Box Office Poison (magazine article)
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"Box Office Poison" is the title of a magazine article submitted by Harry Brandt on behalf of the Independent Theatre Owners of America in the Independent Film Journal on May 3, 1938. The list labeled several well-known contemporary films stars whose "box office draw is nil".
The article in its entirety was called "Dead Cats" and was published by Manhattan's Independent Theatre Owners Association, Inc. The majority of the article read as follows:
Wake up! Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars—whose public appeal is negligible—and receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations...Among those players whose dramatical ability is unquestioned, but whose box-office draw is nil, can be numbered Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Kay Francis, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer, John Barrymore, Dolores del Río, Katharine Hepburn, Edward Arnold, and Fred Astaire...[not in citation given]Garbo, for instance, does not help theater owners in the United States ... Kay Francis, still receiving many-thousands a week, is now making B pictures ... Dietrich, too, is poison at the box office. ...
The article continued, stating the "ready answers" many of the stars had to their labeling:
But a few of the stars themselves had ready answers. Actress Katharine Hepburn last week terminated the RKO contract that had brought her from $75,000 to $100,000 a picture and was considering five better offers. "They say I'm a has-been," scoffed she. "If I weren't laughing so hard, I might cry..." Joan Crawford had just signed a new five-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at a figure reported to be $1,500,000. "Box Office Poison?" chirruped actress Crawford. In Boston, maligned Mae West was breakfasting in bed. "Why, the independent theatre owners call me the mortgage-lifter." she burbled. "When business is bad they just re-run one of my pictures... The box office business in the entire industry has dropped off thirty percent. . . . The only picture to make real money was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and that would have made twice as much if they'd had me play Snow White."
Also in the article, there were some listed as actors who "deserve their high salaries", among them Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Arthur, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Carole Lombard among others. According to Brandt, studios were "safe" in placing these stars in films, knowing their "undeniable" popularity would generate substantial profit.
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Over the years, several more "Box Office Poison" lists have been submitted in newspapers, in magazines, or more recently, online. In 1949, Mary Armitage's 'Film Close-Ups' newspaper labeled many stars as "poison" at the box office, among them Sylvia Sidney, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones, John Hodiak, and two actresses that in 1938 were said to have "deserved" their salaries, Bette Davis and Shirley Temple. Despite the original and 1949 lists, Crawford, Davis, Hepburn, Dietrich, Francis, Barrymore, Astaire, Sidney, Cagney, Fonda, Bergman, Jones, and Hodiak all had comebacks. del Río also did, although she had more success in Mexico than the United States.