By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 5, 2012 at 2:18PM
Though it’s now regarded as an American classic, a holiday season staple and has become a Christmas tradition for many families, few would have guessed that would be the legacy of the picture when it was released in 1946. In fact, in many ways, the picture represents the beginning of the second act of Frank Capra’s career. The director was mostly missing from big screens throughout World War II, helping with the war effort, and helming a handful of wartime documentaries. Now independent of any studio, he launched Liberty Films, with “It’s A Wonderful Life” as its first of what would be only two movies in the company’s shortlived existence (the other being “State Of Union”). The film cost a whopping $2 million, quite an expense at the time, but more crucially Capra may have set himself up as a critical target. In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Capra railed against a studio system in which a few studio heads dictated the kind of movies that were made (some things never change). The piece was published in May 1946, about a month after production started on the movie, was reprinted in a handful of publications including Reader's Digest, and moreover, Capra declared his own fledgling outfit was going to rally against "the pattern of sameness." So when "It's A Wonderful Life" premiered in December 1946, did critics have it out for him? Perhaps, and there's no doubt that the reception was sharply divided, but more importantly, it was audiences who didn't take to it. The movie wound up losing distributor RKO over half a million and it was the 26th highest grossing movie of the year, and it's not like ticket buyers weren't rewarding quality. The top grossing movie of 1947 (the year it went into wide release)? William Wyler's "The Best Years Of Our Lives." While "It's A Wonderful Life" did wind up earning five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, the movie faded from view. It was only thanks TV reruns in the 1970s and 1980s (and lapsed rights which caused the picture to fall into the public domain for a spell) that it was re-assessed and re-discovered, and newly beloved, gaining the stature we now know it for.
Later embraced by the likes of Francois Truffaut and Pedro Almodovar, Nicolas Ray's beautiful, manic western was initially excoriated for being, well, very strange. One such reason is that while the film's title suggests that Sterling Hayden's Johnny is the film's lead protagonist, Joan Crawford's Vienna is the film's real star, and in a male-dominated genre, that led to a lot of head-scratching. Bosley Crowther was of course one of the most noisomely perplexed detractors, declaring that Crawford was more manly than Van Heflin's rancher in "Shane." Another reason is that the film's creators don't pussyfoot around embracing the melodrama at the heart of their exceptionally campy film. Vienna, a struggling saloon owner, anticipates the arrival of a railroad, but is almost driven out of town by skeptical locals and her rival, Emma (the irresistibly catty Mercedes McCambridge). Hayden's Johhny Guitar offers to swoop in and help Vienna, partly because Emma and Vienna are both his ex-lovers. But therein lies a good part of what makes "Johnny Guitar" so winningly outre: it's only tangentially concerned with wounded male protags. Like Scott Brady's Dancin' Kid, Hayden's Guitar is fairly inconsequential. Like more traditional western heroes, they help pave the way for Vienna's pioneering business but neither man is more important than the promise of a new and, by the genre's standards, bizarre future. The film is in that sense very much about itself, a squirming, hissing whatsit that, in spite of Vienna's protests, is too freakishly exciting to be "buried...in the 20th century!"
Listen: now it doesn't seem so shocking to consider “Easy Rider” a fluke. At the time, however, you could forgive a movie studio (in this case, Universal) for giving Dennis Hopper the freedom to do whatever the heck he wanted and to come back with another counter-culture hit. Hopper took a million bucks, went to Peru, then took the footage to New Mexico and worked on it for years until he emerged with a Cubist assemblage of skits and free-form sequences that hinted at an underlying narrative. (One that had to do, naturally, with the making of a movie in Peru, just to keep things more complicated.) While it did well at the Venice Film Festival it did zero business in the United States and critics weren't quite prepared to buy Hopper as a bonafide artiste. In 2005 it played at some art houses (including the Anthology Film Archives in New York) and a number of critics came out to say “Hey, this isn't quite the turkey you think it is.” Among them, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, who went so far as to call it a masterpiece. It has yet to make the jump to (legal) DVD, but it is bandied about as a possible Criterion title, at least if this message board discussion is any indication.
As the directing debut of legendary actor Charles Laughton, "The Night Of The Hunter" must have been keenly anticipated at the time. But the film was poorly received by critics and audiences (it was partially buried by the studio, in favor of another Mitchum vehicle, "Not As A Stranger"), and a heartbroken Laughton never directed again. An adaptation of the novel by David Grubb, it's a piece of Depression-era Southern Gothic about two children, John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce), whose father is sentenced to hang from a robbery. Only John knows where the stolen loot has been hidden, but his father's cellmate, a fearsome would-be preacher, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), is on the trail, marrying the children's mother (Shelley Winters) in order to get closer to them. It was dismissed as a potboiler on release; Time damned with faint praise by saying it was a "garish, unbelievable but fairly exciting nightmare," while Variety wrote that the film "loses sustained drive via too many offbeat touches that have a misty effect," and that Mitchum played his villain with "barely adequate conviction." They, like the audiences who shunned it and the Academy who ignored it, were wrong. Laughton has an amazingly visual eye, the film shot in an manner entirely uninterested in naturalism by DoP Stanley Cortez, all chiaroscuro and contrast. The blend of terror and magic, while cooly regarded at the time, has become hugely influential over the years, on everyone from Terrence Malick to David Gordon Green (the pair paying direct homage to the film on their collaboration "Undertow."). Laughton's years as an actor pay off too, with a cross-generational mix of talent, from the child actors (who Laughton actually disliked, choosing to leave much of their direction up to Mitchum) to silent veteran Lillian Gish. Best of all is Mitchum; complete with iconic L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E knuckles, he's one of the great screen psychopaths, one you would have thought had just strolled out of the gates of hell. Lord knows what critics missed at the time, but its reputation has been fully restored by now; in recent years, it's been the AFI's 34th favorite thriller, Cahiers du cinema's second most beautiful film, and preserved in the Library of Congress. And oh yeah, The Criterion Collection has issued it in a must own edition.