On May 3, 1938, in the midst of a mediocre Hollywood season, an independent theater owner named Harry Brandt threw a stink bomb at the studios. He placed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter, labeling Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Kay, Francis, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Edward Arnold as “Box Office Poison.” Obviously, this ad caused a huge uproar in the industry, with recriminations and threats of lawsuits.
I do not have access to the Hollywood Reporter from 1938, but I found the full text of the ad in the trade magazine Hollywood from August 1938. I have also re-created the original ad, which you can access here. Below I discuss its origins, and what the true meaning behind the ad was.
Highlights from the ad
For those who don’t want to read the whole ad (it is rather long), here is a list of some of the most important statements:
- Among these players, whose dramatic ability is unquestioned, but whose box office draw is nil, can be numbered Mae West, Edward Arnold, Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and many, many others.
- The combined salaries of these stars take millions out of the industry and millions out of the box office.
- Kay Francis, for instance, is still receiving many thousands a week from Warner’s on an old contract. Yet so poor is her draw, she is now making ‘B’ pictures.
- Dietrich, too, is poison at the box office.
- There is no doubt but that stars draw business and when they do they are worth every cent they get. When they do not it is unfair to the industry at large and especially the exhibitor for a studio to continue paying them top salaries and putting them in top bracket pictures.
Mae West responds, from her bed in her hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton, New York
Most of the actors named did not respond to the ad, though vague threats of lawsuits were thrown around. The only response I could find in newspapers and trade magazines came from Mae West, three days after the ad appeared:
At first I planned to ignore the story, but now I’ve decided I should defend the industry as much as I can. The box office industry in the entire industry has dropped off 30 percent in the past four months. The only picture to make money is Snow White—and that might have made more money had I played the lead.
They think I am slipping as a box office attraction, but I did pretty well here in Boston. They tell me that the theater where I appeared grossed nearly $40,000 this week. I love it here and I will be back in October with another picture that will make the independent theater owners throw away their crutches and dance with joy.
Time Magazine claimed the Katharine Hepburn also responded: “They say I’m a has-been. If I weren’t laughing so hard, I might cry.” But their article was inaccurate in other respects (see below). Additionally, the supposed “quote” doesn’t have the specificity of the quote from Mae West, and I could find no other verification from newspapers or trade magazines that Katharine Hepburn had responded to the ad. So I’m inclined not to believe that she said that.
Edward Arnold? Really?
Yeah, I don’t get that either.
What about Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, and Sonja Henie? Is Harry Brandt also labelling them as “Box Office Poison”?
I was confused by this statement in the ad: “We want the Myrna Loys and Gary Coopers and Sonja Henies, but we want them when we get value, not when they drive people away from the box office.” Is he saying that Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, and Sonja Henie are examples of actors that have “value”, or is he saying that they are examples of actors that are driving people away?
I looked up the pictures that each of these actors made just prior to the May 3, 1938 ad, to see if these pictures were successful or were duds. Myrna Loy was in Test Pilot, which premiered a couple of weeks before the ad and was a solid hit. Sonja Henie’s Happy Landing was also a hit. However, Gary Cooper was in The Adventures of Marco Polo, which was released a month before the ad and was an expensive flop. So who knows what Harry meant? He was an effective writer, but the logic of his words was sometimes strained. For example, this statement is hard to understand in the context of his ad: “Producers are now, or soon will be, concentrating on the making of good pictures.”
Why the ad?
I think the key to the ad is in this statement: “Garbo, for instance, is a tremendous draw for Europe, which does not help theater owners in the United States.” So, based on his statement, Garbo does help the industry and the studios, in that her pictures are profitable. Her pictures are just not profitable for theater owners in the United States.
To understand the anger of the Independent Theater Owners, it is important to understand “block booking.” In the 1930s, studios sold their pictures to the theater owners, sight unseen, in blocks of 50 or so pictures. So a theater owner would buy 50 pictures from a particular studio to play in his theaters, with the knowledge that some would be hits and some would not. In that block of 50 pictures would be a certain number of “A” pictures, with box office stars. Those “A” pictures were the selling point for the block, and when those pictures did not perform to expectations, the whole season could be ruined for a theater owner. And the 1937-1938 movie season was a particularly bad season.
On Wikipedia and in a number of sources on the Internet, the title of the ad is supposedly “Dead Cats”. “Dead Cats” was actually the title of a Time Magazine article about the ad that appeared a couple of weeks after the ad. The article reads, “Hollywood woke up one morning last week to find its self-satisfied air full of dead cats. The slingers: Manhattan’s Independent Theatre Owners Association. Inc. Their targets: Greta Garbo. Marlene Dietrich. Mae West. Joan Crawford, Kay Francis. Katharine Hepburn. Edward Arnold. Fred Astaire.”
Notice that Time Magazine also listed Fred Astaire as one of the “targets,” but Fred Astaire is nowhere in the ad. That little “fact” also survives to this day. For example, here is a quote from a 2016 New York Post article:
Back in 1938, an exasperated theater owner named Harry Brandt coined the term “box office poison’’ for a trade journal jeremiad about a group of Hollywood stars “whose dramatical [sic] ability is unquestioned, but whose box office draw is nil.’’ Among the names he dropped: Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire.
Also, this article also claims that the word “dramatical” was part of the ad. Where did that come from?
Interestingly, the ad is usually referred to as the “Box Office Poison” ad (which is also how I referred to it in the title of this post). However, the phrase “Box Office Poison” appears nowhere in the ad. The title of the ad is “Wake Up!” The word poison appears only once in the ad, in a sentence at the end of the third paragraph: “Dietrich, too, is poison at the box office.”
Harry Brandt gets the last word
The next pictures for Marlene Dietrich (“Destry Rides Again”) and Greta Garbo (“Ninotchka”) were hits. When asked about this in December of 1939, Harry Brandt said “They’d still be poison at the box office if we hadn’t forced them to change—Garbo to a comedian and Dietrich to a farce-western gal. Now they’re practically new people.” Of course, Harry himself hadn’t changed. He was still a dick.
Sources: Original Ad “Box Office Poison” reprinted in the Trade Magazine Hollywood, August 1938. Mae West’s response appeared in the San Bernadino County Sun, May 6, 1938. Harry Brandt’s response in December, 1939 appeared in the Minneapolis Star.