Five Film Favorites: Box Office Bombs

One of the greatest movies of all time was a big flop at the box office.

Last week, Todd Starkweather wrote a great piece about the Summer Blockbuster, those big budget roller coaster rides that everyone loves. Well, I’m going to flip that coin and look at the very good, big budget roller coaster rides that were giant flops that most people hated, but some loved. A couple of these weren’t released in the summer, but, boy, they lost money.

Still, they’re truly great movies, cared for by their fans, treated kindly (in some cases) by Father Time.

1. The General (Buster Keaton, 1926) What more can one say about this incredible movie? The General ranks up there with my two or three favorites, films that I can watch again and again. But it began the descent of Keaton’s career, as the The Navigator followed, itself ridiculously expensive and not a hit. The Onion’s AV Club, in a review of the risible Evan Almighty, said that comedies don’t benefit from big budgets, but The General belies that–the huge swaths of extras playing the Union and Confederate Armies, the two trains, and the exploding bridge are essential to the film’s story of dual locomotive chases.  A classic by any standard, it’s a shame the film was virtually ignored in its time. Who knows what other great movies Keaton might have made had this one been a success?

2. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) I remember my Dad talking about Blade Runner all that summer of 1982, how great it was compared to every other lousy movie being released. It had a great pedigree: Ridley Scott, whose Alien had been a roaring success a few years earlier, and of course Harrison Ford, fresh from Raiders. What could go wrong? Maybe it was the feel-good Reagan years running at top speed by then, and this dark dystopian noir was exactly what America wasn’t looking for.

3. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976) I include Buffalo Bill here because it was a big flop in the relative world of Robert Altman. It didn’t lose as much money as Popeye, but then, that is a fucking terrible movie. No, Bill is included here because Altman had just made Nashville a year earlier, and that was a big hit (for him.) Now, in the bicentennial year, he makes this cynical western about one of our most beloved personages, starring blue-eyed boy Paul Newman.

Buffalo flopped, vanished, and has since been relegated to the critical dustbin. Almost for lack of a title to fit in on an Altman weekend, the Trylon in Minneapolis (where I volunteer) programmed this one. I was skeptical, because I’ve heard, even from Altmanites, that this one’s no good, no good at all. Critics think it’s simpleminded and predictable.

I think it’s a masterpiece, and I’d say it’s Altman’s best were it not for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Dark, strange, Altman’s wandering camera and sound recording techniques at their best, and for once, not a lousy performance in the lot (even McCabe has Keith Carradine, who has never been anything but indulged) Buffalo Bill and the Indians is a soulful skewering of American myth, but doesn’t stick its message in your face (which Altman has a tendency toward.) It’s beautiful.

I leave you with this wonderful quote, read in the film by Burt Lancaster (another reason to watch this movie):

Yes, he was truly born to entertain. No ordinary man would have the foresight to take credit for acts of heroism that he couldn’t have done. And no ordinary man could realize what tremendous profits could be made telling a pack of lies. No, Bill Cody can only trust his senses. And when his senses fail him, he might see things as they really are…

Unfortunately, the only online trailer for this film can’t be plopped down here. Check it out, though.

4. Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987) Ishtar is one of those weird movies, a film whose negative buzz destroyed this light, but pleasantly enjoyable movie. Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty have great chemistry playing lounge singers who head off to Morocco and get caught up in cold war shenanigans.

It should have been a sweet little throwback to the road movie, but director Elaine May was, or is, nearly obsessive compulsive, shooting and reshooting scenes, and spending buckets of money to build and knock down sand dunes. Warren Beatty got on board because May was a pal who’d helped him by knocking out a few rewrites on his Heaven Can Wait and Reds projects, the latter of which won the dude an Oscar.

Nothing went right. Nothing at all. Everyone wanted tons of money, and inexplicably, Columbia pictures opened the spigots and let it flow. There was tons of civil unrest, threats that Hoffman was going to be kidnapped, and everyone, stars and directors and producers, began to battle one another. There’s a whole book to be written about the debacle, if anyone cared.

But Ishtar is better than reviews indicate, and I personally think if it had had a more modest background, it wouldn’t have been so vilified. While no masterpiece, Ishtar is a slight, funny film, a nice little tonic for a summer’s night, no giant machines or CGI, just good actors being goofy.

Just don’t ask much it cost.

5. 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979) What can I say? I thought this movie was a blast, a crazy and insane take off on World War II with a dynamite cast which includes Jim Belushi at his best–and yes, I include Animal House and The Blues Brothers, the latter of which doesn’t hold up at all. There’s a certain lovely mania to this huge enterprise that puts it up there with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, an epic comedy that, yes, could benefit perhaps from not so much money and junk on screen, but is still pretty damned funny. And you have to admit that Spielberg, who takes himself terribly seriously today, could never make this movie now. In fact, he’d probably rail on 1941 if it were made today.

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3 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Box Office Bombs

  1. anubhavbist says:

    Good list. Keaton’s The General and Scott’s Blade Runner are now considered masterpieces of world cinema; the other three aren’t exactly there yet. Buffalo Bill s an interesting film and it’s reputation is getting much stronger over the years. Oddly enough Ishtar has a gained a stronger cult following than 1941 over the years. I would add Its a Wonderful Life to the list. Its Capra’s masterpiece. Most of Orson Welles’ films fared poorly in the box office. I believe the only two that did well were The Stranger and Citizen Kane (which broke even). Vertigo, though not a box office bomb, still undersold compared to other Hitchcock films. One of my personal favorites is Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, a film so reviled in it’s day that it ended up on many worst films lists and basically took away any chance for Hopper to make another film in the 70s. I personally consider it an unappreciated masterpiece by a maverick auteur who could have been one of the greatest filmmakers had America actually accepted him.

  2. Jeff Roll says:

    I had to check and see if I wasn’t drunk when I read Schilling’s defense of Ishtar. I love Hoffman and Beatty but loath that film. I have never been able to sit through it .

  3. mel says:

    it seems to me that “the shawshank redemption” is another great movie that did horribly at the BO. it began to take off only when it went to video.

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