Author: Angela

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. I am also the co-author of the cookbook "Cooking With the Classics: Recipes Inspired by Classic Films," which is available to buy on Etsy and Bonanzle. All content on my website is copyrighted.

Box Office Poison: Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together in the 1930s.

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.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time.

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:

Shall We Dance ad from May 5, 1937 Variety issue.

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 Astaire with Burns and Allen in A Damsel in Distress.

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.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Carefree.

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.

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade

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.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse promo photo for The Band Wagon.

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.

Box Office Poison: Dolores del Rio

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.

Box Office Poison: John Barrymore

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.

Box Office Poison: Norma Shearer

Publicity photo for Romeo and Juliet (1936) of Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer

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.

Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet

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.

Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette

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.

Norma Shearer in costume for Marie Antoinette

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.

Box Office Poison: Mae West

Mae West

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

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

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

Mae West Cary Grant She Done Him Wrong

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

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

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

Mae West Belle of the Nineties

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

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

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

Klondike Annie Lobby Card

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

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

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

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

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

Mae West Every Day's a Holiday

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

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

Mae West Sextette

My Thoughts on TCMFF: Special Home Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Choices for the TCM Classic Film Festival: Home Edition

TCM Classic Film Festival Home Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 16

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

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

Friday, April 15

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 18

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

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

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

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

Julie Andrews Victor/Victoria

Sunday, April 19

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

Other Ways to Bring the TCMFF Experience Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box Office Poison: Luise Rainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box Office Poison: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

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

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

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

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

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

Marlene Dietrich Shanghai Express

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

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

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

Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas in Angel (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again

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

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

Marlene Dietrich with Allied Troops in WWII

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

Book vs. Movie: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

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

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

Fast Times at Ridgemont High A True Story Book Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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