Why The Legendary Katherine Hepburn Was Declared ‘Box Office Poison’

Amid this pessimism in the movie business, the Independent Theater Owners Association took out a full page ad in the May 3, 1938 edition of “The Hollywood Reporter.” The ad blasted studios for producing big budget flops with overpaid stars “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned but whose box office draw is nil.” The trade group labeled a number of critically acclaimed actors as “box office poison,” including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and of course most infamously, Katharine Hepburn.

The theater owners weren’t off base in their criticism. By this time, Hepburn had starred in several critically acclaimed flops. Her slump at the box office appears to have started with 1935’s “Break of Hearts” and continued the following year with “A Woman Rebels,” a feminist melodrama about a woman who defies Victorian social conventions by raising an illegitimate child in Victorian England and becoming a journalist (via The Sunday Post).

The writer Graham Green praised her performance in “Break of Hearts” but also expressed why audiences, particularly men, might fear her, saying:

“Miss Hepburn always makes her young women quite horrifyingly lifelike with their girlish intuitions, their intensity, their ideals which destroy the edge of human pleasure.”

As Hepburn continued playing oddball heroines, her popularity may have faltered because she suffered from the same curse that has plagued so many women in the public eye: she was not “likable enough.” She defied the politeness that was expected of starlets, refusing to sign fan mail or schmooze reporters (via You Play the Girl).

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