A full page advert in  the Hollywood Reporter of May 1938 became nationwide news.

The Independent Theater Owners Association of New York, led by Harry Brandt  suggested that recent films of Joan Crawford, Garbo,Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis,Katharine Hepburn, Mae West  and  Edward Arnold had “negligible public appeal”.

The term ,  ”Box Office Poison” was not actually used in the ad . There was a comment that “Dietrich is poison at the box office.”

But when newspapers discussed the issue, the headlines were always the fact that certain big stars had been labelled Box Office Poison.

The ad also indicates that many other other stars fell into the same category – no box office draw. Fortunately, no other names were put forward!

The argument seemed to be that these stars didn’t merit their big salaries when their films had poor ticket sales.



The exhibitors praised the acting ability of these stars but at the same time pointed out although “Katharine Hepburn turned in excellent performances in STAGE DOOR and BRINGING UP BABY, both pictures died.”

Speaking directly to the studio producers, the ad says they all know which stars bring in the shekels. The exhibitors wanted more of Judge Hardy films, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto. 

It’s a puzzle as to why the only male star mentioned is Edward Arnold,  who doesn’t seem to fall into the same star category as the others.

The ad produced lots of comment. Louella Parsons said, ”There’s
nothing the matter with these stars that a good picture won’t cure.”

Columnist Chester B. Bahn summed it up:

When a star does a nose-dive at the box office, the cause is the presentation of the actor or actress in the wrong vehicle.”


Mae West added her two cents:

Harry Brandt has done  the movie industry a wrong. Every time his box office business dropped off, he re-ran “She Done Him Wrong” – they call me the ‘mortgage – lifter’.

The only  picture to make money in the past four months was “Snow White”, and that might have done better if I’d played the lead!”

There’s a good article in Picturegoer magazine at the time by E.G.Cousins . He said, “35 years ago, the “Biograph Girl” was named and thus that gargantuan monster, the Star System, was born……..
Would you push your hard earned silver and coppers through the pay-box window just to see Garbo, irrespective of what picture she is in? And the same with Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Joan Crawford?

Are such stars worth your  one-and-threepence ?
If you turn down your thumbs, they become good old has-beens.”

Movie fans protested and Columbia’s Harry Cohn said he’d take all the stars named in the advertisement. The Independent Theater Owners of California defended the stars,saying that the box office slump was due to other causes eg curtailment of foreign markets.


Looking back at films that were released in 1938, I think, today, we’d agree it was a pretty good year!

Angels With Dirty Faces ……The Adventures of Robin Hood…….Alexander’s Ragtime Band …..Carefree……..Jezebel…….The Sisters……..Test Pilot……You Can’t Take It With You……If I Were King……..Room Service…..Dawn Patrol………Boys Town……Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife…….Three Comrades.


So what happened to the stars ‘named and shamed’!

Marlene Dietrich had Destry Rides Again and several other successes in the 1940s.

James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich.

Joan Crawford  continued at MGM and subsequently had two big successes in The Women and A Woman’s Face.

Joan Crawford. THE WOMEN.


Katharine Hepburn took herself off to Broadway for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY before returning to Hollywood with many films to follow.

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn.HOLIDAY.


Garbo had NINOTCHKA and TWO FACED WOMAN before retiring from the screen.



Mae West made only two more films in 1940 and 1943.


Kay Francis’s contract at Warners expired in 1938 and although she showed her talent in films like IN NAME ONLY, her top flight stardom was over.

Kay Francis


Edward Arnold, who was a surprise addition to the ‘poison’ list, seemed unaffected and went on to appear in many films of the 1940s.

Edward Arnold.


10 responses »

  1. Well, gee, I’m always ready for a good Charlie Chan picture but what an odd comparison. And that Edward Arnold inclusion is indeed a head-scratcher. Of all the actors named, today he is one actor I will record when knowing nothing about the film other than he is in it.

  2. And why, other than Arnold, were no male stars named.As you say the inclusion of Mr. Arnold is a head scratcher!

    • I’ve quoted the Hollywood Reporter ad of May 4th,1938 which doesn’t mention Fred Astaire but there may have been more names mentioned in an article of May 3rd in the Independent Film Journal , though I have been unable so far to source that piece.

      • Time Magazine named Astaire as being one of the list: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,759735,00.html

        If you examine box office numbers it’s clear that by 1937 if not before (imo she ALWAYS did onscreen) Rogers was effectively carrying Fred Astaire. Her movies outside of the Astaire-Rogers team were big sellers, always made money – usually a LOT of money – while Fred pretty much disappeared without Ginger. She was always the bigger star and better thespian.

        Astaire is a giant and a genius but he always had to be carried by a strong cast. Ginger Rogers also carried another poison selectee, Hepburn, in Stage Door… almost the only movie Hepburn made during that time which showed a profit.

        Opinion….having mostly waded out of the Depression, when that article was written they just didn’t recognize how bad the economy’ downturn was in 1938.

    • Thank YOU for this great website!
      I can’t find that original article either, from Independent Film Journal. Tried years ago, in a few libraries, pre-internet.. no luck at all. I’ve also seen John Barrymore on that list.
      Perhaps it’s been “scrubbed” as they say. Or perhaps one of them bought and destroyed all copies years and years ago!

      Very controversial piece; broke Hepburn’s heart and she fled next day for the stage.

  3. Mae West is an interesting exception to the list in the sense that the Hayes Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency were aggressively targeting to get her driven out of films – – – just too salacious for hots holier-than-thous.
    It’s true the her last Paramount flic – “Everyday’s A Holiday” – was NOT a hit, due to the heinous censorship she was being subjected to by that point, and led to her leaving Paramount, her subsequent film – “My Little Chickadee” for second string studio Univeral – was MONSTER HIT, one of the top-grossers of 1940, and was for many years the first film thought of when her name was mentioned.
    And wisely, she headed back to the live stage where she was able to turn that Westian Mojo back to high gear for many (MANY) more years to come.

    I’d love to know of the back-story – – just what was Harry Brandt actually plotting, and, more interestingly, WHOM was he plotting it for!

  4. Thanks for your comments. Love Mae West especially her two with Cary Grant.
    Maybe Brandt thought the studios didn’t listen to the cinema owners who knew what their patrons liked.

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