As we talk about the infamous Box Office Poison ad from 1938, it’s important to remember that the ad wasn’t solely based on movies released in 1938. The ad itself was published on May 3, 1938, so while movies released in early 1938 were certainly considered, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) also considered movies released a year or two earlier. And for some of the stars who were dubbed “Box Office Poison” in the ad, behind-the-scenes factors that may have contributed to their inclusion in that list happened well before the ad was published.
On September 14, 1936, MGM was suddenly thrown into a very uncertain position when Irving Thalberg, the studio’s former head of production, passed away at the age of 37. Thalberg’s death shook the entire film industry, but for several of the stars who were labeled “Box Office Poison,” it was the loss of a mentor who had played a pivotal role in shaping their careers. Some sources have said Greta Garbo was more upset by the death of Irving Thalberg than she was by the death of John Gilbert, who had also died in 1936. To Norma Shearer, it was also the loss of her husband and the father of her children.
Known as “The Boy Wonder,” Thalberg had built a stellar reputation for having genuine gifts for storytelling and film production at a remarkably young age. By the age of 24, Thalberg was MGM’s vice president in charge of production and it wasn’t even his first time being a top producer at a movie studio. Before meeting Louis B. Mayer, Thalberg had worked for Carl Laemmle as the head of production at Universal, where he was faced with daunting task of bringing Erich von Stroheim productions under control.
Just a few years after joining MGM, Thalberg’s work had helped turn it into the most successful studio in Hollywood. Under Thalberg’s guidance, the MGM produced some of the most significant movies of the silent film era, including The Crowd, The Big Parade, Ben-Hur, and Flesh and the Devil. Throughout the 1930s, MGM continued to thrive and Thalberg’s resume grew even more impressive with the additions of movies like Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, and A Night at the Opera.
While Thalberg produced many noteworthy, critically acclaimed films during his career, not all of them were winners at the box office and that often put him at odds with Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was in charge of the creative side of MGM and Mayer was in charge of the business side and they often had differences of opinion about which movies the studio should be making. Thalberg certainly understood that MGM was a business and therefore needed to make money. But he also believed in occasionally taking a chance on projects that pushed boundaries or had artistic merit, even if he knew they might not be profitable. He insisted on making Tod Browning’s Freaks despite the objections of other executives. When King Vidor approached MGM about making the all-black musical Hallelujah, Thalberg recognized the value in it when Mayer and Nick Schenck didn’t. The Broadway Melody, a movie Thalberg intended as a low-budget experiment, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Mayer, on the other hand, hated the words “prestige picture.” Not only did he know prestige pictures were very likely to lose money, he just wasn’t a fan of the more artistic type movies. Irving Thalberg may have liked movies like The Crowd, but it was a far cry from the glossy, idealized view of American life Mayer preferred and would later become the studio’s signature style. The profit and acclaim earned by The Crowd did nothing to change Mayer’s opinion of the movie.
Thalberg and Mayer were both driven to create great movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they had the exact same approach to making them. MGM had earned the nickname of “Retake Alley” because of Thalberg’s famous willingness to reshoot scenes until they were just right, sometimes at great expense. He would put a lot of focus on casting and developing scripts. When the Marx Brothers came to MGM after their career began to flounder at Paramount, Thalberg helped bring their movies in a new direction and took the approach of allowing them to try new material for A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races out on the stage to figure out what worked and what didn’t. When Thalberg died, MGM didn’t really know what to do with the Marx Brothers and didn’t give them the kind of freedom Thalberg had to develop new movies. Groucho was later quoted as saying, “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them, but the fun had gone out of picture making.”
During Irving Thalberg’s funeral, it’s said that one executive commented to another, “They won’t miss him today or tomorrow or six months from now or a year from now. But two years from now, they’ll begin to feel the squeeze.” At the time of his death, Thalberg had several projects either actively in production or still in development and MGM’s remaining producers were left to figure out how to move forward with them — or if they would move forward with them at all. Some of those movies involved stars who would later be named “Box Office Poison” and will be discussed more in future posts. But trying to carry out Irving Thalberg productions without his unique vision or innate knack for storytelling wasn’t easy. The remark about how the studio wouldn’t really miss Thalberg until two years later was almost prophetic with the timing of the Box Office Poison ad.