I love classic films. However, the enduring popularity of many classic movies over time has to do with factors that most viewers never consider. I had a good reminder of this during my vacation, when I came across an entertainment channel that was programmed with several films I'd never seen.
First there was "How to Marry a Millionaire," a 1953 romantic farce starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable as a trio of gold diggers. Then there was "The Agony and the Ecstasy," a historical epic about Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, starring Charlton Heston as the temperamental artist and Rex Harrison as his patron. These two films I'd at least heard of before, but I was completely unaware of the existence of "How to Steal A Million," a romantic crime caper starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, which was also one of the last pictures directed by the legendary William Wyler, of "Ben-Hur" and "Roman Holiday" fame. I really enjoyed all three of these films, and I was puzzled as to why I hadn't seen any of them before, or why they weren't as popular and well-known as many similar films featuring the same actors.
The answer had nothing to do with the films themselves and everything to do with the fact that they were all distributed by 20th Century Fox. Fox's classic titles get less play than the films from other studio libraries, and are thus less well known. There are exceptions, of course. "The Sound of Music" and "Miracle on 34th Street" are easy to find on television, especially around the holiday season. However, browsing through their titles, I found that most of the ones I'd seen like the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, Marilyn Monroe films, and Mel Brooks comedies were ones I'd had to seek out myself on video and DVD. I almost never saw them on television. On the other hand, I'm far more familiar with the Disney catalogue that was a staple of my childhood and the films from MGM, United Artists, RKO and Warner Brothers, thanks to Turner Classic movies. Fox also has a premium classic film channel, that I've stumbled across once or twice, but it's not nearly as accessible as TCM.
And accessibility is important when it comes to older films maintaining their visibility and popularity. The most famous example is "It's a Wonderful Life," a film didn't perform very well upon its initial release. However, the copyright was allowed to lapse in the 70s and "It's a Wonderful Life," became public domain for decades. It was aired by local television stations during the holidays for years for marginal fees, until it became the perennial it is today. Subsequently the soundtrack to the film was found to still be under copyright, allowing the rights to be reclaimed in the 90s. On the flip side, there's "The African Queen," one of the most celebrated films of 50s that won Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar. The AFI listed it as #17 on its list of the top 100 Movies of all time in 1998. Thanks to snarled distribution rights, it wasn't made available on DVD until last year. As a result it became less accessible, fewer people saw it, and on the next edition of the AFI list in 2007, "The African Queen" plummeted nearly fifty spots to #65.
This is something to keep in mind when considering the potential longevity of more recent films. Whether subsequent generations will still know "The Social Network" or "Inception" might have a lot to do with who ends up with the rights to these films. Studios rise and fall, and their properties can end up anywhere. Most recently, the Miramax library has been up for sale and whoever buys it will decide the fate of titles like "Shakespeare in Love," "Good Will Hunting," and nearly everything Kevin Smith has ever made. If a film isn't seen by audiences, it can't be remembered and beloved by the ones that come after, no matter how many awards, no matter how good its reputation, or whether the hot new director of the moment is helming a remake. On that note, the original 1982 "Tron" is apparently nowhere to be found. I lucked out, having stumbled across the special edition DVD a few years ago. However, I'm still waiting on Netflix to send me the original "True Grit." Somehow I never managed to see it, and I'm determined to get acquainted with John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn before I take a look at the Coen brothers' version.
Somehow, I feel like I owe it to the Duke.