TCMFF 2019: From Grace Kelly to Mexican Wrestlers

For the first full day of festival activities, it always feels like the first block of the day is always a tough one and this year was no exception. Today, we started out with The Postman Always Rings Twice, Merrily We Go to Hell, and The Clock all up against each other at the same time. There was also High Society over at The Legion Theater in Hollywood Post 43 of the American Legion, a new venue at the festival. I absolutely love The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Clock, and I was curious to give Merrily a re-watch, but I decided to go with High Society instead.

Out of everything playing during that block, High Society was the movie that it had been longest since I last watched. And after ending the previous day with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I wanted to start the day off with something more lighthearted and fun. Most importantly, I wanted to be sure to check out the Legion Theater at least once during the festival and this seemed like my best opportunity to do so. Making a point to check out the theater was one of my best decisions of the festival because it was absolutely beautiful. The building itself is amazing with lots of very vintage touches, but the theater is just spectacular. The seats are comfortable, I had lots of legroom, and they have an excellent sound system. It was a wonderful theater to see a musical in.

Special Guest Kate Flannery speaks onstage at the screening of HIGH SOCIETY (1956) at Post 43 during the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California. Image courtesy TCM.

Kate Flannery of The Office was there to introduce High Society and I really enjoyed her introduction. She talked about how she grew up in the same area that Grace Kelly was from and that made Grace a big symbol of hope for her. Kate’s parents were also very big fans of Grace’s and really admired the Kelly family in general. While she acknowledged that High Society lacks some of the qualities that made The Philadelphia Story so great, it was clearly a movie that means a lot to her and it was great to hear those very personal connections she has to it.

After High Society, I took a little bit of a break before heading over to the Chinese theater for Raiders of the Lost Ark. As much as I love Sunrise, which was also playing during the same block, the fact that Craig Barron and Ben Burtt were doing a presentation about the special effects in Raiders is what sold me on it. I’ve been hearing rave reviews about their presentations at the festival for years, but I’ve never managed to get to catch one of them before, so I was bound and determined to see at least one of the two they were doing this year.

When Barron and Burtt do their presentations during TCMFF, they usually discuss the effects in older movies that neither of them actually worked on, like The Adventures of Robin Hood or Gunga Din, dissecting the effects to figure out how exactly they were done. What made their presentation for Raiders unique was the fact that this was their first time doing a presentation about a movie both of them had actually worked on, so they came in with lots of inside stories about how certain visual and sound effects were achieved.

One thing they talked a lot about was how they perfected the gun-related sounds you hear in the movie. They went into a lot of detail about how different types of settings can make a big impact on how gunshots sound, how they tried different types of guns to get just the right sound, and how they got really good bullet ricochet sounds. The entire presentation was absolutely fascinating and anytime I watch Raiders of the Lost Ark from now on and I hear certain sound effects, I’m always going to remember exactly how they were created.

Once Raiders was over, I headed over to the multiplex for Day for Night, introduced by Eddie Muller and Jacqueline Bisset. When I heard Eddie Muller describing this as his dream event, I knew there was no way I could pass it up. He’s done so many incredible events over the years that if this was his big dream come true, I knew I had to check it out. It had been so long since I last saw Day for Night that it was like getting to see it for the first time all over again and of course, it was amazing to hear the conversation with Jacqueline Bisset.

If you were at TCMFF in 2018, you might remember that Jacqueline was scheduled to appear at a screening of Bullit, but had to cancel at the last minute. The first thing she did this year was explain and apologize for that. The day of the Bullit screening, she had injured her arm and felt awful about having to cancel, but she wanted to make sure we all knew she wasn’t in the habit of standing people up.

The conversation with Jacqueline Bisset went on for quite a while, covering not just her experiences working on Day for Night, but what it was like for her to work with the great George Cukor on Rich and Famous and a new project she was about to begin work on that she is very excited about, calling it one of the best roles of her career.

After Day for Night, my plans were pretty up in the air. Even though Road House was my initial choice, the longer I thought about everything else playing in that block, the harder it was for me to choose. In the end, though, I ended up choosing none of them because by that point in the day, I really needed a break to go get something to eat and relax a little bit. One of the best things you can do as a TCMFF attendee is learn to embrace the occasional breaks — especially if you plan on going all the way through to the midnight screenings. And that night’s midnight screening of Santo vs. the Evil Brain was one I definitely did not want to miss.

Before Santo vs. the Evil Brain began, one of the people giving the introduction made sure to make it clear to us that this is the kind of movie where audience participation is welcome and encouraged. And boy, did we ever participate with this one. This screening was an absolute blast. The movie was so perfectly suited for a midnight screening and the audience was completely into it. Was it an Oscar-caliber movie? Oh no. But after a long day of running around, a movie featuring a Mexican Luchador was exactly what I needed.

TCMFF 2019: Kicking Off the Festival in Style

Every year I attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, I like to arrive in Los Angeles the day before festival activities get started to give myself a little bit of time to get settled and spend time catching up with friends. This year, however, I didn’t have much time to rest before I got into full festival mode. 

Once I got into town, my first major event was to take a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library with my friend Nikki and other TCM Backlot members. I have several friends who have taken trips to the library to do some research over the years, so I’d heard amazing things about it and was thrilled to have an opportunity to see it for myself.

Margaret Herrick Library Exterior

If you ever have the opportunity to take a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library, I highly recommend it. Being able to explore their collections, even if just for a little while, is pure heaven for anyone with an interest in film history.

While the library itself is open to the public, this tour took us through many areas that the general public doesn’t get to see and each department we visited had a selection of items pulled for us to look at. We started off in their photo department, which is full of publicity photos, behind-the-scenes photographs, and other production-related images, such as continuity photos and so much more. From there, we headed over to other departments where we saw things like original posters, paper items they’re currently working on preserving, and original costume sketches. As someone who loves the art of costume design, I was absolutely delighted to have a chance to see original sketches for costumes from Gone With the WindThe Godfather Part 2, Lady Sings the Blues, and Blonde Venus. I’d seen reprints of those costume sketches before, but they looked even more beautiful in person.

To showcase a very small sampling of items available in their special collections, they pulled several original documents relating to movies being shown during the festival. Some highlights included production code office checksheets from Dark Passage, a 1934 letter stating that a movie based on The Postman Always Rings Twice would be totally unacceptable, a script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, plus many items related to Gone With the Wind, including the mourning brooch worn by Vivien Leigh in the final scenes of the movie.

Near the end of the tour, we got to see some highlights from their collection of magazines, ranging from vintage fan magazines to recent issues of publications like The Hollywood Reporter. We also got to see a selection of movie pressbooks, which included some interesting tips for theaters about how to market these movies. For example, the pressbook they showed us from The Maltese Falcon suggested that theater owners do a limerick contest. The real highlight of the tour was when everyone had a chance to hold a real Oscar statuette. It was definitely heavier than I was expecting. 

Hollywood Heritage Museum Lasky-De Mille Barn Sign At Night

Later in the evening, I headed over to the Hollywood Heritage Museum for a presentation about Gypsy Rose Lee, hosted by her son, Erik Lee Preminger, and Dita Von Teese. The majority of the presentation was a screening of a film Erik created about his mother’s life which features family photos, home movies, clips from TV appearances, footage of her performances, complete with commentary from Erik himself. Much like his mother, Erik is very witty and I easily could’ve listened to his stories all night.

Erik Lee Preminger and Dita Von Teese at Hollywood Heritage Museum

The home movies included in the presentation were a real treat to see. Some of the highlights included footage of Gypsy Rose Lee visiting the troops, footage from a show she did with Bob Hope, and Alice Faye and Tony Martin at 20th Century Fox, with Tony Martin doing a fake striptease for the camera. Being able to visit the Hollywood Heritage Museum is always a pleasure and it was the perfect setting for an event like this. This year was my sixth time traveling to the festival and this event ranks pretty highly on my list of all-time favorite events. 

Festival activities got into full swing on Thursday evening and while lots of people were either around the pool at the Roosevelt for the Ocean’s Eleven party, at the Egyptian for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or lining up in the multiplex for the Boris Karloff pre-code Night World, I was in the bleachers outside of the Chinese Theater watching the red carpet arrivals for the big gala screening of When Harry Met Sally. The first few days I was in Los Angeles, winds were very strong and that led to some difficulties on the red carpet. But it was worth braving the wind to have a chance to see festival guests like Ted Turner, Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Mario Cantone, Dennis Miller, and Kevin Brownlow, as well as TCM hosts Alicia Malone, Dave Karger, and Eddie Muller. 

Once the red carpet had closed, I ended up getting some dinner before catching my first movie of the festival, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in the TCL Multiplex. Umbrellas is one of my all-time favorite movies; it’s the movie that helped really get me into foreign films and French films in particular. I’ve been wanting to see it on the big screen for years, but never had a chance to before now. I was not disappointed by the experience. Those stunning colors were made to be seen on the big screen. Between that and all the other events I attended before it, to say that this year’s festival got off to an incredible start feels like a huge understatement. 

My Choices for TCMFF 2019

TCMFF 2019

It’s that time of year again! The 2019 TCM Classic Movie Festival is already right around the corner and the full schedule was just released on Tuesday, which means I’ve been spending the past few days obsessing over it to figure out my plans. I’m a pretty big fan of this year’s schedule so, as always, I had a lot of hard choices to make. Even though I have a lot of blocks that will come down to how I feel that day, I at least have my options narrowed down. As of now, here are my very tentative plans for this year’s festival:

Pre-Festival

I’ll be getting into Los Angeles on Wednesday and once I get into town, it’s usually a fairly low-key day mostly spent catching up with friends and making appearances at various mixers. But this year, I’ve got some very cool things to look forward to once I get into town. First of all, my friend Nikki very kindly invited me to be her guest on a tour of the Margaret Herrick Library through TCM Backlot. I’ve heard a lot about the Margaret Herrick Library, so I’m definitely excited to be able to see it for myself. Later that night, I’ll be heading over to the Hollywood Heritage Museum for a presentation of Gypsy Rose Lee’s home movies and a discussion about her career with her son Erik Lee Preminger and Dita Von Teese. It should be a fascinating event!

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg TCMFF 2019

Thursday, April 11

For the past few years, my opening night tradition has been to watch the red carpet arrivals, skip the first block of movies to get dinner, and then see something in the second block of movies. It works out really well for me so I think I’ll be sticking to it again this year. As much as I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I want to make sure I have plenty of energy for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at 9:30 PM. It’s one of my all-time favorites and I’ve been dying to see it on the big screen so this was an easy choice.

High Society Grace Kelly Bing Crosby

Friday, April 12

For the first full day of the festival, I’m pretty much just going to be winging it all day. The day kicks off with a really tough block of movies: The Postman Always Rings Twice, the pre-code Merrily We Go to HellThe Clock, and High Society. I’ve narrowed it down to The Clock and High Society. I love The Clock, but after The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I can picture myself waking up in the mood for something more lighthearted, so High Society might be more up my alley. I also really want to make sure I have a chance to check out The Legion Theater, so High Society would give me a chance to do so.

After that, depending on how ambitious I am, I might check out the What’s Not to Love About Republic Serials presentation. But I’m also thinking that block might be a good time for me to get some lunch because it’s looking like I’ll be in for a long afternoon.

Next up is one of my most painful conflicts of the festival: Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Chinese theater with a presentation by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron up against a screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Sunrise is the one that I’d have fewer opportunities to see in a theater, but Raiders would be incredible to see at the Chinese Theater and I keep missing out on those Ben Burtt and Craig Barron presentations, even though I’ve heard great things about them. It’ll all depend on how I feel that day, but if I were making the decision today, Raiders would win.

Which ever movie I end up going with, it’ll be followed by another block that will probably be decided that day. At the TCL multiplex, they’ll have Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night up against Vanity Street and Open Secret. It’s been years since I last saw Day for Night so it’d be great to see it again, but I’d also be up for checking out two movies I’ve never seen before.

By the time I get out of either movie, it will be after 8:00 PM, so I’m thinking it’ll be a good time for me to quickly get something to eat before heading over to the Egyptian for Road House. After that, I’m totally in for the midnight screening of Santo vs. The Evil Brain. I’ve never seen it, but the midnight movies are always a blast so I’m excited for this one.

Star Wars A New Hope TCMFF

Saturday, April 13

When I first looked at this block, I was so excited about From Here to Eternity at the Chinese theater, that I almost completely overlooked All Through the Night at the TCL multiplex. I’m always up for checking out a Bogart movie I’ve never seen before, so All Through the Night wins out as my first movie of the day. After that is another one of my biggest conflicts of the festival: A Woman Under the Influence introduced by Gena Rowlands up against Tarzan and His Mate with a presentation by Ben Burtt and Craig Barron. I’ve been wanting to see more Gena Rowlands movies for a while so Woman Under the Influence could be a great discovery. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Tarzan and His Mate and it’s been a while since I last watched it. I’ll wait and see what kind of mood I’m in that day.

Up next is another toss up block for me. I could either go for Love Affair, which I know I love, or Working Girl, which I’ve never seen but been interested in seeing for a while. At the moment, I’m leaning more towards Working Girl. After that, it kind of depends on how early I want to line up for Star Wars. I’m really tempted by Wuthering Heights, but I’m concerned that the line for Star Wars might already be really long by the time that one lets out. Considering that festival passes sold out the day Star Wars was announced, I’m definitely expecting a big crowd for that one. More likely, I’ll either rush over to Club TCM to check out Hollywood Home Movies or go get dinner so I can be ready to line up nice and early for Star Wars. Although Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Nashville are both hard ones to pass up.

If I have the energy after Star Wars, I’ll be headed back to the TCL multiplex for the midnight showing of The Student Nurses.

The Dolly Sisters Movie Poster

Sunday, April 14

I usually don’t go into Sundays with a lot of firm plans in mind. I like to wait to hear what the TBAs are and I’m not sure what will be going on over at Larry Edmunds in the morning, so that leaves a lot up in the air for me. A Woman of Affairs and The Dolly Sisters are the only two things I’m totally set on. If I were to make my other decisions based on what I know will definitely be on the schedule, I’d also go with Mad LoveMagnificent Obsession, and The Killers.

The more I look at my plans, the more excited I am for this year’s festival. It’ll be my sixth year attending and I fully expect it will be a memorable one.

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.

Sentimental Journey: Wartime Nostalgia & Three Christmas Classics

Judy Garland Meet Me in St. Louis

If there’s anything Christmas movies are known for, it’s for having heartwarming, sentimental themes. Of course, there are some notable exceptions out there, but those themes can be found at the core of many of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. Every holiday season, millions of people get hit with a wave of nostalgia that makes them crave the wholesome, heartfelt entertainment that Christmas movies typically have to offer. While that’s a trend that never truly goes away, it can become particularly apparent when times are difficult, such as during times of war.

During the 1940s, World War II had a profound impact on the life of every American, whether they were serving in the war or back on the homefront. As the holidays approached, people were understandably longing for past Christmases that were spent together with family and friends. Even the most lighthearted movies can be a reflection of the era in which they were produced and 1940s Christmas movies are no exception. In fact, it was a driving force that helped make some of our most cherished holiday movies and songs so popular.

Bing Crosby Singing White Christmas in Holiday Inn 1942

Holiday Inn (1942)

In 1940, Paramount Studios commissioned Irving Berlin to write a series of holiday-themed songs to use in a movie about an inn that only opened on holidays. While Holiday Inn was a box office success on its release, becoming one of the most successful movies of 1942, one of those Irving Berlin songs would go on to eclipse the movie’s success.

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling record of all time and is widely considered one of the most significant American songs ever recorded, but Crosby initially didn’t think the song was anything exceptional. In fact, it was expected that the song “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from Holiday Inn‘s Valentine’s Day number would be the biggest hit from the movie’s soundtrack. But while the movie was being filmed, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and moviegoers were in a different place by the time the movie was released. “White Christmas” struck a nerve with people who wanted to go back to simpler, safer times.

Considering the resonance it had with people during World War II, its prominent use in White Christmas twelve years later was much more than just an excuse to get Bing Crosby to reprise his signature song and sell more copies of it. It was a natural choice for a movie about two World War II veterans who reunite with their commanding officer.

Meet Me in St. Louis Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Judy Garland Margaret O'Brien

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

During the golden age of Hollywood, each of the major studios had their thing they were known for. Universal had their horror movies, Warner Brothers had their gritty gangster movies, and MGM had musicals. Louis B. Mayer was very big on producing wholesome entertainment the whole family could enjoy and Meet Me in St. Louis is a prime example of that.

Meet Me in St. Louis follows the lives of the Smith family over the course of a year as they face an upcoming move from St. Louis to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Given the span of time the movie covers, it’s not strictly a Christmas movie, but the scene in which Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien is enough to make it a holiday classic.

With audiences longing to be reminded more innocent times, Meet Me in St. Louis was exactly what many moviegoers were looking for at the time, but “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” took that yearning to the next level. The version performed in the movie, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, blends a message of hope with a twinge of sadness. The original version of the song was decidedly less optimistic and included lines like, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,” until director Vincente Minnelli and stars Judy Garland and Tom Drake complained that the song was far too depressing for the scene. While the song still remains immensely popular over 70 years later, the lyrics were particularly poignant for World War II-era audiences who had been separated from their loved ones.

I'll Be Seeing You 1944 Ginger Rogers Joseph Cotten

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)

Unlike “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” isn’t a song specifically about Christmas, nor was it specifically written for a movie. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was originally written by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain for the play Right This Way, which closed after just fifteen performances in 1938. The play may not have been notable, but “I’ll Be Seeing You” most decidedly was. The song’s melancholy, sentimental tone helped give it a whole new life a few years later after the United States entered World War II. As the war wore on, renditions recorded by Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey turned the song into an anthem for those who were missing their loved ones during the war.

Although “I’ll Be Seeing You” makes no mention of Christmas, it serves as a very fitting theme song for the 1944 movie by the same name, which does revolve around Christmas. In I’ll Be Seeing You, Ginger Rogers plays Mary Marshall, a prisoner who has been given leave to spend the holidays with her family. On the train, she meets Sergeant Zachary Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten, who is on leave while he tries to cope with PTSD. During the holiday, the two develop a romance as they try to keep their respective secrets hidden from each other. Unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Holiday InnI’ll Be Seeing You directly involves life during World War II so using a popular song of the era as the main theme not only feels natural, it perfectly captures the bittersweet, wistful tone of the movie.

Five Favorites from my Farewell, FilmStruck Binge

November 29, 2018 has come and gone, which sadly means the wonderful streaming service FilmStruck is now officially closed. Like many of you, I’ve been spending as much time as possible over the past month trying to clear out my watchlist because once the service closed, most of the things I had saved on there wouldn’t be so easy for me to find anymore. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t get my watchlist down to zero, but I did get to discover lots of new movies and revisit a few old favorites along the way. All in all, I watched over 30 new-to-me movies and while I can’t review all of them, I thought I’d highlight a few of my favorite discoveries.

Kuroneko 1968

Kuroneko (1968)

Asian film has long been one of my biggest cinematic blindspots and since there were so many Asian movies available on FilmStruck, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to try and fix that. It was a good call because Kuroneko ended up being my absolute favorite discovery.

In October, I was strongly drawn toward movies best described as “atmospheric horror,” so when I saw that phrase in the description for Kuroneko, it went straight into my watchlist. I was completely captivated by this one. The cinematography is nothing less than magnificent. It’s truly haunting and I look forward to including this in my future Halloween horror movie marathons.

Cluny Brown

Cluny Brown (1946)

Ernst Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors so I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see one of his movies that isn’t officially available on DVD. It’s a delightful little movie and while I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite Lubitsch movies, it was very good and gave me a newfound appreciation for Jennifer Jones. I’ve seen many Jennifer Jones movies, but I never really had a strong opinion of her as an actress. I never disliked her, but I never made a point to see a movie because of her, either. But in Cluny Brown, Lubitsch brought out a very delightful side to her that I hadn’t seen before. I really would have loved to have seen her in more movies like this.

Black Lizard 1968

Black Lizard (1968)

Black Lizard is another movie I’m glad I was able to see on FilmStruck since it’s not available on DVD. It’s a campy, highly stylized, jazzy tale of a jewel thief, played by famed Japanese female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama. It’s extremely entertaining and completely my style.

True Stories 1986

True Stories (1986)

I hadn’t heard much about True Stories until the Criterion Collection announced they’d be releasing a DVD/Blu-ray of it and several people who I know to have good taste in movies were really excited about it. So, luckily for me, this came up on the Criterion Channel just before the service shut down. I’m always happy to see John Goodman in a movie and when you add a great soundtrack and David Byrne’s unique style, this was bound to be a hit with me. Brilliantly funny and perfectly offbeat.

Deux Hommes dans Manhattan

Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (1959)

One of the biggest regrets I have about my Farewell, FilmStruck binge is that I didn’t watch more Jean-Pierre Melville movies. I got into Le Samourai maybe a year and a half ago and after seeing When You Read This Letter at TCMFF this year, I’ve really been wanting to see more of Melville’s work. But I did at least get to see Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan, which isn’t as strong as Le Samourai, but still enjoyable. I have a soft spot for movies that really make the most of the scenery in a city and this one has tons of beautiful footage of 1950s New York City.

Honorable Mention: King Kong (1933)

During my Farewell, FilmStruck binge, I largely tried to focus on movies I hadn’t seen before and movies that aren’t commercially available elsewhere. While King Kong most definitely wasn’t a new movie to me, it was one of the first things I knew I needed to watch before the service shut down.

One of the best things about FilmStruck is the fact that they added bonus features for many of the movies, like old TCM introductions and audio commentaries. In the case of King Kong, they didn’t just have an audio commentary, they had the very first audio commentary ever recorded for the Criterion Collection’s 1984 King Kong Laserdisc release. Criterion never released King Kong in any other formats, so this particular feature has been out-of-print for at least 20 years. The commentary was by Ron Haver, who knew Merian C. Cooper very well and provided a lot of excellent insights about the production of the movie and made me feel like I was getting to see it in a whole new light.

So long, FilmStruck. Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to turn it into the coolest streaming service I have ever used. It really was the closest any streaming service has ever gotten to recreating the experience of walking into an independent video store and being able to discover movies mainstream stores just didn’t have.

Mansfield 66/67 (2017)

Mansfield 66/67

In Hollywood, blonde bombshells don’t always have the longest lifespans. Many of the most popular blonde actresses of all time have died young under tragic circumstances, from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Jayne Mansfield. On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in a car accident at the age of 34 while she was on her way to an appearance in New Orleans. While this might seem like a pretty straightforward cause of death, there are long-standing rumors that she had actually died as the result of a curse by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Jayne Mansfield catapulted to stardom in the 1950s thanks to her figure, her Marilyn Monroe-esque image, and her unrelenting love of publicity stunts. But as American culture shifted into the 1960s, the whole image and style of glamour embodied by Mansfield began to fall out of favor. However, her desire for attention hadn’t even begun to be satisfied and she started actively trying to keep up with the changing times by doing things like hanging out on the Sunset Strip and any place else where she would be photographed. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Anton LaVey was just as hungry for publicity as Jayne and was eager to bring more celebrity followers into the Church of Satan. When Jayne decided to crash the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, she ended up meeting Anton LaVey and it was the beginning of a match made in publicity stunt hell.

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Over the course of their relationship, Jayne and Anton were repeatedly photographed together, both in Jayne’s infamous Pink Palace home and in Anton’s Black House in San Francisco. Of course, this got people talking. Was Jayne Mansfield really a practicing Satanist? Were Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey having an affair? The big rumor is that Sam Brody, Jayne’s boyfriend/lawyer at the time, got on the bad side of Anton and he put a curse on Brody, warning him that he would die in a car crash. Supposedly, Anton told Jayne to stay away from Sam, but she didn’t listen. Brody was indeed killed in that car accident along with Jayne and in the time leading up to that fatal accident, he had been involved in multiple other car accidents.

The 2017 documentary Mansfield 66/67 explores the rumors surrounding Jayne Mansfield’s association with the Church of Satan and the role it may or may not have had in her untimely death. Since so much of what we know about the life of Jayne Mansfield comes from media coverage, it can be difficult to know what exactly is real and what just sounds good. Mansfield 66/67 never pretends to have any definitive answers. It describes itself as being “A true story based on rumor and hearsay,” which is a completely accurate description of it. But even if it doesn’t draw any conclusions, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

Mansfield 66/67 takes a very campy and playful approach to the subject, complete with dance numbers, animation, and a theme song performed by Donna Loren. It features interviews with a mix of cultural commentators and celebrities, including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Tippi Hedren, Mary Woronov, and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger. Everyone has their own theories about who Jayne really was, what happened between her and Anton LaVey, and how active she was in the Church of Satan. I watched the documentary a few times because it was so fun and the whole legend of this story is just so wild. We’ll never know the full truth, but who needs the truth when the legend is this fascinating?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, Mansfield 66/67 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download.

Raiders of the Lost Films: Madame Sans-Gene (1925)

Madame Sans Gene Poster 1925

“Madame was the greatest star of them all.” While this line from 1950’s Sunset Boulevard is a reference to the character of Norma Desmond, it certainly also applies to the actress playing Norma Desmond: Gloria Swanson.  Gloria wasn’t the first movie star to become an international celebrity, but she was unquestionably one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. Between Sunset Boulevard and her career working in silent films, she is forever tied to the public’s image of silent film stars. Out of all the box office hits she made during her career, none of them reflects how big of a star she was at the height of her fame like 1925’s Madame Sans-Gêne.

By 1925, Gloria had reached a tipping point in her career. Her work in Cecil B. DeMille costume dramas had made her a megastar years earlier, but as her costumes got more elaborate and her hairstyles got more complicated, she eventually got tired of her clothes horse image and decided to move on from DeMille to focus more on more character-driven projects. Breaking a successful formula is always a gamble, but it paid off for her in spades and movies like Zaza and Manhandled made her an even bigger star. But the weight of being such a big star was starting to become too much.

While she was working on 1924’s Her Love Story, she was also busy plotting her next career move. Her first choice was to star in Paramount’s adaptation of Peter Pan and was livid that it hadn’t already been offered to her. She was on the verge of heading to London so she could personally speak to J.M. Barrie and make her case for playing Peter Pan when she heard about a play by the name of Madame Sans-Gêne, which a friend thought she might be interested in getting the film rights to.

Madame Sans-Gêne was first described to Gloria as being about, “A washerwoman who is elevated to nobility by Napoleon.” Hardly an exciting summary, but it really is the most succinct way to put it. Gloria wasn’t impressed, but she trusted her friend’s judgement and asked him to read the play aloud to her. Despite the underwhelming  summary, she loved the play and thought it was well-written and funny. As she and her friend discussed the project further, they agreed that such a beloved French story needed a French director and to be filmed on location in the same places Napoleon had actually lived.

With Peter Pan and Madame Sans-Gêne in mind, Gloria made arrangements to visit London and Paris so she could put her ideas into motion. Shortly after arriving in London, Gloria’s pursuit of Peter Pan came to an end when J.M. Barrie announced Betty Bronson was to play Peter Pan. Disappointed but not deterred, Gloria simply put all of her focus on Madame Sans-Gêne and headed on to Paris, where she was set to meet with film critic Andre Davin and Adolphe Osso, head of the European division of Paramount. Davin was very enthusiastic and supportive of her ideas for Madame Sans-Gêne, being particularly optimistic about her chances of being able to film on location. Osso, on the other hand, was considerably less confident.  He thought an American would never be able to get the rights to such a distinctly French story and even if she did get that far, she would never be able to film on location, noting that Germany’s UFA studio had tried to get permission to film on those very same historic locations several times before without success.

Gloria Swanson Madame Sans-Gene 1925

Once Davin wrote a glowing article about Gloria’s plans for Madame Sans-Gêne, Osso was proven wrong — quite overwhelmingly — and Paramount quickly agreed to let Gloria have anything she wanted to make this movie happen. She got the French director she wanted, Leonce Perret, and permission to film on the locations she had her heart set on, including Fontainebleu and La Malmaison. To add some icing to the cake, she hired Henri de la Falaise, Marquis de la Coudraye to act as something of a chauffeur/translator/personal assistant. Although he had a title, Henri did not have much money but he had enough influence and connections to help the production continue running smoothly. Before long, he would also become Gloria’s third husband.

By the time Madame Sans-Gêne was set to premiere in the United States, there was enough drama surrounding it to merit its own movie. Shortly before she arrived in the States, she started suffering complications from an abortion she didn’t want to have and only did so because of the morality clause in her contract with Paramount. As she lay gravely ill in a Paris hospital, the media was hard at work keeping fans up to date about her condition.  On top of it all, Paramount executives were putting pressure on her to recover quickly so she could travel to the United States and promote the movie. Even once she arrived in the States, she was still completely exhausted and just wanted to rest, but she carried on. Adding to the drama was the fact that she was no longer just Hollywood royalty, she had a real title. Her recent marriage had officially made her the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye and her fans couldn’t wait to see her and her new husband.

Madame Sans-Gêne had its first gala premiere at the Trivoli Theater in New York City on April 17, 1925. Thousands of fans lined the streets, causing traffic problems. Those who spent $5 ($73.30 adjusted for inflation) for tickets to the big event had to be escorted into the theater by the police because of the huge crowds. Gloria and Henri invited the Grand Duke and Duchess of Russia to attend as their guests, but the police were so focused on protecting Gloria and Henri that the Grand Duke and Duchess were effectively left to fend for themselves and ended up entering the theater with torn and mussed clothing. The theater itself was decked out in French and American flags. The New York Times described the movie as being a secondary affair, as about half the theater was more interested in seeing Gloria in person. However, the New York premiere was a mere warm-up for the one that would come in Hollywood.

From New York, Gloria and her husband boarded a train for Chicago before heading on to Los Angeles, making stops along the way to greet adoring fans. Once she finally made her way to Los Angeles, the city pretty much shut down for her. Hollywood has certainly seen its share of major film-related events over the years, but the premiere of Madame Sans-Gêne and Gloria’s arrival for it makes the Oscars seem like a quiet, understated affair.

Two years had passed since Gloria was last in the state of California and a veritable who’s who of the film industry was waiting to greet her at the train station. Naturally, lots of big names from her home studio of Paramount were there to welcome her back, including Cecil B. DeMille and Rudolph Valentino. Since United Artists had been trying to convince her to join them, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith were all there. Bebe Daniels, Mack Sennett, Charley Chase, and Frank Borzage were just a few more of the familiar faces in the crowd that day. And, just for good measure, the Mayor of Los Angeles and two brass  bands were also there. Hedda Hopper wrote that schools had been closed for the day. Edith Head recalled Paramount Studios being shut down so their employees could be part of it all. And, of course, there were more traffic jams as thousands more fans waited in the streets to see her.

Madame Sans Gene Napoleon movie 1925

Madame Sans-Gêne premiered in Los Angeles on April 24th at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater and it was a night that Swanson would go on to call the most unforgettable night of her life. In several interviews, including her interview for Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood documentary series, she recalled the incredible feeling of walking into the theater, having a spotlight directed onto her, and hearing the orchestra start playing “Home Sweet Home.” Colleen Moore was at the premiere and later said of that moment, “There was Gloria in a shimmering white gown coming down the aisle on the arm of her handsome, titled husband. They looked like the king and queen of some mythical Balklan kingdom.” Adela Rogers St. John said of the event, “I saw men standing on their seats, waving their arms, other women tearing off their orchids and flinging them into the aisle for Gloria Swanson to walk on —  and I saw Mack Sennett frankly wiping the tears from his proud face.”

Once she made her way to her seat, she was right between Cecil B. DeMille and Mack Sennett. But once the movie began, the night was over for her. To avoid the crowd, she was ushered out the theater’s back exit. As she headed home with her entourage, Gloria was remarkably quiet. When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m only twenty-six. What’s left? How can I top it?” On top of that, she was dealing with a lot of guilt over the abortion she’d had and was truly feeling like studio heads only saw her as a way to make money for themselves.

While the night was certainly unforgettable for Gloria, the movie itself was less noteworthy to critics. Critics generally had good notes about Gloria’s performance and the authentic French locations didn’t go unappreciated, but reviews were pretty mixed. In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall wrote, “Aside from Miss Swanson’s performance and possibly that of the roles of Napoleon and La Rousette, the characterization that is obtainable on the stage is lacking on the screen. Somehow the players are pleasant but rather flat.” There were also criticisms of the story, which Gloria attributed to cuts Paramount made to the film. She didn’t care for those cuts, either, and an uncut version of the movie was released in France.

Despite the mixed reviews, Madame Sans-Gêne was a box office success. At the Trivoli Theater alone, it brought in $41,000 ($601,744.13 adjusted for inflation) in its first week, breaking the previous house record set by Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino. It played around the country to great success in a road show format, where attendees received a commemorative program and coin with Gloria’s face on it.

After Madame Sans-Gêne, Gloria still had four movies left on her contract at Paramount and it was time for her to seriously start thinking about the future again. United Artists eventually won out in convincing her to leave Paramount behind and become an independent artist for them. Not only did she like the prospect of having full creative control over her projects, she’d had enough of Paramount meddling in her personal life, and she didn’t want to risk becoming replaceable at Paramount. However, being an independent filmmaker proved to be more challenging than Gloria anticipated.

The United Artists era of Gloria Swanson’s career yielded some triumphs, but also some considerable setbacks. 1928’s Sadie Thompson and 1929’s The Trespasser were hits at the box office and her performances in both films earned Academy Award nominations. However, The Trespasser would be her last box office success until Sunset Boulevard was released over twenty years later. Her first film for United Artists, 1927’s The Love of Sunya, was a box office disappointment and in between Sadie Thompson and The Trespasser, she made the infamously disastrous Queen Kelly, which was never finished and went unseen for decades. As the 1930s progressed, her film appearances became less frequent. By the decade’s end, she had moved away from Hollywood and was focusing her attention on a company she’d created for the purpose of helping scientists and inventors escape from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Over the years, all known prints of Madame Sans-Gêne, both in its French and American versions, disappeared. The earliest reference I could find to Madame Sans-Gêne being a lost film was in a 1970 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. In her autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Gloria had this to say about her lost films:

“…Many of my early pictures have been shown at film festivals around the world. Each time this happens, the same sad questions are always asked: Does anyone know of a print anywhere of Beyond the Rocks, the film Rudy Valentino made with me in 1921? Can anyone locate a print of Madame Sans-Gêne? Does anyone have a complete copy, including the last reel, of Sadie Thompson?

I would love to see them again and know they’re not lost forever. That, after all, was supposed to be the great virtue of pictures — that they would last forever.”

Swanson on Swanson was published in 1980 and, sadly, many of these same questions can still be asked today. A print of Beyond the Rocks was found in 2003, but the final reel of Sadie Thompson is still lost and the only glimpse we have of Madame Sans-Gêne is its trailer. Perhaps someday, Gloria will be proven right and the world will be able to see Madame Sans-Gêne once again. While many of her films still exist, the loss of Madame Sans-Gêne leaves a large hole in the filmography of one of the silent era’s greatest stars.