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The Golden Age of movies? Never happened

Back when movies were better, audience-pleasers still took home the bucks. By John Hartl

For everyone who loves movies, there’s a golden age that inspires hope even during a year as spotty (so far) as 2006.

For some it’s 1939, the year that produced “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and other studio classics. For others it’s the post-war film-noir boom, for others it’s the ongoing foreign-film festival of the early 1960s, or the American renaissance of the 1970s.

Still, box-office figures rarely match up with these seemingly rich periods. What we remember as the essential films from a certain period may be quite different from what audiences responded to at the time.

In 1969, the watershed year that produced “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Wild Bunch,” the year’s top-grossing movie was Disney’s “The Love Bug.” In 1955, the year of James Dean’s dynamic double bill, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden,” a forgotten ultra-wide-screen travelogue called “Cinerama Holiday” captured the attention of the largest crowds.

While 1947 is now remembered as the year of “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Song of the South,” the No. 1 hit was a Bing Crosby vehicle called “Welcome Stranger.” A calculated attempt to reunite Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald from their earlier hit, “Going My Way,” it rarely turns up on television today.

Many of the biggest hits of the 1950s were based on best-sellers. “The Robe,” the top-grossing film of the early 1950s, is drawn from a Biblical novel that topped the book-store charts for three years running during World War II. Two late-1940s best-sellers, “Cheaper By the Dozen” and “Father of the Bride,” inspired two of the top-grossing movies of 1951 (as well as a couple of more recent Steve Martin franchises).

“The Egyptian,” the best-selling novel of 1949, became one of the box-office hits of 1954. Such ancient-world epics dominated the charts throughout the 1950s, beginning with “Samson and Delilah” (No. 1 in 1950) and continuing with “David and Bathsheba” (No.1 in 1951), “The Ten Commandments” (No. 1 in 1957) and “Ben-Hur” (No. 1 in 1960).

Swords over smartsWhile the sword-and-sandal movies were cleaning up at the box office, many classics were playing to empty houses. “Paths of Glory” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” now almost universally regarded as the sharpest films of 1957, were passed over at Oscar time. Ditto for Charles Laughton’s brilliant 1955 one-shot as a director, “The Night of the Hunter,” and the 1958 flop that Hitchcock fans frequently cite as his best movie: “Vertigo.”

Quite a few Academy Award winners are more fondly embraced today than they were at the time. The sophisticated “Gigi” may have taken home a then-unprecedented nine Oscars, but during its 1958 run, it brought in considerably less cash than a much clunkier musical, “South Pacific.”

The best picture Oscar winner of 1949, “All the King’s Men,” did not place among the top 20 for its year. 1977’s best picture, “Annie Hall,” couldn’t begin to compete at the box office with its chief competition for the prize, “Star Wars.” 1955’s best picture, an expansion of the television play, “Marty,” played to fewer moviegoers than another television-inspired movie, “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”

The box-office success of certain movies sometimes signals a turning point. Disney’s first version of “The Shaggy Dog” led the way to a series of cheaply made, live-action, semi-supernatural comedies. From the same year, 1959, “Hercules” demonstrated that shoestring epics, if heavily advertised, could make a fortune — while the low-budget “Gidget” proved that even a modestly influential teen movie could populate beaches with novice surfers almost overnight.

This kind of cost-cutting coincided with the first independent American films of John Cassavetes (“Shadows”) and Frank Perry (“David and Lisa”), who didn’t need large budgets or audiences to win over critics. They made waves in the early 1960s, even if they couldn’t compete at the box office with such Disney giants as “The Parent Trap” and “101 Dalmatians.”

Even the 70s sufferedEventually this low-budget trend led to the period that is often cited as the golden age of American cinema: the 1970s. One reason the period is so widely regarded as a watershed is that several of the films were stupendously popular. “The Godfather” (1972), “Jaws” (1975) and “American Graffiti” (1973), all produced for relatively little money and created by fresh young directors, set new attendance records.

Yet for every 1970s hit, there’s a trail of commercial disappointments. Robert Altman was lionized for “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) and “Nashville” (1975), but neither film came close to the popularity of his breakthrough movie, “MASH” (1970). Between his first two “Godfather” epics, Francis Ford Coppola directed the brilliant “The Conversation” (1974), yet it never found much of an audience. Steven Spielberg followed up “Jaws” with the disastrous comedy, “1941.”

Today’s multiplex marquees suggest a similar mixture of ambition, failure and achievement. Spielberg’s “Munich” is one of his least popular pictures, but it closely followed the release of one of his biggest hits, “War of the Worlds.” Now that he’s finished with his “Star Wars” series, George Lucas is talking about doing something less commercial. Altman, recently honored with a career achievement award at the Oscars, has turned a radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” into a film.

Gold for 2006? UnlikelyWhat’s most noticeable about the first-run movies of 2006 is that only one picture, “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” seems to have caught on, at least in the blockbuster fashion that “King Kong” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” did during the Christmas season. This cartoon sequel, which didn’t arrive until March 31, is so far the year’s only $100 million grosser. The studios, in what amounts to a no-confidence vote in the quality of what can only be called “product,” have declined to screen about a dozen movies for critics since early January.

The one steady success has been “Brokeback Mountain,” an independent holdover from 2005 that filled multiplexes for three months. It has so far brought in more dollars than the remakes of “The Hills Have Eyes” or “The Shaggy Dog,” or the Bruce Willis action picture, “16 Blocks,” or the horror movies that seem to exhaust their teen audiences after a weekend or two.

To date, “Brokeback Mountain,” the most honored film of the past year, has grossed $83 million in the United States, plus $88 million overseas (where American movies often make more money than they do in the U.S.). Before “Ice Age” arrived, it faced competition for the 2006 box-office throne only from a couple of comedies, “The Pink Panther” and “Failure to Launch,” both of which are pushing the $80 million mark.

There’s little doubt that “Ice Age” will ultimately end up leaving “Brokeback” in the dust at the box office. And “Ice Age” itself will soon face hefty competition from such all-but-guaranteed blockbusters as “Mission: Impossible III” (opening May 5), “The Da Vinci Code” (May 19), “X-Men: The Final Stand” (May 26) and “Superman Returns” (June 30).

Not to mention “Snakes on a Plane” (Aug. 18), which could enjoy the kind of fluke success that turned “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Blair Witch Project” into out-of-left-field record-breakers. But does anyone remember them today as, respectively, the best movies of 2002 and 1999?