Hi, I'm Angela and I'm a devoted classic film fan from Detroit. I have a Bachelor's degree in Television Production. While I was at school learning how to produce TV shows and movies, I realized that I also have a great love for writing about movies. After being out of school for a while, I really started to miss writing about movies so I started my blog, The Hollywood Revue. I primarily focus on movies from movies ranging from the silent era through the 1970s. Although I may occasionally foray into the world of more modern movies if I feel like it.
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Grand Hotel holds a very unique place in film history. It’s credited with popularizing the concept of the all-star ensemble cast. It has the distinction of being the only movie to ever win the Best Picture Academy Award without being nominated in any other category. It was the first time Lionel and John Barrymore appeared in a movie together. And it’s the movie where Greta Garbo delivered the infamous line, “I want to be alone,” which remains one of the most famous movie quotes of all time.
In addition to all of that, Grand Hotel has also been a successful stage play. Both the movie and the play were based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 hit novel Menschen im Hotel. So how does the book compare to the movie?
Book & Movie Differences
On the whole, the film version of Grand Hotel isn’t hugely different from the book. There are differences to be found, but a lot of them are pretty minor. Some of the more significant changes involve the timeline of events. For example, Garbo’s Grusinskaya checks out of the hotel at the very end of the film, but she leaves about a third of the way into the book. And Flaemmchen, played by Joan Crawford, is introduced very early in the movie, but she doesn’t come into the book until quite a bit later. In the book, Preysing (played by Wallace Beery in the film) doesn’t even actually need to have Flaemmchen working for him at all because he finds out that the business talks in Manchester had broken off before she was brought on to help; he just kept moving forward in an attempt to save face. The same thing happens in the movie, but Preysing gets the news after Flaemmchen has already started working for him.
In the movie, all of the action happens either within the hotel or in the area immediately outside of the hotel, but the book gives some of the characters a chance to get out and explore a bit more. A good part of the book covers Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore in the film) and Gaigern (John Barrymore in the movie) going out on the town doing things like getting a new suit for Kringelein, driving fast in a car, going up in an airplane, watching a boxing match, and going to a gambling house. Even though this is a notable part of the book, a lot of that is reduced to one sentence in the movie. The book also spends more time with Gusinskaya at her ballet performances and covers Gaigern going to one of her shows to learn more about her routine. It also covers Kringelein and Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone in the film) attending one of her sparsely-attended performances.
The book also gives you the chance to spend some time with some of the characters in ways you don’t get to in the movie, which helps you understand them better. We learn more about why, exactly, Kringelein was so determined to spend his remaining days living in luxury. Preysing is painted more clearly as being a respected family man going off the rails. In the case of Grusinskaya, it describes her sitting in her dressing room after a performance like a boxer after a fight, follows her as she roams through the streets of Berlin after walking out of a performance, and details the relationship she has with her body.
It’s been said that Greta Garbo was reluctant to play Grusinskaya in the film version of Grand Hotel because she thought she was too old for the part. But when you read the book, you realize that Garbo was actually much too young. In the book, we learn that Grusinskaya has an eight-year-old grandchild. Many mentions are made about the signs of aging on her skin and Gaigern notes that she has scars from a facelift. On a related note, Gaigern is described is being younger than John Barrymore was when he made the film.
Is the Book Worth Reading?
For the most part, I enjoyed the book. As I said, the movie follows the book pretty well, but the book is just different enough to make it feel like you’re getting something new from it. But with that said, I know the movie version of Grand Hotel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and even if you do like the movie, the book can drag at times.
The fact that we get to spend more time with individual characters works well at times and not so well at others. I loved the parts about Grusinskaya and the part when Gaigern is trying to sneak into her hotel room was very engaging. But then there were times when I was really struggling to keep my interest up. For example, I never once watched Grand Hotel and found myself wishing I could learn about Preysing’s business dealings in more detail, but that’s something the book gave me whether I wanted it or not. And I’m not exactly disappointed that most of the information about Kringelein’s big day out on the town with Gaigern was summed up more succinctly in the movie version.
The changes in pacing for the movie make the movie version my preferred version of the story, but when the book is at its best, it’s excellent and it’s easy to understand why it remains such an influential story several decades after its initial publication.
When the movie Wife vs. Secretary was released in 1936, it represented a big turning point in the career of Jean Harlow. In the early 1930s, she was famous for her bombshell image, exemplified by her performances as characters like Vantine in Red Dust, Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight, and Lil in Red-Headed Woman. But by the mid-1930s, it was time for a change and her on-screen image began to soften. In Red-Headed Woman, she played a secretary who relentlessly pursued her married boss and broke up his marriage. But Helen, her character in Wife vs. Secretary, was the complete antithesis of Lil from Red-Headed Woman.
In Wife vs. Secretary, Jean Harlow plays Helen, the faithful secretary to Van Stanhophe, played by Clark Gable. Despite rumors and speculation about Helen’s relationship with her boss, Van is very happily married and is faithful to his wife Linda, played by Myrna Loy. Linda has no reason not to believe that Van and Helen’s relationship is strictly business, but over time, comments made by other people begin to erode her confidence and it eventually takes a toll on their marriage.
Before Wife vs. Secretary was a hit movie, it was a popular story by Faith Baldwin, originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1935. So, how do the book and the movie compare?
Book & Movie Differences
Overall, Wife vs. Secretary pretty closely follows the core story laid out in the book. It doesn’t follow the book to the letter, but most of the main plot points are there. However, there are some very significant changes, particularly involving the character of Helen’s boyfriend, Dave, played by James Stewart in the movie.
In the movie, we see that Dave is extremely insecure about Helen’s career and her relationship with Van. When Dave gets a raise at work, the first thing he does after telling her the news is ask her to quit her job so that they can get married. Despite the tension this causes between Helen and Dave, they are able to reconcile their differences. In the book, this story arc is completely different. The book version of Dave feels so insecure about Helen’s relationship with Van that he steals money from the company he works for so that he can buy a new car and seem more impressive to Helen. Of course, Dave gets caught and ends up in a legal mess, which results in Helen getting hit by a car while walking to meet a lawyer because she was so distracted by the situation. When Van finds out, he uses his connections to get the charges against Dave dropped and makes arrangements for him to get a new job in South America so that he can start over, which Dave goes through with.
When we see Helen and Van together in the movie, it’s more clear to viewers that their relationship is strictly business. In the book, more details are included that make the reader question if perhaps there really are deeper feelings between them. For example, early in the story, it’s mentioned that Helen kept newspaper clippings about her boss in a scrapbook. And when Helen is in the hospital, Van goes to visit her and gives her a kiss at one point, which Linda witnesses.
Even though both the book and the movie end in the same general way, with Van and Linda reconciling, how they reach that point differs. In the movie, Helen visits Linda right before Linda is set to leave for a trip and admits that she loves Van but warns Linda that if she leaves now, it’s inevitable that he’s going to rebound with her and he’d never love her as much as he loves Linda. This allows Linda and Van to get back together and sets things up for Helen and Dave to get back together. In the book, Linda shows up at the office and while she’s there, she has a chance to get a glimpse at what Van is like when he’s at work and realizes that who he is at work and who he is when he’s with her are like two different people. Helen admits that she does love Van, but strictly for who he is when he’s at work and she values her job too much to let that change. In the end, Helen and Linda agree that it’s possible for the two of them to love the different sides of the same man while coexisting peacefully. But since Dave went off to South America in the book, Helen doesn’t reconcile with him and instead continues to find more satisfaction in her career than her romantic life.
Is the Book Worth Reading?
Wife vs. Secretary is a total gem of a movie and the book is very enjoyable as well. A very quick, light read that’s perfect for when you’re trying to relax on a hot summer day. If you’re a fan of vintage career girl stories along the lines of The Best of Everything, you’d probably enjoy Wife vs. Secretary. Since I adore the cast of the movie, that remains my favorite version of the story. And when you read the book, it’s easy to see why the main characters were cast the way they were in the movie. Linda in particular was practically written with Myrna Loy in mind. I liked Faith Baldwin’s style of writing so I’m really glad that my copy of the book also included two other novels she wrote so that I can read more of her work.
What I liked most about the book is that Helen is an unapologetic career woman; highly capable at what she does, savvy at handling difficult situations, and loves being able to do it. Depictions of women who highly value their careers are commonplace today, but considering the story Wife vs. Secretary was first published in 1935, Faith Baldwin’s decision to let Helen be so willing to make her career a priority in her life without vilifying her or making her seem cold and heartless in any way was refreshing. In the end, she explains to Linda that when Van succeeds, she feels like she succeeds by extension and she’d rather have 10 years of that than 20 years of being Van’s wife.
Even though I’ve long been a fan of the movie, I always thought the title did it a disservice because a name like Wife vs. Secretary suggests something more slapstick or screwball when the story is really much smarter than that. After reading the book, my opinion of the title remains the same.
No conversation about pre-Code Hollywood would be complete without Red-Headed Woman. It’s easily one of the most notorious movies of the era. The tale of Lillian Andrews/Legendre, flawlessly played by Jean Harlow, and her unrelenting pursuit Bill Legendre, his money, and his social status certainly had plenty of content to scandalize audiences upon its release in 1932. But before it was a hit movie, it was a popular serialized story, written by Katharine Brush, that had appeared in the Saturday Evening Post before being released as a standalone book. But does the book live up to the reputation of the movie?
Book & Movie Differences
Given Red-Headed Woman‘s status as one of the ultimate pre-Code movies, I started the book expecting it to be full of content that would have been too much for the movie. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the movie ended up making the story a bit more scandalous in some ways. A lot of what happens in the book does happen in the movie, but it’s reworked to make Lillian a more ruthless homewrecker and Bill more sympathetic. In the book, Lillian never says, “Do it again, I like it!” after being slapped by Bill Legendre. Lillian never puts a picture of Bill in her garter belt. The part about Lillian shooting Bill in a fit of rage? Created for the movie. And the part about Lillian ending up with a much older man, while also having an affair with her chauffeur, is only half true. She does end up with a rich man at the end of the book, just not as old. And the book version of Lillian would never deign to have an affair with a lowly chauffeur.
Overall, there’s a big difference between Lillian’s pursuit of Bill in the book compared to the movie. In the movie, Lillian is much more aggressive about it. In the first scene, she’s on her way to visit Bill at home knowing that his wife is out of town, even though she isn’t actually his secretary. She arrives at his house wearing the aforementioned garter belt with his picture in it, fully intent on seducing him. But in the book, Lillian is more about the long game.
In the book, Lillian isn’t officially Bill’s personal secretary — he doesn’t have one — but she makes a point of going above and beyond for him so that he essentially treats her as such. He thinks she’s just swell as a secretary, but Bill’s brothers, who also work for the company, think she’s lazy. Over time, she finds excuses to spend time with Bill away from the office, whether it’s visiting some of the company’s mines or getting rides home from him after work, knowing that they would be seen around town. People did, indeed, talk and Lillian loved it. Everyone assumed the affair had started earlier than it actually did. The affair didn’t actually begin until the night Lillian talked Bill into taking her out to dinner while his wife, Irene, was away.
The book spends a great deal of time detailing Lillian’s obsession with Irene, but that gets played down significantly in the movie. If anything, the book shows Lillian thinking about Irene more than she thinks about Bill. Ultimately, it’s Irene’s lifestyle that Lillian wants; Bill just happens to be her means to get it. She wants her wedding to Bill covered in the paper like Irene’s was. She insists on going to New York on their honeymoon because it’s where Bill and Irene spent their honeymoon. She wants to be friends with Irene’s friends and go to the same country club Irene goes to. Lillian is livid when she finds out Irene is moving into an apartment near her new house with Bill. When Lillian stops into Sally’s beauty salon, Sally thinks to herself that Lillian will be asking for Irene’s favorite nail polish for her next manicure. Even before Lillian and Bill get married, she goes into Irene’s bedroom and considers leaving something behind, like a hairpin, just to make her presence known.
The movie movie also focuses less on Lillian’s problems with being welcomed by Renwood’s social elite. You do see it in the movie, but it’s less prominent than in the book. In the book, if Lillian isn’t obsessing over Irene, she’s absolutely furious over every single social slight she receives from Bill’s family and friends — and there are a lot of them. He drags his feet over introducing her to his friends and doesn’t say anything when his siblings exclude her from social events. When she buys a gift for Bill’s sister who had recently had a baby, he talks her out of sending it. There was an incident where Bill took Lillian to the country club and an employee, who had poor eyesight and lacked awareness of town gossip, said he mistook Lillian for Mrs. Legendre. Lillian was not amused, but everyone else was when they heard about it.
An important scene in the movie involves Lillian getting angry when all of her guests go over to Irene’s house after a party at her home, which does happen in the book. Only she doesn’t throw a fit afterward. Instead, she just becomes more determined to shock the town. The reason for the party at Lillian’s is also different. In the book, the party is an excuse for Bill’s friends to see the new house Lillian decorated. In the movie, the party is in honor of C.B. Gaerste, a very important business associate of the Legendre family. Lillian seduced Gaerste and talked him into to the party at her home because none of Bill’s friends would come otherwise. In the book, Gaerste has no connections to the Legendre family business, nor does he come to Renwood. He’s a magnate Lillian meets while on a trip to New York, which was paid for by Bill’s father to get rid of her for a while.
The book version of Bill Legendre is more passive than we see in the movie. In the movie, he tries harder to resist Lillian’s advances, does more to get her out of his life after their initial affair, and does more to end his marriage to Lil. But in the book, he’s depicted as a guy who has pretty much been handed everything in his life and just accepted it all without giving it much real thought. He works at the family business and married his high school sweetheart. So when Lillian comes along and offers something different, he mistakes attraction for love. As his marriage to Lil progresses and she’s not getting what she wants out of it, she’s the one actively trying to find a way out.
While the book version of Bill is more passive, the book version of Irene is much more proactive after learning about Bill’s affair. When she finds out, she tells him he’s made his choice and kicks him out of the house. But in the movie, it shows them making more of an effort to save their marriage. We also see Irene doing things like questioning what she had done wrong.
Is the Book Worth Reading?
Katharine Brush is a writer I’d really like to get to know better. At the height of her career, she was known for having a witty, incisive, and modern style of writing and Red-Headed Woman holds up very well because of it. Some of the references are now a bit dated, but her style of writing makes it a book that could easily be enjoyed by readers today. It’s easy to forget that you’re reading something that was first published 90 years ago. I definitely hope to read more of her work soon. If you’re a big fan of pre-Code movies, Red-Headed Woman is worth checking out, even if only for the connection to the movie.
As a big fan of the movie, I’ve often heard the challenges that went into adapting Red-Headed Woman for the screen. I’d heard all about how F. Scott Fitzgerald had worked on the screenplay, but his version was deemed too serious. Then Anita Loos was brought in to give it a lighter tone. After reading the book, I can understand how this would have happened. The book contains many statements which make it clear that Lillian was the town joke of Renwood. Even Sally, Lillian’s only friend in town, was amused by her ridiculous behavior. (Sally, by the way, is the kind of role Una Merkel was an absolutely perfect fit for.) But it’s often written about in ways that could get lost in translation. Especially if you’re trying to make sure audiences aren’t too sympathetic to someone like Lillian.
I already loved the work Anita Loos did on the screenplay for Red-Headed Woman, but reading the book actually helped give me an even greater appreciation for it. Loos took what was good about the source material and made it work for the screen, nailing the idea that Lillian is someone to be laughed at, not with. For example, the book often talks about how Lillian liked to draw attention to herself when driving through town. But a touch Anita Loos added was the part where Lillian drives through town with marching band music playing in the background. When she parks her car and turns off the radio, we find out the music wasn’t just part of the movie’s musical score — Lillian was turning her trip to the salon into a one-car parade for herself. And, of course, Jean Harlow plays the role to absolute perfection, making the whole thing even better. This is definitely an example of how good a book-to-movie adaptation can be, even if it doesn’t follow the book to the letter.
Where would the musical be without 42nd Street? When the movie was released in March of 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done several times over and was quickly becoming passé. But with Busby Berkeley’s dazzling musical numbers, sharp dialogue, and catchy songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, 42nd Street proved to be a total game changer for the musical genre.
In the 1980s, history repeated itself on Broadway. Stage musicals based on popular films are very commonplace today, but at that time, it was viewed as a risky idea. It hadn’t been done successfully before, but 42nd Street proved that it could work. Over 40 years later, it remains one of the most popular Broadway musicals.
Nearly 90 years after it was first introduced to the public, 42nd Street has unquestionably earned its place in pop culture history. But what’s often forgotten is that it was originally based on a novel by Bradford Ropes. I’d long been curious to see how the book compared to the movie, but it’s been out of print for several decades which made it extremely difficult to find and extremely expensive when it could be found. So when I saw that it was just brought back into print a few months ago, I ordered a copy immediately. So, how does it compare?
Book & Movie Differences
42nd Street the movie is unquestionably a classic of the pre-Code era. It’s full of content that would have been verboten just a year and a half later when the production codes were being fully enforced. But even then, the pre-Code content that made it into the movie is just a small fraction of what was in the book.
The Julian Marsh that we see in the movie, played by Warner Baxter, is an overly-stressed Broadway director who had lost his money in the stock market crash and desperately needs this production of Pretty Lady to be a big hit so that he can afford to retire for the sake of his health. All of that was invented for the movie. What the movie leaves out is that he was originally written as a gay man whose boyfriend, Billy Lawlor, is one of the featured performers in Pretty Lady.
The character of Billy Lawlor, played by Dick Powell, is a little more prominent in the movie than in the book. In the book, Billy is a minor presence until the nearly the end when the production team is dealing with the crisis of Dorothy Brock’s injury. He’s the one who first suggests that Peggy could take Dorothy’s place in the show. The reason he suggests her over any of the other women in the chorus is because, in addition to seeing potential in her, she was the only one who was polite to him. Everyone else in the chorus snubbed him because of his status as Julian Marsh’s boyfriend. In the movie, Anne Lowell, played by Ginger Rogers, is the one who recommends Peggy.
Even though Billy Lawlor was originally written as a gay man, he actually does end up with Peggy Sawyer in both the book and the movie. Near the end of the book, he proposes a relationship of convenience to Peggy, which she agrees to. She’s well aware that this would strictly be a lavender relationship, but she appreciates how such a relationship would be beneficial for both of their careers.
Generally speaking, the book spends a lot more time covering the various affairs and platonic relationships between characters than the movie does. In the book, much attention is given to Peggy Sawyer being romantically torn between Terry, another performer in the show, and Pat Denning, the man Dorothy Brock had been cheating on her boyfriend (and financer of Pretty Lady) with. Terry is in the movie, but if you blink, you’ll miss him. And not only was Pat actively seeing both Peggy and Dorothy, he was also seeing Amy, the wife of Andy Lee, the show’s dance director. Andy and Amy have an extremely bitter marriage and she is blackmailing him over an incident in which he was caught in a compromising situation with a minor. The character of Amy and that whole storyline is completely left out of the movie.
The movie also omits the characters of a young acrobatic dancer named Polly (imagine a contemporary of June Preisser) and her pushy stage mother. The stage mother encourages her daughter to tolerate the affections of men who could help advance her career, assuring her that they won’t go too far since she is still a minor. Polly’s mother also has a vested interest in seeing Dorothy Brock get taken down a peg or two since Dorothy had one of her daughter’s numbers bumped in the show. Ultimately, she plays a role in the chain of events that leads to Dorothy’s fall.
Another very notable change between the book and the movie is the fact that Dorothy Brock actually does perform on opening night in the book. Her big accident occurs afterward. Instead, the last-minute emergency that threatens opening night is an older performer dropping dead on stage during dress rehearsal. This leads to people trying to have him declared dead in the ambulance instead of the theater to avoid an inquest that would delay the show’s opening.
Generally speaking, the movie is kinder to Dorothy Brock than the book is. Bebe Daniels was only 32 years old when 42nd Street was released and looked absolutely stunning. Hardly the aging, past-her-prime Broadway diva described in the book, who is tolerated more than she is respected. The book version of Dorothy is messier and more difficult to deal with, but the movie softens the character by giving her the scene where she visits Peggy to give her some words of encouragement. That scene does not happen in the book. However, there was a part of the book that mentioned how even performers who didn’t like each other were wishing each other luck on opening night, which could have inspired the scene in the movie.
Is the Book Worth Reading?
Considering how incredibly influential 42nd Street has been both as a movie and a Broadway show, it’s a little surprising that the book has essentially become a footnote in its own history. But now that it’s back in print, I really hope more people will discover it. Nobody’s going to put it in the same league as The Grapes of Wrath or anything like that, but it’s still a very enjoyable book; a fun summer read for fans of classic films or Broadway musicals.
If you’re a fan of 42nd Street or any of the other Busby Berkeley backstage musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, the book 42nd Street is well worth your time. The movie is an extremely condensed version of the book, reduced to its most essential parts. (The differences I’ve listed here are just some of the biggest differences.) Since the movie is only about 90 minutes long and the last 20 minutes are devoted to musical numbers, everything leading up to the big finale moves at a very fast pace. But with the book, you can spend more time getting to know these characters better and taking in the atmosphere of the 1930s-era theatrical world.
42nd Street is the kind of book that’s very much a product of its time. Author Bradford Ropes had worked in vaudeville and had been in the chorus of Broadway shows, so he does a great job of capturing the essence of what this scene was like. It’s clear that this was a setting he knew extremely well. He vividly describes the social hierarchies of the theatrical world and the emotions and experiences that come along with performing in a show. He also brings in details that would likely be left out if someone today tried writing a story about 1930s Broadway. For example, the book is set when vaudeville was on its way out and Broadway was forced to compete with Hollywood for big-name talent. He seemed to really understand the dynamics of that very specific moment in time.
Beyond the details about the theatrical world, I really liked his overall style of writing. There were a lot of lines in the book that I could practically hear being delivered by people like Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers. If you enjoy the very snappy style of writing you find in a lot of 1930s-era Warner Brothers movies, you’ll probably like the book version of 42nd Street. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Warner Brothers had bought the rights to the book before it was even published; it’s very much their style.
I know people are pretty exhausted with the idea of reboots and adaptations right now, but I actually wouldn’t mind seeing a new adaptation of 42nd Street that follows the book more closely than the movie or the stage version. Similar how HBO’s 2011 version of Mildred Pierce works as its own adaptation of the book rather than a straight remake of the Joan Crawford movie.
Between May 6th and 9th, I was among the many fans of Turner Classic Movies who spent their weekend glued to their television to participate in the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival. For the second year in a row, the festival was a virtual experience, taking place on the channel, on HBO Max, and on Zoom for some virtual Club TCM events.
When I go to the TCM Film Festival in person, I usually watch a mix of old favorite movies and things I’ve never seen before. But with the virtual format this year, I ended up leaning very heavily toward things I had never seen before. Usually, it’s the experience factor that draws me to the old favorites during an in-person festival, whether it’s being able to see a movie in a specific theater or because of a special guest introducing it. Since that wasn’t as much of a factor this time around (any special intros I wanted to see could be watched separately from the movie), I decided to check out as many movies as I could that I had never seen before.
This approach worked out remarkably well. During the festival, I watched 16 feature-length movies that were new to me and I didn’t outright dislike any of them. Of course, I liked some more than others, but I came out of this being introduced to a lot of great movies. As far as movies go, my favorite discoveries this year (in no particular order) included:
They Won’t Believe Me (1947)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The Getaway (1972)
They really did a great job of including movies that don’t quite get the attention they deserve and I’m really glad I took the time to give them a shot. In the end, the list of movies I watched ran the gamut from Georges Melies to River Phoenix. There were also several other features that I felt added a lot to the whole experience.
Plan 9 From Outer Space Table Read & Movie
When the schedule for this year’s festival was first announced, I was immediately excited to see that we’d be getting some midnight movie style content this year. First up was a table read of the script for Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was originally produced by Dana Gould for SF Sketchfest with performers such as Bob Odenkirk, Paul F. Tompkins, Laraine Newman, Jonah Ray, and Oscar Nunez, just to name a few, bringing the script to life. I knew this was going to be a lot of fun to watch, but it far exceeded my expectations. Every performer involved brought their A game and it was an absolute riot. Laraine Newman’s deadpan narration was perfection. And being able to watch the movie version of Plan 9 immediately afterward made the whole thing even better. Definitely my favorite experience of the festival.
West Side Story Cast Reunion
This year’s opening night movie was West Side Story, starting with a conversation between Ben Mankiewicz, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn. I’ve watched a lot of these interviews at the festival over the years and this was one of the best. The camaraderie between the actors is still so strong and the conversation was fascinating. They took time to talk about Yvonne Othon, who is the actress who says, “I know you do!” during the America number. This was an ad-libbed line which has made such an impression that it not only stayed in the movie, it’s worked its way into theatrical productions over the years. Rita Moreno told an adorable story about Olivia de Havilland fawning over George Chakiris at the Oscars. Rita’s remarks about the movie were particularly interesting since she made it clear that the movie means the world to her, but that doesn’t stop her from criticizing it for where it falls short in terms of race.
Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning
Jet Jockeys in Love: The Making of Chain Lightning was another one of the things I was most excited to see in the lineup. This presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt focused on the special effects in 1950’s Chain Lightning and was every bit as fun and informative as the presentations they do at the in-person festival each year. The movie Chain Lightning didn’t end up being one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart movies, but the presentation was top notch.
Conversations with actors are always one of the biggest draws at the festival and this year, we had excellent, brand new interviews with Ali MacGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short as part of the Tributes section on HBO Max. All of these were actors I was somewhat familiar with, but didn’t really know a whole lot about their lives and careers. Each of these interviews ended up making me want to see more of each actor’s work and learn more about them in general. Of the three, I was probably least familiar with Ali MacGraw, but I watched her interview after seeing The Getaway and ended up being so charmed by her that I later watched Love Story, even though it hadn’t really been on my radar going into the festival.
New film restorations are another very consistent programming feature at the TCM Film Festival, but it seemed like this year had an exceptionally good group of restorations. A big highlight for me was They Won’t Believe Me, which featured 15 minutes of footage that had been cut from its initial release. I had never seen They Won’t Believe Me before, so I’m glad that I was able to see it for the first time as producer Joan Harrison wanted it to be seen. Picture quality was excellent as well.
Other restorations this year included Doctor X, The Whistle at Eaton Falls, Her Man, So This is Paris, and Princess Tam Tam, all of which looked spectacular. Annie Get Your Gun was another restoration, which I didn’t catch when it aired, but I’ve heard wonderful things about that restoration.
The Melies Mystery
As a silent film fan, of course I was delighted to see that HBO Max included a collection related to George Melies. The Melies shorts were great, but the real star was the new documentary The Melies Mystery. This documentary explains how original camera negatives of several of his films were found in the United States despite the fact that Melies himself had personally destroyed his original negatives. If you have any interest at all in silent film or film preservation, this documentary is a must-see. I’m always fascinated by stories about how lost films are re-located and this story has some very unexpected twists. I liked this documentary so much that I watched it twice.
During the 2020 festival, the movies shown on Turner Classic Movies were often supplemented with things like interviews from previous festivals. This year, they did the same, but it wasn’t necessarily limited to material from past festivals. Both on TCM and HBO Max, viewers could see extras ranging from brand new introductions to mini-documentaries that added to the festival vibe.
On Turner Classic Movies, Diner, Mean Streets, Fame, and The Goodbye Girl respectively had introductions/interviews with Barry Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Debbie Allen, and Richard Dreyfuss. There was also a mini-documentary about director Michael Curtiz’s work in horror films that was shown along with Doctor X and let me come in featured a documentary about the work of Bill Morrison. On HBO Max, there were things like a conversation between Alicia Malone and Danny Huston about The Maltese Falcon, a fun featurette by Bruce Goldstein about famous filming locations in New York City, and movie introductions by people like Lisa Rinna and Michael Douglas, all of which were recorded specifically for the festival. HBO Max also had lots of other extras from the TCM archive and DVD/Blu-ray releases.
Overall, I really enjoyed this year’s virtual version of the festival. Last year, they had limited time to switch to a virtual format, but the extra preparation that went into this year’s fest showed and I felt like it more effectively captured the essence of the festival. I dearly miss being able to do the festival in person and being able to spend time with my friends there, but this was an example of how good a virtual film festival can potentially be. And, as always, I’ve been spending the past few days after the festival trying to catch up on some of the things I didn’t have time to see. Whether the festival is virtual or in person, I will never have time to truly do it all.
Spring has arrived, which means it’s TCM Classic Film Festival season once again. As was the case in 2020, this year’s festival will be fully virtual. But while last year’s festival was fully on the Turner Classic Movies channel (with additional content posted to YouTube), this year’s festival will be a more expansive experience with additional movies available on HBO Max and Club TCM events taking place on Zoom. This approach adds to the festival vibe by giving people different venues to attend, so to speak, and lets people have the fun of choosing what they want to watch. (Visit the TCM Classic Film Festival website to see all movies playing on TCM and HBO Max during the festival.)
In some ways, planning what to watch for the virtual festival could potentially be even more challenging than planning for the in-person festival. Doing the festival in person means each day has a set start time and a set end time, so even if you go really hard and pack your days with as many events and screenings as possible, there will still be a point when there aren’t any official things to do. But with the virtual format, you can watch movies for a full 24 hours if you really want to, so it could end up feeling like an even longer marathon. And when in-person events are going on, there are only a handful of them happening at any given time. In this case, if you aren’t into what’s playing on TCM, there are over 50 other movies to choose from on HBO Max.
At the time of writing this post, the virtual Club TCM event schedule hasn’t been announced, so I haven’t figured out a real schedule for myself yet. The Club TCM events at the in-person festival are consistently excellent, so I know there will very likely be some that I’ll want to check out this year. Since those will be on a set schedule and will have limited capacity, I’m waiting on that schedule. But as it stands now, here are some of the things I’m most excited to see.
The festival officially kicks off on Thursday, May 6 at 8:00 PM with West Side Story and a virtual cast reunion of Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn, which is easily going to be a must-see for me. West Side Story is followed by Mean Streets, which is one I’ve been meaning to revisit for a while, but I may switch over to HBO Max depending on my mood that day. At 1:30 AM is 1932’s Doctor X, which I really hope I can stay up for because they’ll be showing a brand new restoration that I’m excited to see. If you saw the recent beautiful restoration of Mystery of the Wax Museum, you’ll understand why I’m so eager for the Doctor X restoration.
From Friday’s schedule, the big highlights for me are the Plan 9 From Outer Space table read at 8:00 PM, the screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at 9:30 PM, and Grease 2 at 11:00 PM. Every year that I’ve done the festival in person, the midnight movies have always been a major highlight, so I’m very excited to see that those types of movies are being represented in this year’s lineup. The Plan 9 table read should be a lot of fun, and while I haven’t seen Grease 2 in its entirety, I’ve seen enough to know that it’s perfect late night movie material. Earlier in the day at 10:00 AM is Whistle at Eaton Falls, which would be a new one to me. I’ll be sure to set my DVR for the 3:15 AM showing of let me come in, which consists of footage from 1928’s Pawns of Passion, a now lost film, along with an opera score. let me come in is directed by Bill Morison, director of the Dawson City: Frozen Time documentary, which I really enjoyed.
On Saturday, I will likely spend much of the day checking out stuff on HBO Max and switch over to TCM in prime time. At 8:00 PM is the restored version of 1947’s They Won’t Believe Me, followed by Lady Sings the Blues at 10:00 PM and Diner at 12:45 AM. I also love the whole Saturday morning cartoon concept with the documentary Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons at 6:00 AM and Tex Avery at MGM at 7:00 AM.
Sunday’s lineup has a couple of restorations I’m really looking forward to: 1930’s Her Man at 8:45 AM and 1935’s Princess Tam Tam at 12:45 PM. The two big highlights of the day for me are the Hollywood Home Movies presentation at 7:00 PM the 8:00 PM showing of Ernst Lubitsch’s silent So This is Paris, with a new musical score by Ben Model. I saw So This is Paris at the festival a few years ago and I’m very excited to be able to see it again. Hollywood Home Movies is always one of the events I most look forward to at the festival and I’m happy that a wider audience will now be able to experience it. Later, there’s The Goodbye Girl at 9:30 PM with a conversation with Richard Dreyfus, Fame at 11:45 PM with a conversation with Debbie Allen, and the French new wave classic Breathless at 2:15 AM.
On HBO Max
The movies on HBO Max are organized into various collections, like tributes to Ali McGraw, Danny Glover, and Martin Short; movies introduced by their directors; The L.A. Rebellion; Immigrants in America; Hawks & The Art of Comedy; and The Streets of New York.
The Essentials and Discoveries collections are the biggest collections in the streaming library. In the Essentials collection, there are several classic Hollywood staples like Top Hat, The Maltese Falcon, The Searchers,North by Northwest, and The Thin Man. The Discoveries collection includes lots of great movies which might be new to people, like So This is Paris, Chain Lightning, The Mortal Storm, Victim, Cleo from 5 to 7, and The Decline of Western Civilization.
All of the movies available through HBO Max include bonus materials, ranging from actor/director introductions to introductions by Robert Osborne, discussions between Ben Mankiewicz and various guests, and other supporting content from TCM. Some of these extra features are brand new, others have aired on TCM in the past.
Out of everything on HBO Max, I was most excited to see 1950’s Chain Lightning in the lineup, a Humphrey Bogart movie I’ve never seen before. Best of all, the bonus feature for it is a presentation by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt about the production of the movie. Barron and Burtt presentations are a regular feature at the in-person festival and are a must-see for many of the people who attend. Their presentation on the effects in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 2019 was excellent and I can’t wait to see what they have to say about Chain Lightning.
Another huge highlight of the streaming library for me is 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization. This was on TCM during Labor Day weekend 2020 as part of their End of Summer Tour programming, but I wasn’t able to catch the whole thing so I’m glad to have another chance to see it. This one also features a conversation between Jacqueline Stewart and director Penelope Spheeris, which I definitely want to see. I may end up diverting a little bit from the official programming by following it up with my Blu-ray of 1982’s Smithereens just because I like the idea of doing a west coast/east coast punk block.
As a big silent film fan, I was very excited to see that one of the collections is The Melies Mystery, which consists of 5 short films (A Trip to the Moon, The Impossible Voyage, Four Troublesome Heads, The Infernal Cauldron, and The Old Hag) and the new documentary, The Melies Mystery. This will be an absolute must-see for me.
Some other standouts for me include The Color Purple, The Getaway, Misery, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dogfight, The Black Legion, Stranger Than Paradise, T-Men, Harlan County USA, and Speedy. Those are a mix of things that would be new to me and things I’m way overdue to revisit. I may also be tempted to check out the MGM Musicals and Outtakes collection to see some outtakes from It’s Always Fair Weather, Singin’ in the Rain, or Take Me Out to the Ball Game, as well as the collection of Powell & Pressburger movies. Those are all just awfully hard for me to resist.
More Ways to Bring the Festival Experience Home
Interested in having even more ways to get the full TCMFF experience from the comfort of home? There are lots of options!
If you’ve been missing being able to visit some of the locations you normally would during the festival, like the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Chinese Theater, and the Egyptian Theater, April Clemmer will be hosting a virtual presentation about these historic locations and more. The presentation starts at 1:30 PM Eastern, but if you aren’t able to watch the presentation live, you’ll receive a link afterward to watch it when you have a chance. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.
At 7:00 PM Eastern on Wednesday, May 5, Kimberly Truhler will be doing her annual Fashion in Film of TCMFF presentation over Zoom. This year, she’ll be discussing The Thin Man, Top Hat, His Girl Friday, North by Northwest, Breathless, Bullitt, and Love Story. If you’d like to attend, visit glamamor.com to sign up.
For a lot of people, no TCMFF is complete without a trip to Larry Edmunds Bookshop. They just recently launched a new online store, but if there are any other film-related books or movie posters you’re looking for that you don’t see on the website, give the store a call. Every year, during the regular festival, the store traditionally hosts an event at the store with a special guest where attendees have an opportunity to get signed copies of books. In the past, I’ve gone to these events for people like Marsha Hunt and Kevin Brownlow and they were truly excellent. This year, they’re doing a virtual Sunday (May 9) event, which is a conversation with Peter Bogdanovich at 3:30 PM Eastern. Tickets to the event are just $5 and autographed copies of some of Peter’s books are also for sale as a fundraiser for the store since they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19 closures. Visit their website if you’d like to buy a ticket to the event, order a book, or both!
Another great place to support is the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Since they are not currently open, sales through their online store help keep the museum going and they have a large selection of books, DVDs, notecards, posters, and more to choose from.
Another big TCMFF tradition is decorating pass lanyards with lots of pins, which are very often designed by Kate Garbielle. Every year, she makes a special TCMFF-themed pack of buttons and this year is no exception. This year’s pins are really cute, reflecting the different approach to this year’s festival.
On Monday, May 10, you can end your festival experience by checking out a virtual tour of Hollywood Forever Cemetery hosted by their in-house tour guide, Karie Bible. Lots of Hollywood legends are laid to rest there, including Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., Janet Gaynor, Adrian, Peter Lorre, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, Marion Davies, and Cecil B. DeMille, just to name a very few. The event starts at 9:00 PM Eastern and tickets are available through Eventbrite.
When you look at the list of stars who were labeled Box Office Poison by the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) in 1938 through a contemporary lens, it’s easy to be surprised that most of them would ever be called anything of the sort. Over 80 years have passed since that ad was published and the majority of the stars included in it are now regarded as some of the biggest icons of 1930s Hollywood. Fred Astaire is a prime example of this. Not only does his name remain synonymous with the entire genre of movie musicals, when you look at all the movies he appeared in during the 1930s alone, the list is rather impressive. It includes nine out of ten movies he made with Ginger Rogers and when you look even closer, you see that he went from supporting player to leading man in the span of a couple of years. So what happened?
In my article about Dolores del Rio, I talked a bit about how the chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stole some of the attention away from Dolores in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. Even though she was the top-billed star of the movie, it’s now best remembered for being the first time Astaire and Rogers appeared together in a movie. It was also only the second film Astaire had ever appeared in, the first being 1933’s Dancing Lady.
After seeing the reaction to Astaire and Rogers in Flying Down to Rio, RKO was eager to pair them up again in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee, which was a commercial hit and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The duo’s successful streak continued with 1935’s Roberta, which was followed up by the trifecta of Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, and Swing Time.
Being able to say you starred in Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, and Swing Time all in a row is extremely impressive, but a run of movies like that is a very tough act to follow. Top Hat was RKO’s most successful movie of the entire 1930s and Follow the Fleet and Swing Time were both highly successful as well. But Shall We Dance saw a notable decline in box office returns compared to Follow the Fleet and Swing Time.
When Shall We Dance was released in May 1937, early expectations were high and early buzz was favorable. For example, here’s an ad that ran in the May 5, 1937 issue of Variety:
This ad features quotes from Chicago-based publications and included remarks like:
“This latest of the Astaire-Rogers pictures is a mite more elaborate than some of the others, as breezy and full of sparkle as you’d expect…It’s all grand fun.”
“‘Shall We Dance’ comes pretty near being a perfect vehicle for them.”
“…It was a lively audience that responded with gay abandon and delicious enjoyment to superb dancing, the Gershwin music and merry drollery…peak entertainment calibre…due for a long run.”
In their own review of Shall We Dance, Variety wrote, “There have been others in the string which have had stronger tunes, superior punch laughs, and packed more dynamite in Astaire’s own specialties, yet seldom have these ingredients been made to fit so evenly. All six songs [by George and Ira Gershwin], one more than usual, have been nicely spotted with no attempt to overplay any of them. Nor is there a bad ditty in the batch.” Variety also favorably noted the quality of the script and the comedy.
By the time the May 12, 1937 issue of Variety was published, that early hype had faded fast and there was a distinct change in tone about Shall We Dance. While some theaters reported that Shall We Dance doing well at their location, several others said the response was underwhelming compared to other Astaire-Rogers vehicles. When you have blockbusters like Top Hat and Follow the Fleet in your recent career history, it’s got to be disappointing to see the release of one of your movies discussed about under headlines like, “No Flops, No Hits in Wash.”
Despite the sub-par box office returns for Shall We Dance, it didn’t lose money in the long run. However, its profits were just a fraction of what was expected. As successful the Astaire and Rogers partnership had been, by this time, they both agreed that it was time to change things up. Between 1933 and 1937, they had made seven movies together and the underwhelming box office returns for Shall We Dance suggested that perhaps the public needed a break, too.
When actors worry about getting typecast, it’s usually about being known for only playing one type of role. But in Fred’s case, he was more concerned about being pigeon-holed for being half of a duo. In his days as a stage performer before coming to Hollywood, he had been known for performing with his sister, Adele, and they didn’t stop performing together until 1932. So given that he made Flying Down to Rio in 1933, he hadn’t really had much of a chance to establish a professional identity that wasn’t tied to someone else.
Fred’s next film, 1937’s A Damsel in Distress, gave him a break from Ginger and starred him alongside George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine instead. Joan Fontaine was still just an up-and-coming star at the time, but the combined star power of Fred Astaire and Burns and Allen wasn’t enough to carry the picture. It ended up being the first Fred Astaire movie to lose money. Audience responses seem to have been largely indifferent. Looking at comments from theater owners in the February 26 and March 5, 1938 issues of the Motion Picture Herald, they describe a mix of middling-to-poor audience reactions:
“Running time too long for the story. Astaire below former standard. Saved by Burns & Allen. Dancing secondary. Story poor.”
“While this picture did not do ‘Follow the Fleet’ or ‘Top Hat’ grosses, we had no walkouts, no complaints. Picture contains an abundance of laughs, and contrary to previous reports, our patrons did not feel that Gracie and George were overdone. Fred’s Drum Dance is in a class by itself. Of course, Ginger Rogers was missed in this production, but our patrons had the pleasure of seeing her the night before in ‘Stage Door.'”
“A fairly good musical that starved to death at the box office. Grossed about half the usual ‘take’ on the team of Astaire and Rogers. In spite of the valiant efforts of Burns and Allen, the picture was dull in spots and many patrons were frank to say they did not care for it. RKO should either give us the team of Astaire and Rogers or reduce our allocation.”
“This has always been an Astaire town, but they did not come out for ‘Damsel’ and those who did were not enthusiastic. Would say that a poor title, radio stars in support, Ginger Rogers lacking, and Fred himself mechanical were causes. The ‘drum dance’ was an example of the lack of spontaneity. To us, it lacked ‘it.'”
“Not half the show you were led to believe from studio publicity. Without Burns & Allen, it would have been very poor indeed. With all his dancing ability, Fred Astaire cannot carry a picture alone. Pulled only fairly well and pleased to just about the same degree.”
The less-than-enthusiastic response to A Damsel in Distress wasn’t a surprise to Fred. In his autobiography, he called it “a goodish picture” that accomplished what it was supposed to, but also acknowledged that it wasn’t a strong movie and that some of his fans were bound to be disappointed by not seeing him with Ginger.
By the time the Box Office Poison commotion got started in 1938, Fred was busy working on Carefree, bringing him back together with Ginger Rogers. In response to being named Box Office Poison, Fred seems to have largely taken it in stride. When he wrote about it in his memoir, his response is remarkably restrained. He simply wrote, “The incident bothered me, of course. In fact, it burned me up. [His wife] Phyllis dismissed the whole thing with, ‘Oh, stop worrying about it.’ And I did.” He also noted that RKO was angry enough to consider demanding a retraction, but decided to just let it be and give it time to die out on its own. RKO’s response seems plausible since, in his case, the Box Office Poison label seems to have been based on a single movie that lost money and another that merely earned less than expected.
While he let the Box Office Poison label roll off his back, movie stardom was starting to loose a bit of its luster for Fred at this point. After Damsel in Distress, he had been toying with the idea of retiring and stated this in his autobiography:
“Frankly, I was a bit fed up at the thought of fighting my way back to a movie status again. Not that I was considered through or anything of the sort, but it so happens that when you go through a lull like that, the general feeling is that you’re going to lull yourself right through the cellar floor. I was a bit worried because with a dancing career such as mine, highly specialized as it was, I couldn’t figure out for sure where I would be able to go. I would have liked to go straight dramatic, but that was not possible. I felt I wasn’t qualified to do it.”
While Carefree was in production, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was already lined up for Fred and Ginger and there was a lot of buzz about it being planned as their final on-screen pairing. At this point, Fred wasn’t exactly sure where his career was headed, but knew a change would be good. While Ginger was getting ready to branch out into more dramatic, non-musical roles, he was talking to other studios and weighing his options. In the meantime, making Carefree was a very enjoyable experience for him. It gave him a chance to do a golf-inspired number that he’d been wanting to do, he was quite fond of the “Change Partners” number, and he had a lot of fun with “The Yam” number. Unfortunately, it ended up being the first Astaire-Rogers movie to lose money. 1939’s Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was well received and did well at the box office, but high production costs meant that it wasn’t able to break even.
After wrapping up work on Vernon and Irene Castle, he took a bit of a break from Hollywood and later returned as a freelance actor. The 1940s ended up being a very memorable decade for Fred’s career and he was able to work with a lot of first-rate talent at various studios. During this time, he appeared in movies like Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell, Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier with Rita Hayworth, and Ziegfeld Follies with Gene Kelly.
After 1946’s Blue Skies, he announced his retirement, but that retirement ended up being nothing more than a brief break. His career reached another high point with movies like 1948’s Easter Parade with Judy Garland, 1951’s Royal Wedding with Jane Powell, and of course, 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway, which teamed him up with Ginger Rogers one last time.
As he headed into the 1950s, he continued to find success. 1953’s The Band Wagon is often regarded as being one of the all-time best of the musical genre, often referenced today as being on the same level as Singin’ in the Rain. As the 1950s wore on, he made a few more notable musicals like Silk Stockings and Funny Face, but started doing more television projects. He also finally got to do some non-musical movies, like 1959’s On the Beach, which he earned a Golden Globe nomination for, and 1974’s The Towering Inferno. His last acting role was 1981’s Ghost Story, but of course, he also appeared as himself in the first two That’s Entertainment! movies.
Today, Dolores del Rio is remembered as a pioneer who became the first Mexican actress to find mainstream success in Hollywood. Her film career began in 1925 and during the silent era, she appeared in hit movies like 1926’s What Price Glory?, 1928’s The Trail of ’98, and Ramona, also from 1928. In 1926, she was named a WAMPAS Baby Star, a distinction that put her in some very good company. That year alone, other WAMPAS Baby Stars included several up-and-coming legends, like Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, Mary Astor, Dolores Costello, and Janet Gaynor, just to name a few. But over the course of her career, she certainly encountered plenty of obstacles along the way.
As she entered the 1930s, Dolores del Rio had been dealing with a series personal and professional difficulties, but she ultimately attained a very enviable status within Hollywood. She had successfully made the transition from silent film to sound, with a new contract at RKO starting in 1931. She also married Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s legendary art director, in 1930 and they became one of the most high-profile couples in town, often seen out and about with the very top tier of Hollywood’s elite, like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Not only did they have their respective careers, their home was a very popular social destination.
During the time del Rio was under contract at RKO, the studio was working to revamp their public image. Even though they’d had their share of notable successes, they weren’t regarded in the same esteem as rival studios like MGM and they had some financial difficulties that needed to be dealt with. In hopes of turning things around, David O. Selznick was brought on as production chief and while his tenure at RKO lasted less than two years, it was a very important time for the studio. During this time, Selznick had a hand in bringing talent like Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, and John Barrymore to the studio, as well as directors George Cukor and Merian C. Cooper. He was also involved with the production of one of RKO’s signature films: King Kong. On top of all that, he helped the studio cut production costs without significantly reducing output. But while this era in RKO history is generally regarded as being artistically great, it wasn’t enough for them to move past their financial problems and the studio went into receivership in 1933.
Dolores del Rio’s time at RKO under this contract was also rather brief. Her first movie was 1931’s Girl of the Rio, which didn’t make a splash with critics, followed by 1932’s Bird of Paradise. Bird of Paradise was a critical hit and proved to be just what she needed to re-establish herself as a major star. Not only was she coming off of the underwhelming Girl of the Rio, some health issues kept her off the screen for a while before that. But while Bird of Paradise put her back on top, it lost about $250,000. 1933’s Flying Down to Rio should have been an undeniable triumph for Dolores del Rio, but even though it was a big box office success, the first on-screen pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers drew some of the attention away from Dolores and RKO’s financial situation meant that her contract was not renewed.
She quickly moved on from RKO and started work on series of films for Warner Brothers which gave them plenty of opportunities to showcase her as the height of glamour, including multiple films with Busby Berkeley. The first of these films, 1934’s Wonder Bar, was one of the biggest hits Warner Brothers had that year. She wasn’t the top-billed star, but she worked so well with Al Jolson that her part was expanded while Kay Francis, who was the top-billed star, saw her part get scaled back. But Wonder Bar would prove to be her last commercial high point in Hollywood for the 1930s.
After Wonder Bar, she started work on 1934’s Madame Du Barry, which provoked many heated disputes over its content. William Dieterle was brought on to direct and Dolores was excited about the project because it offered her something different from the usual types of movies she had been working on. But Joseph Breen’s office sent Warner Brothers a letter saying the script was, “filled with vulgarity, obscenity and blatant adultery” and stated that it would be a dangerous movie to make from the standpoint of industry policy. Local censor boards also objected and the movie was eventually redone without input from Dieterle, who thought the altered version didn’t do justice to del Rio’s comedic talents. Madame Du Barry went on to become a box office disappointment.
Next came 1935’s In Caliente, I Live for Love, and The Widow from Monte Carlo, with The Widow from Monte Carlo being her last film with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, her last Warners film was not nearly as successful as her first. From Warner Brothers, she moved on to Universal to make 1937’s The Devil’s Playground and to 20th Century Fox for Lancer Spy and International Settlement, none of which made much of an impression on audiences.
By the time the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938, citing Dolores as one of the movie stars who was failing to draw audiences into theaters, she was already well aware that it was time for a change. Movies like Bird of Paradise, Flying Down to Rio, and Wonder Bar were popular, but the roles weren’t particularly challenging for her. She had fewer opportunities to reinvent her image the way someone like Marlene Dietrich did when she made Destry Rides Again after she was also named Box Office Poison. Dolores had largely been relegated to playing glamorous, exotic types which were falling out of favor as World War II loomed on the horizon and reviews often tended to focus on things like her lavish costumes, her appearance, or her dancing skills rather than her talents as an actress. She knew being noted for those qualities was only going to become even more limiting as she got older.
Dolores had been toying with the idea of returning to Mexico long before the Box Office Poison ad was published. The Mexican film industry had been growing throughout the 1930s and when she took a trip home in August 1934, she was initially unsure about what type of reception she would receive. Even though she was a successful movie star, some of the movies she made had been criticized in Mexico. But she received a warm welcome which made it clear that leaving Hollywood for Mexico might not be such a bad idea. When she went to England to make 1936’s Accused with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., she very much enjoyed the experience of working outside of Hollywood, further giving her reason to consider leaving.
In the early 1940s, she had begun an affair with Orson Welles, which ended her marriage to Cedric Gibbons and led to her appearing in 1943’s Journey Into Fear along with Joseph Cotton. But, as is the case for several of the movies produced by Orson Welles, Journey Into Fear had its problems during production. His work on The Magnificent Ambersons meant that Welles was unable to direct the film himself (although his involvement with the direction of Journey Into Fear is debatable) and some shooting had to be rushed because of his commitments for It’s All True. By the time the movie was in post-production, any influence Welles had on the final product was significantly diminished. The film’s release was delayed due to mixed reactions during test screenings and by then, RKO had fired Welles and he was only able to make limited changes. In the end, Journey Into Fear lost $193,000 and Dolores and Orson both found the final version to be an embarrassment.
Shortly after her work on Journey Into Fear was complete, Dolores dealt with the end of her relationship with Orson Welles, the death of her father, and she decided the time was right for her to return to Mexico. Even with all of her social connections, nearly 20 years of experience working in films, and a series of agents working on her behalf, she just wasn’t able to get quality roles in Hollywood anymore and arrived back in Mexico in August of 1942. Of the move, she stated:
“Divorced again, without the figure of my father. A film where I barely appeared, and one where they were really showing me the way of the art. I wanted to go the way of the art. Stop being a star and become an actress, and that I could only do in Mexico. I wish to choose my own stories, my own director, and camera man. I can accomplish this better in Mexico. I wanted to return to Mexico, a country that was mine and I did not know. I felt the need to return to my country.”
When she arrived back in Mexico, she did not have any films lined up, but it didn’t take long for her to start getting work in the Mexican film industry. Over the years, she went on to be nominated for five Silver Ariel awards, Mexico’s answer to the Academy Awards, winning three of them and one special award in recognition for her 50-year career as an actress. She would occasionally return to Hollywood to work in movies like 1947’s The Fugitive, 1960’s Flaming Star with Elvis Presley, and 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn, as well as appearing in a series of live theatrical productions. Her final role was in 1978’s The Children of Sanchez.
The Barrymore name carries a certain cachet in the entertainment world. As far back as the 1800s, members of the Barrymore family have been involved with acting, whether it was on the stage, on film, or on television. Drew Barrymore is keeping the family legacy alive today, but her grandfather, John Barrymore, along with her great-aunt Ethel and great-uncle Lionel, remain synonymous with great dramatic performers. Ethel Barrymore was known as the First Lady of American Theater and John set a record for his number of performances in a stage production of Hamlet.
Given the prestige associated with the Barrymore name, many people would probably be surprised to learn that John Barrymore was ever labeled Box Office Poison. But, unfortunately, just as acting is a common occupation in the Barrymore family, people in the family have also very famously had their struggles with substance abuse, health issues, and other problems in their personal lives. And at the time the Independent Theater Owners Association published their Box Office Poison ad in May 1938, John had hit a particularly difficult time in his already tumultuous life.
After beginning his career on the stage, John Barrymore eventually made films his primary focus in the 1920s and starred in iconic silent films like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes. When talkies came into the picture, his experience as a stage actor made him a natural fit for the transition and in the early 1930s, he starred in hits like 1932’s Grand Hotel, and 1933’s Dinner at Eight alongside his brother Lionel. In 1934, he starred in Twentieth Century, which is now thought of as a classic, but was considered a box office disappointment at the time of its release. He also starred in other movies that had underwhelming box office returns and, by the early-mid 1930s, John’s alcoholism was taking its toll on his health and his ability to do his job.
John had famously been a hard drinker before he started working in films. Back in his early career, he was known to turn up for shows drunk on occasion or would miss performances all together. By the 1930s, not only had years of alcoholism impacted John’s physical appearance, there are multiple stories about him struggling to remember his lines. The actor who was once hailed for his record-setting performances in productions of Hamlet was now having a hard time remembering his lines for movies like Counsellor at Law. His inability to remember lines cost him a role in 1934’s Hat, Coat and Glove as well as the chance to do a film version of Hamlet. In some cases, he struggled to even remember the name of the character he was playing.
Barrymore’s personal life was also as troubled as his professional life. In 1928, he had married Dolores Costello, who was well aware that his drinking was steadily becoming a bigger problem and there was little she could do to stop it. After losing out on Hat, Coat and Glove, he ended up taking a break from films while he was hospitalized for a mental breakdown and other health issues. On top of everything else, he caused a scandal by getting into a relationship with a 19-year-old fan. Dolores Costello filed for divorce in 1935.
One thing that makes John Barrymore’s inclusion on the Box Office Poison list a little bit odd is that he was effectively a supporting actor in the couple of years leading up to the ad’s 1938 publication. Suggesting that audiences were staying away from movies because of the presence of a supporting player is a bit of a reach. Given his reputation for being unreliable, studios weren’t going to risk casting him in a leading role. But in spite of everything, George Cukor was willing to take a chance on him and wanted him for the role of Mercutio in 1936’s Romeo and Juliet. Irving Thalberg had his doubts, given that Romeo and Juliet was a big passion project for him and the lavish production was already shaping up to be a very expensive production — even if it wasn’t supposed to be.
Eventually, Thalberg said yes to Barrymore, but there would be strict rules in place. During filming, Barrymore was to stay in a nearby sanitarium where he would have a nurse to keep him from drinking during his downtime and to escort him to and from the set each day. But even with those restrictions in place, Barrymore still found ways to drink. When he showed up to the set, he wouldn’t be ready to work when he was supposed to be and others would have to wait hours for him to get made up. In a sword fight scene between him and Basil Rathbone, it was pretty much filmed around him because he physically wasn’t up for the scene.
At one point, Barrymore got out of the sanitarium where he was supposed to be staying and being kept away from alcohol. When Irving Thalberg heard about this, he was ready to cut his ties with Barrymore. Thalberg contacted William Powell about taking over his role, but since Barrymore had helped Powell get a part in 1922’s Sherlock Holmes, Powell felt too much loyalty to accept the part. When the movie was released, it lost money, but it’s inaccurate to suggest that people stayed away in droves. High production costs simply made it unlikely that it would be able to become profitable. However, while some aspects of the production got positive notices from the critics, reviews of Barrymore’s performance were mixed.
Once again, Barrymore’s reputation for being unreliable made it difficult for him to find work in the film industry. After Romeo and Juliet, Barrymore was hospitalized once again, but he managed to turn things around a bit in 1937. First, he appeared in Maytime and later did a radio series of Shakespeare performances. While working on the radio broadcasts, Barrymore proved that he could be trustworthy and sober, which encouraged studios to take a chance on him again. He still often struggled to remember his lines, but cue cards were an accommodation crews were willing to make as long as he was coming in as he was supposed to. Between 1937 and 1938, he appeared in a few Bulldog Drummond movies, which gave him the chance to reclaim top billing status. He also appeared in True Confession alongside Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray, in Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer, and in 1939’s Midnight.
After that point, Barrymore entered a stage of his career where he largely spent his time parodying himself. He did the play My Dear Children, in which he played a has-been Shakespearean actor and his poor memory actually seemed to work in its favor. People never knew what he was going to say or do next and audiences kind of loved it. Other attempts to poke fun at his image were less successful, like 1940’s The Great Profile. He also made regular appearances Rudy Vallee’s radio show to make fun of himself. While doing a recording of Romeo and Juliet in May 1942, he collapsed and later died of kidney failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and complications from pneumonia.
When talking about the career of Norma Shearer, it’s impossible to not discuss the career of Irving Thalberg. Being married to one of the most celebrated producers in Hollywood meant that her career became very closely intertwined with his, particularly throughout the 1930s.
During the 1920s, Norma Shearer worked her way up to become one of the biggest stars at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. After starring in movies with other luminaries of the silent film era like John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, and Lon Chaney, she transitioned well into talkies and won an Academy Award for her performance in 1930’s The Divorcee. With her 1927 marriage to Irving Thalberg, they had become one of the biggest power couples in Hollywood. Thalberg was often accused of only caring about Norma’s films, but I’ve never thought that was a fair assessment of his career. However, he did work to help her have the career of her dreams.
By the mid-1930s, Norma’s career had hit a crossroads. With production codes being fully enforced, she was no longer able to play the sophisticated, liberated women she exemplified in the pre-Code era and, under Thalberg’s guidance, she entered the “prestige picture” era of her career. Years later, when television entered the mainstream, the films she made during this time were the ones she would become most closely associated with for several decades, not her pre-Code work.
Of all the movies made during this phase of her career, 1936’s Romeo and Juliet is unquestionably one of the two that best reflects her status as the queen of MGM. As if a Shakespeare production didn’t carry enough prestige on its own, it was a truly lavish production. And it’s also the movie the Independent Theater Owners Association was complaining about when they published their Box Office Poison ad in May 1938 and included Norma Shearer on their list of stars they claimed did little to draw people into theaters.
Adaptations of Shakespeare in general were a risky venture for film studios. Even with high potential for artistic achievement, they weren’t an easy sell. When plans were announced for MGM’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the only person who seemed enthused about it was Irving Thalberg. Romeo and Juliet would be the kind of prestige picture that Louis B. Mayer famously despised. Not only would it be expensive to produce, he knew it would lack the widespread appeal necessary for it to be profitable. Other MGM execs agreed. As far as they were concerned, any potential it had to win an Oscar or two wasn’t worth its estimated $1.5 million budget.
Thalberg tried to assemble an A-list cast and crew to make the concept more appealing, but that also proved to be a challenge. George Cukor signed on to direct, but jokes were already being made about the idea of Norma, who was in her 30s and had recently given birth to her second child, playing a teenager. Thalberg knew the right male lead would make or break this movie. When he approached Clark Gable about the project, Gable replied, “I don’t look Shakespeare, I don’t talk Shakespeare, I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” Initially, Leslie Howard initially wasn’t interested in doing the movie and Warner Brothers didn’t want to loan him out for it anyway. However, after some reconsideration on Leslie’s part and some loan-out negotiations between Warner Brothers and MGM, Howard ended up in the part of Romeo.
Theater owners at the time had valid reason to roll their eyes about the idea of getting stuck with a Shakespearean adaptation. By the time MGM’s production of Romeo and Juliet was released, it was just over a year after an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Warner Brothers set the worst kind of box office record: a record number of cancellations from theater owners.
The only way Thalberg was able to get the green light to proceed with Romeo and Juliet was by agreeing to cut the budget down to $800,000. However, production costs quickly exceeded that amount to a considerable degree. The initial $1.5 million budget seemed like a quaintly conservative figure compared to its final price tag of nearly $3 million.
The team working on Romeo and Juliet went to great lengths to make a movie that felt as authentic as possible. During pre-production, a crew spent four months in Italy photographing genuine Renaissance-era items and finding as many items as possible to bring back. Not only did the lead actors have highly detailed costumes created for them, extras in crowd scenes did as well. Massive sets were built, including a full-sized balcony. Consultants were brought on to give advice on how to adapt Shakespeare for the screen and to work with actors on their diction.
In addition to the technical costs of producing Romeo and Juliet, problems with the crew made production a drawn out process. John Barrymore, who was was dealing with alcoholism and recently had seen his marriage to Dolores Costello come to an end, wasn’t exactly reliable. Norma, the only actor in the cast without experience as a stage actor, was anxious about her performance. George Cukor struggled to find his footing as a director, which slowed down filming at times.
When shooting on Romeo and Juliet was finally complete, the first test screening was not the resounding success Thalberg had been hoping for. The audience reaction wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. Over the years, Thalberg had earned a reputation for being able to rescue projects that received negative or indifferent reactions during test screenings. But in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the source material meant there was little he could do to boost its appeal. On other films, he had the option of doing things like ordering rewrites and reshoots to improve them. Even movies based on more contemporary plays and books gave him some leeway. But since Shakespeare is so deeply enmeshed in the collective consciousness, his hands were largely tied.
In spite of all the doubts surrounding the project, Romeo and Juliet actually wasn’t poorly received. Many critics gave it favorable reviews, even if they fell short of being raves. Very often, they admired aspects of the production and Norma’s performance was generally praised. After its premiere, it did reasonably well at the box office and its performance strengthened in subsequent weeks. Schools organized field trips to see it and it started trends inspired by Norma’s costumes and hairstyles in the film. However, given the total cost of production, doing “reasonably well” at the box office wasn’t enough for MGM to break even on it. In the end, it lost $922,000.
For Thalberg, the box office performance of Romeo and Juliet was a personal disappointment. This was a big passion project for him and he knew that Norma wasn’t going to act forever and wanted her to leave a strong legacy. Even when he was fatally ill, he was still asking about box office numbers for Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet was released very shortly before Thalberg’s death on September 14, 1936, making it the last film of Norma’s that he was able to personally oversee to completion. But before he died, he had put the wheels in motion for her to work on Marie Antoinette.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Irving Thalberg’s career is the fact that he made a name for himself by reining in Erich von Stroheim’s extravagant, spare-no-expense productions, but ended his career with movies like Romeo and Juliet and The Good Earth, both of which were too expensive to be profitable. Had he lived to oversee it, Thalberg’s vision for 1938’s Marie Antoinette had the potential to make von Stroheim’s extravagance look positively understated in comparison.
Irving and Norma had been pushing to make Marie Antoinette happen since 1933 and Thalberg had very big ideas for it. He imagined it filmed in color and, like Romeo and Juliet, wanted it to have larger-than-life sets and and thousands of ornate costumes. Once again, a crew had already been sent to Europe to purchase antiques and take photographs that could be referenced during production. Over 900 wigs had been created for it. By the time of Thalberg’s death, $400,000 had been spent on pre-production, so scrapping the project all together would have been a big waste of money.
In the aftermath of Thalberg’s death, the executives at MGM took some time to figure out what would become of the projects Thalberg had been working on. Many expected that Marie Antoinette would be scrapped without him, but in late 1936, Louis B. Mayer informed Norma that Marie Antoinette would be her next film and work would begin when she was ready to come back. But first, Norma had some issues to resolve with MGM. She was not at all impressed with the way the studio had been handling Thalberg’s legacy.
While on leave after Irving’s death, Norma heard stories about how some of the execs — ones who owed their entire careers to Irving — were trying to diminish his contributions to the studio and take credit for his work. Mayer was also shortchanging Norma by helping himself to the share of Irving’s profits which Norma was owed. This led to Norma making an appearance on a radio show hosted by Louella Parsons for the purpose of publicly calling Mayer out and making it known that she was considering a new studio.
At that point, Norma was still considered a reliable box office draw, so there was incentive for MGM to keep her around aside from generally avoiding the bad publicity of ripping off the widow of the man who helped build the studio. And Mayer knew how much Norma wanted to do Marie Antoinette, so agreements were eventually reached. Norma signed a new contract with MGM and Marie Antoinette was finally happening — even if Mayer wasn’t happy about having to give up those profit shares.
But without Irving around, that meant others at MGM could have more control over production of his final project. The idea of doing Marie Antoinette in color quickly went out the window. Had it been filmed in color, that alone would have added $4 million to the budget. However, Mayer and other MGM execs were still harboring some resentment over their dispute with Norma and conspired to push Sidney Franklin, the first choice to direct Marie Antoinette, out of the job and bring in W.S. Van Dyke, who was famous for filming things quickly.
When Norma heard that Sidney Franklin was out, she simply didn’t have it in her to fight it. She didn’t want to be perceived as being difficult and she found out about it on the first New Year’s Eve she would be spending without Irving. Even though Norma was willing to settle for W.S. Van Dyke, she had learned how to make studio politics work for her and put those skills to work for her once filming began. It was the only way she knew how to make sure the finished product even came close to matching what Irving had in mind. For example, when she thought Van Dyke was rushing through things, she made sure the right people knew and she ended up getting the reshoots she wanted.
Upon its release in July 1938, Marie Antoinette was very well received. Critics and audiences liked it and it earned four Academy Award nominations. Norma earned one last Best Actress nomination for her performance and MGM was able to get the favorable publicity of following through with the late Irving Thalberg’s final prestige picture. But even when filmed in black and white, the high production costs meant that it was a hit with little hope of becoming profitable. It lost $767,000.
Before his death, Irving Thalberg had been expecting Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette to be Norma’s swan songs. He wanted her to leave the public eye triumphantly. But when she signed that new contract with MGM, she had a few films left before retirement.
After Marie Antoinette, Norma starred in 1939’s Idiot’s Delight alongside Clark Gable. While not nearly as extravagant as Marie Antoinette or Romeo and Juliet, Idiot’s Delight still has the distinction of being one of the few movies Clark Gable made at MGM which lost money. That same year, she was part of the all-star ensemble cast for The Women, even though she wasn’t thrilled about the role of Mary Haines. Despite the fact that The Women did well at the box office, it was another movie that fell into the category of being too expensive to be profitable. It wouldn’t earn a profit until a re-release later in the 1940s.
Even though The Women was Norma’s last big hit movie, 1940’s Escape was the last film she appeared in which earned a profit. Her final two movies, We Were Dancing and Her Cardboard Lover both also failed to turn a profit and Norma retired from acting in 1942.