Friday, May 6, 2011

Pour Some Poison on Me

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Howdy, Wise.

Wise: What’s with the pen and the REALLY long piece of paper?

Werth: I realized that this week is the 73rd anniversary of the of the infamous Box Office Poison ad that was published in the May 3rd, 1938 Hollywood Reporter—and I think it’s time to update it.

Wise: That Box Office Poison ad was bananas!

Werth: I know! The list was concocted by the President of the Independent Theater Owners of America Harry Brandt in an attempt to get Hollywood to “Wake up!” and give them better movies to exhibit. The films of Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Dolores del Río, Kay Francis, Fred Astaire and Edward Arnold were all labeled “poison at the box office.”

Wise: I’m surprised Mickey Rooney wasn’t in there.

Werth: But one surprising member of the Box Office Poison Club had actually earned the moniker. Despite her meteoric rise in 1932, Katharine Hepburn’s movies were going belly-up at the box office, and in February, 1938 (only months before the poison ad) she starred in a real stinker, Bringing Up Baby.
Wise: Hold it right there, Werth. You can make fun of Judy Berlin all you want, but Bringing Up Baby is one of the finest examples of the screwball comedy.
Werth: Oh, I totally agree. Unfortunately the 1938 audience didn’t and they stayed away in droves. Perhaps one of the best examples of “movies ahead of their time,” Baby had a promising pedigree. The talented Hepburn was paired with screen charmer Cary Grant for the second time and the whole project was to be overseen by that master of fast comedy, Howard Hawks. The plot was wacky even for a screwball comedy. A pent-up paleontologist finds himself the unwilling object of affection of a carefree heiress who has just gotten a leopard named Baby in the mail.

Wise: It’s too bad you can’t mail leopards anymore.

Werth: The rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue that Hawks was famous for is unrelenting and all the performers sprint from argument to pratfall in a giddy whirl of happenstance and comic misunderstanding. Baby’s comedy flies and its two stars hold on for dear life. What maybe threw some of the audience off, was the fact that both Hepburn and Grant played slightly against type. Grant often played a suave, carefree, lovable gent, but his Dr. David Huxley is an overwhelmed fuss-budget. His outbursts of frustration are matched by a sort of mimed confusion—making him a veritable one-man Laurel & Hardy. 
Hepburn, who had no trouble playing blue-bloods, gave Susan Vance an air of scatter-brainedness you wouldn’t normally see from her. It’s one of the rare times when she really lets loose and looks like she’s having fun. In one scene she pretends to be a mobster and the film noir tough guy talk that comes out of her mouth is priceless.

Wise: I just imagined her saying, “The calla lilies are in bloom” like Edward G. Robinson.
Werth: But at the end of the day, Baby lost $365,000 and RKO fired Hawks and convinced Hepburn to terminate her own contract around the same time she was labeled “box office poison.”

Wise: Ouch. Baby had claws.

Werth: But those scratches didn’t last long, because in 1940 Hepburn came roaring back to prominence in the smash hit The Philadelphia Story and never had to worry about being poisonous again.

Wise: Half the people on that list eventually turned out to be Hollywood legends, so it’s hard to imagine that any of them were really poison at the box office, but I guess the one thing that most of them have in common is that the list appeared while their careers were going through a transition.  

Werth: Just like we’re transitioning from my half of Film Gab to yours.  

Wise: And I think that’s the best explanation why someone who’s now as universally beloved as Fred Astaire was labelled a stinker by the exhibitors.  After a lengthy and successful career dancing in Vaudeville with his sister Adele, Astaire signed a contract with RKO where he was partnered with Ginger Rogers for a string of classic musicals like Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance?  As the decade came to a close, both Astaire and Rodgers wanted to move on to other things.  Rodgers had a slightly easier time finding audience acceptance in different roles, while Astaire floundered a bit before ending up at MGM where he starred in some of Metro’s biggest musicals of the late 40’s and 50’s, Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and The Band Wagon.  

Werth: No one could dance on the ceiling like Fred.

Wise: But there is a definite difference between these two phases of Astaire’s career.  The RKO films are a lot scrappier, and while his dancing is never anything less than the epitome of elegance, Astaire’s characters were often smart-alecks or schemers.  At MGM, where the ruling style included lush violins and saturated color, Astaire became a much more romantic figure.  And even when he wasn’t working at Metro, this new style followed, most notably in Funny Face (1957) which also starred Audrey Hepburn.  

Werth: Who for once sang without offscreen help from Marnie Nixon.  

Wise: Right.  Astaire plays Dick Avery, a fashion photographer loosely based on Richard Avedon, who is sent by the imperious editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson in a hilarious performance) to discover the next big thing: models who think!  

Werth: They must be still looking.  

Wise: Thankfully Audrey turns up early on as a beatnik bookstore employee more enamored of Nietzsche than Givenchy, although a trip to Paris, some incredible fashion, and a few dance numbers with Astaire convinces her to adore both.  

Werth: Seeing both of these movies convinces me that Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn were too good to be bad.  

Wise: Exactly.  So fess up, Werth.  Who’s on your 2011 Box Office Poison List?

Werth: I’ve changed my mind. It seems that most everyone on the 1938 list had career resurgences and became cinematic legends and—

Wise: And you don’t want your list to revitalize Renee Zellweger’s career.

Werth: Exactly. Tune in next week when we make or break more Hollywood careers at Film Gab!

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