We’ve been looking at films which scored big at the box office in the decade of the 1940s.
Two monumental blockbusters in 1946 were Duel in the Sun and The Jolson Story. Both grossed over $8 million. A phenomenal amount back then.
In fact in it’s initial release, David O. Selznick’s production of Duel grossed over eleven million. BUT it had cost so much it wasn’t a hit until after it was re-released in 1954.
One reason for the high production cost was Duel’s superb and undoubtedly expensive cast. The costars are Jennifer Jones as fetching half-breed Pearl Chavez, Gregory Peck as a powerful family’s roustabout son who lusts after Pearl (the unhappy couple is pictured above) and Joseph Cotten as the good, educated son.
Rounding things out are an enviable bunch of supporting payers including Lionel Barrymore (as a nasty wheelchair-bound patriarch), Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford and Butterfly McQueen.
In his 1987 autobiography, Cotten wrote: There is no doubt that ‘Duel in the Sun’ was one of the most successful westerns ever made. Europeans still talk about it. It made a star out of Greg Peck. Jennifer lost her innocent image and surprised everyone by playing a femme fatale. (For his part, Cotten confessed to being “never happy” with his role.)
Duel’s love story was, wrote Cotten, a lusty, daring theme for its time. The Hays Office kept a beady eye on the production, and David Selznick was constantly bombarded with orders and suggestions to modify or delete anything verbal or pictorial that might appeal to the libido.
Team Hays wasn’t entirely successful in that last department, wrote Cotten. Alternative titles for the film kept popping up in th commissary. ‘Lust in the Dust’ and ‘Hump in the Sump’ were the two most printable.
The Jolson biopic is another kettle of fish. The Jolson Story had only cost $2 million, and was such a success that Columbia quickly ordered a sequel, Jolson Sings Again.
The Jolson Story is a relatively modest affair costarring Larry Parks and Evelyn Keyes. It’s a gauzy portrait of the self styled “World’s Greatest Entertainer,” recounting the protagonist’s defiance of his Jewish family’s religious prohibition against going into show business.
The fact that this movie was such a huge box office success (both Duel and the biopic were seen by over 35 percent of people in the country) indicates the esteem and star power of Al Jolson in the mid-Forties. It also begs the question of why Jolson is all but forgotten today.
All those routines in blackface, invocations of “Mammy” and the in-your-face sentimentality of his vocal approach haven’t helped Jolson’s legacy. Few major box office stars of their times have been forgotten so completely.