In honor of TCM's new book Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, we wanted to know your questions for author John Malahy. Nine lucky questions were selected and if your name is on the list below, congrats -- you'll be receiving Summer Movies in the mail!
Maureen Piccochi asks:
Jaws was considered to be the first summer blockbuster, but have there been movies that were released in previous summers that did well enough to be deemed blockbusters ?
John Malahy: Yes, there were definitely other successful films that opened in the summer, but I think that was largely incidental. For film distributors, the summer had long been considered a dead zone. Studios didn’t release their good films in hot weather months because it was assumed that most people wouldn’t be spending time indoors in a darkened theater. They also tended not to release a movie widely (hundreds of screens on opening weekend) unless there was concern about poor word of mouth that could doom a film’s chances down the road. Jaws itself was supposed to be a winter 1974 release, but production delays led it to be released in the summer of 1975. Universal also released it widely (490 screens – the most ever at the time) and backed it up with a huge TV ad campaign. It was of course a huge success.
The earliest example of a ‘blockbuster’ opening in the summer that I’m aware of was The Lost World, the stop-motion dinosaur adventure film that First National opened in general release in June of 1925. It broke attendance records and made over a million dollars in the US (when the average ticket price was about 20 cents). Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush premiered that same month at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles – a splashy affair that led to an even more successful wide release in August 1925.
Neil Adams asks:
Was there a "summer movie" that you were on the cusp of including in the book, but didn't? If so, what was it?
John Malahy: I was on the fence with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. It was actually the first full entry I wrote, but it was removed later because it wasn’t considered “summery” enough. True, it may not be technically set in the summer, but I see it as the story of a family vacation that goes off the rails. Jimmy Stewart’s character has been in Europe on a business trip and takes his family for a visit to Morocco; after some sightseeing, they get unwittingly pulled into an international espionage plot.
For each of the films featured in the book, I wanted to highlight some universal summer experience. Here, the characters are fish-out-of-water Americans exploring the world, with Stewart playing the bumbling father and Day the elegant and composed wife and mother. One of the funniest moments of culture shock is when they visit a traditional Moroccan restaurant; his gangly body doesn’t fit well in the furniture and he’s unaware of the local table manners. The movie is a great family vacation thriller – and is capped off with Day’s iconic performance of “Que Sera Sera.”
Aaron Brown asks:
Does the rise in "summer movies" coincide with the rise of "teenage culture" with the American post-war Baby Boom generation?
John Malahy: There’s definitely a correlation between the beach party genre and the new emphasis on adolescence and youth culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) was part of a series of movies made by American International Pictures (AIP), an independent studio that focused on a teenage audience. AIP would even do focus groups in which they’d test film titles and concepts with teenagers to learn exactly what kids wanted to see at the movies. So whereas in the 1930s you had Andy Hardy – a sanitized, family-friendly version of teenage issues with a healthy dose of fatherly advice – now audiences were getting movies like Bingo with comedy, sex appeal, musical sequences, and adults who were either ridiculous or villainous. It should also be noted that the Production Code was diminishing rapidly at this time, which allowed these movies to include more suggestive content. The beach party films were about teenagers reigning supreme over their environment – it was a place of counterculture, away from the demands of parents and the real world.
Susan Favazza asks:
This is about summer movies about swimming or surfing in the Pacific Ocean. I have watched movies where girls in scant bikinis are surfing or on the beach in California. I am from the Midwest, and on my first trip to California, I placed my big toe in the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean and just about froze my toe off. I was at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, thus is very southern part of California in the summer. Question, where and how did they film those bubbly summer movies on the beach and water in California? Thank you, in advance.
John Malahy: As someone who grew up in the eastern U.S. and has had most of my beach experience in Florida, where the sand is white and powdery and the water is warm, I’m right there with you! I’ve dipped my toes in the water in La Jolla, Newport Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu and beyond, and that Alaskan current always chills me to the bone. Of course, I’m sure most California natives probably think it’s refreshing on a hot day. Gidget was filmed in Malibu’s Leo Carrillo State Beach at the height of summer and seems to feature more time in the water than some of the later beach movies. Beach Party was shot in February and March of 1963; Beach Blanket Bingo in December of 1964. The average water temperature in Malibu is around 60 degrees, and naturally it’s a bit colder in the winter (and the air temperature isn’t much higher). My hat is off to those actors! (But my sweater is on.)
Megan Christman asks:
If you had to choose only one film from the book as the essential summer film, which one would you choose and why?
John Malahy: I think Gidget embodies what most people think of when they think of summer films. It’s a coming-of-age story set at the beach (beautifully shot on location in Malibu) and is about a teen girl’s self-discovery over her summer break. It has an effervescent young star (Sandra Dee) at the center and features a few pop musical numbers for good measure. On top of all that, it’s an important cultural milestone – it kicked off the “beach movie” genre and popularized the sport of surfing.
Ann Avallone asks two questions:
I love that you have a mix of comedy and romance movies in the book. One of my all-time favorites is Meatballs, with Bill Murray. Was this movie even in contention for making to the book?
Also, I love the selection of movies listed in the book. How hard was it to narrow it down and what criteria did you use, if any?
John Malahy: I’ll answer both questions. Meatballs was suggested to me by a colleague. I think it was meant partly as a joke, but it actually made a lot of sense as a summer movie. In the end, it wound up as a ‘double feature’ suggestion, paired with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) – another film with a young misfit at summer camp, and Bill Murray.
Generally speaking, the book was inspired by a number of films that have little in common beside their summer setting: Jaws, Do the Right Thing, Summertime, etc. So I was already representing a wide range of genres, eras and styles, and I leaned into that even more with the additional selections. I did narrow down the scope to films that 1) either explicitly take place in summer or represent the season in some direct way, and 2) feature some sort of universal summer experience. Grease is out because it takes place over the school year; Dog Day Afternoon is out because a bank robbery is a pretty atypical summer event; Saving Private Ryan didn’t quite fit the tone. I found that most action, thriller, and horror films were about extraordinary events, not traditional summers (sorry, Independence Day). On the other hand, Moon Over Miami is a bit dubious in terms of what time of year it takes place, but I included it because it’s about women who travel to a beach resort to change their lives, and its candy-colored musical fun fits the tone and spirit of the book.
Lastly, with only had 30 slots to fill – enough to give a range, but also curate and go in depth on the selections – I tried not to get redundant in terms of genre, theme, star, or setting. Somehow, I still managed to include three Italian romances and two musicals set in Iowa!
Lisa Covington asks:
In your opinion, which of the movies featured in the book have had the biggest impact on society? Why?
John Malahy: A few titles jump out at me, for different reasons: Gidget (the book and the movie), for helping to bring surfing into the mainstream; The Graduate, which came out at the perfect time to speak for a disillusioned generation; Jaws, which still stands as the ultimate fear-of-the-ocean cultural touchstone; and Do the Right Thing, which showed how volatile the summer season can be in an age of inequality and tribalism. Some people predicted rioting when Spike Lee’s movie came out in 1989; thirty years later, it hasn’t lost any of its potency.
Martin Friedenthal asks:
What would you consider to be the first "Summer Movie?" How influential was it on what movies were produced after it was shown in theaters?
John Malahy: As I was researching, I wound up compiling a longlist of over 300 films, with the earliest ones stretching back to the 1910s. I’m not sure how influential a movie like Chaplin’s By the Sea was (a 1915 short about “girls, the seashore, and the good old summer time”), although it was notably filmed on location in Santa Monica. The next year, Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand shot Fatty and Mabel Adrift there; it’s about a newly married couple whose beach cottage is sent out to sea by a jealous suitor. Clara Bow’s 1927 romantic film Hula is about the daughter of a Hawaiian pineapple plantation owner, a subject that gets repeated in Elvis’s 1961 film Blue Hawaii. The Palm Beach Girl (1926) centers on a midwestern woman (Bebe Daniels) who has a life-changing time in South Florida (and some ugly racism); it’s an early example of a subgenre that includes Moon Over Miami. An early talkie, Street Scene (1931) is a King Vidor film that has a lot in common with Do the Right Thing.
Thanks John and thank you to everyone who submitted questions! Summer Movies is available now at the TCM Shop and in bookstores everywhere!