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10 cinema classics that flopped


Box-office results don't even begin to tell the story ...

What makes a movie classic? Box office success is usually a big factor in elevating a film’s status, but even that’s no guarantee. The balance sheets on Avatar (2010) may have looked good but for all its technical brilliance, it lacked the special magic that immortalized Gone With the Wind (1939). It is very hard to believe that some of the best films ever made were commercial flops when they were first released. Were they too complex? Were the too arty? Or were they released at the wrong time? The reasons vary but there’s no denying these classics have survived better than many more successful movies of the day.

So what makes a movie classic? I think it has a lot to do with enduring appeal. Some have achieved cult status when released many years later while others were re-discovered after a lengthy period in obscurity. Art-house and underground cinema has also enhanced many a film’s reputation. Certainly the big nostalgia boom of the seventies coupled with TV, video and DVD have added a great deal to their popularity. Because there are so many brilliant films that failed at the box office, a comprehensive list would be endless. So as someone who likes his movies a little more offbeat, here are ten movie classics that stood out for me. They are not all faultless (and in one case not even very good), but they have survived the decades and remain a unique record in cinema history.

10. Intolerance (1916)

'Intolerance' (1916)

Perhaps it’s best to start with what many consider the first-ever box office flop, produced by the great cinema pioneer D W Griffith. Following the negative critical reaction to his visually breathtaking but overtly racist Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith undertook another great masterpiece, costing as much as $2 million, about man’s intolerance through the ages with four stories from different periods in history linked by a woman holding a baby. Unfortunately the audience, confused by the narrative, turned out to be equally intolerant and the film bombed spectacularly. Although the technical side looks dated for modern tastes, there is no denying the film’s power, especially with the Babylon scenes. These spellbinding set pieces may have illustrated Griffith’s cinematic brilliance, but his Victorian/autocratic outlook, his inability (or unwillingness) to adapt to change (especially with the coming of sound) and his sheer excesses quickly forced him out of the business he created. With many silent movies now lost forever, Intolerance remains a fascinating and influential film that has stood the test of time.

9. Freaks (1932)

'Freaks' (1932)

Before Tod Browning became a successful film director, he worked in several carnival sideshows where he developed a fascination for grotesque images, especially the poor deformed humans who were tastelessly put on display as circus ‘freaks’ for entertaining the American public. It was this strange fascination that eventually brought his film career to a bitter end when he produced Freaks, a stylish but disturbing chiller that has courted controversy for nearly 80 years. Based on the Clarence Robbins story Spurs, Freaks tells the lurid tale of a trapeze artist who marries a midget for his money and with the help of the strongman, poisons her new husband. When the other ‘freaks’ learn of their plot, the couple meet very nasty ends. Browning managed to persuade L B Mayer of MGM to bankroll the project despite insisting on using circus freaks (who were banned from the canteen). MGM executives tried several times to halt production and a woman even threatened to sue after a test screening allegedly caused her to miscarry. When it was finally released (cut to ribbons and with a tacked-on happy ending), most cinema managers refused to screen it. It was actually banned in Britain for 30 years. Even though the film is dated, it still packs a very strong punch. Small wonder audiences stayed away from this one.

8. Citizen Kane (1941)

'Citizen Kane' (1941)

It is very hard to believe that the greatest film ever made was a box office dud. How? Clearly it was way ahead of its time and directed by a great cinema maverick. But there was more to it. Because the story of newspaper magnet Charles Foster Kane (told in flashback) allegedly mirrored the life of William Randolph Hearst, the real-life tycoon successfully initiated a smear campaign that damaged the film’s commercial impact. After achieving a reputation as a capricious and innovative genius of the American theater, 24-year-old Orson Welles was offered carte blanche by RKO to produce this remarkable movie. But rather like Griffith before him, Welles’ quest for cinematic perfection put the company in dire financial shape, a situation not helped by Hearst’s blacklisting. Unlike other films of that era Citizen Kane hasn’t dated. Every scene is vivid and the performances from an unknown cast are brilliant throughout, especially Welles in the title role. If Kane was the high point in Welles’ career, it was also an albatross around his neck. The studios never gave him full control again, and from then on he became something of a wanderer forever looking for another masterpiece that he never found.

7. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

'Plan 9 from Outer Space' (1959)

From the greatest film ever made to the worst. Plan 9 is hilariously awful, yet it survived against the odds when better movies fell by the wayside. Edward D. Wood, Junior may not have been a Welles or a Griffith, but what he lacked in skill and talent he made up for with blind optimism, determination and a total, if misguided belief in his abilities; even when his alcoholism and transvestite leanings led to his tragic decline. For all the dreadful dialogue, bad acting and cardboard sets, his enduring opus still manages to charm cult fans. Wood obtained financing from a local Baptist church but ended up producing an incoherent mess that left his backers in a state of shock. The film was so bad it ended up on the shelf for three years before finding a distributor. No one saw a penny of their investment and Plan 9 faded into obscurity. But there is a happy ending (of sorts). Plan 9 resurfaced during the seventies nostalgia boom and after receiving the Medved Brothers celebrated Golden Turkey Award for Worst Film Ever Made, a whole new merchandising industry was built around it. Life can be weird sometimes.  

6. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

'Sweet Smell of Success' (1957)

With the rise of television and Joseph McCarthy’s infamous blacklisting, Hollywood went through a tumultuous decade where drive-ins were competing with cinema managers and low-budget independents were giving the major studios a run for their money. It was also a time for new and original writers, actors and directors, mainly from TV started to make their mark in Tinsel Town with a more realistic (and seamier) look at modern life. Many big stars capitalized on the reinvented medium by setting up their own companies; such as when Burt Lancaster, who along with Harold Hecht and James Hill, formed Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. Setting up a deal with United Artists, H-H-L produced several excellent films including this dark, sleazy drama that features arresting performances from Lancaster as hateful news magnet J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as his press agent Sidney Falco. Curtis, in an attempt to cast off his pretty boy image, is extremely good as the butt-licking toady whose attempt to forward his career, at the expense of his own soul, blows up in his face. It’s sharp, cynical and gloomy; perhaps too gloomy for some audiences, especially those unhappy at seeing Lancaster and Curtis playing against type. A disappointing preview screening was followed by box-office indifference. Upset by the critical and commercial reaction Lancaster, Hecht and Hill ended up blaming one another for the film’s failure. Not surprisingly the company folded within a couple of years.

5. 12 Angry Men (1957)

'12 Angry Men' (1957)

The television crossover into cinema continued with this excellent adaptation of the celebrated 1954 TV play. Henry Fonda opted to produce the film version (and play Juror No. 8) and bring Sidney Lumet in personally to direct. The story is simple; a young man is accused of murder and the jury has already voted him guilty - all except Juror 8 who is not entirely sure. It’s from that simple logic that the remaining 11 start changing their minds for different reasons. Packed with first-rate performances (Lee J Cobb’s Juror 3 is especially memorable), the film met a critically warm response. However with color and larger widescreen productions becoming more prominent, the film did poorly at the box office. Regular TV screenings gave 12 Angry Men a well-deserved (if belated) reputation - but after the poor showing, Fonda never produced another film again.  

4. The Intruder, aka The Stranger (1962)

'The Intruder' (1962), aka 'The Stranger' (1962)

The story that Roger Corman never lost money on his films isn’t strictly true. This sharp, forward-thinking low budget drama about racism still remains an impressive and mature piece of work from a man best known for trashy low-budget science fiction movies. It was Corman’s pet project for many years yet it undeservedly bombed. Scripted by novelist Charles Beaumont, The Intruder starred William Shatner (giving a remarkable performance) as a mysterious stranger who incites racial hatred in a southern town. Established as a director of very stylish gothic horrors based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, Corman had grown tired of the contractual arrangements with producers American International Pictures. Pathe agreed to bankroll his project on the condition he made a Poe film for them. Although the stories were in public domain, Vincent Price’s personal contract with AIP prevented him from taking part so Ray Milland was cast as the lead in The Premature Burial (1962). After a few legal threats against Pathe, AIP finally released the Poe chiller but The Intruder never saw the light of day. Over the years the film has become a cult hit around the underground cinema circuit. Following a recent TV documentary on Charles Beaumont, The Intruder finally made its money back. Guess Corman never lost a dime after all!

3. The Swimmer (1968)

'The Swimmer' (1968)

This odd (but strangely compelling) film about the failure of the American Dream was certainly too weird even for a sixties audience. Perhaps it was as irritating as it was excellent. It’s a shame as it features one of Burt Lancaster’s finest performances. Arriving out of nowhere wearing black swimming trunks Ned Merril (Lancaster) pays an unexpected but welcome visit to a friend’s house. It’s been a while since they last saw him but from what we learn Ned is a wealthy and successful man with a happy marriage and family life. He decides to swim across the state of Connecticut via his neighbours’ swimming pools to get to his home. However this turns out to be a humiliating voyage of self-discovery as his friends and neighbour greet him with increasing hostility as he ‘swims’ each pool. It’s clear from the start he is not the success we first thought and his destination all too obvious. It’s rather mystifying as we never quite know the outcome. Is Ned a failure? Does he live in a fantasy world? Where are the men in the white coats? The film is open to many interpretations so maybe it’s understandable that the audience’s overall confusion hindered the box office success it deserved.

2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

'Night of the Living Dead' (1968)

Another hard-to-believe story. The film that introduced the zombie genre took years to achieve success after its initial release. With financing from several Pittsburgh businessmen and the technical facilities available to him as a director of TV commercials, George Romero created a cynical and downbeat horror film that still has the power to shock. However, as with many filmmakers, Romero left the business side to less-reliable sources. The film was picked up for distribution by Walter Reade’s Continental Films but never got a widespread release. Unfair distribution practices, the bankruptcy of Walter Reade and the copyright left off the original film meant that bootleggers could distribute and sell pirated copies without fear of legal action. So in a nutshell everyone but the filmmakers made money from it. Within the next ten years Night earned a cult following that was good enough to kick-start Romero’s dormant film career. Eventually the copyright was sorted out and with the release of a colourised video version that coincided with Tom Savini’s partially-successful cinema remake, at least the businessmen who invested in the original film managed to get their money back. Better late than never!

1. The Wicker Man (1973)

'The Wicker Man' (1973)

1973 was an important year for horror films. The massive box office success Exorcist (1973) made horror fashionable for the big studios and before long the low-budget horror market spearheaded by Hammer was dying. A pity as this brilliant effort never found the initial success it deserved. Its simple idea of a devout Catholic policeman on a Pagan island searching for a missing child is effectively fleshed out with religious and occult symbolism and a decidedly folk background – very different to Hammer’s unvarying formula. Despite the weak casting of Edward Woodward in the lead role (Peter Cushing was first choice but his workload prevented him from taking part) each scene is powerful and disturbing. It also boasts Christopher Lee’s finest horror performance as Lord Summerilse (he did it for nothing). Unfortunately the company British Lion Film had ran into financial difficulties and the new buyers quickly rushed the film into production. The film was bought by EMI who suggested a tacked on happy ending. The suggestion was overturned but the film ended up being hacked to ribbons and released as a second feature to the vastly overrated Don’t Look Now (1973) before disappearing into obscurity. But like many it found a cult audience and eventually was more or less fully restored and now regarded as the ‘Citizen Kane of Horror films’.

In the words of Jackie Chan “What’s a bad movie? When no one sees it, that’s a bad movie!”

See also:

No Ash for Evil Dead remake

Ran remade: Kurosawa rights up for grabs

There can be only one: Why the first Highlander is the Best

Zemeckis's Wizard Of Oz - remake the movie or adapt the book?

Underrated classics: A.I. Artificial Intelligence [2001]

The phenomenology of revisiting movies

Is a classic film ever going to be left alone again?

Top 20 underrated movie sequels

Ten films that defied their obscure titles

15 historically significant 'lost' films

Ten Ways The iPhone Has Already Killed The Classic Movie

Ten classic films you should admit you've never seen

Top ten zombie survivors


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#1 RE: 10 cinema classics that flopped Grand Old Movies 2011-09-28 00:48
A terrific post on an interesting subject - it's fascinating to note the variety of reason why the films flopped, either from censorship, going way over budget, angering a newspaper mogul(!), bad business decisions, a failure to gauge public taste, or just being released at the wrong time. I'm surprised to learn that "Night of the Living Dead" flopped, it seems like it would have been a sure-fire teen drive-in favorite. As it is, it's left us with the legacy of the cannibal-zombie flick, a highly successful genre!

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