Commercial film flops with video comebacks -- Long after their releases, films like ''It's a Wonderful Life'' and ''Intolerance'' are making profits


When it comes to movies, once a turkey, not always a turkey. A number of films that opened with lousy reviews or feeble ticket sales have since grown popular on video or TV-some even have become classics. It’s hard to believe, but moviegoers in 1939 were lukewarm to The Wizard of Oz (MGM/UA), and the movie failed to turn a profit in its initial release.

When Frank Capra’s sentimental Jimmy Stewart fantasy It’s A Wonderful Life (Republic) was released in 1946, hard-hearted critics sneered and audiences stayed away. But a generation later, the movie was rediscovered by television viewers, of course, and it has become a Christmas perennial.

Once the opening-day snickering fades from memory, commercial flops can gain new appreciation. D.W. Griffith’s monumental Intolerance (Video Yesteryear), which covered 2,500 years of history, cost a nearly unimaginable $1.9 million in 1916 and was a financial disaster. Today, many movie buffs consider the epic a cornerstone of cinema.

Recutting can also put a new face on a gobbler. At the insistence of his financial backer, The Ladd Co., Sergio Leone’s sprawling 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, was chopped down to a length of 147 minutes for U.S. distribution. Four months later, Leone released his intended 228-minute version (Warner) in several American cities, and some critics called it a masterpiece.

Don’t laugh, but even Ishtar (RCA/Columbia) may one day shake its turkey feathers. The Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman desert-road movie already has a coterie of fans who extol its offbeat sense of humor. And anyway, in video stores, any movie more than 25 years old is considered a classic.

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