1930s

Box Office Poison: Kay Francis

Kay Francis.

When you hear the words “the queen of Warner Brothers,” who is the first person you think of? For many people, the answer is probably going to be Bette Davis. After all, she starred in several of the studio’s most prestigious films, like Dark Victory; Now, Voyager; and The Letter, just to name a few, so it certainly wouldn’t be an undeserved title. Over time, she became so closely associated with Warners that she was nicknamed “the fifth Warner brother.” But before Bette Davis, there was Kay Francis.

While Bette Davis was trying to make a name for herself in movies like Parachute Jumper and Fashions of 1934, Kay Francis had been starring in pre-Code classics like Jewel Robbery, Man Wanted, and One Way Passage for Warners, as well as Trouble and Paradise and Girls About Town at Paramount. She signed her first contract with Warner Brothers in 1932 when they offered her a better deal than Paramount was offering her.

By 1935, Kay Francis had reached the peak of her career at Warners when she officially became the highest paid star at the studio, receiving a salary of $4,000 per week and a lavish new dressing room. Following the success of I Found Stella Parish, she was given a new three-year contract with Warner Brothers even though her contract wasn’t up yet. Louella Parsons reported that this new contract was Jack Warner’s way of rewarding her for her cooperative nature and for never turning down a script offered to her. This new contract bumped her salary up to $5,250 per week.

Even though things were going extremely well for Kay at Warner Brothers at this point, she had lofty ambitions for where she wanted her career to go next. She aspired to work with Charles Laughton. Notably, she was interested in playing Edith Cortright in Dodsworth, but the part went to Mary Astor instead when Warners refused to loan her out. She was also interested in starring in adaptations of Tristan and Isolde and of Mildred Cram’s novel Forever, the latter of which fell through when it was discovered that Norma Shearer already owned the rights to it. Kay was even involved in the early stages of forming a studio similar to United Artists along with Richard Barthelmess, Clive Brook, and Ronald Colman, which also never came to fruition.

Lobby card for The White Angel with Kay Francis.

All was seemingly going well for Kay Francis — and then The White Angel came along. The Story of Louis Pasteur had been a big hit for Warner Brothers, so they decided to ride their own success by producing The White Angel with Kay Francis starring as Florence Nightingale. Not only was there pressure to live up to the success of The Story of Louis Pasteur, being given the chance to play a historical figure was an opportunity for Kay to move past her image as a fashionable glamour queen. But while Kay’s performance received many good notes, and a compilation of reviews featured in the Motion Picture Review Digest largely ranged from very positive to average-but-not bad, the movie as a whole didn’t make the impression Warner Brothers was hoping for. While The Story of Louis Pasteur earned two Academy Award wins for its writing (Best Writing – Original Story and Best Writing – Screenplay), The White Angel didn’t have the strong foundation that Pasteur‘s screenplay offered.

When Kay first read the script for The White Angel, she recorded her reaction in her diary: “Read my new script — dear God!” You might not expect that a biopic of Florence Nightingale would be particularly controversial, but getting approval from all the necessary parties proved to be surprisingly difficult. First of all, a key part of the movie was supposed to feature Florence Nightingale being presented to Queen Victoria. But when the production was denied permission to depict Queen Victoria in the movie, the reworked scene lacked the same dramatic punch as the original version would have had. The Breen office also took issue with scenes depicting brutality, which is highly restrictive when trying to tell the story of a woman providing care to soldiers wounded in a brutal war. One scene involving an amputation had to be cut.

The timing of the release of The White Angel also didn’t work to the movie’s advantage. A movie like The White Angel could have potentially benefitted from people seeing it for school assignments, as was the case for Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Unfortunately, The White Angel was released in late June 1936, after the school year had ended. Kay later said she regretted making The White Angel and producer Hal Wallis noted it was a box office disappointment.

Kay Francis and Errol Flynn in Another Dawn.

The White Angel was followed by 1936’s Give Me Your Heart, which was a more typical Kay Francis movie and was more successful financially than The White Angel. Of course, Jack Warner decided this meant that Kay should stick to her usual fare: movies full of glamour and melodrama. Give Me Your Heart was followed by 1937’s Stolen Holiday and Another Dawn. In her diary, she said of Stolen Holiday, “Script from studio — BAD! Too sweet — old hat.” Considering all the ideas Kay had for her career, getting stuck in the same old types of roles over and over was very disappointing.

Another Dawn is an interesting movie in the sense that a lot of key people involved with it didn’t particularly want to be involved. Warners had originally planned the movie for Bette Davis, who got placed on suspension after refusing to do it, which is how it ended up going to Kay Francis. Kay seemed utterly bored by her role and said of it, “I don’t do much in it. Things just happen to me. I am just a wife who has been unfortunate in love, as usual.” Errol Flynn didn’t really want to do the movie, either. Director William Dieterle only did the movie as a favor to Hal Wallis.

Reviews for Another Dawn were, at best, mediocre. Generally, critics thought the writing was weak and the premise was trite. A critic for the New York Times said of it:

“Not since the fabled phoenix has the Arabian desert blossomed into anything quite so stunning as Kay Francis and her extensive wardrobe in ‘Another Dawn.’ Too often, however, has it, or its romantic Hollywood substitute, beheld the the familiar triangular plot…The picture is not entirely without merit, of course. Herbert Mundin is in it, and the California sand dunes have rarely, if ever, been photographed more beautifully.”

Warner Brothers had wanted Another Dawn to be a special production, so “nice sand dunes” was hardly the reaction the studio was hoping for.

Costume test with Kay Francis for Confession.

1937’s Confession has undergone a critical re-evaluation over the years and has become popular among Kay’s modern day fans, but its initial reviews were somewhat mixed. Many critics thought it was Kay’s best movie in a while, but also thought the plot was a rehash of other Hollywood melodramas. By now, Kay was fed up with all the melodramatic roles and welcomed the comedic change of pace that First Lady (1937) offered. Unfortunately, First Lady was mostly well regarded for its writing and for Verree Teasdale, but Kay’s performance got some good notes from Variety and Hedda Hopper.

However, before audiences even had a chance to see First Lady, a career-altering event for Kay was happening behind the scenes. During her most recent round of contract negotiations, she had a very specific project in mind: starring in Tovarich alongside Charles Boyer and with Anatole Litvak directing. She felt strongly enough about it that she considered being able to do Tovarich a key condition of accepting this contract. Given the quality of material she had been recently been given to work with, she felt that Tovarich would be a surefire way to give her career a shot in the arm. When Warners announced that Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount, would be starring in Tovarich instead, Kay was angry enough to file a lawsuit to get out of her contract.

News of Kay’s lawsuit may have been surprising to many because, while some people found her cold and aloof, she wasn’t exactly known for being a diva, either. Remember how Jack Warner voluntarily gave her a new contract in 1935 as a reward for always accepting projects offered to her? The House on 56th Street and Mandalay were both rejected by Ruth Chatterton before Kay took them on without objection. When it came to work, she was extremely professional. She was punctual and always tried to keep her personal and professional lives separate. She was very reliable and had a nine-year streak of not calling out for even a single day off, which lasted until the production of Confession. There are many stories about her being generous and kind to others at the studio, at times rejecting special treatment on the set if it wasn’t also being given to extras. Of course, there were some disputes during productions, but Kay would often come back to smooth things over after calming down. In her personal life, she was known for leading a surprisingly modest lifestyle for a big movie star and didn’t even get a nice car for herself until 1937 — and even then, she preferred driving herself to hiring a chauffeur.

Filing a lawsuit wasn’t even Kay’s first line of action. She tried resolving the problem out of court, but was forced to go to court on September 3, 1937 when Warners refused to budge. In her suit, she accused Warner Brothers of putting her, “in pictures of inferior quality and putting her name in a special interstudio register which kept other studios from bidding for her services.” So not only was she prevented from doing Tovarich, she clearly hadn’t forgotten her disappointment of not being loaned out for Dodsworth.

Bette Davis before her court hearing.

Her case had some common ground with other lawsuits that had already been filed against Warner Brothers by James Cagney and Bette Davis. In all cases, pursuing those legal disputes was very risky for the stars involved. Bette Davis didn’t win her case, but she still got the better roles she wanted. On the other hand, James Cagney did win his case and his contract with Warner Brothers was nullified in 1936. However, other major studios weren’t willing to work with him because they’d be in a tough spot if Warner Brothers succeeded in getting the ruling overturned. This led to Cagney making two movies for the independent studio Grand National, both of which lost money. Cagney later returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 with better contract terms.

These types of legal disputes also had the potential for damaging the star’s reputation with the public. Both Cagney and Davis faced their share of slings from the media during their disputes. In Bette’s case, some tried to paint her as ungrateful and money hungry. But in a letter to Jack Warner written by Bette on June 21, 1936, months before her day in court, she talks about wanting a loan out clause in her contract and vacation time, and even offers to accept less pay if her terms were agreed to. (This letter is available to read on Stars and Letters, but doesn’t talk about her wanting better roles at Warner Brothers, which was another big part of her case.)

With Kay’s status as being a top-paid star, she certainly faced the risk of also being labeled money hungry. But similar to Greta Garbo, Kay Francis wasn’t a big fan of dealing with the media. Kay tolerated it more than Garbo, but she had her limits and valued her privacy. Unfortunately, this meant that some publications seemed to already be losing their patience with Kay even before her trial and were eager to cite specific examples of what they deemed bad behavior. In the July 3, 1937 issue of Picturegoer, there is a letter from the editor dedicated to Kay Francis, chiding her over reports of becoming too temperamental. These issues include a vague mention of trouble while filming 1934’s Wonder Bar, having a reporter thrown out of a party she hosted at a restaurant, not being attentive enough to British press on a trip to England, and arguing with director Joe May about dialogue in Confession. The letter also essentially blames her for the state of her career at that point, as if she controlled the projects she was given:

It seems very likely that nobody wanted to see a revival of the charming and sophisticated Kay Francis of One Way Passage and Trouble in Paradise more than Kay Francis.

Picturegoer ran another article about Kay Francis in their October 2, 1937 issue which opens under the pretense of being sympathetic, reminding people of her reputation for being highly cooperative with Warner Brothers, before citing some brief examples of “artistic temperament” during the productions of The White Angel (which they erroneously call The White Sister) and Confession before airing some grievances about Kay’s relationship with the press:

“It is particularly unfortunate that, amid her other troubles, Kay is not on the best terms with the Hollywood writers and is not getting a sympathetic press at a time that she needs it. She has never liked being interviewed, but until recently managed to maintain particularly friendly relations with the reporters.

The trouble all started when Kay gave a party some time ago. She lives in an extremely modest little house, and when she entertains on on any scale she does so in one of the larger Hollywood restaurants. On this occasion, a reporter gate-crashed.

No one likes to have her party gate-crashed, but Kay might have handled the situation more tactfully. She had the intruder ejected.

Her press vendetta has moreover been intensified by her friendship with Delmar Daves, a screenwriter she met during the making of The White Sister, and with whom her name has been linked in the romance rumors.

Kay has always felt that her marriage to Kenneth McKenna might have stood a better chance if it had not been for all the publicity that surrounded it from the outset, and she has openly resented press interest in her new romance.”

(One can’t help but wonder if the reporter who crashed Kay’s party worked for Picturegoer since they sure seemed salty about that incident.)

Not much is known about what, exactly, went on during Kay’s trial. What we do know is that, rather than having her contract nullified as Kay initially wanted, it was decided that Kay would finish out her contract at Warner Brothers. The official explanation was simply that Kay and Warner Brothers had reached an amicable agreement. Even other people who worked at Warner Brothers were rather baffled by the outcome and weren’t quite clear about what happened. Decades later, Bette Davis said of it:

“Out of the blue, it was announced she would complete her contract by starring in B-pictures! It was simply unprecedented and no reason was ever given. A huge embarrassment for such a star — she had many, many fans…Jack Warner was despicable to Miss Francis. I felt awfully sorry for her, and it certainly scared every actress in town. She said what she had to: that she was looking forward to retiring. Or, at least, taking some time off after working so hard. No one dared question her explanation, but it was known.”

Regardless of what exactly went on in the courtroom during Kay’s trial, her relationship with Warner Brothers was irreparably damaged and the agreement seems to have been anything but amicable. Jack Warner set out on a mission to make Kay miserable enough to break her contract so that the studio could sever their ties with her. But Kay refused to take the bait and continued to collect her big paychecks until her contract ended in September 1938.

Kay Francis in Women Are Like That.

Despite the quality of her recent movies, Kay was still considered a popular star among moviegoers. But despite her lasting popularity, Jack Warner insisted on putting her in what he considered the worst, most demeaning projects possible. First up was 1938’s Women are Like That, which was not particularly well received.

“The plot lacks both dramatic continuity and point. The mood wavers between connubial romance and connubial ruckus, without ever becoming persuasive.” – New York Herald Tribune

“It represents a courageous attempt to explain in the protracted seventy-very-odd minutes at its disposal certain aspects of a human problem which has baffled philosophers through the ages…There is only one question I must ask the authors of Women are Like That. It is, “Like what?” – New York Times

“Women are like that; so probably a good proportion of upper middle class women will like the extremely dull story, pseudo-intelligent dialogue, the romance between middle aged Francis, middle aged O’Brien. It is a woman’s picture for a comparatively small proportion of women at that. Estimate: weak programmer.” – Philadelphia Exhibitor

Some media outlets were also still taking jabs at Kay’s behavior. In an article titled “Kay and Pat are Like That!”, which ran in the January 1938 issue of Screenland, the writer does talk about the warm, friendly side to Kay, but it comes after the writer spends a considerable amount of time making heavy-handed efforts to paint Kay in a bad light while building up Pat O’Brien as the nice, easygoing good guy. After talking about how Kay filed her lawsuit after not getting to do Tovarich, they talked about how Pat O’Brien ended up doing Women Are Like That after rejecting another project:

“And it seems that Pat O’Brien was scheduled to go into Swing Your Lady but he didn’t like the script (neither did Joan Blondell who walked right off the set and took a course in hula dancing), and Pat didn’t want to pile up another suspension so he said holy mackerel and jumping catfish, haven’t you got something else around here I can do?”

Other highlights from that article include:

“A suing actress isn’t the most sociable person in the world — instead of the customary one chip she has the whole block on her shoulder — she is utterly convinced that the studio is trying to ruin her, so why should she be pleasant to anyone? The boys and girls from the publicity department hang an imaginary ‘Small-pox’ sign over the door of the stage and keep as far away as possible. Little people like you and me run like mad in the opposite direction. A suing star, it seems, has all the delightful charm of a coiled cobra.”

“On the set, she is slightly aloof, even when not suing, and doesn’t like to have crowds of tourists gaping at her when she is doing her scenes, or interviewers hanging around waiting to ask if she is going to marry Delmar Daves. On the other hand, Pat O’Brien, a cordial good-natured Irishman, and as natural as the day is long, likes nothing better than having mobs of people watching him act — in fact he and Humphrey Bogart even act better, if that is possible, when they have an admiring audience — and he doesn’t care what an interviewer asks him because his life is an open book. When Pat first started working at Warners, a guy asked him, ‘Mr. O’Brien, do you want your sets closed or not?’ To which our Mr. O’Brien replied, ‘If you want to tear down the sides of the stage and put in grandstands it’s all right with me.'”

Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway.

Warners hit the mark in demeaning Kay by making her do Women Are Like That, but following it up with 1938’s My Bill ended up backfiring by being more successful than expected. Secrets of an Actress and Comet Over Broadway, also released in 1938, both failed to make an impression with critics and audiences. Comet Over Broadway is notable for being another movie that Kay Francis starred in after Bette Davis refused to do it. Bette called it, “the first nothing script I was given since my court battle in England,” and claimed that she was sick but would have made an effort for better material.

Comet Over Broadway wasn’t the last time the careers of Kay Francis and Bette Davis would overlap. After Bette was put on suspension for refusing to do Comet Over Broadway, she was assigned 1938’s The Sisters, a movie that had been planned for Kay. Kay had expressed an interest in doing 1939’s Juarez, but it ended up going to — who else — Bette Davis. Prior to her lawsuit, Kay had been considered for Dark Victory, and she was interested in the doing the movie, but Jack Warner made sure the part went to Bette.

When Kay Francis was included in the Box Office Poison ad published in 1938, nobody was probably less surprised than Kay. This was exactly the sort of thing Jack Warner had been hoping for post-lawsuit and even in the few years leading up to the ad’s publication, she had no delusions about the quality of scripts she had been receiving.

In addition to assigning her the worst projects possible, Warners continued punishing Kay Francis behind the scenes. Her nice, big dressing room had been reassigned to John Garfield and, subsequently, to Bette Davis. When she wasn’t busy working on set, the studio had her do screen tests with young actors the studio was considering working with. Not only was this the kind of thing that would’ve been considered way beneath the pay grade of someone like Kay Francis, a lot of stars of her stature would consider it an insult to be asked to do it. But Kay still showed up every time and did those screen tests without complaint. Warners even resorted to doing completely petty things just to make her more miserable, like giving her call times that were several hours earlier than when she was actually needed on set and denying her lunch pass requests so that she couldn’t eat with friends in the studio commissary. But she was determined to ride her contract out to the very bitter end, as she said, “even if they put me in a bathing suit and have me walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard!”

Many other Warner Brothers employees were quietly sympathetic to Kay’s situation. The two who had the most influence and best understood what she was going through, Bette Davis and James Cagney, arranged a meeting with Harry Warner to advocate for better treatment for Kay since Harry had the power to overrule Jack Warner’s decisions. However, they weren’t able to get anywhere. There is some speculation that Harry Warner was actually the one behind the studio’s campaign of humiliation for Kay Francis, not Jack Warner, and it was blackmail for some incriminating information they had about Kay, possibly an affair involving another woman. However, I did not come across any meaningful evidence supporting this claim.

By the time she did King of the Underworld, released in 1939, she was still a bigger name than Humphrey Bogart. The script for King of the Underworld was reworked to enhance Bogart’s role, but much of the film still focuses on Kay’s character. Despite this, Warner Brothers decided to give Humphrey Bogart top billing in this movie; his first time getting top billing in a movie. Knocking Kay down in the billing order was such a blatant power move on the studio’s part that critics understood exactly what was going on and couldn’t help but comment on it. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, “We simply want to go gallantly on the record against what seems to be an act of corporate impoliteness.” Bogart also felt bad about the way Warner Brothers was treating Kay. Even the movie’s original title — Lady Doctor — feels like an insult with its laziness.

Kay’s last movie for Warner Brothers was Women in the Wind, released in April 1939, which some noted had an aura of people just being eager to get the movie done and over with as quickly as possible. Perhaps the most notable thing about the production of Women in the Wind is that it’s when Kay gave a widely-quoted interview that was the basis for an article in the March 1939 issue of Photoplay magazine. This is where the famous quote, “I can’t wait to be forgotten,” came from. That line was said when she was about to film the last scene of her last Warner Brothers movie.

This article includes many candid quotes that show someone at a real crossroads in their life. She talks about wanting to take time to relax, enjoy life, and enjoy the freedom of not being under contract. She talked about wanting to retire, but didn’t completely rule out the idea of doing more movies.

“I don’t say I’ll never make another picture because if I should happen to be in Hollywood and some producer offered me a good part, I’d jump at it. But as far as another contract, or making a career of pictures is concerned, I’m through!…The parade is passing me by and I don’t care.”

Looking back at her career and the way she handled things, she was remarkably honest in her thoughts:

“Perhaps I’d have been better off if I had fought for better stories, but the end didn’t justify the means. I’d have been suspended and the time I was under suspension would have been added to the end of my contract. So, instead of being free now, I would probably have had another year to go. And, even then, I’d have had no guarantee the stories I picked would have been any better. Even if they had been, the only difference would have been that I would be retiring in a blaze of glory instead of more or less inconspicuously — and this is the way I want it. I’ll be forgotten quicker this way.”

Despite her difficulties with the studio, it’s still clearly a bittersweet ending for her. Kay still had great relationships with many crew members at the studio and got a bit misty eyed over the fact that this was the first time she wasn’t hosting a wrap party for the cast and crew.

“I knew I’d start crying and so would some of the others. I didn’t want to become maudlin or sentimental. I didn’t want to say my goodbye that way. I want to remember all these people as friends with whom I used to kid — with whom I had swell times. I don’t want to remember them — or have them remember me — with long faces and red eyes. I want to saunter off the lot and out of their lives as casually as though the picture weren’t finished and we’d be meeting again in the morning.”

As Kay Francis left the Warner Brothers studio lot for the final time, she was saluted by the attendant at the gate. Her dispute with the studio took so much out of her that she never wanted to speak of it again, simply referring to it as “her great struggle.”

Kay Francis, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in In Name Only.

After leaving Warner Brothers, she stayed active films for several years, mostly in movies for RKO and Universal but with a few for 20th Century Fox and Monogram also in the mix. Of her post-Warner Brothers movies, the best remembered is 1939’s In Name Only with Carole Lombard and Cary Grant. She also had the opportunity to appear in movies alongside people like Deanna Durbin and Rosalind Russell. 1944’s Four Jills in a Jeep is also notable for being inspired by a USO tour she did with Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair during World War II. After making her final film in 1946, Kay moved onto the stage and did touring productions of plays like State of the Union, Let Us Be Gay, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and Goodbye My Fancy. However, health issues began to take a toll on her life and she gave her final stage performance on August 5, 1954. After her shoulder was fractured during a fall, she retired from acting.

Box Office Poison: Edward Arnold

Out of all the stars dubbed Box Office Poison by the Independent Theater Owners Association in 1938, Edward Arnold probably has the least name recognition among people who aren’t well-versed in classic Hollywood films. But his career was remarkably prolific, spanning nearly 50 years and included work in film, live theater, television, and radio.

After starting his career on the stage in 1907, he spent some time doing films at Essanay Studios for a few years, but returned to the stage and didn’t start focusing on films again until 1932. In the September 1935 issue of Screenland magazine, Arnold says of his early film career, “Pictures intrigued me several years ago, but when I found I’d have to come to Hollywood to show producers I was an actor, I decided to continue on the stage…Then along came my role of the polite murderer with Ernest Truex in ‘Whistling in the Dark,’ which eventually brought us to the Los Angeles Belasco Theater. The morning after the opening, the phones began ringing with screen offers — and I’ve been here ever since.”

That production of Whistling in the Dark opened on January 19, 1932 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York and also featured a then up-and-coming Claire Trevor. After getting back into films, Arnold appeared in several classics of the pre-Code era, including Three On a Match, Hide-Out, Sadie McKee, and I’m No Angel. In I’m No Angel, he starred alongside Mae West, who would later join him on the Box Office Poison list in 1938. Of course, there was also a film adaptation of Whistling in the Dark, which gave him a chance to reprise his role from the stage version.

Even though he’d had a successful stage career, he didn’t immediately become a top-tier movie star. Throughout the early 1930s, if his name made it onto the poster at all, he was often billed below actors like Franchot Tone, Robert Montgomery, and Cary Grant, but he built a good reputation as a character actor. It wasn’t until about 1935 that he started consistently getting top billing. Once he did become a top-billed star, it was sometimes in movies that have since become better remembered for starring other people. 1936’s Come and Get It, for example, is now usually talked about in relation to Frances Farmer. Or in the case of 1937’s Easy Living, he shared top billing with Jean Arthur. But whenever I hear people talk about that movie, it’s usually about Jean Arthur. So was he really that unsuccessful as a leading man?

Lobby card for Diamond Jim (1935).

1935’s Diamond Jim was a big opportunity for Edward Arnold to go from character actor to main star. Diamond Jim was released by Universal, who was fighting hard to compete with bigger studios like MGM and Warner Brothers at the time. They had hoped that this tale of the famed businessman would bring them the recognition they wanted. I was not able to find an exact figure for how much money Diamond Jim earned at the box office, but it didn’t earn any award nominations at least. But regardless of whether or not it was a box office smash, it wasn’t necessarily a failure for Edward Arnold. He was memorable enough in the movie to later play Diamond Jim Brady again in 1940’s Lillian Russell and The Motion Picture Herald published comments from theater owners who reported that Diamond Jim did well at their theaters.

Lobby Card for Sutter's Gold (1936).

1936’s Sutter’s Gold had a lot of potential, both for Edward Arnold and for Universal Studios, but production was rather difficult. Universal had initially wanted to make Sutter’s Gold in 1928, but the project ended up being shelved for various reasons. Once they were able to move forward with it, it ended up being very costly. City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures by Bernard F. Dick described it as a “financial nightmare” for the studio. In addition to the salary for Edward Arnold, which was three times more than he was paid for Diamond Jim, the studio spent a substantial amount of money on having Howard Hawks, William Faulkner, and Gene Fowler work on the screenplay, even though none of them received screen credit. In addition to James Cruze as director, Howard Hawks was also involved with direction in a limited capacity.

Once again, I was unable to find specific figures for Sutter’s Gold‘s box office performance from a reliable source, but many critics and theater owners were not impressed with it. One of the kinder reviews I found was in the April 1936 issue of the National Board of Review Magazine, which said, “Though the story is thrilling and exciting in parts, it is on the whole confusing.” Some comments from theater owners published in issues of the Motion Picture Herald had kind things to say about performances in the movie, but noted that their customers just weren’t interested. The September 12, 1936 issue included a quote from a theater owner in Ipswitch, South Dakota who simply said, “We wasted a good playdate when we booked this one.” A review in the Independent Exhibitor Film Bulletin from April 1, 1936 was positively scathing and basically called it Box Office Poison.

Edward Arnold’s next movie after Sutter’s Gold was 1936’s Meet Nero Wolf. Meet Nero Wolf wasn’t a runaway success, but at least the critical reception was more of a mixed bag than Sutter’s Gold. A selection of reviews published in Motion Picture Review Digest include a good amount of positive notes, several that were middling, and only one that was outright negative. Overall, many noted that it wasn’t as strong as other detective movies like the Philo Vance movies, but was still enjoyable enough for light summer entertainment. Edward Arnold’s performance was well received and even the lone negative review even noted that he deserved better material. (“The first and we hope last in a projected series…We hope that Mr. Arnold, Stander and Herbert Biberman [the latter directed the film] will be spared connection with the next in the series.” -Robert Stebbins, New Theater)

Lobby card for Come and Get It 1936.

1936’s Come and get It was unquestionably a critical darling. Motion Picture Review Digest published nearly two pages of reviews that were overwhelmingly positive, with many that could safely be described as “raves,” from both mainstream magazines/newspapers and trade publications. There were lots of good reviews for its direction and photography. Since Come and Get It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, many kind things were said about his taste in projects and called it a worthy follow-up to Dodsworth. Frances Farmer and Walter Brennan received good notes (Come and Get It was a major breakout movie for Farmer) and many praised Edward Arnold for giving one of the best performances of his career. But despite all the acclaim, the only person to win an Oscar for Come and Get It was Walter Brennan, who has the distinction of winning the first Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance. It’s also difficult to tell how successful it was financially. I was unable to find any specific figures, but “William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director” by Gabriel Miller notes that Come and Get It outperformed Dodsworth at the box office.

1937 was an interesting year for Edward Arnold’s career because he had two major movies released within the same month: Easy Living with Jean Arthur and Ray Milland and The Toast of New York with Cary Grant and Frances Farmer.

Of the two movies, Easy Living was the first one released. Initial reviews for Easy Living weren’t quite raves, but still positive overall. Generally, a lot of critics thought it was nonsense, but fun and entertaining nonsense. Variety‘s review was the most critical of the ones I found:

“This one is a poor imitation lacking the spontaneity and cleverness of My Man Godfrey…It is likely to open big and then fall off when customers are asked what they think about it. Disconcerting is the fact that the studio spared neither expense nor talent in its efforts to make something good out of something that was middle-class when it started.”

While I’m (once again) unable to find any actual figures to prove whether or not Variety was accurate in its predictions for Easy Living‘s box office performance, Paramount ran an ad in the Motion Picture Herald touting its successful run in New York during a heat wave.

It’s also worth noting that Edward Arnold’s performances were often singled out in reviews up until this point, even when the movie itself was otherwise panned. But Jean Arthur got a lot more of the attention for Easy Living. In the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, theater owners were even specifically advised to feature Jean Arthur when promoting the movie, even though they called Edward Arnold’s performance “delightful.”

The fact that Easy Living and The Toast of New York were released in the same month means I was able to find reviews of The Toast of the Town right alongside reviews of Easy Living. It’s interesting to see these initial reviews juxtaposed knowing the respective reputations the movies have over 80 years later. It’s a great example of how, sometimes, early critical opinions aren’t a reliable way to tell whether or not a movie will be successful with audiences, either in the short term or years down the line. In the case of Easy Living, it’s now regarded as a screwball comedy classic, so perhaps some of the initial reviews underestimated it just slightly. The exact opposite ended up happening with The Toast of New York.

“One of the most entertaining wonderworks of the year, without a dull spot in its several thousand feet of film.” “It is screen entertainment of the highest order.” “Contains more than the usual quota of of entertainment for the classes.” “This is an important comedy drama of an important period in American history. It has been brilliantly acted and directed, and with the names of Edward Arnold, Cary Grant, Jack Oakie, and Frances Farmer decorating the marquee, it should play to heavy box office returns.” These are all excerpts from initial reviews of The Toast of New York, mostly from trade publications, which set the bar too high. The Toast of New York was reportedly RKO’s biggest financial loss of the year, losing a total of $530,000. It doesn’t seem that The Toast of New York had the benefit of a big critical re-evaluation over the years, either. As of December 2021, it only has 6.3 stars on IMDB and is most likely to be sought out by people trying to see every Cary Grant movie.

With how little specific information I was able to find about the box office performance of Edward Arnold’s movies, it’s difficult for me to tell whether or not his box office appeal was really dwindling by the time the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938. It certainly seems that he had his ups and downs, like many performers do. In any case, it seems that Blossoms on Broadway, also released in 1937, it was a something of a breaking point. Issues of the Motion Picture Herald published in January 1938 feature some comments from theater owners who seemed positively exasperated by the movie:

“After 25 years, Adolph Zukor still makes 85 percent of his product B-C and D pictures. Will he ever find out that exhibitors want good pictures and not stuff like this one. His 1937-38 product, outside of 2 pictures up to this time, has been terrible. They drive business away. Make good ones or none at all.”

“Poorest Paramount we have taken from a can in three years. Shame to use such stars in so worthless and crude a thing as this.”

“A million dollars worth of talent wasted on this bit of disconnected and poorly constructed story. Don’t play it.”

“Good cast but plot unworthy. Very poor entertainment.”

Edward Arnold’s first movie released after the Box Office Poison ad was published in 1938 was The Crowd Roars. But this time around, he was playing a supporting role with Robert Taylor as the top-billed lead. From then on, he’d remain a supporting actor, gladly embracing smaller, richer character parts rather than main leads. The transition proved to be a good move and he finished out the 1930s with supporting roles in two of the most beloved movies of the decade: You Can’t Take it With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Edward Arnold in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In many cases, the idea of losing that coveted “leading man/leading lady” status would be enough to make a movie star panic, unless they were already looking to retire. But out of all the stars named Box Office Poison, Edward Arnold was perhaps the one least attached to the idea being a lead and always viewed character roles as having more to offer.

Looking back at articles about him which were published in the time leading up to the release of Diamond Jim, it’s interesting to note that he liked to sing the praises of being a character actor rather than talk about his new status as leading man like you’d expect many stars would want to. In the September 1935 issue of Screenland, he talks about himself in terms of being a character actor rather than a leading man.

“Of course, a character actor has much more liberty than a romantic leading man, for we don’t have to bother with camera angles or worry about the curl of our hair or which side of our face looks the best. All we have to do is cut loose and visualize our characters into being.”

In Photoplay magazine’s July 1935 issue, an article about him starring in Diamond Jim gave him a chance to talk about his desire to play a wide range of roles and how not being the lead can help in that respect.

“Coming to Hollywood three and a half years ago, I was darn near typed in pictures after playing gangsters in Okay, America and Whistling in the Dark. I got away from parts of that kind just in time. There’s a wide variety in other character roles. What’s more, movie audiences help you. People always know what’s going to happen to the lead — that no matter what he goes through he will in the end get the girl — but they never know what will happen to the character man — whether he’ll turn out to be a drunk, kill himself, or be hanged.”

The author of that article notes that, “these possibilities seemed to fill Mr. Arnold with a deep contentment as he leaned back and sighed restfully.” The article ends with Edward Arnold being quoted as saying, “And I thank God I’m a character actor!”

With an outlook like that, it’s no wonder he remained in high demand as a character actor for decades afterward, appearing in classics like Meet John Doe, Idiot’s Delight with Norma Shearer, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Annie Get Your Gun. In addition to his film career, he was active in radio and television before his death in 1956.

Book vs. Movie: A Free Soul

A Free Soul Lobby Card Clark Gable and Norma Shearer.

Without a doubt, 1931’s A Free Soul is a pre-Code essential. The story about a woman romantically torn between her conventionally respectable boyfriend and a known underworld figure is perfect pre-Code material all by itself, but when you add in the smarmy charm of a young Clark Gable and Norma Shearer wearing some very slinky evening gowns and robes, it’s pure gold. Lionel Barrymore also took home a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance and the movie proved to be a big hit for MGM. But before A Free Soul was a hit movie, it was a book by Adela Rogers St. Johns first published in 1927. So how do they compare?

Book & Movie Differences

To call the film version of A Free Soul a loose adaptation of the book is putting it mildly. They both feature a criminal defense lawyer and his daughter, whom he is very close with. The father, Stephen (played by Lionel Barrymore), struggles with alcoholism while his daughter, Jan (played by Norma Shearer), falls in love with a notorious gambler. They agree to a wager where they each give up what they love and take a trip to put things behind them, but the father struggles to give up drinking and later disappears for a while. Eventually, the father comes back to take care of a big trial because of a murder involving someone the daughter had been seeing. That’s about where the similarities end.

Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the book and the movie is the fact that the roles of Ace Wilfong (played by Clark Gable) and Dwight Sutro (played by Leslie Howard) are essentially switched. In the movie, Jan and Dwight are happy together until Ace comes along and Jan can’t resist his more dangerous allure. But in the book, Dwight had been out of the country for a few years and when he comes back to San Francisco and finds out Jan had gotten married, that doesn’t stop him from trying to see if he can start something up with her again. And since Jan is a bit lonely because of the hours Ace keeps, it’s easy for her to go along with it. When Ace finds out about it, he shoots Dwight in his home.

In the movie, we only see Jan as an adult, but the book paints a much larger picture of her life and her relationship with her father. The book tells stories about Jan’s childhood and teenage years. We find out that Jan has been dealing with Stephen’s alcoholism much longer than the movie suggests. For example, the book details an incident when 13-year-old Jan comes home in a cab in the early morning hours because Stephen had brought her to a gambling house, then got drunk and forgot about her, forcing her to find her own way home. We also learn why Jan’s mother wasn’t in the picture and why Stephen was determined to raise her in the unconventional manner that he had.

The book also gives us a more of a look at Ace Wilfong’s life, going back to the first time he crossed paths with Stephen and Jan Ashe when Ace was just a kid selling violets on the street and looked up to Stephen as a personal hero. We also learn more about Ace’s family, particularly his sister who has a rather rocky relationship with Jan because of jealousy over her marriage to Ace.

The character of Ace Wilfong is a great example of how, even in the pre-Code era, characters like gangsters, gamblers, and criminals needed to be written in certain ways in movies to avoid glorifying them. In the book, Ace doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy — aside from the part where he shoots Dwight, of course. Yes, Ace is a gambler, but he’s described as something of a respectable gambler. He seems to genuinely adore Jan and mentions wanting to eventually get out of gambling and into something more legitimate. Even when facing the death penalty, Ace remains loyal to Stephen when all logic and reason would tell him to work with a lawyer who isn’t just coming off of a long drinking binge. The movie version of Ace is rougher and more aggressive.

Is the Book Worth Reading?

Out of all the books I’ve read as part of the summer reading challenge, A Free Soul is the one where I most strongly prefer the movie over the book. The film version of A Free Soul is a strong, well-paced drama with some great performances. The book has a much slower pace and it takes a long time before you get to the parts that are most related to what happens in the movie. It’s a very slow burn, reaching its most exciting point with the events leading up to Ace shooting Dwight. I usually don’t mind a book that takes time to build to something and the parts that were good were enjoyable, but you have to get through a lot of other material to get to that point.

On the whole, it wasn’t my favorite book by any means, but I’m glad I was at least able to check it out for the sake of my own curiosity. Perhaps if you’re A Free Soul superfan and love the characters so much that you want to spend more time with them and get to know them more in depth, then it may be worth tracking down a copy of the book. But while the same thing can be said of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I don’t know that anyone has the same level of affection for characters like Jan Ashe and Ace Wilfong that they have for Jeff Spicoli.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel 1932 movie poster.

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.

Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel.

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.

Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel.

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?

Book cover of Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum.

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.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: Wife vs. Secretary

Wife vs. Secretary Movie Poster

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.

Jean Harlow and Jimmy Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary.

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.

Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary.

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 pulp book cover.

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.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the PastFor more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: Red-Headed Woman

Movie poster for the 1932 movie Red-Headed Woman.

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.

Jean Harlow and Chester Morris in Red-Headed Woman.

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.

Chester Morris and Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman.

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?

Book cover art for Red-Headed Woman by Katharine Brush.

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.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. For more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Book vs. Movie: 42nd Street

42nd Street 1933 movie poster.

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.

Dick Powell and Toby Wing in the Young and Healthy number from the movie 42nd Street.

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.

Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler, and Una Merkel in a scene from 42nd Street (1933).

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.

Warner Baxter, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Bebe Daniels.

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?

Book cover for the Photoplay edition of 42nd Street by Bradford Ropes.

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.

This review is part of the 2021 Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. For more reviews on books related to classic film, be sure to follow the #ClassicFilmReading hashtag on social media.

Box Office Poison: Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo Charles Boyer Conquest

At the peak of Greta Garbo’s career, she occupied a level of stardom that was unmatched by anyone. Not only was she making one acclaimed movie after another, the public was captivated by her elusive, enigmatic image. Norma Shearer may have been Queen of the Lot at MGM, but Greta Garbo was in a league of her own. Other studios tried to find their own versions of Garbo, but as often as she was imitated, she was never quite duplicated.

Greta Garbo came to the United States from Sweden in 1925 after Louis B. Mayer saw her performance in The Saga of Gosta Berling and was struck by her on-screen magnetism. After joining MGM, she quickly made a name for herself playing a series of vamp characters in movies like Torrent and The Temptress. Her rise to stardom took off like a shot when she starred opposite John Gilbert in 1926’s Flesh and the Devil, marking the beginning of an on-screen and off-screen relationship between the two stars.

As the 1920s wore on, her star only continued to rise, but by the end of the decade, the advent of talking pictures posed a threat to her white-hot career. Numerous other stars of the silent era saw their careers come to an end around this time because, like Garbo, they had come to America from Europe and had heavy accents. But Garbo was such a big star that MGM would’ve taken a big financial hit if she didn’t successfully make the transition to sound. So MGM took their time in finding the right vehicle for her to make her talkie debut in. Her big moment came in 1930’s Anna Christie and the wait was worth it. Anna Christie was a success and ushered in a new era in Garbo’s career.

In 1932, the time came for Garbo to negotiate a new contract with MGM. She was often frustrated by the roles MGM cast her in and longed for more creative control. And, of course, her megastar status merited a pay raise. MGM gave her both of those things and her new contract not only allowed her to choose her own projects, she also had say in her co-stars and her directors. By this time, she had also developed a very close friendship with actress/screenwriter Salka Viertel, who was extremely influential in shaping Garbo’s career choices.

Garbo Queen Christina

Not only did Viertel have a hand in writing several of Garbo’s films from that point on, she would give Garbo guidance about which projects she should and shouldn’t do and who she should and shouldn’t work with. The first movie Garbo made under her new contract, Queen Christina, was a commercial success, but it earned more in foreign markets than in the United States. This would become a recurring pattern during this stage of Garbo’s career and unfortunately, it’s one that would be a key factor in the decline of her career a few years later.

Many of the projects Viertel steered Garbo towards had a strong European appeal. Prior to her 1932 contract negotiation, most of Garbo’s movies earned more domestically than they did in foreign markets, or at least the two markets were pretty close. For example, Grand Hotel earned $1,235,000 domestically and $1,359,000 in foreign markets and Anna Christie earned $1,013,000 domestically and $486,000 in foreign distribution. On the other hand, Queen Christina earned $767,000 domestically and $1,843,000 foreign and 1935’s Anna Karenina earned $865,000 domestically compared to $1,439,000 foreign.

In 1936, Garbo had a career triumph starring in Camille opposite Robert Taylor. Producer Irving Thalberg took efforts to prevent the movie from feeling like just another stuffy costume picture and Garbo’s remarkably open performance is still regarded as one of her best. Camille went on to become a big hit both in the States and overseas. It was said to be her personal favorite of her own movies and she earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her work in it. However, Garbo was initially reluctant to make Camille. Thalberg wanted her to do Camille, but she was concerned it would be too similar to Anna Karenina and really wanted to do a movie about Marie Walewska, a mistress of Napoleon’s, instead. She only agreed to do Camille on the condition that she would also get to do the Marie Walewska movie as well. Ironically, this agreement brought her from a career high point to the first real low point of her career: 1937’s Conquest.

Up until 1937, Garbo was anything but Box Office Poison to MGM. 1926’s The Temptress lost $43,000, but that had been the only one and that loss is practically pocket change compared to the $1,397,000 that would be lost on Conquest. To help put that in perspective, when you adjust those amounts for inflation to reflect 2019 dollar values, that’s $604,671 lost on The Temptress compared to $24,939,125 lost on Conquest.

When the Independent Theater Owners Association included Garbo’s name in the Box Office Poison ad in May 1938, Conquest was exactly what they were referring to. It was the only movie she made in 1937 and she did not appear in a movie at all in 1938. Conquest cost $2.7 million to produce and a good portion of that went to paying its stars. Under her contract, Garbo earned $250,000 per movie and MGM had to pay $125,000 to get Charles Boyer for the role of Napoleon. Production also went considerably over schedule and both stars had clauses in their contracts that allowed them to get extra pay when production ran long. Garbo got an extra $100,000 on top of her usual salary and Boyer ended up being paid a total of $450,000.

Charles Boyer earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Napoleon, but audiences simply couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for Conquest. Many people found Boyer’s Napoleon more compelling than Garbo’s Marie Walewska, so for the first time, it was a Garbo movie that didn’t really feel like a Garbo movie. Given that the story of Conquest involved adultery and production codes were being enforced in 1937, writers were limited in what could be done with the script. However, what did make it into the final script wasn’t exactly engaging.

Not only was Conquest a major loss for the studio, by the time it was released, World War II was on the horizon and MGM realized they could no longer rely on European markets to pull in the profits Garbo’s movies needed. She needed a movie that would do very well in the United States. After spending much of her time at MGM playing characters like vamps, queens, and spies or starring in lavish costume pictures, it was time for the elusive, untouchable Greta Garbo to be brought down to Earth.

Just as thoughtful planning helped Garbo transition to sound films, it helped Garbo transition into comedy. Ninotchka was released in November 1939 and the delightful comedy helped bring Garbo back to the top of the box office. She had a great director in Ernst Lubitsch, a wonderful screenplay written by a team of writers that included Billy Wilder, and a perfect leading man in Melvyn Douglas. When Oscar season came around, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. When people talk about 1939 being Hollywood’s golden year, Ninotchka is one of the most widely cited examples supporting that claim.

Unfortunately, Garbo’s comeback would prove to be short lived. With the success of Ninotchka, MGM was eager to get her into another romantic comedy with Melvyn Douglas. Two-Faced Woman was released in 1941 and was a critical disaster. The plot, in which Garbo’s character pretends to be her fictional twin sister in an attempt to save her marriage, is sheer nonsense and many critics and moviegoers were appalled to see Garbo in such a ridiculous movie. It wasn’t Garbo’s finest performance, nor was it Melvyn Douglas’s, although Constance Bennett has some good moments in it. One critic described it as being as shocking as seeing your mother drunk. Other critics liked Garbo’s performance but hated the writing.

The reviews for Two-Faced Woman were the worst of her career. Garbo’s close friend Mercedes de Acosta later wrote that Garbo was humiliated by the reviews, but added, “I think Greta’s greatest regret was more in her own soul for having allowed herself to be influenced into lowering her own high standards.”

Two-Faced Woman also had the disadvantage of being released very shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the United States officially heading into World War II, Garbo knew it was time for her to take a break. She understood how important the European market was to her films and volunteered to bow out of films for the duration of the war. Louis B. Mayer agreed, but she never returned to MGM and Two-Faced Woman ended up being the final movie of her career.

Garbo hadn’t intended to fully retire from films after Two-Faced Woman, but any plans for films after that point never materialized. She continued to receive offers and in 1948, she filmed screen tests for what would have been an adaptation of La Duchess de Langelais co-starring James Mason and directed by Max Ophuls. However, funding couldn’t be secured and the project never happened, much to Garbo’s disappointment. Investors were concerned that she would no longer draw crowds at the box office. So while Garbo did briefly beat the Box Office Poison label, she never really escaped it, even after leaving Hollywood.

Box Office Poison: The Ad That Started it All

Box Office Poison 1938

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

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

While industry insiders were desperately looking for ways to get people back into movie theaters, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) responded by putting the blame on certain film stars and the studios for paying them what ITOA considered to be inflated salaries. On May 3, 1938, ITOA published a now infamous full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter which labeled Mae West, Edward Arnold, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Kay Francis, among others, as box office poison. Harry Brandt, who wrote the ad on behalf of ITOA, criticized movie studios for putting stars, “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned, but whose box office draw is nil,” in major productions. Later, an article in the Independent Film Journal, stated that some of the other stars considered Box Office Poison included Norma Shearer, Dolores del Rio, Fred Astaire, John Barrymore and Luise Rainer.

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

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

The Film Daily Box Office Poison

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

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

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

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

Norma Shearer

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

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

Norma Shearer Chester Morris The Divorcee

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

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

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

Norma Shearer Oscar

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

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

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

The Women 1939 Shearer Goddard

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

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

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

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

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

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

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

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

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

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

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

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

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

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