Hot Time: Summer in the Cinema
It's Throwback Thursday: What were your favorite summer movies?
(Note: Information on where the films discussed below are available for streaming can be found at JustWatch.com.)
Join me as I take a break from doomscrolling the latest ketchup-splattered revelations from the Jan. 6 hearings and the ongoing destruction of our civic contract by the allegedly Supreme Court to talk about … summer movies.
Not necessarily movies about summer – although those certainly qualify – but movies that conjure up summer in your lemon-popsicle-flavored memory banks. Films you saw from the back seat of the family station wagon at the drive-in near the beach. Thrillers that sent you out into the hot, sticky night to jump at shadows. Stupid teen comedies that lured you into air-conditioned theaters. A movie you went to solely to hang out with your friends that turned out to be one of the best things you ever saw. Or the worst.
We all have those memories. What are yours?
Mine are many, from childhood, adolescence, and beyond. Possibly the earliest summer-movie experience I can recall is going to see “The Moon-Spinners,” a 1964 Hayley Mills adventure mystery, at an old Main Street movie house on Cape Cod. My older sisters wanted to go and seven-year-old me got to tag along; the movie was Disney’s attempt to fashion a more mature vehicle for the former child star of “Pollyana” (1960) and “The Parent Trap” (1961). Mills was 18 by now, and “The Moon-Spinners” gives the actress her first screen kiss as an English girl dealing with jewel thieves during a visit to picturesque Crete. It also features the final Hollywood appearance of legendary silent-era vamp Pola Negri, playing a haughty dowager. I don’t remember any of that. I do remember a climactic fight scene between villainous Eli Wallach and romantic lead Peter McEnery in a tiny motorboat weaving among the rocks of a nighttime cove that had me standing up in the theater screaming “LOOK OUT!” until my mortified sisters dragged me down and tried to suffocate me. An early victim of the power of cinema.
I have a later memory of going to Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre (back when it was still a neighborhood dump rather than the indie jewel it is today), drawn by a newspaper ad that promised “Fright Show! Monsters in Person! Goes Into Audience to Get You!”
Holy Quasimodo, sign me up. I and 300 other kids – mostly boys with whiffle-cuts identical to my own – filed in, and because it was a hot August day and the A/C was on the blink, we were all slurping cold, carcinogenic orange soda out of those plastic fake oranges with straws sticking out of the top. The movie was a no-budget Bowery Boys rip-off called “The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters” (1968), and it is now considered a trash classic by connoisseurs of psychotronic cinema, but back then we just knew it was awful. And where were the live monsters? Three hundred small natives began to get restless until a poorly shot chase scene toward the end, at which point the curtain at stage left parted and out stepped the Mummy. Or, rather, an underpaid teenage usher who had been handed a cheap latex Mummy suit and told to get into it, go out there, and scare the kids.
Within an instant, the air was filled with 300 plastic oranges aimed directly at his head.
The usher had clearly been instructed to go up one aisle and back down the other, making vague boogity-boogity gestures with his arms. He made it about halfway before fleeing to the lobby from the gauntlet of jubilant boys reaching out from their seats to pummel him with their tiny fists. It was a rout as complete as Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow – a triumph, the best time I’d ever had at the movies. I’ve told this story enough times now, in print and in person, that it has achieved the status of a private myth: The Great Coolidge Monster Riot. I think about it every time I go to that theater or on certain August days when the heat makes the telephone wires hum.
I saw “Jaws” in the summer of 1975, but who didn’t? Messed me up for ocean swimming for decades and now reality is imitating fiction on the beaches of the Outer Cape. You could argue that Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film created the “summer movie” as a concept, a marketing tool, and a profit center. Seven years later, I was back in my seat for the director’s June 1982 release, “E.T. the Extraterrestrial,” after which I and my best friend and his girlfriend adjourned to the hillside of a local park, gazed up at the nighttime galaxy, and wondered aloud who might be gazing back.
Box Office Mojo, a website for entertainment stats geeks, has a “Summer Box Office” listing that goes back to 1975 and offers any number of memory holes for the nostalgist. Reading the top moneymakers for each year’s season is a thumbnail crash course in the history of the blockbuster and/or how Hollywood became addicted to franchise tentpoles: Of the top summer movies of the past twenty years, only two – “Finding Nemo” in 2003 and “Tenet” in 2020 – haven’t been remakes, reboots, or sequels. But drilling down into individual years yields pleasures famous and forgotten. 1979 gave us “Alien” (May 25) and “Apocalypse Now” (August 15); I saw the latter from the front row of a sold-out Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, having to turn my entire body to follow the chopper crossing the screen in the opening shot. 1984 was the summer of “Ghostbusters” (June 8), “The Karate Kid” (June 22), and “Purple Rain” (July 27), but also the gnomic cult comedy “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (August 10) and “Bachelor Party” (June 29), the “Hangover” of its day that proved Tom Hanks’ charisma in “Splash” (March 9) was no fluke. 1988: “Big” (June 3), “Bull Durham” (June 17), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (June 24), “Die Hard” (July 15), “A Fish Called Wanda” (July 15) – that’s a hell of a summer.
Not to be Captain Bringdown, but compare that to the summer of 2019, the last year before COVID KO’d the box office in ways from which it still hasn’t fully recovered. from. Of the top ten grossing films, only #10, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” is an original concept. The others are remakes (“The Lion King,” “Aladdin”), sequels (“Toy Story 4,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” “The Secret Life of Pets 2”), a spin-off (“Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw”), and a brand extension (“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu”). Nor does the rest of the list look much better, with only the what-if-the-Beatles-never-existed comedy “Yesterday” and the kill-crazy-Nordics of “Midsommar” likely to be remembered in another two decades. It’s enough to make you want to throw oranges at the screen. (That said, the horror comedy “Ready or Not” is a surprisingly snappy B-movie that may age better than any of those top nine.)
Let me end this survey with a summer movie that captures summer in Massachusetts with a fond and acrid edge – and no sharks. It’s “The Way Way Back” (streaming on HBO Max, for rent elsewhere), from 2013, and it’s a minor but resonant coming of age tale about a gawky teen (Liam James, above) spending the season in Buzzards Bay working for the local water park, which is played by the actual Water Wizz in Wareham. Sam Rockwell plays the kid’s boss in high Sam-Rockwell mode, and Toni Collette is cast as his divorced mom, sneaking off to the dunes to get high with her new boyfriend, a jerk of a car salesman played by Steve Carell. With its ambling pace and genial vibe, “The Way Way Back” is hardly a four-star classic, but regionalism is rare in American film, and this one gets it right down to the people, places, and title – which, as any self-respecting New Englander knows, refers to the backward-facing rear seat of a classic station wagon. (We called it a wayback seat in our old Rambler, but it’s the same thing.) The movie looks back as well, to last year’s summer and next year’s too.
Now let’s hear your memories.
If you enjoyed this edition of Ty Burr’s Watch List, please feel free to share it with friends.
If you’re not a paying subscriber and would like to sign up for additional postings and to join the discussions, here’s how:
If you’re already a paying subscriber, I thank you for your generous support.