optimistic and included lines like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,” until director Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland and Tom Drake complained that the song was far too depressing for the scene. While the song still remains immensely popular over 70 years later, the lyrics were particularly poignant for World War II-era audiences who had been separated from their loved ones.

I'll Be Seeing You 1944 Ginger Rogers Joseph Cotten

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

Unlike “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” isn’t a song specifically about Christmas, nor was it specifically written for a movie. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was originally written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain for the play Right This Way, which closed after just fifteen performances in 1938. The play may not have been notable, but “I’ll Be Seeing You” most decidedly was. The song’s melancholy, sentimental tone helped give it a whole new life a few years later after the United States entered World War II. As the war wore on, renditions recorded by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey turned the song into an anthem for those who were missing their loved ones during the war.

Although “I’ll Be Seeing You” makes no mention of Christmas, it serves as a very fitting theme song for the 1944 movie by the same name, which does revolve around Christmas. In I’ll Be Seeing You, Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, a prisoner who has been given leave to spend the holidays with her family. On the train, she meets Sergeant Zachary Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten, who is on leave while he tries to cope with PTSD. During the holiday, the two develop a romance as they try to keep their respective secrets hidden from each other. Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday InnI’ll Be Seeing You directly involves life during World War II so using a popular song of the era as the main theme not only feels natural, it perfectly captures the bittersweet, wistful tone of the movie.

Five Favorites from my Farewell, FilmStruck Binge

November 29, 2018 has come and gone, which sadly means the wonderful streaming service FilmStruck is now officially closed. Like many of you, I’ve been spending as much time as possible over the past month trying to clear out my watchlist because once the service closed, most of the things I had saved on there wouldn’t be so easy for me to find anymore. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get my watchlist down to zero, but I did get to discover lots of new movies and revisit a few old favorites along the way. All in all, I watched over 30 new-to-me movies and while I can’t review all of them, I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorite discoveries.

Kuroneko 1968

Kuroneko (1968)

Asian film has long been one of my biggest cinematic blindspots and since there were so many Asian movies available on FilmStruck, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to try and fix that. It was a good call because Kuroneko ended up being my absolute favorite discovery.

In October, I was strongly drawn toward movies best described as “atmospheric horror,” so when I saw that phrase in the description for Kuroneko, it went straight into my watchlist. I was completely captivated by this one. The cinematography is nothing less than magnificent. It’s truly haunting and I look forward to including this in my future Halloween horror movie marathons.

Cluny Brown

Cluny Brown (1946)

Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors so I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see one of his movies that isn’t officially available on DVD. It’s a delightful little movie and while I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite Lubitsch movies, it was very good and gave me a newfound appreciation for Jennifer Jones. I’ve seen many Jennifer Jones movies, but I never really had a strong opinion of her as an actress. I never disliked her, but I never made a point to see a movie because of her, either. But in Cluny Brown, Lubitsch brought out a very delightful side to her that I hadn’t seen before. I really would have loved to have seen her in more movies like this.

Black Lizard 1968

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard is another movie I’m glad I was able to see on FilmStruck since it’s not available on DVD. It’s a campy, highly stylized, jazzy tale of a jewel thief, played by famed Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama. It’s extremely entertaining and completely my style.

True Stories 1986

True Stories (1986)

I hadn’t heard much about True Stories until the Criterion Collection announced they’d be releasing a DVD/Blu-ray of it and several people who I know to have good taste in movies were really excited about it. So, luckily for me, this came up on the Criterion Channel just before the service shut down. I’m always happy to see John Goodman in a movie and when you add a great soundtrack and David Byrne’s unique style, this was bound to be a hit with me. Brilliantly funny and perfectly offbeat.

Deux Hommes dans Manhattan

Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (1959)

One of the biggest regrets I have about my Farewell, FilmStruck binge is that I didn’t watch more Jean-Pierre Melville movies. I got into Le Samourai maybe a year and a half ago and after seeing When You Read This Letter at TCMFF this year, I’ve really been wanting to see more of Melville’s work. But I did at least get to see Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan, which isn’t as strong as Le Samourai, but still enjoyable. I have a soft spot for movies that really make the most of the scenery in a city and this one has tons of beautiful footage of 1950s New York City.

Honorable Mention: King Kong (1933)

During my Farewell, FilmStruck binge, I largely tried to focus on movies I hadn’t seen before and movies that aren’t commercially available elsewhere. While King Kong most definitely wasn’t a new movie to me, it was one of the first things I knew I needed to watch before the service shut down.

One of the best things about FilmStruck is the fact that they added bonus features for many of the movies, like old TCM introductions and audio commentaries. In the case of King Kong, they didn’t just have an audio commentary, they had the very first audio commentary ever recorded for the Criterion Collection’s 1984 King Kong Laserdisc release. Criterion never released King Kong in any other formats, so this particular feature has been out-of-print for at least 20 years. The commentary was by Ron Haver, who knew Merian C. Cooper very well and provided a lot of excellent insights about the production of the movie and made me feel like I was getting to see it in a whole new light.

So long, FilmStruck. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to turn it into the coolest streaming service I have ever used. It really was the closest any streaming service has ever gotten to recreating the experience of walking into an independent video store and being able to discover movies mainstream stores just didn’t have.

Mansfield 66/67 (2017)

Mansfield 66/67

In Hollywood, blonde bombshells don’t always have the longest lifespans. Many of the most popular blonde actresses of all time have died young under tragic circumstances, from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Jayne Mansfield. On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in a car accident at the age of 34 while she was on her way to an appearance in New Orleans. While this might seem like a pretty straightforward cause of death, there are long-standing rumors that she had actually died as the result of a curse by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Jayne Mansfield catapulted to stardom in the 1950s thanks to her figure, her Marilyn Monroe-esque image, and her unrelenting love of publicity stunts. But as American culture shifted into the 1960s, the whole image and style of glamour embodied by Mansfield began to fall out of favor. However, her desire for attention hadn’t even begun to be satisfied and she started actively trying to keep up with the changing times by doing things like hanging out on the Sunset Strip and any place else where she would be photographed. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Anton LaVey was just as hungry for publicity as Jayne and was eager to bring more celebrity followers into the Church of Satan. When Jayne decided to crash the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, she ended up meeting Anton LaVey and it was the beginning of a match made in publicity stunt hell.

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Over the course of their relationship, Jayne and Anton were repeatedly photographed together, both in Jayne’s infamous Pink Palace home and in Anton’s Black House in San Francisco. Of course, this got people talking. Was Jayne Mansfield really a practicing Satanist? Were Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey having an affair? The big rumor is that Sam Brody, Jayne’s boyfriend/lawyer at the time, got on the bad side of Anton and he put a curse on Brody, warning him that he would die in a car crash. Supposedly, Anton told Jayne to stay away from Sam, but she didn’t listen. Brody was indeed killed in that car accident along with Jayne and in the time leading up to that fatal accident, he had been involved in multiple other car accidents.

The 2017 documentary Mansfield 66/67 explores the rumors surrounding Jayne Mansfield’s association with the Church of Satan and the role it may or may not have had in her untimely death. Since so much of what we know about the life of Jayne Mansfield comes from media coverage, it can be difficult to know what exactly is real and what just sounds good. Mansfield 66/67 never pretends to have any definitive answers. It describes itself as being “A true story based on rumor and hearsay,” which is a completely accurate description of it. But even if it doesn’t draw any conclusions, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

Mansfield 66/67 takes a very campy and playful approach to the subject, complete with dance numbers, animation, and a theme song performed by Donna Loren. It features interviews with a mix of cultural commentators and celebrities, including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Tippi Hedren, Mary Woronov, and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger. Everyone has their own theories about who Jayne really was, what happened between her and Anton LaVey, and how active she was in the Church of Satan. I watched the documentary a few times because it was so fun and the whole legend of this story is just so wild. We’ll never know the full truth, but who needs the truth when the legend is this fascinating?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, Mansfield 66/67 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download.

Raiders of the Lost Films: Madame Sans-Gene (1925)

Madame Sans Gene Poster 1925

“Madame was the greatest star of them all.” While this line from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard is a reference to the character of Norma Desmond, it certainly also applies to the actress playing Norma Desmond: Gloria Swanson.  Gloria wasn’t the first movie star to become an international celebrity, but she was unquestionably one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. Between Sunset Boulevard and her career working in silent films, she is forever tied to the public’s image of silent film stars. Out of all the box office hits she made during her career, none of them reflects how big of a star she was at the height of her fame like 1925’s Madame Sans-Gêne.

By 1925, Gloria had reached a tipping point in her career. Her work in Cecil B. DeMille costume dramas had made her a megastar years earlier, but as her costumes got more elaborate and her hairstyles got more complicated, she eventually got tired of her clothes horse image and decided to move on from DeMille to focus more on more character-driven projects. Breaking a successful formula is always a gamble, but it paid off for her in spades and movies like Zaza and Manhandled made her an even bigger star. But the weight of being such a big star was starting to become too much.

While she was working on 1924’s Her Love Story, she was also busy plotting her next career move. Her first choice was to star in Paramount’s adaptation of Peter Pan and was livid that it hadn’t already been offered to her. She was on the verge of heading to London so she could personally speak to J.M. Barrie and make her case for playing Peter Pan when she heard about a play by the name of Madame Sans-Gêne, which a friend thought she might be interested in getting the film rights to.

Madame Sans-Gêne was first described to Gloria as being about, “A washerwoman who is elevated to nobility by Napoleon.” Hardly an exciting summary, but it really is the most succinct way to put it. Gloria wasn’t impressed, but she trusted her friend’s judgement and asked him to read the play aloud to her. Despite the underwhelming  summary, she loved the play and thought it was well-written and funny. As she and her friend discussed the project further, they agreed that such a beloved French story needed a French director and to be filmed on location in the same places Napoleon had actually lived.

With Peter Pan and Madame Sans-Gêne in mind, Gloria made arrangements to visit London and Paris so she could put her ideas into motion. Shortly after arriving in London, Gloria’s pursuit of Peter Pan came to an end when J.M. Barrie announced Betty Bronson was to play Peter Pan. Disappointed but not deterred, Gloria simply put all of her focus on Madame Sans-Gêne and headed on to Paris, where she was set to meet with film critic Andre Davin and Adolphe Osso, head of the European division of Paramount. Davin was very enthusiastic and supportive of her ideas for Madame Sans-Gêne, being particularly optimistic about her chances of being able to film on location. Osso, on the other hand, was considerably less confident.  He thought an American would never be able to get the rights to such a distinctly French story and even if she did get that far, she would never be able to film on location, noting that Germany’s UFA studio had tried to get permission to film on those very same historic locations several times before without success.

Gloria Swanson Madame Sans-Gene 1925

Once Davin wrote a glowing article about Gloria’s plans for Madame Sans-Gêne, Osso was proven wrong — quite overwhelmingly — and Paramount quickly agreed to let Gloria have anything she wanted to make this movie happen. She got the French director she wanted, Leonce Perret, and permission to film on the locations she had her heart set on, including Fontainebleu and La Malmaison. To add some icing to the cake, she hired Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Coudraye to act as something of a chauffeur/translator/personal assistant. Although he had a title, Henri did not have much money but he had enough influence and connections to help the production continue running smoothly. Before long, he would also become Gloria’s third husband.

By the time Madame Sans-Gêne was set to premiere in the United States, there was enough drama surrounding it to merit its own movie. Shortly before she arrived in the States, she started suffering complications from an abortion she didn’t want to have and only did so because of the morality clause in her contract with Paramount. As she lay gravely ill in a Paris hospital, the media was hard at work keeping fans up to date about her condition.  On top of it all, Paramount executives were putting pressure on her to recover quickly so she could travel to the United States and promote the movie. Even once she arrived in the States, she was still completely exhausted and just wanted to rest, but she carried on. Adding to the drama was the fact that she was no longer just Hollywood royalty, she had a real title. Her recent marriage had officially made her the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye and her fans couldn’t wait to see her and her new husband.

Madame Sans-Gêne had its first gala premiere at the Trivoli Theater in New York City on April 17, 1925. Thousands of fans lined the streets, causing traffic problems. Those who spent $5 ($73.30 adjusted for inflation) for tickets to the big event had to be escorted into the theater by the police because of the huge crowds. Gloria and Henri invited the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia to attend as their guests, but the police were so focused on protecting Gloria and Henri that the Grand Duke and Duchess were effectively left to fend for themselves and ended up entering the theater with torn and mussed clothing. The theater itself was decked out in French and American flags. The New York Times described the movie as being a secondary affair, as about half the theater was more interested in seeing Gloria in person. However, the New York premiere was a mere warm-up for the one that would come in Hollywood.

From New York, Gloria and her husband boarded a train for Chicago before heading on to Los Angeles, making stops along the way to greet adoring fans. Once she finally made her way to Los Angeles, the city pretty much shut down for her. Hollywood has certainly seen its share of major film-related events over the years, but the premiere of Madame Sans-Gêne and Gloria’s arrival for it makes the Oscars seem like a quiet, understated affair.

Two years had passed since Gloria was last in the state of California and a veritable who’s who of the film industry was waiting to greet her at the train station. Naturally, lots of big names from her home studio of Paramount were there to welcome her back, including Cecil B. DeMille and Rudolph Valentino. Since United Artists had been trying to convince her to join them, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith were all there. Bebe Daniels, Mack Sennett, Charley Chase, and Frank Borzage were just a few more of the familiar faces in the crowd that day. And, just for good measure, the Mayor of Los Angeles and two brass  bands were also there. Hedda Hopper wrote that schools had been closed for the day. Edith Head recalled Paramount Studios being shut down so their employees could be part of it all. And, of course, there were more traffic jams as thousands more fans waited in the streets to see her.

Madame Sans Gene Napoleon movie 1925

Madame Sans-Gêne premiered in Los Angeles on April 24th at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater and it was a night that Swanson would go on to call the most unforgettable night of her life. In several interviews, including her interview for Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood documentary series, she recalled the incredible feeling of walking into the theater, having a spotlight directed onto her, and hearing the orchestra start playing “Home Sweet Home.” Colleen Moore was at the premiere and later said of that moment, “There was Gloria in a shimmering white gown coming down the aisle on the arm of her handsome, titled husband. They looked like the king and queen of some mythical Balklan kingdom.” Adela Rogers St. John said of the event, “I saw men standing on their seats, waving their arms, other women tearing off their orchids and flinging them into the aisle for Gloria Swanson to walk on —  and I saw Mack Sennett frankly wiping the tears from his proud face.”

Once she made her way to her seat, she was right between Cecil B. DeMille and Mack Sennett. But once the movie began, the night was over for her. To avoid the crowd, she was ushered out the theater’s back exit. As she headed home with her entourage, Gloria was remarkably quiet. When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m only twenty-six. What’s left? How can I top it?” On top of that, she was dealing with a lot of guilt over the abortion she’d had and was truly feeling like studio heads only saw her as a way to make money for themselves.

While the night was certainly unforgettable for Gloria, the movie itself was less noteworthy to critics. Critics generally had good notes about Gloria’s performance and the authentic French locations didn’t go unappreciated, but reviews were pretty mixed. In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall wrote, “Aside from Miss Swanson’s performance and possibly that of the roles of Napoleon and La Rousette, the characterization that is obtainable on the stage is lacking on the screen. Somehow the players are pleasant but rather flat.” There were also criticisms of the story, which Gloria attributed to cuts Paramount made to the film. She didn’t care for those cuts, either, and an uncut version of the movie was released in France.

Despite the mixed reviews, Madame Sans-Gêne was a box office success. At the Trivoli Theater alone, it brought in $41,000 ($601,744.13 adjusted for inflation) in its first week, breaking the previous house record set by Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. It played around the country to great success in a road show format, where attendees received a commemorative program and coin with Gloria’s face on it.

After Madame Sans-Gêne, Gloria still had four movies left on her contract at Paramount and it was time for her to seriously start thinking about the future again. United Artists eventually won out in convincing her to leave Paramount behind and become an independent artist for them. Not only did she like the prospect of having full creative control over her projects, she’d had enough of Paramount meddling in her personal life, and she didn’t want to risk becoming replaceable at Paramount. However, being an independent filmmaker proved to be more challenging than Gloria anticipated.

The United Artists era of Gloria Swanson’s career yielded some triumphs, but also some considerable setbacks. 1928’s Sadie Thompson and 1929’s The Trespasser were hits at the box office and her performances in both films earned Academy Award nominations. However, The Trespasser would be her last box office success until Sunset Boulevard was released over twenty years later. Her first film for United Artists, 1927’s The Love of Sunya, was a box office disappointment and in between Sadie Thompson and The Trespasser, she made the infamously disastrous Queen Kelly, which was never finished and went unseen for decades. As the 1930s progressed, her film appearances became less frequent. By the decade’s end, she had moved away from Hollywood and was focusing her attention on a company she’d created for the purpose of helping scientists and inventors escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Over the years, all known prints of Madame Sans-Gêne, both in its French and American versions, disappeared. The earliest reference I could find to Madame Sans-Gêne being a lost film was in a 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. In her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Gloria had this to say about her lost films:

“…Many of my early pictures have been shown at film festivals around the world. Each time this happens, the same sad questions are always asked: Does anyone know of a print anywhere of Beyond the Rocks, the film Rudy Valentino made with me in 1921? Can anyone locate a print of Madame Sans-Gêne? Does anyone have a complete copy, including the last reel, of Sadie Thompson?

I would love to see them again and know they’re not lost forever. That, after all, was supposed to be the great virtue of pictures — that they would last forever.”

Swanson on Swanson was published in 1980 and, sadly, many of these same questions can still be asked today. A print of Beyond the Rocks was found in 2003, but the final reel of Sadie Thompson is still lost and the only glimpse we have of Madame Sans-Gêne is its trailer. Perhaps someday, Gloria will be proven right and the world will be able to see Madame Sans-Gêne once again. While many of her films still exist, the loss of Madame Sans-Gêne leaves a large hole in the filmography of one of the silent era’s greatest stars.

Defined by Divorce: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee, and The Women

Norma Shearer

By the late 1920s, Norma Shearer was one of MGM’s top actresses; consistently starring in films that were popular with the critics and successful at the box office. After facing setbacks in the early days of her career, she had become a bona fide star, proving show business dignitaries like D.W. Griffith and Florenz Ziegfeld wrong when they said she would never succeed as an actress. When she married producer Irving Thalberg in 1927, the two became one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples. But Norma Shearer always had a vision for life and her career and she knew it was time for a change.

Now that she was on top, she wasn’t about to let her image grow stale. She’d survived the transition from silents to talkies, but she needed to do more to keep audiences interested. Shearer was eager to shake up her image by playing a new kind of modern woman; not quite the personification of youth as flappers were, but a more sophisticated, independent adult woman who broke with traditional values and mores. Irving Thalberg, on the other hand, had a different path in mind for his wife’s career. The theater world had stars like Ethel Barrymore and Lynn Fontanne and Thalberg wanted Norma Shearer to have that kind of grand stature and respectability and he didn’t think those types of roles would bring her to that level. However, Shearer wasn’t the type to just give into her husband’s ideas when it came to her career.

Norma Shearer Chester Morris The Divorcee

When MGM bought the rights to the bestselling novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrot, Shearer knew it was just the project she was looking for. The title was changed to The Divorcee for the film version and Shearer made it her mission to land the part of Jerry, a woman who divorces her husband when she discovers his double standards regarding fidelity. Shearer later said that Jerry was, “Very strong, almost ruthless…she was perfect for me.”

Thalberg wasn’t so sure. He didn’t think Shearer was glamorous or sensual enough for the part. Undeterred, Shearer made an appointment with a then-unknown photographer by the name of George Hurrell to have some boudoir style photos taken. Shearer walked into Hurrell’s studio completely focused on proving to Thalberg that she could handle the role of Jerry. When Thalberg saw the photos from the session, he was impressed and the role was hers.

Taking on The Divorcee was a big gamble, but it paid off in spades. When it was released in 1930, it became an immediate success. Audiences loved Shearer in this kind of role and when the Academy Award nominations were announced, Shearer landed two Best Actress nominations — one for The Divorcee, the other for Their Own Desire. It was The Divorcee that would make Shearer an Oscar winner, elevating her to a whole new level of stardom. Her marriage to Thalberg may have made her the First Lady of MGM, but her Oscar win cemented her status as Queen of the Lot.

Norma Shearer Oscar

Throughout the pre-code era, Shearer would go on to play many other independent women who challenged societal conventions. In Let Us Be Gay, she played another woman who left her cheating husband and became a notorious woman of affairs. Her character in Strangers May Kiss wasn’t interested in marriage. 1931’s A Free Soul gave Shearer the chance to play the free-spirited daughter of a lawyer who becomes infatuated with a gangster played by Clark Gable. These sorts of films were provocative, but didn’t push audiences too far. Her characters took a walk on the wild side, but in the end, realized that lifestyle wasn’t right for them.

When the pre-code era came to an end in 1934, Shearer once again had to change gears and she moved into the “noble woman/prestige picture” era of her career, starring in lavish, big budget pictures featuring other top-tier talent. She’d become a grand dame of Hollywood like Thalberg had wanted her be, but she reached that level on her own terms and the next few films of her career would also be on her terms. Thalberg made it possible for her to star in Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette when she expressed an interest in doing so. But after Thalberg passed away in 1936, maintaining that level of autonomy over her career became more difficult.

While 1939’s The Women has gone one to become one of the most celebrated comedies of the 1930s, when viewed in the context of Shearer’s career and of her role as MGM’s Queen of the Lot, it actually reflects her waning power at the studio. The Women is far from being a bad movie; it’s the last truly great movie of Shearer’s career. But was Mary Haines one of the most fulfilling roles Shearer played in her career? No.

The Women 1939 Shearer Goddard

By the time The Women went into production, Norma Shearer was entering an uncertain stage in her career. Romeo and Juliet was the last movie of hers Thalberg oversaw before his death and he had put the wheels in motion for her to do Marie Antoinette before he passed away. The movies she made in 1939, Idiot’s Delight and The Women, were the first ones she’d made in a long time without Thalberg on her side. Even though she was a force to be reckoned with, so was Irving Thalberg and now that he was gone, Shearer simply didn’t have as much power as she used to.

Despite the fact that The Women is one of Shearer’s most enduring movies, it’s not a movie she was ever interested in making. While she described Jerry in The Divorcee as strong and almost ruthless, she thought Mary Haines was a boring character and initially turned it down. But after Louis B. Mayer found out about her short-lived affair with Mickey Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer.

If you’re familiar with Shearer’s pre-code era films, it’s easy to understand why she found Mary Haines so dull. In both The Women and The Divorcee, Shearer plays happily married, well-to-do women who discover their husbands are cheating on them. In the end, both women choose to reconcile with their husbands. But because of the production code, Jerry and Mary aren’t able to react to that news in the same way. When Jerry tells her husband about her own affair, she is outraged by her husband’s hypocrisy, divorces him, and sets out to carry on as many affairs as she wants to. Mary, on the other hand, is literally railroaded into a divorce she doesn’t want.

The Women is based on a successful stage play so it wasn’t intended to be a remake of The Divorcee, but it’s the closest anyone was going to get to doing one in the production code era. Here, Shearer was being asked to play a role that had quite a bit in common with one of her greatest career triumphs, but that was totally devoid the material that made Jerry such an interesting character. Mary Haines may have had two years to grow claws — Jungle Red — but she’s a completely declawed version Jerry. By lobbying to play Jerry in The Divorcee, Shearer was taking control of her career. By feeling obligated to play Mary Haines in The Women, she was beginning to lose control.

On the surface, The Women hardly seems like the sort of movie any movie star should feel disappointed to have been a part of. It features a cavalcade of some of the best female talent MGM had to offer, the great George Cukor directed it, it had a first-rate script, and Adrian created an astonishing wardrobe for the film’s characters. This was a major production; a far cry from the low-budget films some of Shearer’s contemporaries would later make when they were nearing the ends of their careers. But that doesn’t mean Shearer didn’t suffer several indignities during its production.

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

Another reason Shearer wasn’t interested in being in The Women is because she knew there was a good chance she could be upstaged and those fears weren’t exactly without merit. During that era, stars of Shearer’s magnitude would pride themselves in being able to command top billing in credits and on theater marquees, posters, and other promotional materials. They were considered to be “above the title” and that kind of prestige was reflected in their contracts. But one of the downsides to being in a movie that features so many other talented actresses is that those other actresses aren’t going to be content with being left out of the billing. Joan Crawford was a major star in her own right and fought to get her name up there alongside Shearer’s, so Shearer ended up being forced to share billing with her professional rival. As production continued and it became clear that Rosalind Russell was stealing a lot of scenes, she also fought to get her name up there and Shearer eventually had a third actress to share top billing with, although Rosalind Russell’s name takes up less space on the posters than Shearer’s and Crawford’s.

Having to share the screen with Joan Crawford also wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience for Norma, either. Crawford had long felt that Shearer was given preferential treatment and first pick of all the best roles because of her marriage to Thalberg. The rivalry between the two was played up during the production to generate buzz in the gossip columns. While Shearer filmed her close-ups for the big dressing room confrontation scene, Crawford was sitting off camera, knitting as she read her lines back to Shearer; a move that would have been extremely unprofessional and disrespectful to do to any actor, let alone one of Norma’s stature. Eventually, Shearer got so fed up with Crawford’s antics that she asked Cukor to read the lines to her instead of Crawford.

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

Although The Women is an immensely quotable film, unfortunately for Shearer, most of the film’s most memorable lines went to other actresses. In many cases, Shearer’s lines set up jokes, witty remarks, and biting comebacks for Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, or Paulette Goddard to deliver. So even though Shearer gets top billing, it ultimately feels like her character is a springboard that gives other actresses a chance to shine.

Even though The Women performed respectably well at the box office, it wasn’t enough for MGM to recoup the costs of production, continuing a trend of Shearer’s movies losing money. Romeo and Juliet was her first 1930s film to lose money and the extravagant production costs of Marie Antoinette made it another loss for MGM. Idiot’s Delight also lost money, making it one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. 1940’s Escape was Norma’s last film to turn a profit; her final two films, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover, both also failed to break even.

After openly declaring that she wasn’t interested in playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and turning down roles in Mrs. Miniver and Now, Voyager, Shearer retired from film in 1942. During the 1980s and 1990s, Shearer’s legacy was effectively rescued by home video. Thanks to home video, many of the films she made during the pre-code era became readily available to the general public for the first time in decades, giving people the chance to see her career in a new light. In the time between her retirement and the advent of home video, Shearer became most closely associated with the “noble woman/prestige picture” stage of her career. The Women, Marie Antoinette, and Romeo and Juliet were the movies of hers that would most commonly be shown on television or at revival screenings, not The Divorcee or A Free Soul, leaving many people with a very incomplete picture of her career. Even though she won an Academy Award for her work in The Divorcee, many were under the impression that Mary Haines was a more typical Norma Shearer role than Jerry.

The fact that The Women went on to be regarded as a genuine classic, one of the highlights of Hollywood’s golden year, did nothing to help soften Shearer’s opinion of the role over time. When author Gavin Lambert was interviewing Shearer for his biography on her, she told him that of all the movies she made with director George Cukor, the only one she ever cared to see again was Romeo and Juliet.

In the end, the career of Norma Shearer was largely defined by divorce. Playing a divorcee in one film was the first bookend of her era as a Hollywood megastar while playing a divorcee in another signaled the end of her reign as MGM’s Queen of the Lot.

TCMFF 2018, Day 4: Settling Down

After a few days of running on all cylinders during TCMFF, by the time Sunday comes around, I’m always ready to slow things down a little bit. This was definitely a very leisurely day for me; I only ended up going to 3 different events.

On Sunday mornings, not only do you have the first block of movies to choose from, there’s always something cool going on over at Larry Edmunds Bookshop. In the past, Larry Edmunds has hosted book signings with people like Shirley Jones and Tippi Hedren on Sunday mornings and I’ve always wanted to one of their events, but I’ve never been able to get over there. So when they announced that this year’s special Sunday guest would be with Marsha Hunt, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

Marsha Hunt Eddie Muller

Getting to spend a morning with Marsha Hunt was nothing less than an honor. She’s such a remarkable woman and to be able to hear her talk about her life and career was a real treat. It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to hear about Hollywood blacklisting who experienced it firsthand. It was particularly amazing to have the chance to see her in the bookstore because it was a setting that made the event feel so personal. Marsha was joined by two people who know her very well, Eddie Muller and Roger C. Memos, director of the documentary Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity. I’ve been hearing great things about this documentary for a while now, so I was very excited that we were able to see a few clips from it during the event. I definitely hope to be able to see the whole thing in the future.

Since Marsha had turned 100 a few months before the festival, we also had the opportunity to have some cake with her and sing happy birthday. The cake was absolutely delicious, making an already incredible event even better.

Astaire Silk Stockings

After my trip to Larry Edmunds, I had a little bit of a break before catching my next movie: Silk Stockings. A musical with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse is the sort of lighthearted entertainment I typically like on a Sunday afternoon. I wouldn’t say Silk Stockings is one of my all-time favorite musicals, but it’s still the sort of movie I like to revisit every once in a while just because I have such a big soft spot for splashy technicolor musicals and because I love Fred and Cyd so much. It’s definitely a fun movie to see in a theater. The print we saw was a new digital print, which looked absolutely fantastic.

1937 A Star is Born

For my last movie of the festival, I finally got to catch one of the nitrate print screenings at the Egyptian. It had been a very long time since I’d seen the 1937 version of A Star is Born and it was great to finally see it again. It was much funnier than I had remembered it being and the nitrate print was absolutely stunning. Even though I’ve seen plenty of movies that feature famous locations in Hollywood, it was very cool to be able to see shots like the forecourt of the Chinese Theater while sitting down the street from the Chinese Theater. William Wellman Jr. was on hand to discuss the movie before the screening, talking about things like the real-life people and events that inspired the film and how his father fought to make the film.

And with that, my fifth trip to the TCM Film Festival came to an end. As always, I had an amazing time and I came home with a lot of great memories. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!