Friday, 27 May 2022

Another essay concerning film criticism

Since my last post there has been an unexpected development. I have been elected chairman of the Swedish Film Critics' Association. Given this honour, I thought I should write something about my views on criticism, a topic I have addressed before in connection with the publication of A.O. Scott's book Better Living Through Criticism.

Criticism of the arts is as old as art itself, and that is proof enough of its importance and relevance. It is part of human culture, a key aspect of the perennial conversations we humans have with each other, and it could not be otherwise. As soon as something exists, people will have opinions about it and want to air those opinions, and discuss it, whether a sports game, a film, a building, a politician, a food diet, a car brand, and so on. I think most people tend to feel that sharing one's thoughts about an experience, whether good or bad, is a joyful, even necessary, part of the experience, and to a large extent that is what criticism is. Another way of defining it is that it is to relate to a work of art as a whole, including its aesthetic qualities, from a personal perspective, and express that perspective to others. The criticism can be done in different media: a long essay in a print journal, a video essay, a TikTok video, a concise, well-argued Facebook post (Joe McElhaney is a master of that), or a newspaper column.

Another important role it plays is to help draw attention to what is happening within a given field of the arts, or culture at large, such as films. When I was young I read film criticism on a daily basis and this was essential for me. Reading it was educational and inspiring, it taught me what was happening in the world of film both close to where I lived and far away. This also had the added benefit of making me feel part of that larger world. I used to cut out reviews, long and short, from the newspapers I had access to, and saved them in ring binders. I still have that collection, and I will never part with it voluntarily.

There are different kinds of criticism, which serve different purposes. The brief reviews of recent releases that are mainly a plot description and a few sentences about whether the reviewer liked it or not is rarely considered prestigious, but it can be invaluable. There are more films to watch than the average viewer has time for, but if you can find a critic whose judgement you can trust and whose taste seems to be similar to yours, then choosing what to watch from the week's premieres based on the recommendations of that reviewer is practical. Some form a kind of relationship with "their" reviewer and might communicate with them in assorted ways to let them know when they were in agreement and when they were not.

But such reviews do not have much afterlife; with few exceptions they are quickly forgotten. They are reviews as consumer advice. 

A different kind is the long, deep criticism that aims to contextualise the film in question, to analyse form and content, an aesthetic and intellectual engagement with the film that ideally requires more than one viewing of it, although it is not always necessary. Noël Carroll suggests, in his recent book Philosophy and the Moving Image, that films can be judged on two premises: what is the purpose of the film and how well does the film succeed in achieving that purpose; are the style and the method that the filmmakers have chosen the most suitable for realising the purpose of the film.

The challenges for the critic are to be able to write well, to finish before deadline (which can be agonisingly tight), and, not least, to do the film justice. Is the criticism fair? Have you understood the film on its own terms? Are you seeing the film as it is and not how you imagine it to be? These can be difficult questions, and it is always worthwhile to ask yourself them from time to time. Some humility is necessary. Any interpretation of a film is just that, an interpretation. Although we often tend to treat our interpretation of a film, or of any artwork, as the truth about it, it rarely is.

Another challenge for the critic is not to be corrupted. There are different reasons for how this can happen, such as for ideological reasons or because of money. It has been interesting of late to notice how big companies like Netflix and not least Disney have learned to use and play on the forces that exist in the digital sphere today, and encourage their fans to attack and question those who criticise the companies' films and series, which has led to a situation where people voluntarily turn themselves into unpaid PR people for some of the largest media corporations of our time, partly because these corporations understand how to use representation as a marketing ploy. A lot of what passes for film criticism today is either directly produced by media corporations or made by fans eager to please. The result can often be cringeworthy.

But there is also good film criticism being done today that takes the art of cinema seriously, and engages with it with style and knowledge. As long as we have art I expect that to continue to be the case.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Wings (1966)

In a previous post I briefly mentioned Ukrainian cinema. I had seen very little of it, and knew even less. But I have been educating myself, and I have also watched several films now. The favourite so far is Larisa Shepitko's Wings from 1966. Maya Bulgakova plays Nadezhda Petrukhina, called Nadia, a former fighter pilot who was part of the Soviet air force during World War II, and now she works as a principal at a high school. The film combines impressionistic vignettes of her current life with flashbacks to her time as a pilot. The film opens with a scene of her at the tailor, getting fitted for some new clothes, and then in the next scene her excited students, at least the girls are excited, the boys are more blasé, watch her receive some kind of award or diploma. Next she intervenes after a male student has slapped a female student, and this intervention will have repercussions throughout the film. Here, after a few minutes of these vignettes, several themes of the film have been established, such as her alienation, the violence and discrimination against women, and the clashes between generations. Another example of this is her estrangement from her adopted daughter. Nadia's life has become stale and dull. Once, when she has decided that she cannot eat all her meals at home but needs to get out and eat at restaurants, she is denied a table as single women are not welcomed. 

Nadia is often passive, pushed around by men, whether male students or adults. At the tailor's in the opening scene she is hardly moving and she is not speaking, the tailor is the active one. Despite her official status as a war hero, all of that seems to have drained from her now, for various reasons which are revealed and explored throughout the film.

Wings is a quiet, sad, and beautifully shot film, which feels spontaneous and improvised but is not. Bulgakova, who plays the lead, and Shepitko rehearsed for a month together before filming even began. It is set and shot in Sevastopol, Crimea, which at the time was part of Ukraine (it was forcibly taken over by Russia in 2014) and there are some scenes in the film in which Nadia wanders around the city, looking at things. In one particularly fine scene she goes to an exhibition about World War 2, and there she discovers that she is herself part of that exhibition, as one of the heroic pilots of the war. It is as if both society at large, and she herself, has made her a being with only a past, not much of a present or a future existence. The Ukrainian-born Maya Bulgakova is wonderful in her performance, expressive despite being withdrawn, and it feels like she and Shepitko are completely in sync with one another, and with the character. The film's visual style, editing and use of music feels of its time. When watching it one might at times think of Miloš Forman's Czech films and sometimes Agnès Varda, not least in the way the characters are presented and the attitude of the filmmaker towards them.

***

It has been surprisingly difficult to find exact information about Shepitko. Even the year of her birth has there been some confusion about, but it seems she was born in 1938 in Bakhmut, present-day Ukraine, although when she was born the city was called Artyomovsk. When she was still just a teenager she went to Moscow, and there she eventually graduated from VGIK, Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She was the only female student at the time (I think), and she had Alexander Dovzhenko as her tutor, until his death in 1956. She graduated in 1963, with the feature film Znoy. Before that she had made some fine short films, of which I have seen Zhivaya voda, a poetic evocation of life around a river (or is it a sea?) running through a city.

She made few films. After Wings came The Homeland of Electricity, an austere, yet remarkable, episode in the portmanteau film Beginnings of an Unknown Era (1967), which was banned at the time. In the Thirteenth Hour of the Night or 13PM (1969) is some kind of fantasy musical made for Soviet TV. You and Me (1971) is a drama which I have unfortunately not been able to watch. The Ascent (1977) is a cruel tale about soldiers suffering in deep snow during World War II. It seems to be her most famous film, and it is impressive, although I prefer Wings. Tragically, it would be the last film she finished, as she died in a car accident, together with some team members, while she was making Farewell, in 1979. Her husband Elem Klimov, also a prominent filmmaker, finished the film in 1981, and it was released in 1983. Considering her remarkable talents and vision, her early death, barely 40 years old, was a terrible loss for cinema.

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Three other filmmakers from the Soviet era with Ukrainian credentials:

Alexander Dovzhenko, or Oleksandr Dovzhenko with Ukrainian spelling, was born in Ukraine and made his films there. I wrote about him here.

Grigory Chukhray, famous for writing and directing The Ballad of a Soldier (1959), was from Ukraine. I wrote about it here.

Kira Muratova was born in present-day Moldova but lived and worked in Ukraine. I am curious about her films, but have not seen any of them yet.

A good recent podcast about Ukrainian cinema: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-ukrainian-cinema

A link to the film archive in Kyiv: https://dovzhenkocentre.org/ The centre did a survey among Ukrainian critics, curators, and others about the best Ukrainian films of all time, and this is their top five:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

Earth (1930)

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

The Tribe (2014)

The Stone Cross (1968)

Friday, 1 April 2022

John Sturges

As I have mentioned before, one of the first, or possibly the first, VHS tape I ever bought was Ice Station Zebra (1968), directed by John Sturges. I still have the tape, even though it has been at least 15 years since I had a VHS player. Sturges matters to me. While he was not as important as, for example, Alfred Hitchcock for my developing interest in films, he has always been a presence in a way no other filmmaker has been. I cannot explain this in any logical way, but I imagine it is related to the significant impact seeing some of his films had on me at a young, impressionable age. Besides Ice Station Zebra, there was also Kind Lady (1951), Jeopardy (1953), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Great Escape (1963), Hour of the Gun (1967), The Eagle Has Landed (1976). I watched them on TV whenever I had the chance, as I knew that if John Sturges were the director I would not be disappointed. Once I watched Joe Kidd (1972) with my grandmother, an unapologetic fan of Clint Eastwood, but she was sadly disappointed with that one.

The reason for why I am writing this now is that I have just read Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape In American Film and Culture, a new book by film scholar Dana Polan about the backstory, production, reception, and influence of The Great Escape, but it is also autobiographical; how Polan saw the film when he was a boy (at a drive-in), how it changed him, has followed him through his life, and how he felt compelled to write a book about it. Earlier this year I also read Sheila O'Malley's blog post, about Sturges, which also has that autobiographical aspect to it.

It is not just us. All through my childhood, my dad spoke about three films that had made an impact on him. The Ox-bow Incident (1943), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). As you can see, they were all westerns and one of them was by Sturges, The Magnificent Seven. Even before I started to watch the films myself, I had already been introduced to one of them.

Alfonso Cuarón is another one for whom having watched a film by Sturges in their youth made a big impression. In his case it was Marooned (1969), which, not by chance, the characters in his autobiographical film Roma (2018) also go to the cinema to watch.

Paul Thomas Anderson has spoken of Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and the quality of Sturges's audio commentary to its Laserdisc release. What he said was "You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 20 years of film school." (Confusingly there are several versions of this quote floating around on the internet, some inaccurate. What I just quoted is word for word what he said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. You can listen to Sturges's commentary here.)

***

The earliest of Sturges's films that I have seen is from 1949, The Walking Hills, which is quite good. Next year's The Capture (1950) is very good. The People Against O'Hara (1951), with Spencer Tracy as a struggling attorney and John Alton as the cinematographer, is a fine drama. These were years in which Sturges could make 3 - 4 films a year, and several of the early films I have not seen, including interesting ones like Mystery Street (1950) and Right Cross (1950). But it seems his career settled on a more focused and deliberate trajectory in 1953, when he made the western Escape from Fort Bravo, with William Holden. Soon this became his defining kind of film, together with war movies, and I have seen almost every film he made after 1953. I would speculate that he was attracted to such films because they gave him plenty of opportunity to shoot widescreen films outdoors, and also to work with ensemble casts of men working together. He was also interested in history, not least American history. Some of the highlights are Bad Day at Black Rock, Backlash (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Law and Jake Wade (1958), The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Hour of the Gun. Another one I like a lot is A Girl Named Tamiko (1962), which is thematically unusual as it is a contemporary love story, focused on a man and a woman. (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is also something of a love story, but between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.)

***

There is not that much written about Sturges, but in the books and articles I have read it is often the case that the writer(s) discuss whether he can be considered an auteur or not, and there are often complaints about how Andrew Sarris was unfair to him. I find this tiresome. As I have written about earlier, I think we would be better off not using the term, or concept, of auteur as few seem to even know what it means. At least there is no consensus about what it means. (Which is true for many common terms used by film scholars and critics.) Sturges's films have a recognisable style across his oeuvre, and there are thematic consistencies as well as similarities regarding tone, style of acting, and pacing, and if you want to call him an auteur that is easy to justify. But what is gained by this? It has no bearing on the quality of the films. To get an example of this confusion, this is what Polan says in his book I mentioned above: "It is important, I think, not to turn Sturges into some sort of auteur imagined as working to express a deep metaphysics that somehow was engrained into these films made for the business of entertainment." (p. 79) No part of that sentence makes sense. Since Polan elsewhere in the books writes about the stylistic and thematic concepts he finds consistent throughout Sturges's body of work, his definition of what an auteur is must be different than how it is usually conceived. I do not know what he means by "a deep metaphysics" that is "engrained into" the films, or who has said that this is what it means to be an auteur. Or is Polan mocking people who make that argument? If so, who are these people he is mocking? And he seems to think that there is some contradiction between being an auteur and doing films "made for the business of entertainment." But if that is a contradiction, it is one that Polan himself has invented. Either way, arguing about whether Sturges is an auteur or not is pointless, since it has little to do with Sturges and primarily to do with what you mean with the word auteur, or what you think others mean by it.

The Law and Jake Wade

Joe Kidd

What is the style of Sturges? The images are clean, clear, spread out, uncluttered, spacious, whether indoors or outdoors. He is one of the great masters of the widescreen shot. Even in earlier films before the emergence of CinemaScope and other wide formats, such as The People Against O'Hara, he composed in width as well as depth; as if he spent those early years just waiting for a widescreen format to emerge. If I am not mistaken, all the films he made from 1953 have been in various widescreen formats, whether CinemaScope or Panavision or something else. His favoured way of filming has a stylised element to it, and it frequently involves a lack of people. The streets of his towns are usually empty, because that is how he wants his shots to be. When he made Bad Day at Black Rock, one demand he had was that he would not use any extras. The only people in the shots would be the characters who really had to be there. This makes the shots and street scenes unrealistic, but that is his way of filming, not just in Bad Day at Black Rock (below) but in general.

The streets are however crowded in The Hallelujah Trail (1965), but then that whole film is a crowded mess, a rare attempt by Sturges to be funny and boisterous. It is amiable but tiresome. But it is an exception. His characters otherwise seem to exist in isolation, and they are usually not just alone but lonely. This is a recurring thing in his films, loneliness. The most famous scenes from his films, such as Steve McQueen on a bike or in a cell (the cooler) in The Great Escape, are usually of people being alone and isolated. Consider a scene in the beginning of Sturges's penultimate film, McQ (1974). A cop in civilian clothes walks into a diner, uses the restroom to wash his hands, and then walks out to the counter and orders a glass of milk. He is the only customer in the place and the man who works there is primarily out of sight in the kitchen, so most of the sequence is just a lone man in a large diner having a glass of milk. It is true that several of his famous films are of a group of men working together, but they are still isolated, whether in jail, in space, or on a submarine, and their exchanges are rarely on a personal level. At the end of the film they will either have died alone or they will have split up. Companionship is not a lasting thing in Sturges's films. Has there ever been another American filmmaker for whom loneliness is such a central theme?

The outdoors are overwhelming too, and the characters, or some small town or hamlet in which they live, are dwarfed by mountains, trees, and the sky. Sturges likes to use a crane, and to move the camera both sideways and up and down, to make the shots fluid and to capture the vastness of nature. But action scenes, like fights or shootouts, are carefully choreographed and often done in a brief outburst, filmed with a fixed camera. He liked to prepare his shot in advance, doing diagrams and calculating angles. He had an engineer's interest in such things, and cutting was an important part of it too. (One person he worked most often with was the editor Ferris Webster, who cut some 15 of Sturges's films.) Hour of the Gun is his most extreme film in terms of style, so stylised that it reaches some kind of poetic abstraction, where everything not essential has been stripped away. The same is true for The Satan Bug (1965). I would say that these two films are his most abstract in style, but The Satan Bug is unfortunately not a good film, as the story is too ridiculous and incoherent. But through its spare, bare style, which includes the acting, it becomes a fascinating exercise just the same, more like a blueprint of a film than an actual film.

The world depicted in his films is a rough and hostile place, which Sturges's depicts without almost any traces of sentimentality. If you focus on what matters you might make it, and even if you do not make it, you might still have recovered your self-respect and die as a proud man, knowing you did the best you could. That is one reason some of his films are something of an emotional paradox, they are tragedies yet they can be simultaneously uplifting. But usually, they are more sad than uplifting. Some, like Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), end in darkness. Many of the films also end with the question "Was whatever was done worth all the pain it caused?" Sometimes a character explicitly asks it, sometimes it is unspoken, but the question is almost always there.

 
Hour of the Gun

One filmmaker I think would make for an interesting compare/contrast is Anthony Mann. They have for one thing a similar career trajectory: both started doing B-movies in the 1940s, then noirs with cinematographer John Alton, and then primarily making westerns and war films with bigger budgets and stars. They are downbeat, they do not do comedies or musicals, and rarely domestic films, and their westerns are psychological, focused on characters in turmoil or bent on revenge. There are also visual similarities, and they are excellent at staging fight sequences. But Mann is by far the greater director. There are more depth and complexities in his films, and in the performances he gets, and the visual style is more inventive and striking, especially when indoors. But I would have to spend more time with their films simultaneously to strengthen my argument. For now, I just add that two lesser-known westerns by Sturges, Backlash (written by Borden Chase who also worked with Mann on several occasions) and The Law and Jake Wade, are particularly close to Mann and they are among Sturges's best films. Yet they are not as good as Mann's best films. (Here is my earlier article about Mann.)

Speaking of compare and contrast, Sturges's By Love Possessed (1961), a for him uncharacteristic soap opera about love, family, and generational conflict, would make for an interesting triple feature with Henry King's This Earth is Mine (1959) and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956). To add to the relevance of comparing them, they were all shot by Russell Metty. "I had no business making it." Sturges said.

***

In an early scene in The Magnificent Seven, Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner's characters Vin and Chris are talking. McQueen's Vin asks where Chris is heading. "I'm drifting south more or less." he says. "Where are you heading?" "Oh me, I'm just drifting." says Vin. That to me felt like a life-goal worth pursuing at the time, and when I went on my first trip around the world, in 2001, I had calling cards made out on which I had printed my name, email address, and as my profession "Drifter". Such is the influence of Sturges on me. Alas, the days of drifting around the world seem to be over. Maybe when I retire... Until then I at least have Sturges's films for strength and company, even if they rarely provide much comfort.

The Magnificent Seven
 

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Some selected readings:

Books:

Lovell, Glenn, Escape Artist - The Life and Films of John Sturges (2008)

Polan, Dana, Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape In American Film and Culture (2021)

Reframing Cult Westerns: From The Magnificent Seven to the Hateful Eight, editor Lee Broughton (2020)

Articles:

Bengtsson, Åke, "John Sturges" (1962) in Chaplin

O'Malley, Sheila, "'I think I'm a pretty good storyteller.' - John Sturges" (2020) in http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=164847

Me about Anthony Mann: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2018/01/anthony-mann.html 

Friday, 4 March 2022

Pause in a time of war

The last ten days I have been thinking a lot about Alexander Sokurov's film Alexandra (2007), which I saw at a film festival back then. It is about an old woman, Alexandra, who decides to take a train to Chechnya, where the Russians are at war and her grandson is a soldier. It is a film of great beauty and sadness, and what I remember most is how she befriends a Chechen woman, but even though they are two old women with a lot of things in common they cannot have the friendship Alexandra wants because she is still a representation of the invading force. I wish the film was available, because I have wanted to rewatch it almost since the day after I first saw it.

Now Chechen soldiers are fighting with the Russians in Ukraine, happily participating in that brutal invasion. It makes me sick.

After my previous post I had decided to take a short break from doing research, and I was not going to post anything this week. The war made me change my mind, so consider this a hapless way of expressing my disgust for the war, for Putin, and for all those who have supported and defended him all these years of invasions, mass bombings, and the killing of opponents at home and abroad.

I am aware that there is a certain element of self-righteousness about doing this; a pitiful complaint from a position of safety compared to the horrors inflicted on the real victims. It reminds me of a scene in Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946) where a spoiled young Englishman talks with the Czech refugee Adam Belinski, who have escaped from the Nazis. The man is more driven by his own desire "to do something" than listen to what Belinski says. and finally exclaims "I shall write a letter to The Times!" Belinski's face is a mixture of amusement and exhaustion.

Another film I have been thinking of is Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), also about war in Chechnya, this one about the first of these wars. It ends, if I remember correctly, with a shot of Russian helicopters flying towards the mountains to bomb the villages into submission.

But it and Alexandra were Russian films. I cannot say if I have seen any Ukrainian films, although depending on how you define it, The Man With a Movie Camera (1928) could be regarded as one. The films of Alexander Dovzhenko might also count. But that was when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, and when Stalin began his effort to starve Ukrainians to death, what is now known as Holodomor, a word that combines the Ukrainian words for "starvation" and "to kill", so "to kill by starvation." (You can read about it here if you wish. Or on Wikipedia of course.)

This week, the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa quit the European Film Academy because of what he considered their too weak protests against Russia. The Academy has since published a more strongly worded protest. The world seems to have collectively decided, finally, that enough is enough, and Russia is cut off from sports, culture, banking, and lots of other areas. They are now a global pariah, with a diminishing number of defenders. And Russian filmmakers have also themselves spoken out against the war. I do not think this will have much effect on Putin, but they do what they can, and it is brave and dangerous to speak out in Russia today. Many other Russians are also protesting. They deserve our respect. But my thoughts go primarily to the Ukrainians who are putting up one hell of a fight, a fight that is genuinely existential, a matter of life and death.

Want to donate money? Here is a link to UNHCR and here is one to The Red Cross.

Friday, 4 February 2022

The actors who were called box office poison

Whenever the career of Katharine Hepburn is discussed, it is mentioned that she once upon a time was considered "box office poison" and that The Philadelphia Story (1940) rescued her career, or put it back on track. Sometimes when Marlene Dietrich is discussed, the "box office poison" label is also brought out. What is rarer is for some specification of who called them that, and if the claim was even true. As part of my "box office figures of 1930-1945" project from the spring of 2021 I wanted to look into that, and although that project has been cancelled due to the unreliability of older box office figures, I still want to discuss that "box office poison" in some depth.

It did not originate in any article or research paper but comes from an ad in The Hollywood Reporter, in May 1938, and in it a lot of actors, some named and some unnamed, were referred to as poisonous. But for some reason, it is Hepburn who is now the one that is primarily singled out. It is not obvious why.

The ad was from the Independent Theatre Owners Association (ITOA further on) and their complaint was that the studios had lots of actors under expensive long-term contracts and therefore they had to let them star in film after film, even though the actors were "box office deterrents" and as a result, the cinemas were losing money. Beside Hepburn ("Hepburn turned in excellent performances in 'Stage Door,' and 'Bringing Up Baby' but both pictures died.") and Dietrich (she "too, is poison at the box office.") the ad also mentions Mae West, Edward Arnold, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Kay Francis. They also say, "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."


There is a lot of confusion here though. It is true what they say about Kay Francis, that she was doing B-movies at Warner Bros. and that she refused to give up her contract even though the studio wanted her to. This is not proof of her being unpopular but stems from other reasons, and it seems Warner treated her badly. It is not obvious she deserves to be included.

About Katharine Hepburn, the first thing to clear up is that it is not true that Stage Door (1937) died. It turned a profit for RKO. The situation for Bringing Up Baby (1938) is more mixed, it cost more to make than it took in, which was partly because of Howard Hawks's particular position as a freelance director. He had negotiated an unusually large fee for directing it and he, as he often did, went over schedule and over budget. (It cost almost twice as much to make as the previous year's screwball hit The Awful Truth (1937).) The film did well in some parts of the country, although it was unexpectedly a failure in New York, so these two films do not prove that Hepburn was repellent for audiences. Still, there were concerns about her career in 1938 since the last time she had acted in a film that did really well at the box office was in 1935: Alice Adams. In 1940 she was back at the top.

Two of the three most recent Hollywood films that Dietrich had made before the ad, Desire (1936) and Angel (1937), had both been successful, although Angel especially so in Europe. In 1937 she made Variety's top ten list of the most bankable stars. Hence calling her "box office poison" is wrong, and her next film, i.e. the next release after the ad had been published, was Destry Rides Again (1939) and it was one of the biggest hits of that year.

Greta Garbo's recent films had all been successful, but here the complaint in the ad was more relevant because her films made most of their money outside the US market, especially in Europe. Conquest (1937) was not profitable for MGM but that was not because people did not want to see it but because it was so expensive to make. But for the ad to question MGM's wisdom for having her on a contract is self-serving since MGM made a lot of money on her films, even if ITOA did not see much of it.

Mae West's films had not been doing poorly either, although her best years in films had been earlier in the decade and her latest film, Every Day’s a Holiday (1937) had been a disappointment. Her response to the ad was quoted in The Billboard in which she pointed out that she was doing excellent business on the theatre stage. She also said, "The only picture making real money was [Disney's animated] Snow White and that would have made twice as much money if they'd had me play Snow White."

Joan Crawford was making more films than any of the others, and the success rate of them varied a lot, but for example The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Mannequin (both 1937) had done well. A columnist in The Hollywood Reporter asked how it was possible to refer to Crawford as box office poison when her last five films for MGM had all taken in over $990 000, domestically, each.

Edward Arnold is a different kind of actor than the others. He did at times play the lead, but often he was a supporting actor, and it is therefore tricker to evaluate to what extent his presence or absence in a film made much difference. The Toast of New York (1937) in which he played the lead had been a major flop. Even so, when The Hollywood Report in December of 1937 did a survey among exhibitors about the most attractive stars, Edward Arnold was among those that got votes although he did not make the top 12 list. The two films he made in 1938, The Crowd Roars and You Can't Take It With You, did good business and the latter was one of the biggest hits of that year.

It is unclear whether the ad is arguing that Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, and Sonja Henie were also box office poison, or if they were the opposite, but either way their films, not least Cooper's, were doing very well and Test Pilot (1938), with Myrna Loy, was one of the biggest hits of the year of the ad.

In short, while IOTA might be correct in saying that some of the films in which these actors starred did not do good business in the particular cinemas run by IOTA, it is not accurate to say that these actors were keeping the audiences away overall, calling them "box office poison" is wrong, and suggesting that they should be relieved of their contracts is dumb business advice. The ad though is not really about that but part of a drive to get rid of the concept of block-booking, where the cinema owners could not just book the individual titles they wanted but had to take a slate of films from each studio in package deals, and since the studios did not necessarily care that different films played differently in different parts of the country, the cinema owners had reason to complain to them. But doing it by way of attacking their contracted actors was an unfair move.

Given all of this, and given that it is difficult to assess which the exact factors are that make a film a hit or a flop, or even to quantify what is a hit and what is a flop, it is worth asking how it came to be that critics, historians, and ordinary film enthusiasts, have all fallen for that ad, and still refer to it as some kind of authoritative source.

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Sources:

Kinematograph Weekly, Nov 4, 1937

Picturegoer, March 16, 1940

The Billboard, May 14, 1938

The Hollywood Reporter, Nov 20, 1937

The Hollywood Reporter, May 3, 1938

The Hollywood Reporter, May 4, 1938

Variety, Dec 23, 1936

Variety, Feb 5, 1938

Variety, Jan 4, 1939

Kear, Lynn and John Rossman (2006) Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career

McCarthy, Todd (1997) Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood

Sedgwick, John, and Mike Pokorny (2010) "Hollywood's foreign earnings during the 1930s" in Transnational Cinemas vol. 1 #1.