No, I don’t have a peg for this post beyond the fact that I have the information and couldn’t put it anywhere else. But I came across an article about a poll TV Guide took, back in the days when TV Guide was quite wonderful. The poll was of TV station program directors around the U.S., and the goal was to find out which movies were most popular on television – which ones played most often, which ones viewers liked to see over and over. Of course the results of a poll like this don’t absolutely reflect which movies viewers liked best, because the most popular movies were often the ones that didn’t play over and over; films like The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music aren’t on this list because they were valuable enough to be shown only once a year on the big networks. And some studios drove hard bargains even for black-and-white movies that were particularly popular (this would explain why none of the Universal monster movies are on the list; TV stations would definitely have wanted to show Frankenstein as often as they could, but it was probably more expensive than most). Still, the list does reflect what you were likely to see on TV at the time, and it explains why a number of these movies were constantly referenced by people who grew up in that era.
These are the films that program directors named most often on lists of “the 10 most popular, most often shown movies in their markets”:
2. King Kong
3. The Magnificent Seven
4. The Maltese Falcon
5. The Adventures of Robin Hood
6. The African Queen
7. The Birds
8. Citizen Kane
9. Miracle on 34th Street
10. Girls! Girls! Girls!
11. King Solomon’s Mines
12. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
13. The War of the Worlds (1953)
The most popular film series was the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series.
The article also noted that some genres of film did better on TV than others: musicals rarely did well, romantic dramas rarely did well, and action, mystery and sci-fi pictures were always big on television (hence the enormous TV popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Charlie Chan, and old sci-fi “B” movies). Casablanca was the big exception to the rule about romantic dramas, and Elvis Presley obviously drew crowds for musicals even if they weren’t any good.
This article was written as the number of movie slots on local TV was shrinking, and they would continue to shrink for a long time thereafter until they would mostly disappear. Black-and-white movies also lost value as there were fewer viewers who would accept them and (more importantly) there was a bigger, cheaper supply of colour movies. So what interested me about the article and the poll is that it’s a look at the viewing habits of the last generation to be raised on Old Hollywood films; by the ’80s, these movies were already being exiled to late-night time slots, and eventually they would even have trouble finding a spot on cable. They have a happy home on TCM, at least for now, but they can’t become part of the pop-culture currency like a movie that’s constantly in regular TV rotation: movies like Spaceballs or Trading Places that everybody can quote from seeing them on television.
Casablanca and Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon used to be on TV so much that even after the stars were dead, people could reference them in popular culture; now they’re obscure references. It’ll be interesting to see if the same thing happens to movies that are now the same age that those movies were in 1977. In fact it’s quite possible that it’s happening already. This is not a complaint, just an observation: the presence of decades-old movies in our broader pop-culture lexicon is something of a fluke, brought about by television and the need of local stations for cheap programming. (Before television, there was very little expectation that anyone would remember a movie from 30 years ago or even, in many cases, preserve copies.) In recent years television has come to depend more on recent programming – scripted and unscripted – and the need for old movies has shrunk. So it seems less likely that movies will be rediscovered in the kind of numbers that turned Casablanca and King Kong into massive pop-culture phenomena decades after they were made.
Oh, and let me try and find a way to tie this post in with current events. Uh… the second most popular movie on TV in that poll was King Kong, which is about a monkey that runs loose in the city and gets a lot of people’s attention. Speaking of monkeys…