Silence in pictures, after all, was golden. It represented in money from individual pictures much more for their makers than any talker to date.
In that they were few and far between in the silent days, as against a strong representation of talkers in the $1,000,000 class or over, due to the novelty era, there is some comfort for an industry that has by now, now given up noiseless film as a thing of the past.
The $10,000,000 gross rental on The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's first big picture, will probably never be equalled, let alone beaten. With the stampede on sound, and its big rentals failing to equal the grosses of The Big Parade and Ben-Hur, both silents, it is doubtful if anything in the immediate or distant future will ever get within striking distance of Birth's high record.
That picture was the first to be extensively roadshown at advanced scales. Parade (Metro), which grossed $6,400,000, is the runner-up on record, and Hur (Metro), at around $5,500,000, was also roadshowed all over.
Al Jolson's Singing Fool (WB), of all talkers, has come the closest to equaling any of these silents in gross distribution return. Slightly over $5,000,000 now, it is still receiving some circulation around the world.
Fool, typical of other talkers early in the stage of sound, received rentals which prior to sound would have seemed mythical. The picture took $4,000,000 out of the U.S. and to date a little over $1,000,000 from the foreign markets, some of which have only recently opened up for it.
That was in the heyday of sound, and despite a circumscribed number of wired accounts, which today remains restricted as compared with the number of theatres over the world in silent days.
Curiously enough, the nearest any other talker has gotten to the Singing Fool record, in spite of the current times, is Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. It has grossed for United Artists a total of around $4,250,000, nosing out Warners for second place by topping the heavy rental return on Golddiggers of Broadway, early talker, which did $4,000,000.
The Chaplin picture has sold at big rentals, many accounts paying 50% from the first dollar for it yet its record is startling. Picture, strangely enough, is what might be termed a silent, its only sound dressing being in effects, music, etc.
Its big grossing to date further throws into contrast the gigantic possibilities of silents with the world market to pick from, as against talkers with outlet narrowed and high rentals having a hard time to make up for that difference. Figures on Lights show that Chaplin was right about silence on the screen, at least in his case.
Lights has already taken $1,000,000 out of England. It's still in circulation, a last season's (1930-31) picture. It will top the highest previous Chaplin gross, slightly over $4,000,000 for Gold Rush. His The Circus did a total of $3,800,000.
Chaplin never road-showed his pictures, always having been against that method. In that respect as a grosser, he differs from other strong rental-grabbers of the silent regime, many of which ran up their tremendous grosses through advanced price runs.
Among these, in addition to Parade and Hur, are Way Down East (Griffith), $5,000,000; Four Horsemen (Metro), $4,000,000; What Price Glory (Fox), $2,400,000; Seventh Heaven (Fox), $2,500,000; Hunchback of Notre Dame (U), $3,500,000; Covered Wagon (Par), $3,800,000 and Ten Commandments (Par), $3,400,000.
Par's Wings, which opened in New York as a silent, later going out with sound effects and music score, turned back a total of $3,600,000.
Hell's Angels (Hughes-UA) which cost around $3,000,000, runner up for Ben Hur's record of $5,000,000, has not had anywhere near the luck Hur did. Angels, has grossed $2,500,000 to date, leaving the picture in the red for its maker, Howard Hughes.
Since the current (31-32) season began, in the midst of the worst economic disturbance the industry has faced, the $1,000,000 pictures have been scarce. They can be counted on two hands, with Eddie Cantor's picture Palmy Days (UA) taking the lead. It has done $1,200,000 in the domestic market and on total world distribution will top $2,000,000 with about $600,000 of that coming out of England.
Cantor's previous season's talker, Whoopee (UA), also a musical, topped that figure, turning in to its makers a total of $2,600,000.
Metro has Garbo's Mata Hari in the $1,000,000 class among this year's pictures well into circulation as well as Emma (Marle Dressler). On Garbo's M-G normally average around $1,500,000 over the world. Metro hopes for $2,500,000 or more from Grand Hotel. M-G's previous season road-show film, Trader Horn, still on circulation, will probably do a total of around $2,000,000 in all.
Of the other companies, some have not had a $1,000,000 picture in a couple of seasons. Paramount and Universal are exceptions. Former claims $1,350,000 for Monkey Business (Marx Bros.) and $1,300,000 on Smiling Lieutenant (Chevalier). U's Frankenstein, made at a cost of only $240,000 is rated a $1,200,000 picture by that company. That firm's Spirit of Notre Dame without any foreign distribution, also came close to the million dollar mark, doing slightly over $750,000.
Until the depression began hurting theatres and through that the rental return, $1,000,000 pictures were common. Those reaching $2,000,000 or over at the same time were no novelty, with the way rentals poured in, many picture taking big chunks of money out of playdates through percentage bookings.
But that's all changed now. Theatre operators and distributors, who complain their grosses are off 30% to 40%, and that they are trying to meet this drop through economy, in the same breath charge that Hollywood is doing nothing through its studio to balance the situation.
The distributor must get over the negative cost of the average picture to clear, but the grossing possibilities for both theatre and distrib are back to the days when pictures cost $125,000 and they had the world markets to play with.
Big Silent Grosses
|Birth of a Nation (Griffith)||$10,000,000|
|The Big Parade (Metro)||6,400,000|
|Ben Hur (Metro)||5,500,000|
|Way Down East (UA)||5,000,000|
|Gold Rush (UA)||4,250,000|
|Four Horsemen (Metro)||4,000,000|
|Covered Wagon (Par)||3,800,000|
|Hunchback of Notre Dame (U)||3,500,000|
|Ten Commandments (Par)||3,400,000|
|Orphans of the Storm (UA)||3,000,000|
|For Heaven's Sake (Par)||2,600,000|
|Seventh Heaven (Fox)||2,500,000|
|What Price Glory (Fox)||2,400,000|
|Abie's Irish Rose (Par)||1,500,000|
Big Sound Grosses
|Singing Fool (WB)||$5,000,000|
|City Lights (UA) (Sound)||4,250,000|
|Golddiggers of Broad way (WB)||4,000,000|
|Wings (Par) (Sound)||3,600,000|
|Sunnyside Up (Fox)||3,200,000|
|All Quiet (U)||3,000,000|
|The Jazz Singer (WB)||3,000,000|
|Cockeyed World (Fox)||2,600,000|
|Hells Angels (UA)||2,500,000|
|Welcome Danger (Par)||2,100,000|
|Desert Song (WB)||2,000,000|
|Palmy Days (UA)||1,900,000|
|Trader Horn (Metro)||1,750,000|
|Love Parade (Par)||1,500,000|
|Animal Crackers (Par)||1,500,000|
|Monkey Business (Par)||1,400,000|
|Why Bring That Up (Par)||1,400,000|
|Smiling Lieutenant (Par)||1,300,000|
|Feet First (Par)||1,300,000|
Original article, 1932.
"Biggest Money Pictures," Variety, June 21, 1932, page 1.
© 1997, David Pierce, on editing and revisions (if any)
Return to the Silent Film Bookshelf Home Page