19 Classic Films That Were Panned When They First Came Out

by Danielle Burgos

There are some movies that so embedded in our culture that even if we haven't seen them, we can all quote them, and if we have seen them, we watch them again and again. It seems impossible there was ever a time these movies' genius went unrecognized — they've always been a part of our lives. Well, the brutal truth is that classic films are made, not born; it can take a while for a film to find its audience, or it might be out of step with the current trends. Sometimes a movie is sunk before it even hits the screen by bad press and gossip, like Waterworld (an underrated gem in my eyes) or Ishtar. There are plenty of now-classic movies that were panned when they first came out, but deserve a second look.

So next time you read a film review slamming the latest screwball romance or action flick, think carefully before completely writing it off as not worth your time. Today's flop can easily become tomorrow's beloved standby, and some films do better at home than on the silver screen. And in case you're not convinced, check out these 21 films, which were panned when they first came out but prove that true classics always stand the test of time.


'It's A Wonderful Life'

RKO Pictures

The classic of all classics. Making the top of the list, It's A Wonderful Life was lukewarmly received, flopped at the box office, and ended up bankrupting its studio. It didn't really gain popularity until, due to a clerical error, it fell into public domain — meaning TV stations could run it without having to pay distributor fees. Generations saw George Bailey and his angel Clarence struggling, and loved it for the classic we now know it is.



Considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, critics felt differently when Vertigo came out in 1958. Time called it "(A)nother Hitchcock and bull story", while The New Yorker said Hitchcock had “never before indulged in such farfetched nonsense.”


'Night Of The Hunter'

It says a lot about the film's reception that director Charles Laughton, esteemed character actor, never made another film again. Mostly, critics and audiences alike were perplexed by this dark tale of Good vs. Evil, as Robert Mitchum (in the tabloids for drug scandals at the time, another knock) chases two innocents down the river.



The terrifying genre-changer received some mild praise on release, but mostly critics slammed the now-classic sci-fi. Leonard Maltin called it "some people's idea of a good time," for instance. No love for Jones the cat?



Maybe it's just that critics don't like science fiction? On its release in 1927 Metropolis had filmgoers flocking to see the amazing visuals, but critics in Germany and America found its anti-capitalist, anti-production-line message distasteful.


'Drop Dead Gorgeous'

Is 18 years too soon to declare a classic? This biting satire of beauty pageants is chock full of stars just before their big breaks, including Amy Adams and Kristen Dunst. It came and went in theaters, and most critics were glad to see it go; Keith Phipps of the A.V. Club had the cruelest cut, saying "It's like a cross between Heathers and Waiting For Guffman, had those movies been made by morons, for morons, and the cinematic equivalent of cow-tipping, only less graceful."



The film that launched a thousand kaiju. It confused American audiences, who saw an awkward re-cut shoehorning in Raymond Burr, and upset Japanese critics, who weren't sure what to make of the fire-breathing monster. Seeing that it spawned over 30 sequels, though, I'd say the movie eventually found a home.


'The General'

United Artists

This film did so poorly that director and star Buster Keaton lost his independent status and had to sign into a rigid studio contract. Variety rubbed salt in the wound, saying, "you can't continue a fight for almost an hour and expect results. Especially is this so when the action is placed entirely in the hands of the star. It was his story, he directed, and he acted. The result is a flop."


'Branded To Kill'

This film was so badly received it got director Seijun Suzuki fired from his studio job, but was later recognized as the brilliant low-budget surrealist yakuza flick it is, by no less than Criterion. None of us will have a job review as bad as Suzuki's, as said by Nikkatsu presideny Kyusaku Hori: "Suzuki makes incomprehensible films. Suzuki does not follow the company's orders. Suzuki's films are unprofitable and it costs 60 million yen to make one. Suzuki can no longer make films anywhere. He should quit. Suzuki should open a noodle shop or something instead."


'Once Upon A Time In The West'

This Spaghetti Western standard was slammed by critics for being meandering and overly long. Roger Ebert said "The movie stretches on for nearly three hours...and provides two false alarms before it finally ends." Plus, seeing American sweetheart Henry Fonda shoot a child point blank in the film's opening scene had to be jarring.


'Groundhog Day'

A film so classic even Ebert changed his mind — initially giving it three stars, he later added it to his "Great Movies" series, saying he'd underestimated a film that rewarded with multiple viewings. Desson Howe of the Washington Post called it mediocre, saying, "Groundhog will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress."

...The National Film Preservation Board selected Groundhog Day for Library of Congress preservation in 2006.


'Office Space'

The perfect cartoon distillation of office malaise, Office Space was seen as "cramped and underimagined" by Entertainment Weekly, who gave it a C. Oof.


'The Shining'

One of Kubrick's only films not to receive any Oscar nominations, The Shining nabbed two Razzie nominations the first year the awards existed.


'The Rules Of The Game'

Possibly the only film panned twice: first at its 1939 premiere, where it was banned months later by France's wartime government. The heavily edited version was released after WWII... and was promptly banned again. Director Renoir left France afterwards, and it's easy to see why.


'The Thing'

Nothing seems to bring out the glee and ire in critics like special-effects heavy sci-fi films. The New York Times review starts off by saying it's "a foolish, depressing, overproduced movie that mixes horror with science fiction to make something that is fun as neither one thing or the other," and that's not even the meanest thing that was said about this movie.


'Wet Hot American Summer'

Despite two spin-off TV series, the original Wet Hot American Summer has a pitiful 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics absolutely savaging this now-classic parody of '80s camp movies.


Pretty Much Every Orson Welles Movie Including 'Citizen Kane'

Though now lauded as cinematic genius, nearly every one of Welles' films had negative press, reviews, went through heavy reedits at studio orders, or, after he went independent, were criticized for being nonsensical indulgences. His intense noir Touch of Evil, now regarded his "best" film, earned exceedingly poor reviews. Even Welles' most famous film Citizen Kane, king of the Top 100 Film lists, got reviews like "in the line of the narrative film...it holds no great place."


'The Wizard Of Oz'

Of all the films considered Most Classic, The Wizard Of Oz, beloved by all ages and generations, might have gotten the worst reviews of all. The New Republic said "as for the light touch of fantasy, it weighs like a pound of fruitcake soaking wet." Possibly most to-the-point, The New Yorker labeled it "a stinkeroo."

Sometimes the distance of time is all that's needed for a film to recover and shine on its own merit. The new releases of today could become the classics of tomorrow. More films are available in more ways than ever nowadays, both in theaters and streaming. So there's no reason not to check out a great film that might've gotten a bad rap tonight.