Lost in the Movies: Popular, eventually

Popular, eventually

Frank Morgan, today remembered best (and by most people, only) as the foolish but lovable wizard of Oz, died in 1949. One prominent obituary, in listing the actor's credits, declined to even mention that particular role. After all, the film - only marginally attended and mildly received on its initial release ten years earlier (I don't think it even recouped its production costs) - had been largely forgotten.

Television changed that dramatically in the 1950s - as it would later transform a long-overlooked late Capra gem into the linchpin of its filmmaker's (and perhaps even its star's) lasting legacy. Both The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life owed their newfound popularity and eventual ubiquity to the medium that was ostensibly a threat to the cinema. I'm not sure TV is capable of such a transformation today, there's too many channels, attention is too divided, and if people want to watch a movie they're more likely to rent the DVD anyway than to tune in for a special showing.

Given the diversity and fragmentation of present pop culture, are mass rediscoveries of forgotten films still possible? I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure how. This phenomenon persists in critical and scholarly culture - fueled by retrospective screenings, new books, and DVD restorations, among other things - but while this reappraisal can eventually trickle down into public consciousness, it doesn't seem to have the same impact. In some ways, this is its own phenomenon, overlapping to a certain extent with the other form of rediscovery but with its own history and icons. (Vertigo, The Searchers, and to a certain extent Citizen Kane come to mind).

In the long run, there's a place for obscure films celebrated by the devoted, for mishandled or unjustly criticized works being reappraised, and for movies which came and went to re-colonize the mass imagination. However, while the first two trends continue as strongly as ever I'm having trouble locating any examples of the third in recent years, even recent decades.

So then, do any recent Wizard of Ozs come to mind? Or any films (from any era) which, while not actually beloved icons, feel like they have that potential? Share your thoughts below.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Adam Zanzie said...

I've heard that story about The Wizard of Oz not being mentioned in Morgan's obituary. That's upsetting. As long as his collaborations with Lubitsch made it into the obituary, however, I won't blow my stack.

To answer your question about forgotten films being magically rescued by future generations, one film immediately clicked off in my head: Killer of Sheep. After it got that magnificent 1977 DVD restoration, the bookings on TCM and those wonderful reviews by Roger Ebert and Armond White, it has suddenly become a milestone. And I would agree, although the film is not yet regarded as a timeless classic. I still talk to people who have no idea who Charles Burnett is.

Another film that seems to have been rescued in modern times- and which is certainly relevant to the Toerific discussion we'll be having next week- is, of course, White Dog. I've always loved Fuller, but having just recently watched this for the first time, well... I'll save my enthusiasm for the discussion.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Adam - I saw Killer of Sheep on its theatrical re-release and was, like everyone it seems, very impressed. I've not yet seen White Dog but perhaps The Big Red One - with its director's cut receiving acclaim and attention a little while ago - could also fall into the same category.

At any rate, though, these are both examples of the still-strong trends I mentioned above: the ability of critics and film enthusiasts to dig up much-maligned works and reinvent their reputation. I don't worry too much about this ability - it seems to be stronger than ever. What has me concerned is the possibility that mass audiences no longer have the means or inclinations to crown forgotten films as universal classics, as happened with Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life. I hope I'm wrong.

Max said...

Y'know, Blade Runner went through the same re-discovering. The 3-hour-long workprint was shown at a 70mm film fest in the early 90's and generated significant interest in the film, which was then re-released in a longer (than the original theatrical) cut, sans the v.o. narration and with the addition of an important dream sequence. The movie made more money in re-release (and subsequently on home video) than it ever did during its original release.
Also, John Carpenter's The Thing (also originally released in '82) went through a similar journey, due to the advent of home video. The film was only just out of theaters when it was released on VHS and did staggering business, which prompted a release to be shown on syndicated network television.

MovieMan0283 said...

Nice icon by the way. That cartoon still scares the shit out of me...

MovieMan0283 said...

Re: Blade Runner, that's a great point. While arguably not quite on the level of popularity as Oz & Life it's pretty damn close - and one of the few films of the past 30 years whose re-evaluation has really taken hold amidst average viewers and critics/historians alike (for whatever that's worth). Interesting too that both of the examples are very much genre films (of course, Oz is a musical but its appeal seems to transcend that niche somewhat). Perhaps genre afficianados are more open to re-evaluations that general audiences in recent decades?

I guess one could also point to some movies like Shawshank Redemption which immediately established cult and eventually classic status on video/DVD after a disappointing theatrical run. I wonder what the shelf life for that sort of re-discovery is now, though. Could a contemporary audience re-discover a classic (say, a film 20+ years old) on the same terms that 50's viewers cottoned to Oz or 70's viewers finally embraced Wonderful Life? I'd definitely be interested to see it happen - or to be reminded that it has.

By the way, another example which occured to me with the mention of musicals above - and this might have been one of the rare cases where critics actually precipitated a more widespread reappraisal - is Singin' in the Rain.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Movie man, Give me a day's time to catch up with what seems to be a slew of great posts that I've missed, thanks to my PC biting the dust. I'll start right here.

Somehow, I want to believe that if TV had been invented a bit earlier, Capra's film would have been made directly for TV. Dunno why I think so.

As for resurrections, it is only a matter of time before Godard's Dziga Vertov and post-Dziga Vertov films are picked up and celebrated as widely as their predecessors.

As you said, scholarly reappraisals are common. It's really hard to think of a popualr mainstream flop that would find a bigger following later. Some of Woody's post-1990 features and (gulp!) a few of Shyamalan's trashed films, maybe?

As for actors: Mark my words, the old man who plays the station master in Once Upon A Time In the West is going to be one of the biggest cult actors of all time!

MovieMan0283 said...

I take it you don't mean that as a compliment to Capra? At any rate, I think his ambitions would have forbidden such a path - for all his film's cheer, I get the impression he was a success-hound (and God bless him for it).

The films you mention might be open to reappraisal but I wonder, particularly in Woody's case, if they won't be critical reappraisals more than popular ones. Interesting to that, as Max hinted, the path to reappraisal these days seems to lie in cult followings. I don't think this was the path Wizard of Oz followed (not sure It's a Wonderful Life did either). But again, that was a time when multitudes of people were tuned in to the same pop culture channels.

Troy Olson said...


I've had this post in the back of my head since I read it, knowing that I had to be able to think of SOME movie that met this criteria.

I think I may have come up with one that, likely, will never be considered on the level of a WIZARD OF OZ or IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but still would be a great film to have a critical reappraisal (ala WHITE DOG or the like).

That would be William Peter Blatty's 1980 film, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Unfortunately, the DVD for this film was released in 2002 and seems to already be out-of-print.

It's a tense psychological character study mixed with a bit of satire (CUCKOOS NEST meets CATCH-22 would be a good definition) that I found incredibly engrossing. Plus, great performances by Stacey Keach and Scott Wilson. It even won a Golden Globe for best screenplay in 1981. A lost gem that deserves rediscovery.

MovieMan0283 said...

Troy, luckily the film is on Netflix and I've added it to my queue. Thanks for the tip!

JPK said...

Way late to this thread, but I am wondering how/whether you would fit A Christmas Story, the 1983 Xmas film from Bob Clark/Jean Shepherd, into this? I don't even remember it on its release (which may or may not indicate anything), and hadn't really even heard of it until nearly a decade later, when some much younger friends talked it up to me. Now, of course, it's a round-the-clock Christmas tradition on TNT (or is that TBS?). I also think it's a fairly decent entertainment, in a similar vein to The Princess Bride, if not up to all the charms of the Reiner. And it seems to me that it may have all been accomplished via word of mouth and gathering momentum of TV play.

MovieMan0283 said...

JPK, I'm not sure how Christmas Story's popularity took off either, to be honest. It's always the Christmas movies though, isn't it?!

This phenomenon suggests that when a film does become belatedly popular, it's usually one from the recent past (see Shawshank Redemption - which was of course almost immediately - as well as XMas Tale and Blade Runner, or for that matter Wizard of Oz when it first emerged in the 50s). The increasing popularity of It's a Wonderful Life in the 70s and 80s seems to be a rarity in this regard, in that it was a genuinely popular resurgence, despite the dramatic ways film style has changed in the intervening years. I wonder if it's not "too late" for a Golden Age film to be rediscovered on such a mass basis, and I wonder what made those particular circumstances different...

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