Box Office Poison

Box Office Poison: Mae West

Mae West

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

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

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

Mae West Cary Grant She Done Him Wrong

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

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

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

Mae West Belle of the Nineties

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

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

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

Klondike Annie Lobby Card

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

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

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

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

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

Mae West Every Day's a Holiday

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

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

Mae West Sextette

Box Office Poison: Luise Rainer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box Office Poison: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

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

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

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

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

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

Marlene Dietrich Shanghai Express

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

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

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

Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas in Angel (1937)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again

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

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

Marlene Dietrich with Allied Troops in WWII

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

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 Back Story: The Death of Irving Thalberg

Irving ThalbergAs we talk about the infamous Box Office Poison ad from 1938, it’s important to remember that the ad wasn’t solely based on movies released in 1938. The ad itself was published on May 3, 1938, so while movies released in early 1938 were certainly considered, the Independent Theater Owners Association (ITOA) also considered movies released a year or two earlier. And for some of the stars who were dubbed “Box Office Poison” in the ad, behind-the-scenes factors that may have contributed to their inclusion in that list happened well before the ad was published.

On September 14, 1936, MGM was suddenly thrown into a very uncertain position when Irving Thalberg, the studio’s former head of production, passed away at the age of 37. Thalberg’s death shook the entire film industry, but for several of the stars who were labeled “Box Office Poison,” it was the loss of a mentor who had played a pivotal role in shaping their careers. Some sources have said Greta Garbo was more upset by the death of Irving Thalberg than she was by the death of John Gilbert, who had also died in 1936. To Norma Shearer, it was also the loss of her husband and the father of her children.

Known as “The Boy Wonder,” Thalberg had built a stellar reputation for having genuine gifts for storytelling and film production at a remarkably young age. By the age of 24, Thalberg was MGM’s vice president in charge of production and it wasn’t even his first time being a top producer at a movie studio. Before meeting Louis B. Mayer, Thalberg had worked for Carl Laemmle as the head of production at Universal, where he was faced with daunting task of bringing Erich von Stroheim productions under control.

Just a few years after joining MGM, Thalberg’s work had helped turn it into the most successful studio in Hollywood. Under Thalberg’s guidance, the MGM produced some of the most significant movies of the silent film era, including The Crowd, The Big Parade, Ben-Hur, and Flesh and the Devil. Throughout the 1930s, MGM continued to thrive and Thalberg’s resume grew even more impressive with the additions of movies like Grand HotelMutiny on the Bounty, and A Night at the Opera.

Irving Thalberg Norma Shearer Louis B. Mayer

While Thalberg produced many noteworthy, critically acclaimed films during his career, not all of them were winners at the box office and that often put him at odds with Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg was in charge of the creative side of MGM and Mayer was in charge of the business side and they often had differences of opinion about which movies the studio should be making. Thalberg certainly understood that MGM was a business and therefore needed to make money. But he also believed in occasionally taking a chance on projects that pushed boundaries or had artistic merit, even if he knew they might not be profitable. He insisted on making Tod Browning’s Freaks despite the objections of other executives. When King Vidor approached MGM about making the all-black musical Hallelujah, Thalberg recognized the value in it when Mayer and Nick Schenck didn’t. The Broadway Melody, a movie Thalberg intended as a low-budget experiment, went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Mayer, on the other hand, hated the words “prestige picture.” Not only did he know prestige pictures were very likely to lose money, he just wasn’t a fan of the more artistic type movies. Irving Thalberg may have liked movies like The Crowd, but it was a far cry from the glossy, idealized view of American life Mayer preferred and would later become the studio’s signature style. The profit and acclaim earned by The Crowd did nothing to change Mayer’s opinion of the movie.

Irving Thalberg and the Marx Brothers

Thalberg and Mayer were both driven to create great movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they had the exact same approach to making them. MGM had earned the nickname of “Retake Alley” because of Thalberg’s famous willingness to reshoot scenes until they were just right, sometimes at great expense. He would put a lot of focus on casting and developing scripts. When the Marx Brothers came to MGM after their career began to flounder at Paramount, Thalberg helped bring their movies in a new direction and took the approach of allowing them to try new material for A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races out on the stage to figure out what worked and what didn’t. When Thalberg died, MGM didn’t really know what to do with the Marx Brothers and didn’t give them the kind of freedom Thalberg had to develop new movies. Groucho was later quoted as saying, “After Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them, but the fun had gone out of picture making.”

During Irving Thalberg’s funeral, it’s said that one executive commented to another, “They won’t miss him today or tomorrow or six months from now or a year from now. But two years from now, they’ll begin to feel the squeeze.” At the time of his death, Thalberg had several projects either actively in production or still in development and MGM’s remaining producers were left to figure out how to move forward with them — or if they would move forward with them at all. Some of those movies involved stars who would later be named “Box Office Poison” and will be discussed more in future posts. But trying to carry out Irving Thalberg productions without his unique vision or innate knack for storytelling wasn’t easy. The remark about how the studio wouldn’t really miss Thalberg until two years later was almost prophetic with the timing of the Box Office Poison ad.

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 stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Kay Francis, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn, 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.

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.