ARE THESE STARS REALLY DOOMED?
By Elizabeth Wilson
September 1938 issue of Screenland.
[Article was paraphrased by me to focus specifically on Kay, with mentions only to other stars which related to her growing problem in the movie industry.]
NOT since the ill-fated week in March 1933 when the banks were closed as tight as a clam, have the movie theaters of this country been quite so devoid of paying customers. In some of the big fancy emporiums it is said the sports of the town are shooting wild deer. Other theaters, rather than face a cold house day after day, have followed the example of the famous Rivoli in New York City and completely given up the ghost. If they can’t shut people in, at least then can shut them out. No one seems to want china, trailers, or a place to neck anymore. This doesn’t sound like the American public. What’s wrong with them? Or better still, what’s wrong with the movies?
Mr. Sam Goldwyn, he who likes Quality better than Quantity, has his theory. “It used to be,” said Mr. Goldwyn, “that one picture of a double feature would be bad. Now you got to expect both of them will be terrible. The American picture industry better do something, and do it soon.”
…And then came the bolt from the blue. The Independent Theatre Owners, it seems, had something to say. They had theatres to fill, they had kept close tab on box office records, and they knew exactly what was keeping people out of theaters. It wasn’t double features, and it wasn’t lack of money. It was the stars. And just so everybody in Hollywood would be sure to see what they had to say they said it on the back page of a popular local trade paper, all boxed in red—which means “Danger” in any language.
…The ad boldly started, “Wake Up! Hollywood! Producers!” and went on to say, “Practically all of the major studios are burdened with stars—whose public appeal is negligible—receiving tremendous salaries necessitated by contractual obligations. Having these stars under contract, and paying them sizeable sums weekly, the studios find themselves in the unhappy position of having to put these box office deterrents in expensive pictures in the hope that some return on investment might be had.” Imagine being called a “deterrent”—why I’d rather be called a rodent!
Then the ad goes on to say, and very boldly too, “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.”
…”Yet so afraid are the studios of losing a star, they tie them up for many years with the result that stars continue to receive top salaries far after their box office rating slides. Kay Francis, for instance, is still receiving many thousands a week from Warners on an old contract. Yet so poor is her draw, she is now making B pictures. Paramount showed cleverness and consideration for exhibitors by buying off Dietrich’s contact which called for one more picture. Dietrich, too, is poison at the box office.”
…Joan Crawford, who got her start as a dancing daughter in the “flaming youth” era, now became beautiful, glamorous, and exotic—and more popular than ever. This trend also brought Kay Francis to the top, and Katharine Hepburn and Norma Shearer and Connie Bennett. Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard muscled in slightly, but they weren’t exotic enough, so no one paid them much mind.
And then, quite gradually, the public changed. They were sick to death of glamour, gardenias were nauseating, and sunken cheeks were unhealthy. Carole Lombard took a prat fall in “My Man Godfrey”, carried on like a crazy nit-wit—and the “screwball” trend was upon us. Most of the stars who had been so busy being glamorous didn’t realize until too late that another era had descended, so naturally as the “screwball” comedies rolled on and on their public forgot them. Kay Francis, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo were practically left out of the entire trend, so little wonder that they lost out at the box office.