One of the hardest things a movie can do is stand the test of time. Watch any number of films that were widely praised just twenty years ago and odds are a chunk of what once was fresh has worn off. Naturally, a film that came to light seventy-five years ago has even tougher luck thanks to their formulas being taken and then becoming normal, their outdated use of technology, and a number of other reasons. While many once great films can seem tame today, there is a category of film that have managed to become better with time. There is a whole category of movies that were overlooked, panned, or just seen as decent back in the day that are now hailed as classics. A good chunk of the best movies ever made didn’t win any Oscars and weren’t on many critics’ “Top 10” lists of that year, but they rose up from obscurity and are considered such masterpieces it is hard to accept anyone once feeling differently.
Most movies that fall under this category do so because they were several years ahead-of-their-time. Freaks (1932) was a box-office bomb and it isn’t hard to see why as it even turns people away to this day due to its bizarre depiction of circus freaks. Now it is considered one of the greatest horror movies ever made and the stories of its initial audience turning away from it and being too creeped out by it only make it more appealing in its overall impact. It is actually both Bianca’s and my favorite horror movie, but while I meet many people on the internet who love it as much as I do, I’ve had some personal encounters with people who cannot understand why anyone would sit through such a weird film. When I was in high school I even mentioned to another student that it was my favorite horror movie and her reply was “Ew, you like that?” Yep! Naturally, a film that turns off the masses for its themes is still an effective horror treat to modern audiences.
While Freaks came too early, many great movies came too late. Watch a talkie from 1928 right next to a silent movie from 1928 and you’ll see exactly what I mean. The silent film reached an artistic pinnacle at the end of the era, but audiences and critics overlooked them in favor of talking pictures which still needed serious tweaking as many feel like stilted stage plays. Not only that, but late silent movies like The Wind (1928) and The Crowd(1928) (easily two of the best silent movies of all-time) were also very un-Hollywood in style and execution. The Crowd inspired many directors to come, but at the time people weren’t interesting in seeing the heartbreaking problems of reality and everyday people. Today, we call films of that subject “Oscar bait” and even today they often don’t pack the same punch The Crowd is able to as despite its imitators it has managed to hold-up remarkably well over the years.
It is hard to imagine that Buster Keaton wasn’t as highly regarded back in his day as he is today and that arguably the best features the Marx Brothers ever did (including Duck Soup (1933)) were flops back then. What was funny then is still pretty funny now, but it is strange audiences weren’t laughing at Keaton’s classics like we do today. The same could be said for Bringing Up Baby (1938) which was looked down upon back in its day and is today considered as being in the top tier of screwball comedies. Ask anyone what Preston Sturges’ best movie is and objectively the answer will always beSullivan’s Travels (1941). It is hard to imagine while The Great McGinty (1940) was praised, Sullivan’s Travels was ignored. Not that The Great McGinty is not good in its own right, it has just been mostly forgotten by modern audiences while Sullivan’s Travels continues to be placed on “The Greatest Movies Ever” lists everywhere.
It isn’t hard to see why The Night of the Hunter (1955) might have been too dark for audiences at the time, but even then how could they possibly ignore its impact, fine style, and outstanding lead performance from Robert Mitchum? Much like Sullivan’s Travels for Preston Sturges, most John Ford fans will cite The Searchers (1956) not only as his best movie but as the greatest Western of all-time (I certainly would), but did it get justly praised back in the day? No, not a single Oscar nomination and hardly a word about it afterwards. Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was also oddly overlooked. Still, you can argue these are ahead-of-their-time movie that deal with harsh subjects that audiences at the time were not used to yet. True, but how did they ignore Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1952) which are not only the two best musicals that year but arguably the two best musicals of the 1950s? How was Singin’ in the Rain seen as a disappointment after An American in Paris (1951) which was Gene Kelly’s Oscar-winning musical extravaganza before the release of Singin’ in the Rain?
TV Tropes ironically points out how Johnny Guitar (1954) was seen as too violent and too odd (considering women are the leads and wield guns) back in the day, but today people love and praise the film for those exact reasons. They also mention its anti-McCarthy satire is well-appreciated today and obviously those types of films were rather ignored back then on the whole. Have our taste buds in movies changed over time? That certainly seems to be the case as while we still crave the same ideas such as action, grandeur, and romanticism, we like them executed and displayed differently. Crime flicks made a big mark in the 1940s, Westerns and epics were big in the 1950s, etc. Today Hollywood’s focus is entirely different and in a few years down the road what was once seen as a pale imitation of today’s greatest movies can be hailed as a classic. It is hard to picture anyone down the road hailing the panned or ignored movies that came out last year, but stranger things have happened. Do you think audiences in 1932 would know that Freaks would stand alongside the likes of Frankenstein (1931) as a horror movie staple? Probably not. The same could be said for Singin’ in the Rain surpassing An American in Paris in terms of critical and audience reception. That likely would have seemed unthinkable back then that a light movie musical could outdo an artistic tour de force. Don’t be too surprised if history is kinder to what we now dismiss. History does repeat itself after all.