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.
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
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.