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The spectacular boxoffice success of “The Dark Knight” certainly has helped dilute, if not knock off altogether, the long-circulated legend that the death of a movie star means inevitable disaster for an unreleased film featuring that newly deceased actor.
It’s a theory that’s been around almost as long as sprocket holes. If sometimes true in the past, the past 10 days certainly spins another tale thanks to Warner Bros.’ latest Batman installment, which features a buzzworthy performance by the late Heath Ledger.
Such a situation hasn’t always had such a positive cash-flow conclusion. When Will Rogers, then one of the movies’ top draws, was killed in an August 1935 airplane crash in Alaska, his home studio Fox had one new Rogers film in release (“Doubting Thomas”) and two newer ones on the shelf ready to be sent to theaters.
A month later, “Steamboat Round the Bend,” starring Rogers and directed by John Ford, opened, followed two months later by “In Old Kentucky.” Both received positive reviews but basically wilted at the boxoffice, the general feeling being that 1935 moviegoers, stunned by the beloved actor’s demise, were too saddened to want to sit through his movies.
It was the same basic reaction when the movies’ favorite blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow, died in June 1937 at the height of her career. She was in the midst of shooting MGM’s “Saratoga,” with several key scenes still to be done. Initially, the studio mulled recasting and reshooting the entire film with another actress, but minds were changed when a deluge of fan mail requested that the Harlow footage be shown.
MGM decided to do just that, completing the missing scenes with a stand-in, filmed from the back or with the substitute’s face hidden beneath a large hat. The film opened 45 days after Harlow’s death and despite all that mail did only mediocre business even with a boxoffice name as potent as Clark Gable’s on the marquee alongside hers.
This situation posed a question: Was it a hesitancy to see Harlow that kept a wide audience away or was it that the film was one of Gable and Harlow’s weaker efforts?
Carole Lombard, Gable’s wife at the time, died in January 1942 in a plane crash returning to Hollywood from a war-bond tour in the East. Seven weeks later, her last film, “To Be or Not to Be,” premiered with a mass of great credentials: Lombard the leading lady, popular radio favorite Jack Benny the leading man, direction by the great Ernst Lubitsch. The reviews were great, too, but the business weak.
In this case, not only did a sadness factor figure in, but the film’s subject was a turn-off to many: It was a comedy about Hitler’s invasion of Poland, a situation many Americans, just three months into a new world war, had difficulty accepting as a laughing matter. (Today, 60-plus years after the fact, “To Be” is considered one of the great classic comedies, and enduring, too: Mel Brooks remade it in 1983, and a Broadway version begins prevuing Sept. 11 at New York’s Biltmore Theatre.)
When James Dean died in 1955, he had been seen in only one starring role — 1955’s “East of Eden” — and had two completed films awaiting release: “Rebel Without a Cause,” which opened a month after his death, and “Giant,” which didn’t premiere until a year later.
Both of the posthumously released films were huge successes, “Rebel” fueled by a near-hysteria among teenagers that surrounded the loss of their new idol, and “Giant” with its added clout of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and the prestige of director George Stevens.
When Gable and Spencer Tracy died in the 1960s with completed films awaiting release, the boxoffice results couldn’t have been more different. Gable’s 1961 “The Misfits” did only spotty business, which many blamed less on Gable’s presence than on the film’s downbeat subject matter; Tracy’s 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was a buoyant success, undeniably helped by the boxoffice weight of Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn.
(Worth noting: “Misfits” also turned out to be Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, but that fact basically had been played off by the time of her death 18 months after the film’s February 1961 premiere.)
The bottom line: Some films have definitely seen a boxoffice boost from an audience’s affection for a departed star, while many others have been KO’d by that exact same feeling.
Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor at Turner Classic Movies.
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