Cinema is a lot like Soviet Russia. It loves to rewrite history in order to make its case, pro or con, for the artform and its import. Of course, the media helps in this regard. It pimps out its agenda for or against certain filmmakers, actors, and studios, cementing their part in what is often a pointless and puerile discussion of value. Time is the only thing that warrants and provides real critical consideration. You have to be able to walk away, to provide a bit of perspective, before you can claim an abject masterpiece, or define a full blown flop. That’s why so many classics were once considered crap, back in their day. A gut reaction is never as valid as one garnered after much decision and deliberation. But with said stomach (and audience reaction) acting as a guide, several sensational movies were unfairly dismissed in their time.
Thus, we provide this list of 10 Great Films Considered Failures in their Time. Each one offers up a unique argument for allowing art to age - like fine wine or distinctive cheese - breathing within the critical complexities it creates while avoiding the instant assessment brought on by box office results. In most cases, there’s a real consensus. Crowds turned up their nose and/or journalists jeered someone’s blatant ambitions. Yet there are examples found throughout this collection where previous status remains a borderline call at best. Perhaps it’s our contemporary brain, filled with a more complete point of view, muttering to itself about the narrow-mindedness of the past. Whatever the case, these are ten great examples of letting head, not the heart, rule when it comes to considering classics.
Now this is an odd one, a more recent entry in the formerly flawed, now praised pool. When Michael Cimino unleashed his filmic folly on the world, the end result had critics questioning his intent, audiences arguing over his previous Oscar wins, and one studio in particular pulling up stakes and declaring financial “Uncle.” Now, the Criterion Collection has seen fit to honor this unheralded “classic” with its practiced preservationist treatment. There are still many who believe this revisionist Western is as flawed as they come. On the other hand, it’s not longer the motion picture pariah it once was.
Yes, it’s a horror CLASSIC! Yes, it made George Romero’s reputation, one he built off of for the next four decades. Yes, it remains a stellar example of black and white dread. But one thing that Night of the Living Dead wasn’t at the time was profitable. Or respectable. Or particularly well received. Almost universally considered a mere drive-in diversion, it wasn’t until the mid ‘70s, when the post-modern movement took over, that the movie found its critical affection - and financial fortune. In fact, it’s position was so poor the movie itself was often double billed with traveling live action horror shows during its initial run.
It is, perhaps, the quintessential screwball comedy. It features two fantastic stars (Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant) in the leads. It even had the celebrated Howard Hawks sitting behind the lens. Yet when it was released in 1938, the film itself met with mixed reviews and took forever to turn a tiny profit. Hawks was even fired from his next film, Gunga Din, because of its miserable showing. Now, some 80 years later, it’s considered a fast-talking, free spirited gem, but that determination only came as the result of numerous TV showings in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
From worst to first, that’s the best way to describe the track David Fincher’s masterpiece of modern media manipulation took before becoming an acclaimed favorite. The movie bombed at the box office, with vocal critics on both sides of the fence regaling and/or rejecting the very premise and production itself. All homoerotic tones and narrative twists aside, many just couldn’t cotton Fincher’s fascinating deconstruction of what it meant to be male circa the 1990s. He was even called misogynistic for the way in which the sole female character, Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla Singer, was portrayed. Today, all is forgiven.
Imagine the uproar in 2013 if someone as famous as Tod Browning was in 1932 decided to make a movie using real human oddities as part of their cast. The pro-PC pundits would have a legitimate cause field day, correct? Well, that’s exactly what happened to the Dracula helmer once audiences got a glimpse of his highly personal love letter to the sideshow. Crowds and critics complained loudly about the “exploitation” of these unfortunates, and Browning was more or less blackballed from the industry. Thanks to its inclusion in the burgeoning Midnight Movie scene of the ‘70s, it’s now considered a classic…and rightfully so.
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