As a lover of movies and all things “Hollywood” I have been obsessed with the motion picture box office ever since I was a kid.
As any Hollywood-file knows, however, the top earners list is not the same as the top earners adjusted for inflation. The Dark Knight might have kicked some box office butt last year, but that was largely due to the rise in the price of a ticket, not because more people paid to see the movie than, say, Star Wars.
So who are the All-Time Box Office Leaders when compensated for inflation? Well, here’s the “Top Ten” with their adjusted (and actual) box office totals, and, more importantly, what I think of them:
1. Gone With the Wind (1939): $1,450,680,400 ($198,676,459)
I didn’t see the whole thing until I was in my twenties, when it toured in the beautifully restored version. It was beautiful and grand, yes, but a very different creature than when it was released in 1939. It was the most-eagerly awaited film in history at its release, a film of a best-selling and much-loved novel. By the late 1990s, Scarlett O’Hara seems like the devil going around fucking up everybody’s life. Kind of like Showgirls for the Civil War. Anyhoo, the numbers justify some sort of respect, if not for content and form than just for the sake of being such a monumental hit. And it hit it was. Gone With the Wind ran in theaters for more than a decade.
2. Star Wars (1977): $1,278,898,700 ($460,998,007)
What can I say about the movie that turned every blanket into an Obi-Wan Kenobi costume and every broom stick into a light saber? The only reason it isn’t number 1 is because people had more things to do in the 1970s than they did in the 1940s.
3. The Sound of Music (1965): $1,022,542,400 ($158,671,368)
Any movie that recasts nuns into active anti-fascists is one that was bound to be force-fed to me from a young age. All my Catholic recovery steps have done nothing to mitigate the sheer force of Maria and those damned singing kids. I love this movie. It might be the last of the great musicals to ever be made.
4. E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1,018,514,100 ($435,110,554)
Two memories related to “E.T.” standout for me. First, seeing the movie for the second time, I decided to sit apart from my mom and sister because I thought I might cry. I tried hard to fight off the tears, but one might have snuck out. My other memory is of going to Tijuana to shop and buying a small “piggie bank” of E.T. made of plaster and paint. I chose it from a line of some 40 vendors all collectively selling somewhere between 100 and 150 of the same bank. I also bought an E.T. wallet that day. The movie remains “magical” upon reviewing in my jaded middle age.
5. The Ten Commandments (1956): $940,580,000 ($65,500,000)
I hate Charlton Heston. And not for his politics, although those were stupid, too. Basic problem with him is that he can’t act. That can work in film (like in Planet of the Apes) or brilliant people can combine to work around it (like in Ben Hur). Here, he just stinks in what is trite Hollywood Bible fare. That said, I have fond memories of the film growing up, since it was beaten into our minds as some sort of Easter tradition. But how in the hell did Edward G. Robinson get a role in this?
6. Titanic (1997): $921,523,500 ($600,788,188)
I remember walking out of this spectacle and thinking how damned talented James Cameron was to make a movie that had something for everybody. This is a “guy’s movie” and a “chick flick” all at once. I think the parts holdup better than the sum upon reviewing. I remain fond of the narrative structure and the story he weaves, familiar to fans of mainstream films yet unrelenting in its consistency with the project. Plus, its the first film on our list with boobs.
7. Jaws (1975): $919,605,900 ($260,000,000)
I was only three when it came out, so too young for the hoopla. But it had legs (or fins?), as they say. When it premiered on On-TV in the early 1980s, I couldn’t stand the tension! It remains one of my favorite Spielberg movies because he does what he needs to do so frickin’ well. Anytime you are in a pool with kids, don’t you start “the song”?
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965): $891,292,600 ($111,721,910)
This is the one on the list I haven’t seen. I suspect it is good, since Omar Sharif is cinematic coolness.
9. The Exorcist (1973): $793,883,100 ($232,671,011)
I’ve only seen the non-television version of this movie once, at least from beginning to end. I can see how folks thought it was scary but, geez, Nixon was president. Compared to him it’s like the number 10 movie on the list. At my one full viewing I felt it didn’t hold up, especially when compared to Psycho before, Don’t Look Now! at the same time, and The Ring since.
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): $782,620,000 ($184,925,486)
Has hardcore mine labor ever sounded so good? You have to turn off the “political” analysis side of your brain to make sense of the good parts of Snow White. Then again, if you turn that academic brain on and do some sub-textual analysis it all gets a little kinky. Either way, it is a work of history and of art, looking and flowing better than most of the Disney work. The story works, too.
For the rest of the list, visit the kids at Box Office Mojo.