We all know that 1939’s Gone With the Wind was the highest grossing movie in Hollywood history. A title it still holds (based on adjustments for inflation). But no one ever discusses what film had held that title before GWTW.
The answer will shock you. It’s a film you’ve probably never heard of.
There were many successful movies in the 20s and 30s. Chaplin‘s classic City Lights had grossed over $5 million in 1931, even though it was a silent movie released in the sound era. Hell’s Angels had grossed over $8 million.
Jackie Coogan, the “kid” in Chaplin’s 1921 film of the same title, had been a huge star for a decade, and his 1930 film Tom Sawyer broke records and grossed over $10 million worldwide.
The Depression hit the film industry, but the studios survived. Paramount had Mae West films, 20th had Shirley Temple films, and Universal had the horror movies. Frankenstein broke all records by grossing $11 million worldwide.
But still a little film done by Warner Brothers held on to the title of biggest hit ever.
Ah, you think it was The Jazz Singer? Al Jolson‘s first film and a part talkie. You’d be wrong. But you’re on the right track. It was a Jolson film, and a part talkie, which broke all box office records and was the biggest hit Hollywood ever produced until Gone With the Wind.
Ever hear of The Singing Fool ? It was 1928. And Jolson wowed them again at the box office. The hit song from this feature was “Sonny Boy” — Jolson’s recording sold a million copies, and has become a standard. Other notable songs from the film are “There’s a Rainbow Round My Shoulder”–“It All Depends on You,” and “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.”
Made for only $400,000, the film went on to gross over $12 million worldwide. AND remember, there were still hundreds of theaters in this country and certainly in other countries, which weren’t yet fitted for sound, so this film was released in a silent version and a part talkie version (just like The Jazz Singer).
It is said that the huge success of The Singing Fool solidified the future of talking pictures and musicals.
Davey Lee the little tike who portrayed Sonny Boy was catapulted to stardom, made a few more films, then his parents took him out of the business.
Today is is difficult for people to understand how famous Al Jolson (much less Davey Lee) was in his time. He was the undisputed king of Broadway, then Hollywood, for two decades.