1970s Forgotten Blockbusters That Made A Splash, then Vanished

Silver Streak/Every Which Way But Loose 1970s forgotten blockbusters

Movies have a curious lifespan. Some can significantly impact the culture at large, allowing the film to bury itself in the collective and individual memories of those who see it. But others? They have an ephemeral time in the spotlight; as quickly as they splash onto movie screens and rake in the dough, the moviegoing public forgets them, sometimes even months later.

That's why Wealth of Geeks has begun a series on Forgotten Blockbusters. Each decade has its version of these — the lingering vehicles for stars past their prime, oddball indies that struck it big, and side projects for big names designed to coast off the familiarity of larger successes. These films still struck a chord with audiences; they hit the top ten at the box office in their respective years. But time has left these behind to the annals of cult familiarity or set up more successful trends that became better known. Join our salute to the 1970s forgotten blockbusters that packed in the audiences, then disappeared.

1. Airport (1970)

Airport (1970) - Forgotten Blockbusters
Image credit: Universal.

Box Office: $44.5 million

While Airplane! flies high as one of the greatest parody films of all time, the picture it sends up — the 1970 ensemble disaster drama Airport — has fallen into obscurity. The first of four adaptations of the novels by Arthur Hailey, 1970's Airport features all manner of harrowing scenarios for its stalwart airport managers and terrified crew and passengers: medical emergencies, landing during a snowstorm, suicide bombers, the list goes on.

Still, its stuffed cast of big names (Burt Lancaster, Jacqueline Bisset, even Dean Martin as a pilot) helped it become Universal's biggest hit at the time. 

2. Billy Jack (1971)

Billy Jack
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Box Office: $32.5 million

One of the great independent success stories of the New Hollywood Era, Billy Jack told the tale of a behind-kicking, half-Navajo Vietnam vet of the same name (director/star Tom Laughlin) who stands up for the downtrodden hippies of a local college against a gang of bullies. It's an absurd premise, packed in an absurd film that nonetheless made $50 million on a $10 million budget, even after its original distributor (American International Pictures) pulled out halfway through filming. In 1974, Billy Jack would return in the equally ridiculous Billy Jack Rides Again; one hopes he wanders into our town, fists aching for justice.

3. Summer of '42 (1971)

Summer of '42
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Box office: $32 million

By the 70s, the movies had told plenty of coming-of-age stories. But in the early '70s, Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 mined furtive tales of adolescent love and 1940s nostalgia to box office success. Based on the memoirs of Herman Raucher, the film follows a young version of himself (Gary Grimes) who falls for a young woman (Jennifer O'Neill) whose husband is away fighting in World War II. It's a hazy remembrance of an unfulfilled young romance, which is likely why it raked in $32 million at the box office — and faded from memory not long after.

4. Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)
Image credit: Allied Artists.

Box Office: $22.5 million

While Papillon got a remake in 2017 starring Rami Malek and Charlie Hunnam, its box office failure perhaps reminds cinephiles that no one thinks that much about this adaptation of Henri Charrière's 1969 autobiography about his escape from a French Guyanese prison. It's a terrific film, with a pair of wounded performances from Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and a thoughtful script co-written by Dalton Trumbo. But nobody remembers.

5. The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were (1973)
Image credit: Columbia Pictures.

Box Office: $22.45 million

A box office smash and an Academy Award winner for Best Original Score (Marvin Hamlisch) and Best Original Song (the title track), Sydney Pollack's romantic drama about a Marxist Jew (Barbra Streisand) and a WASP (Robert Redford) who tried to make a relationship work became a celebrated romantic film in its heyday. But few beyond the most diehard Streisand fans talk about it much. 

6. Earthquake (1974)

Earthquake (1974)
Image credit: Universal.

Box Office: $36.3 million

In the 1970s, disaster films made big money, and Earthquake rumbled the biggest of all of them. An ensemble cast including Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Ava Gardner and more try to survive a massive shaker that breaks apart LA, and — thanks to the then-innovative Sensurround technique — audiences actually felt the earthquake around them in theaters. But the death of the disaster film and the inability to replicate Sensurround in home theaters, means that most of Earthquake‘s pop culture tremors have quelled.

7. Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak
Image credit: 20th Century Studios.

Box Office: $30 million

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder became one of 1970s cinema's greatest, most unlikely comic duos, one that doesn't get remembered nearly as often as it should. Case in point: 1976's Silver Streak, a delightful farce about a book editor and a car thief thrust together by circumstance on a train moving from LA to Chicago. Together, they must dodge dangerous art thieves, Jill Clayburgh as a seductive ingenue, and — what else — a runaway train. 

8. Oh, God! (1977)

Oh, God! (1977)
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Box Office: $41.7 million

Carl Reiner's spiritually-minded comedy follows a grumpy supermarket manager (John Denver) who suddenly finds himself forced to spread the word of God (George Burns). This comes much to the consternation of everyone around him, as poor Jerry whines to both his fellow man and the Almighty that he asks too much. Viewers hailed it as one of the greatest comedies of the year, and it got two sequels. Now, it's become so obscure it lives on mostly in bits on Tim Heidecker's On Cinema.

9. Every Which Way but Loose (1978)

Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
Image credit: Universal.

Box Office: $85.2 million

Every Which Way But Loose combines several 1970s fads America obsessed over: middle-aged Clint Eastwood, CB radio/trucker culture, and oirangutans doing funny things. But while critics lambasted it at the time (The New York Times's Janet Maslin called it “harebrained”), it became one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, with a $104 million takeaway on a minuscule $5 million budget. A sequel followed, Any Which Way You Can, but these two films now live on as time capsules of a particular era in American comedy. 

10. Hooper (1978)

Hooper (1978)
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Box Office: $78 million

Fresh off Smokey and the Bandit, Burt Reynolds continued to hone his newfound fame as an easygoing leading man with his next collab with director Hal Needham: Hooper, a tribute to the stuntmen and women that keep the industry running. Reynolds plays the titular Hooper, a stunt coordinator who smirks and snarks through one dangerous stunt after another (including a wild ‘rocket car' jump). Reynolds' effortless appeal made the movie one of the top ten highest-grossing films of the year, though it didn't hold a candle to Bandit‘s runaway success. Today, it is a footnote for helping kick off the “blooper reel” credits gag from the '70s and '80s, a tradition that must come back yesterday.

11. 10 (1979)

10 (1979) Bo Derek
Image credit: Warner Bros.

Box Office: $74.9 million

Okay, this one's maybe a stretch: After all, the image of Bo Derek, walking up from the beach in a swimsuit and dreadlocks, remains one of the most iconic images in 1970s movie history. But challenge someone born after the 1990s to say they've seen Blake Edwards' box office hit co-starring Dudley Moore, and very few hands will rise. 

12. The Jerk (1979) 1970s forgotten blockbusters

The Jerk (1979) Steve Martin
Image credit: Universal.

Box Office: $73.7 million

“He hates these cans!” Steve Martin's dillweed Horatio Alger story remains a delight even today, with a host of memorable scenes like the aforementioned oil can massacre and lines like “I was born a poor Black child…” But it has become a criminally underseen film for modern audiences, who might balk at some of its more problematic racial elements and the dated nature of some of the jokes. Still, when it works, it works, and who can say no to a film pairing Martin with Bernadette Peters?