WHEN JAMES DEAN DIED with two movies yet to be released, Warner Bros. Pictures saw catastrophe. Jack Warner bluntly observed, "Nobody will come and see a corpse." He could not have been more wrong. Both Dean films--"Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956)--turned out to be major critical and commercial hits. There is no set pattern as to how an audience will respond to a picture released after the death of its star.
During the first half of the 1930s, celebrated humorist Will Rogers was arguably the most-popular figure in the movies. In fact, he reigned supreme in every entertainment medium of the time, from a daily newspaper column widely syndicated across the country to success in radio and on the stage. Moreover, his often politically tinged humor books were bestsellers that helped make him, to borrow a 1926 title, a "Self-Made Diplomat to His President." Not surprisingly, his 1932 support for Franklin Roosevelt was instrumental in getting the New York governor elected president of the U.S.
Given Rogers' many talents and interests, he had long embraced the infant aviation industry to get him around the country as quickly as possible. In August, 1935, he joined his famous flyer friend Wiley Post in an ill-fated flight to the USSR, by way of Alaska. Their plane crash deaths shocked the nation, with many commentators suggesting that not since the assassination of Pres. Abraham Lincoln had the country been so moved by a tragedy.
A nervous 20th Century Fox was sitting on two completed, but unreleased, Rogers films--"Steamboat 'Round the Bend" and "In Old Kentucky." While no one at the studio seriously considered shelving the pictures, there was concern that the public might find two posthumous releases in poor taste and stay away. Yet, just the opposite occurred. So many fans honored Rogers with their ticket-buying presence that these final movies helped make the humorist the top male box office draw of 1935. (He was only commercially bested by a diminutive newcomer named Shirley Temple.) Indeed, "Steamboat" and "Kentucky" proved so popular that Fox was soon rereleasing earlier Rogers films, such as the 1936 appearance of the 1933 "Dr. Bull."
The 1937 death from uremic poisoning as a result of cerebal edema of the original blonde bombshell, 26-year-old Jean Harlow, constituted a different dilemma for parent studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The actress died during the production of the horse racing picture "Saratoga," which also starred Clark Gable. MGM was initially afraid it would have to take a loss on the picture. Nevertheless, with the creative use of Harlow's standin, Mary Dees--showing merely a shoulder here or a backside there--enough footage was salvaged to release the movie. Despite these distractions, "Saratoga" still manages to be an entertaining picture.
Indeed, the film proved to be both a major critical and commercial success. However, whereas Rogers' fans seemed anxious to generate some sort of loving closure by way of his posthumous films, the box office clout of "Saratoga," at least in part, was of a more-macabre nature. Period commentators credited the high patron turnout to a genuine viewer curiosity as to whether they could differentiate between the Harlow and Dees footage. While there were undoubtedly many loyal Harlow fans in attendance, too, the movie's commercial success was not necessarily America's finest hour.
At this point, it might seem that any film fatality could be parlayed into a box office hit, but the next example of a major star dying before a movie's release quickly disproves this premise. The victim was Carole Lombard, the country's designated "Screwball Comedy Girl," the eccentric heroine of such classics of the genre as "My Man Godfrey" (1936) and "Nothing Sacred" (1937). Nicknamed the "Hoosier Tornado," she returned to her native Indiana in early 1942 to kick off America's first war bond-selling rally of World War II. …