A crossover episode, uniting our two ongoing series, The Many Loves of Howard Hughes and Follies of 1938, focusing on Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn, which peaked and crashed in 1938. Introduced by Hughes’ close confidant, Cary Grant, Hepburn and Hughes became a celebrity couple in the modern mold: mutually attracted in part based on the fame of the other, they were hounded by paparazzi, their rumored impending nuptials dissected by outsiders until the relationship itself frittered away. By 1938, Hepburn’s “woman wearing the pants” image had transitioned from merely controversial to cripplingly unfashionable, and when she was named in the infamous "box office poison" ad of May 1938, her career sunk as low as it would go. (Though her fame had not: note the above magazine cover, in which Kate and Howard are the glossy cover image under a tease referring to the movie quiz from the decidedly less glamorous Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year campaign — a campaign designed to help Hollywood recover from losses ostensibly incurred from the fading of stars like Hepburn.) Even as their romance was falling apart, Hughes helped to resurrect Hepburn’s career by purchasing for her the rights to the film that would change her life. He also rebounded from Hepburn by romancing two of her rivals, Bette Davis and Ginger Rogers, while proposing to just about every major female star he could find.
In May 1938, the Independent Theater Owners Association published a full-page paid editorial in The Hollywood Reporter, branding a number of big stars — including Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and others — as “poison at the box office,” and urging the studios to cut their ties to expensive names who no longer had the drawing power they once did at the box office, in part because they symbolized a type of glamour which seemed, in 1938, to be falling out of fashion. All of the above named stars, while damaged by the bad press in the moment, went on to make “comeback” movies that helped to cement their legacies. That wasn’t the case for another actress mentioned in the ad, Kay Francis, who in 1938 was still Warner Brothers’ highest paid star — even though she had tried to sue the studio the previous year for casting her in too many bad movies. After roaring her way through New York in the 1920s as a flapper it girl, Kay Francis hit her career peak in 1932, the year she starred in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, but eventually she essentially lost her spot in the movie star firmament to Bette Davis. Today we’ll talk about the idea of box office poison, trace how and why Kay Francis became the embodiment of the meeting of 1930s movie star glamour and a devil-may-care pursuit of pleasure that marked pre-Code Hollywood, and explain why that magical combination wasn’t long for the world of the studio star system.
In this second installment of our ongoing series, The Many Loves of Howard Hughes, we explore the life, loves and work of Ida Lupino. Hughes dated Lupino when she was a teenage starlet; nearly 20 years later, after Lupino had become the only working female feature director in 1940s Hollywood, Hughes signed his ex-girlfriend’s production company to a deal at RKO. Hughes supported Lupino as a director, but also helped to kill off her second marriage. We’ll explore how Ida’s relationship with Hughes, and other men in her life, alternately enhanced her career and complicated it. Also: haunted houses, HUAC, The Twilight Zone, post-traumatic stress, polio, more shitty pettiness from Harry Cohn, more high-minded anti-Hollywood talk from Robert Rossellini, and much more.
This micro-episode sets up a topic we’ll be exploring throughout the summer: the films, stars and scandals of 1938. By midway through that year, Hollywood was in such a desperate downswing — and so concerned that Americans were losing interest not just in specific movies but in moviegoing as a habit — that the studios banded together to launch a massive PR campaign to convince the public that 1938 was Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year. It wasn’t.