Thunderball: the 1965 Bond blockbuster is still the top grossing movie in the series in terms of the number of tickets sold.
The chart that adjusts grosses for inflation is indeed a valuable tool to rank box office success. However, it still ignores several factors. For one, the US population is twice what it was in 1939. On the other hand, films from that era had no competition from television.
I like the Hollywood Reporter approach which ranks the top five films in a year. When
people talk about how the James Bond films are more popular than ever I
point out the facts regarding Thunderball that you mentioned and this
bit of info: The last 007 flic to be ranked in the top five films
for the year was Diamonds Are Forever. The others are from From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball. So Sean is still the king. Sorry, Daniel
(Bruce Marshall wrote the article about the restoration of Lee Van Cleef's The Big Gundown in Cinema Retro issue #13. Look for his interview with Escape From Alcatraz screenwriter Richard Tuggle in issue #15)
Retro Responds: All valid points, Bruce, but I think you have to also factor that in the early days of the Bond movies, the series was new and ground-breaking in many ways. Bond has had to endure decades of competition from countless films that wouldn't exist if it weren't for the 007 franchise. They've also had to survive their own artistic missteps (remember two appearances by Sheriff Pepper???), six different actors in the role and the challenge of remaining relevant to young audiences. The fact that the Bond films even exist almost fifty years later is remarkable, not to mention that they still pull in over a half billion dollars in worldwide grosses each - and that doesn't count home video sales.