I wrote recently about three movies judged artistically worthy that failed commercially for challenging our core cultural beliefs.
I have now thought of three more.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
It’s a western, so I’m in. (As were the majority of moviegoers back then.)
But here’s what it’s about.
A small town, angered by the reported death of a local rancher during a cattle-rustling, forms a posse, tracks down three strangers and summarily hangs them for their offences, only to discover they had executed the wrong men.
Okay, that’s “dark.” But it is also a searing indictment of “Frontier Justice”, where impulse supplants reason, and “following the herd” denies “due process.”
That’s no “sure-fire formula for box office success.” Even with movie star Henry
Fonda playing the lead.
Fonda playing the lead.
In the end, “Good people” did terrible things. Good people are supposed to do good things. Not impulsively hang people.
The Ox-Bow Incident was a powerful movie…. about what we don’t want to know.
So nobody went.
Ace In The Hole (1951)
A disreputable newspaperman exploits the tragedy of a man trapped in a cave collapse, turning it into a lucrative “soap opera” served up to a gullible readership.
“The media’s manipulative, and the people are idiots.”
“Get your tickets here”?
I don’t think so.
Despite the attachment of (revered writer-director) Billy Wilder.
But boy, does it resonate. Who said, “Cable news is just show business”?
Oh wait. That was me.
Quiz Show (1994)
A crusading journalist – this time – investigates the 1950’s quiz show “cheating” scandal, revealing that contestants the network and sponsor want to stay on the air (to boost ratings) are being surreptitiously supplied with the skill-testing answers. The show’s incriminated producers, however, fearing for their futures, accept full responsibility, refusing to implicate their exonerated employers. The journalist’s gloomy conclusion: “I set out to get television. Instead television got me.”
That’s All The President’s Men, without the victory.
Not surprisingly, Quiz Show badly disappointed at the box office.
“But Robert Redford directed!”
“We don’t care.”
It’s not just me, saying these movies are praiseworthy. The Ox-Bow Incident and Ace in the Hole are included in the “National Film Registry” at the Library of Congress, where selected films are honored as being, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Quiz Show received five nominations for Oscars.
None of them made any money.
But that’s how it is, how it’s always been, and how it continues to be today.
Melissa McCarthy’s much-praised Can You Ever Forgive Me? grossed around $10 million at the box office. Her earlier, commercially-driven hit Spy took in $240 million.
It no secret. Throughout film business history, there has been industry business mandate for, “Let’s lose money, making movies.”
Which reminds me of a story.
An old-time studio boss is arguing with a screenwriter berating pandering shlockiness of the studio’s product. Finally, the studio boss says,
“Let me ask you something. We make a lot of movies here. Would you say that, every year, we make at least ten films that are artistically worthwhile?”
“No!” replies the irate screenwriter.
“Okay. Would you say that of all the movies we make each year, we make at least five films that are artistically worthwhile?”
“Fine. Then tell me this. Of all the movies we make every year, would you say we make at least one film that is artistically worthwhile?”
“Okay,” concedes the irate screenwriter, “I’ll give you that. Every year, you make at least one film that is artistically worthwhile.”
To which the studio boss proudly replies,
“We don’t have to.”
You see that?
On rare occasions, studios (or independent production entities) eschew financial considerations and make films with intrinsic artistic merit, though they are in no way required to do so.
We got it wrong.
They’re not “Bottom-Line” sellouts.