1930s

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 after Louis B. Mayer found out about her short-lived affair with Mickey Rooney, Shearer had been taken down a notch and reluctantly agreed to do The Women to help keep the peace with Mayer.

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

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

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

The Women 1939 Shearer Crawford Russell

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

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

The Women Shearer Russell Fontaine

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

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

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

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

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

What We Know About “Convention City”

Convention City Joan Blondell

Nothing makes a person want to see something quite like being told they can’t see it. Anytime a movie causes a stir because of its content, people will inevitably want to see it for themselves so they can make up their own minds about it. But when you take a movie that has a reputation for scandalous content and add in the fact that nobody can see it — literally — you get a movie that becomes a special breed of legendary film.

In 1933’s Convention City, the employees of the Honeywell Rubber Company arrive in Atlantic City for a convention. Of course, business the last thing on the minds of the visitors and they quickly get mixed up with booze, women, and other acts of debauchery. When it was released, it did pretty well at the box office, but it’s been largely unseen since then because no prints are currently known to exist. Not even the original theatrical trailer is known to exist.

When Convention City was released in December 1933, Hollywood was in the midst of its glorious pre-code era, which would come to an end less than a year later when the production codes started being fully enforced in July of 1934. Films during this era were often very suggestive, risqué, and innuendo-laden and Convention City certainly has a reputation in that respect. A critic for the New York Times said of Convention City, “Several of the jokes require a subterranean mind to be understood correctly.” In one of her books, Joan Blondell wrote about how she had a private copy of the movie and liked to screen it at parties because of its content, describing it as, “…the raunchiest there has ever been…we had so many hysterically dirty things in it.” Blondell also described Convention City as being ” burlesque-y.” In fact, legend has it that Warner Brothers ultimately destroyed the film because its content was so completely unfit to be re-released under the production codes. (We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.)

Convention City was more than just risqué content, though; it also had a pretty stellar cast. Several top stars of the time such as Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, and Adolphe Menjou are all in the film, leading Screenland magazine to dub Convention City, “the comedy Grand Hotel.” Even if it didn’t have a reputation for scandalous content, the cast alone would be enough to have classic film fans clamoring to find a print of it.

First of all, let’s discuss the idea that Convention City was destroyed because it was simply too controversial to be re-released. It is true that Warner Brothers listed their negative of Convention City as being junked in 1948, but according to Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, this was because the nitrate negative had deteriorated and could potentially pose a safety hazard. However, hundreds of prints were made for the film’s original release and were circulated around the world. Just because Warners junked the original negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean every single print of the film was successfully recalled and destroyed, too. Over the years, stories about it being shown later in the 1930s and 1940s have surfaced, so there is evidence to suggest that not all prints were systematically destroyed by Warner Brothers.

There’s also the fact that, despite its reputation, Convention City was hardly the most controversial film to come out of the pre-code era. Other highly controversial films like Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake were both also deemed unsuitable to be re-released under the production codes, but we’re still able to see those movies today. (Although Baby Face was only available in a censored form until an uncut print was found in one of the Library of Congress’ film vaults in 2004.) So content alone clearly wasn’t enough for a movie to automatically earn a one-way ticket into oblivion.

Not everything about Convention City has been lost to the ages, though. Some footage that had been filmed for establishing shots in Convention City was discovered in the late 1990s. Several stills from the film still exist, as does the original script. Thanks to the fact that the script still exists, a few live readings of the script have been staged over the years. Some people who attended the live readings have compared it to 1934’s The Merry Wives of Reno, which features some of the same stars as Convention City.  The fact that Convention City has been compared to Merry Wives of Reno both delights and frustrates me since I seem to remember that movie being pretty hilarious.

So, while there might not be any prints of Convention City that are currently known to exist, there is still a possibility that a print could be found someday. Many film historians and archivists are certainly keeping an eye out for this lost pre-code gem. If a print ever is found, it will absolutely be a very happy day for pre-code cinema fans everywhere.

The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess 1934

An unnamed single woman (Ruan Lingyu) has no other choice but to work as a prostitute to support her infant son (Li Keng). She absolutely adores her son and wants him to have a more opportunities to have a better life than she did. One night, while walking the streets, she ends up taking shelter with a big gambler (Zhang Zhizhi), the gambler decides that she is officially his property. She doesn’t like him and tries to get away from him, but he finds her again. He’s so intimidating that she has no other choice but to do what he says.

A few years pass and she’s still under the gambler’s control, but she continues working as a prostitute to be able to send her son to a good school. However, the parents of her son’s classmates are aware of what her profession is and her son is shunned by his classmates. There’s such a commotion about her that her principal has to come see her to find out whether or not the rumors are true. If they were, he’s have to expel her son. But after meeting her and seeing how sincerely she cares for her son, he doesn’t have the heart to do anything. But then the principal is forced to resign and her son is expelled anyway.

She realizes that if she wants to give her son a better life, her only choice is to move someplace where nobody knows them. She’s been hiding money away, but when she goes to get it, she realizes the gambler has taken it. She demands her money back and he refuses, so she hits him over the head with a bottle, killing him. She’s sentenced to 12 years in prison and her son is headed for an orphanage. When the son’s former principal reads about what happened, she goes to see her and offers to raise her son and give him a good education.

Although the silent film industry in America had come to a complete stop before 1934, aside from Chaplin, they were still being produced in China because so few theaters could afford to upgrade to sound technology and because so many dialects are spoken in China. The Goddess is one of the most influential films made in China and stars the wonderful Ruan Lingyu, who was considered to be China’s answer to Greta Garbo. Her performance was beautiful, heartfelt, and sensitive. The story may be melodramatic, but Ruan’s performance elevates it above ordinary melodrama. I can think of several American films from around this era that have a similar premise of a fallen woman making a major sacrifice for her child, but The Goddess is better than any of them.

If you’ve never seen The Goddess, it’s well worth seeing just for a chance to see Ruan Lingyu in action. She was a major star in China who committed suicide at the age of 24. Only 8 of her movies are known to survive and The Goddess is a fine example of what a talent she was.

Dancing Co-Ed (1939)

Dancing Co-Ed 1939Freddie and Toddie Tobin are one of the most popular dancing duos working and are about to start making a new movie together, but when news breaks that Toddie is pregnant, they need to find someone to take her place in their new film. The studio moguls decide that instead of getting another big-name star to take Toddie’s place, they should cast an unknown and hold a nationwide contest for college students to find her replacement. But to make sure they’re choosing someone who is up to the demands of working with a dancer like Freddie, they choose a real dancer named Patty Marlow (Lana Turner) and enroll her in college so she can “win” the contest.

Patty isn’t too happy about the prospect of going back to school and since she isn’t all that educated to begin with, the studio’s press agent gets his secretary Eve (Ann Rutherford) to take her entrance exams for her and pays for her to go back to school, too. While at school, she ends up falling in love with Pug Braddock (Richard Carlson), who works for the school paper. Much to her surprise, she also starts to really like journalism, too. Pug is skeptical about this big nationwide contest and wants to do an expose about it. Patty tries to continue with the contest, while trying to convince Pug she’s on the level at the same time. Of course, it isn’t long before he finds out the truth, but everything works out in the end.

Some movies don’t aspire to be anything more than lighthearted fun and that’s exactly what Dancing Co-Ed does. Fluffy, formulaic, nonsense plot? Absolutely! But is it fun to watch? Oh, yeah! I’ve spent all day not feeling very well and this was exactly the sort of movie I needed to lift my spirits a little bit. Not only does it have a very young Lana Turner, still pretty early in her career at this point and very beautiful and charming, it has a really great supporting cast with people like Ann Rutherford, Roscoe Karns, and Monty Woolley, who plays one of Patty’s professors. It’s simply a really cute movie. Nothing Earth shattering, but sometimes you just need something fun and cute and Dancing Co-Ed fits the bill perfectly. I loved it.