Box Office Poison

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.

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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.