The General (1926)
One of United Artists’ first box office flops was Buster Keaton’s The General. A $250,000 domestic deficit led to Keaton’s loss of control over his earlier films and forced him to sign a restrictive contract with MGM. Critics at the time called The General “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done” but it has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest silent comedies of all time.
Keaton blends his trademark physical athleticism with emotional pathos as a train driver during the American Civil War, who rescues both his beloved, eponymous engine and his inamorata from Union forces. Keaton could never understand why his perfectly engineered masterpiece flopped—he often cited it as his favorite of all his films—but perhaps, as Pauline Kael pointed out, it was just “too perfect”.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
One of the most cherished American films of all time, it’s hard to imagine that upon release in 1946 (and despite garnering five Oscar nominations) It’s a Wonderful Life failed to recoup its $3.7 million production cost. In the early 1970s, Frank Capra’s Dickensian masterpiece fell out of copyright protection and was picked up as a cheap network Christmas special by hundreds of local TV stations, soon becoming a perennial holiday favorite.
It’s a classic success-out-of-failure story that mirror’s the redemptive journey of the film’s protagonist, the selfless good guy George Bailey, who finds himself deeply loved in snowy Bedford Falls after his angel, Clarence, delivers him from suicide. This is Capra’s winningest vision of collective spirit working to help the fortunes of men whose morals are already made, and stands as a true American classic.
Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott’s postmodern blend of science fiction and gumshoe noir suffered at the box office from the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial two weeks earlier, with its more optimistic scenario of alien visitation (this also condemned the commercial prospects of John Carpenter’s The Thing which was released on the same date as Blade Runner).
Fortunately, Blade Runner was rediscovered in the video market rental scene and became one of the first films released on DVD. In all its shimmering incarnations (a Director’s Cut in 1992 and a Final Cut in 2007), it’s a spectacularly immersive and densely imagined vision of a decayed urban future. Scott is set to direct a sequel in the near future with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, the hard-boiled cop who hunts down “replicants”.
The Insider (1999)
From the early career disappointment of Manhunter to Miami Vice, Michael Mann—who, luckily for studios, has never been prolific—has rarely fared well at the box office. The Insider was no exception, and perhaps represents Mann’s most remarkable commercial failure, given its near-unanimous praise from critics and seven Oscar nominations.
At first glance, audiences might have been underwhelmed with its real-life story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and TV producer Lowell Bergman, who encourages Wigand to speak out on CBS’s 60 Minutes. But Mann suspensefully lays out the facts with his usual pulse-quickening panache, exploring again the situational professionalism of broken men against a backdrop of corporate guilt and paranoia.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most striking of recent commercial failures at the American box office. It stars Brad Pitt, one of the most bankable box office attractions, in what has historically been one of America’s most profitable genres. The western, however, has lost its popular appeal since Heaven’s Gate, with Disney’s 2013 movie The Lone Ranger (starring another box office king – Johnny Depp) once again calling into question its viability as a lucrative commercial form.
Its cumbersome title (which divulges the ending) shares some of the blame for its failure as well as its promise of elegiac subversion. The movie’s director, Andrew Dominik, brings an outsider’s sensibility to the boys’ bedtime Jesse James story (which has had more than 50 other screen adaptations) while simultaneously revelling in and reimagining the myths of the quintessential American genre.