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.
Joan Crawford continued at MGM and subsequently had two big successes in The Women and A Woman’s Face.
Katharine Hepburn took herself off to Broadway for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY before returning to Hollywood with many films to follow.
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.
Edward Arnold, who was a surprise addition to the ‘poison’ list, seemed unaffected and went on to appear in many films of the 1940s.