Rediscovering Box office failures

It’s A Wonderful Life is now a cherished film, but it did not recover its costs on release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Looking back on some films, it seems absurd that they were not popular on their release. Yet too many good films have failed for this to be the case.  A standout case is It’s A Wonderful Life. The film is now a classic shown almost every Christmas, and it is considered one of the popular films in American cinema. Capra considered it to be his finest film – indeed, he thought it was the greatest film of all. Yet, the film did not do well and failed to recover costs. What elements contributed to its failure? In 1946, the United States had been through a long and difficult war. It’s A Wonderful Life would have fitted in with a cycle of films about the afterlife and the importance of each life. But perhaps in the aftermath of the war, people did not want messages about death and life’s meaning. It may have made uncomfortable viewing. After all, it was about a man contemplating suicide for leading a wasted life. As Andrew Sarris noted, it was: “one of the most profoundly pessimistic tales of human existence ever to achieve a lasting popularity.”[1] In later times, Capra’s message of realising the richness of ordinary life appears to have resonated with the American public.

Other examples are easy to find. One of the Chaplin’s main rivals was Buster Keaton.  Keaton had made a string of successful short and feature films.  When Buster Keaton released The General in 1927, he considered it to be his masterpiece.  Film scholars have echoed that opinion for more than 60 years.  Yet when it was released, it did not prove to be a box office success, and after its screening, his film career disintegrated.[2] 

Audiences were left cold by the inventiveness of The General and it was one of Keaton’s great commerical failures. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Looking back at the film, it is almost inexplicable why the film would be a financial failure. Keaton plays a train driver who loves his engine called The General. When the civil war breaks out, the Union forces steal his beloved engine. Despite its undeniable quality, the audience of 1927 simply did not respond to Keaton’s battling little character.  Keaton had enjoyed great success until this point, and his films are now regarded as works of genius. It could be that his benign depiction of the American South did not resonate with the audience. It could be that audiences had simply grown tired of his battling little character who overcame every obstacle. The reasons for the failure of a film are difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, to click with an audience of the time, a film must fulfill a need more complex than straight entertainment.  Keaton’s little character has lost favor with the public, and his decline had begun. 

While Keaton’s vision of the South did not resonate, a film made 13 years later certainly did. Gone with the Wind (1939) was a massively successful film, and it remains an extremely popular to this day.  It has been re-released several times and has made handsome profits on each occasion. More than eighty years after its release, the film now has Blu Ray sets, special editions, and it remains one of the most popular films on cable television.  The perennial nature of its popularity could indicate that good films will be successful whenever they are released.  The argument is flawed.  Gone with the Wind was a bestselling novel published in the 1930s, and it was because of that popularity that producer David O. Selznick picked it up.  So even before the film was made, there was strong popular support for it.  Many people who attended the film went to see it simply because of the wonderful spectacle.  But once again, the film provided more than simple entertainment.  It dealt with a society about to be torn apart by war – as America was – and the sacrifices that men and women would have to make in that war.  These themes were also present in a large group of films that enjoyed popularity at the time.[3]  Films such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Union Pacific (1939) reassured America about its great past, and the ability to face challenges was in heavy demand.  With fascism on the march in Europe, that reassurance was needed.

Gone with the Wind continues to entertain 8o years after its release. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The reasons for its perennial popularity have more to do with the quality of its artistry. Films must operate at two levels to be successful. One, they have to contain elements of good writing, direction and production or a well executed or clever idea. But on another level, they are products of their time and need to talk to the audience of the period in which they were created. To succeed at the box office, a film needs to have more than a high standard of artistic and technical ability, it requires to have a level of audience involvement.  At some level, a popular film must discuss issues and dilemmas affecting the contemporary audience.


[1] Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film History & Memory, 1927-1949, 356.

[2] Tom Dardis, Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1979, p.114.

[3] For a full discussion read John E. O’Connor, ‘A Reaffirmation of American Ideals’ in O’Connor, John E., and Jackson, Martin A. (eds.). American Film/American History: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, 97 – 120.

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