Greed (1924): Erich von Stroheim was the first director to make a film that cost more than $1 million (1922’s Foolish Wives), but the box office didn’t always match his financial ambitions. Originally 10 hours long, then six, then four and finally two and a half, Greed, an epic about the havoc wreaked by a lottery ticket tanked, was vilified as “filthy” and “putrid.” But the real tragedy is that the cut footage was lost, meaning audiences today only get to love its mangled form.
Freaks (1932): Even in the vice-ridden wilderness of the “Pre-Code” days, audiences drew a line. When this wonderfully dubious horror, starring actual circus freaks—like the Pinheads and a man lacking appendages—came out, the press was livid, claiming it exploited “human deformity for sensationalism.” It wasn’t until 1960 that it was exhumed by cultheads.
Duck Soup (1933): Now correctly ID’d as the Marx Brothers’ zenith, their fifth feature was enough of a bomb that they were dropped by Paramount and only resurfaced, watered down, two years later with A Night at the Opera. Perhaps Duck Soup’s problem was its undiluted, shall we say, Marxism: Chico doesn’t play piano, Harpo doesn’t touch the harp. It’s just gags, while some may have been rubbed the wrong way by its satirizing of world leaders, with FDR newly in the White House.
The Rules of the Game (1939): A fixture of Sight & Sound’s Top 10 since 1952, Jean Renoir’s humanist upstairs-downstairs masterpiece initially reeked with the stench of hate. French audiences found the lampooning of the aristocracy a betrayal of their homeland. The government banned it for its “demoralizing” nature; the Vichy Germans upheld it. Only after the war did people see what it really was.
The Night of the Hunter (1955): In the defense of audiences of 1955, the truly and genuinely weird almost never click with people, plebeians or critics right away. Still, it’s a shame Charles Laughton only got one chance behind the lens.
Vertigo (1958): The new official “best film of all time,” as per Sight & Sound pollsters, wasn’t, as legend has it, at first hated, but it did bomb, and reaction was mixed enough that critic Robin Wood, in his book Hitchcock’s Films, praised it with no small amount of defensiveness. Wood, of course, was right.