THE MOVIES : REMEMBRANCES OF SUMMERS PAST : Presuming you had a sufficiency of dimes (the price of a ticket), you could go to the movies any night of the week, there being no school the next day
In the village where I grew up, there were movies to be seen in the summertime, but there were no summer movies in the modern sense. Hammondsport, N.Y., was so far down in the releasing pattern that even a movie released in early summer would have been unlikely to get to the Park Theater before late autumn at the earliest, and, more likely, it would have been winter, spring or, entirely coincidentally, the following summer.
The Park was what distributors call a subsequent-run house, and we were such a subsequent run that by the time the prints got to us they would be jumpy with splices, the last frames of every reel a snowstorm of scratches where the tails had been allowed to flap during changeovers. The splices would fail and the screen would go white, and then black, amid terrible groans from the audience and roars of rage from the projection booth.
After a delay, the picture would resume, somewhat further on into the story. I hardly remember a movie that went from start to finish without a break.
But they were movies, and that was all that mattered. And the movies were then, far more than they are in the age of television and automobiles (scarce in Depression days), a window on other worlds, other lifestyles. Big cities, not less than the Wild West, were illuminated for us at the Park. The window may have been rose-tinted and full of distortions, but it offered a thrilling glimpse.
If we didn’t get summer movies as such, promptly, the movies of summer nevertheless had a very particular excitement. Presuming you had a sufficiency of dimes (that being all too briefly the price of the pre-adult ticket), you could go any night of the week, there being no school the next day. Otherwise it was Friday or Saturday night only. (The Park had no matinees.)
The bill changed three times a week. Friday and Saturday we almost invariably had a Western, a newsreel, a cartoon or a live-action comedy short and a serial, which was itself often a Western. With luck, the feature and the serial would both star my favorite, Charles (Buck) Jones. I even remember a Buck Jones double feature plus a Buck Jones serial, a sort of one-night festival.
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday most often gave us a musical or a comedy. When those legendary madcap comedies came along, they opened Sunday (two shows, 7 and 9). The prime reward of school-less summer movie-going was the chance to see those Sunday features, because they included such treasures as the Fred Astaire musicals, the Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler musicals and the W. C. Fields comedies and other items that have stood the test of time for their nostalgic appeal but also for their creativity and their craftsmanship.
Midweek--Wednesday and Thursday--were given over to drama and melodrama. It was the least appealing change of program to the young viewers, of whom I was one. They were apt to star the likes of Warner Baxter, George Brent, Kay Francis and Bette Davis, and a high proportion of them seemed to come from Warner Bros. Many of them were about romance, a low-appeal screen subject in grade school, material dismissed as intolerably mushy, what with people misunderstanding each other or being separated for one reason or another but eventually getting back together again, usually outdoors at sunset or on the terrace of a penthouse.
Looking back, I wish I had been precocious enough to want to spend more summer nights seeing those midweek attractions. I can catch up with them now, of course, at 3 in the morning, generally interrupted by commercials for all the ingenious things you can buy by calling an 800 number.
The summer movie as a kind of sub-genre within the movies has come into its own in more recent times. In earlier years, there was never a time that wasn’t right for action pictures, raucous comedies and horror flicks calculated to make you shiver on the hottest summer nights.
And yet the monopoly of mindless fun within the summer-release schedule has never been total. Just as you couldn’t really detect any significant differences between summer and winter programming in Hammondsport (Buck Jones was a man for all seasons), so there are always surprises within the summer fare now.
My memories of summer movie-going do not end at the Park Theater and its non-upholstered and stern-testing seats. With a little prompting from the files, I’ve been remembering some of the later films that I first watched when they came out in the good old summertime.
Last year’s summer success, “Dead Poets Society,” caught the industry by surprise. It was thought to be anything but escapist stuff. It was a dark drama, although with comedic overtones, and it involved the suicide of a sympathetic figure. It was also about school, of which the young target audience had presumably had enough by then.
Yet on the up side, the story was enormously sympathetic to the young (and a good deal less so to their elders, represented by a nasty headmaster and an obsessive father). And the film had a big lure in Robin Williams as its star. Not least, it was, by the standards of any month, a superior film.
The moral of the triumphant release, and of the film itself, was never underestimate the young. The wider moral is, or ought to be, don’t sell summer audiences short at all. They are ready for more than distributors and exhibitors sometimes give them credit for.
You’d have said that certain high-quality films were inevitable summer fare. You can’t imagine that matchless ode to youth and summer, “American Graffiti” (July, 1973), for example, appearing at any other time. Nor “Roger Rabbit” (June, 1988) nor the Beatles and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (July, 1978) nor “Alien” (May, 1979) or “Aliens” (July, 1986).
“Stand By Me,” Rob Reiner’s warm and dramatic tale of four boys on a purposeful summer hike, was well-placed in August, 1986, and so was a slick thriller, “Stakeout” (August, 1987), with its strong doses of comedy and romance.
Yet there have been other summer releases that were less predictable in terms of conventional wisdom, and with varying consequences. I suspect that “Chinatown” (July, 1974) would have been a success at any time.
Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” released in July, 1983, was not a box-office smash, but it is a fair guess that his technically ingenious film did at least as well in summer release as it would have in another season, and perhaps better.
Francis Coppola’s “Tucker” was released in August, 1988, perhaps on the reasonable ground that summer is high season for automobiles, and what better time to celebrate a Detroit-defying car maker? But despite Coppola’s name and some enthusiastic reviews, the film fared poorly. Would it have done better in late fall or mid-winter? The question, as they say, is moot.
“Carnal Knowledge” came out in July, 1971, and while sexiness is a desirable criterion for summer fare, that film’s view was many shades darker and more cynical than the norm. But it found audiences. Yet “Portnoy’s Complaint,” another summer release (July, 1972) with a comparably dark view of relationships, disappointed commercially.
“A World Apart,” with Barbara Hershey’s excellent performance as a courageous white South African journalist imprisoned for her views, opened in June, 1988, and despite fine reviews did not find audiences. Would it have been more successfully placed somewhere between Labor Day and Easter? The answer is unknowable.
The marketing of movies has struck me as an art struggling to become a science, hoping to supplant hunches and experience with preview samplings and exit polls. My hunch is that the idea of what makes a summer release is under review, following the evidence of “Dead Poets Society” that a summer picture not less than a winter picture can engage the mind and the heart.
My corollary hunch, which began to form years ago on the Park Theater’s splintery seats, is that a good picture will find audiences in any season. It’s probably true that in Upstate New York the appeal of escapist fare was stronger in winter than in summer. But the real joy of summer movies was that you didn’t have to walk home in the snow.