The Top 10 Box Office Hits According to Variety as of March 19, 1958
I wrote the following for The Believer magazine for their April 2008 issue.
One of the most virulent opinions about movies I’ve encountered as a critic—particularly online, where everyone’s a critic—is that popularity is somehow indicative of quality. People argue this whether you slam the latest blockbuster (“Friends I know who have seen Spider-Man 3 enjoyed it,” one reader wrote), or an art-house flick they think is a blockbuster (“We are the movie goers and I hope we win with Crash,” said another). Consider it the last refuge of the inarticulate: I like what everyone likes no matter what you like. Or: 50 million Pirates of the Caribbean fans can’t be wrong.
My knee-jerk response to this is often the second-to-last refuge of the inarticulate: Well, let’s see how long it lasts. Both of us are actually gauging quality through quantity: they in ticketbuyers, me in years. I assume that Spider-Man 3, silly and effects-laden, is a diversion for our time and no other, while Crash, somber and obvious, is an admonishing finger for our time and no other, and in 50 years, if we’re still watching movies, no one is going to be watching either of these things. I also assume it’s always been thus. Take that Monday morning mantra, the weekend box office, and its counterpart 50 years ago will be filled with the relics of a by-gone era: once-popular diversions that have long since sunk from view.
So I went looking.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai
- The Brothers Karamazov
- Witness for the Prosecution
- Around the World in 80 Days
- Search for Paradise
- Raintree County
- A Farewell to Arms
- Paths of Glory
- ...And God Created Woman
Whoops. Of the 10 films, I knew eight; I’d seen four; I loved two. These were films admired in their day (30 Academy Award nominations,12 wins, including two for best picture) and admired in ours (three rank on IMDb.com’s top 250 list).
Some of that familiarity is misleading. We mostly know A Farewell to Arms and The Brothers Karamazov because of Hemingway and Dostoevsky. I couldn’t have told you who starred in the former (Rock Hudson), and I only knew the latter because it includes the screen debut of William Shatner and I was once a big “Star Trek” fan.
Eight of the 10, in fact, are based on novels and plays. The most popular story-telling medium of its time (movies) was fending off attacks from its eventual usurper (TV) by relying on the very forms it usurped (novels and plays). Nice.
That fight against TV is all over this list. Everything here is what TV couldn’t be: big and colorful and exotic. Cinemascope and Technicolor abound. There’s almost a competition to see how long they can keep us in our seats and away from our sets: Karamazov is 145 minutes long, Arms 152, Kwai 161, and Raintree 168. Around the World in 80 Days, including overture and exit music, lasts 181 minutes.
Here come the epics
But is there anything worse than an epic that isn’t? A Farewell to Arms (#7) was producer David O. Selznick’s last film, and while he strove for another Gone with the Wind—it takes 30 seconds for the title to scroll imperiously across the screen—he wound up with a sticky melodrama that inverses Bogart’s Casablanca equation: the problems of two people are all that matters, while the crazy, mixed-up world, including, you know, World War I, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, 38 years old and looking older, is miscast as the 21-year-old British nurse, while the presence of Rock Hudson, our most famously closeted movie star, adds unintentional irony. “Shut up about dames,” he says early in the picture. Later, when his dying wife gives him permission to see other women, he stutters, “I – I don’t want them.” The clues were there.
Raintree County (#6) was another epic love story set against the backdrop of war (U.S. Civil), and it, too, starred a famously closeted actor (Montgomery Clift), and while it’s not a good film it’s saved from insufferability by Clift. The story involves that Hollywood staple, the love triangle: virginal Eva Marie Saint loves Clift who loves Elizabeth Taylor, who’s southern and mad in the creepy way of Southern Gothic: think racial confusion and burning homes. Give credit, though. Three years after the Montgomery busy boycott, and a year after Little Rock, and it’s the only film in the top 10 raising any kind of racial issues.
We get another love triangle in The Brothers Karamazov (#2): virginal Claire Bloom loves Yul Bryner who loves Maria Schell, Maximillian’s sister, who packs a sexual wallop with one smile. Oddly, in that virginal decade, both virgins lose their men. We wanted what we weren’t. The existence of God is overtalked—as is the golden raintree in Raintree, and love love love in Arms—and eventually His existence is proven through the devil in Albert Salmi. Because if the devil exists...
Search for Paradise (#5), unavailable on home video, is essentially a travelogue, and so is Around the World in 80 Days (#4), surelyone of the most boring Oscar winners for best picture. The Bridge over the River Kwai (#1), which remained atop the box office for weeks after it won its Oscar for best picture in March 1958, holds up much better. Its theme is the madness of war. Who’s more mad? Col. Saito for not following the rules of the Geneva Convention or Col Nicholson for adhering to the rules too much? The story is like aikido. Nicholson defeats Saito not by opposing his demand to build a bridge but by building it better and stronger than Saito imagined. He unmans him by making him irrelevant. Eventually, yes, Nicholson loses sight of the proper goal but you see the logic in his madness.
Col. Nicholson, before the lessons in akido.
The shorter, better films
Excepting Kwai, these epics, so indicative of their time, pale next to the smaller films on the list. Cowboy (#9) is a solid Delmer Daves western about a Chicago hotel clerk (Jack Lemmon) who joins a tough cattleman (Glenn Ford) on the trail. During the ride each becomes more like the other. “I have to laugh,” Ford’s right-hand man tells him. “You made this fellow tough. Now you don’t like what you made.”
...And God Created Woman (#10) is the infamous 1956 French film, dubbed for American audiences, in which Brigette Bardot appears briefly, glancingly nude. It was condemned by the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, which guaranteed a stampede to the box office, but by modern standards it’s rather tame. The bigger shock is that it’s not an exploitation film; it’s almost cinema verite. Bardot plays Juliete, an impulsive, selfish free spirit straining against the confines of what her community allows (and her dress). She’s in love with the wrong guy, she marries a different wrong guy, etc. “That girl is made to destroy men,” says one older (and undestroyed) man. According to the April 2, 1958 Variety, Dallas police shut down a showing of the film at The Forest, “a colored house,” even though it had played in white theaters in the city. Their unofficial explanation? “It’s too exciting for colored folk.” The fact that Ms. Bardot danced with members of a black band near the end of the film probably didn’t help.
Witness for the Prosecution (#3) is the first of two films I love on this list. It has great acting (Charles Laughton), a good story and witty dialogue (from Agatha Christie) and good direction (Billy Wilder). It’s the only courtroom thriller on the list, but in the 10 films we are shown four trials, and, interestingly, the only defendant who’s found innocent, Tyrone Power in Prosecution, is guilty. The defendants in the other movies, all innocent, are condemned to death.
Finally, there’s Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (#8), brilliant in a brisk 87 minutes. It’s our fourth war picture here, and while these pictures all view war tragically (men die, go mad, lovers are torn asunder), Glory is the only one whose critique is systemic. The movie starts with a bad idea: capturing the Ant Hill from the Germans. Everyone knows it’s a bad idea but via the carrot of promotion (for Gen. Mireau) and the stick of exclusion (for Col. Dax), it’s put into play. Despite the efforts of the soldiers, many of whom die, it fails. So who to blame for this failure? Three soldiers, chosen at random, are put on trial and executed. Even when the unsympathetic Gen. Mireau gets his comeuppance, it’s not satisfying, for we know he’s a pawn, too. The bad idea came from elsewhere. From Gen. Boulard? No. It just appeared, this bad idea. Like all bad ideas.
Put different commanders in the place of Saito and Nicholson in Kwai and the ending is different, because the ending is dictated by the faults in the characters. Put different commanders in the place of Gen. Mireau and Col. Dax in Glory and you get the same result, because the ending is dictated by the faults within the system. No wonder it resonates. Bad ideas are still handed down from who knows where; they’re still put into play; soldiers still die.
Col. Dax, the hero, and another pawn in the game.
What the survey says
If the purpose of this article was to create an Ozymandias-likewarning to moviemakers and moviegoers—your current glories will be lone and level sands stretching far away—I failed. In fact, I demonstrated the opposite. Even in a random week in an unremarkable year, some works stand taller 50 years later.
I also didn’t fail. Compare the 1958 films with our most recent mid-March weekend box office list (March 16-18, 2007):
- Wild Hogs
- Dead Silence
- I Think I Love My Wife
- Bridge to Terabithia
- Ghost Rider
- Music and Lyrics
It reads like a McDonald’s menu. Is anything healthy here? Well, Zodiac, David Fincher’s realistic take on the real-life serial killer in late 1960s San Francisco, and Bridge to Terabithia, a good kids' story about love and death and imagination. But that’s it. Everything else is disposable, infantile, loutish. The one “war movie,” 300, revels in its violence. We don’t debate the existence of God and the Devil; we give them bad lines. (Peter Fonda in Ghost Rider.) Comic books rather than novels and plays are the adaptation of choice. Love triangles still abound, as in Norbit and I Think I Love My Wife, but now, in our whoreish decade, it’s the dull virginal ones who win. We want what we aren’t.
Hollywood in 1958 tried to show us how big the world was but these recent movies feel stunted. Watch Bridge on the River Kwai and you get the feeling that beyond the Sri Lankan forest the world keeps going. Watch 300 and you get the feeling that beyond these players the world doesn’t exist at all. As it doesn’t. It’s all green screen.
There were tons of forgettable films in 1958, by the way, they just tended not to make top 10 lists. Movies rolled out differently then, playing city to city, and Variety lets us know how they’re doing around the country: “‘Cattle Empire,’ nice in Chi, is sluggish in Omaha and mild in Minneapolis. ... ‘Sing Boy Sing’ is okay in St. Louis...” These were niche pictures that stayed in niche markets. National pictures, adult pictures, movies that tried to say something about what we were as a country or who we were as a people, wound up playing nationally. We do the opposite today. The niche pictures—horror, comic book, urban comedy—get spread all over the country, while the national pictures, adult pictures, rarely play beyond the niche market of art houses.
How did we get here? The lead story in the March 5, 1958 Variety, reassuring filmmakers that film had a future and it was called the baby boom, begins this way:
If it’s true what the surveys say, that it’s primarily the young people who make up the motion picture audience today, then Hollywood has cause for optimism.
If it’s true what the surveys say... That qualification is almost heartbreaking. Today, that thought about young people is gospel. Beyond it, it’s as if the world doesn’t exist at all.
The stylized violence of “300.”