INTERVIEW: John Malahy discusses his new book for TCM – Summer Movies
We’re now halfway through the UK school summer holidays and it’s the perfect time to grab a beach read and escape from it all. And what better way to do that than with a book about Summer Movies? From the wholesome 50s and 60s beach parties in the likes of Gidget, to the first summer blockbuster; Jaws, onto the boiling tensions of Do the Right Thing and all the way through to the summer romances of Before Sunrise and Call Me By Your Name, the Summer Movie has long provided escapism and a means of travel when we’re stuck at home. So now is the perfect time to go on a journey through the Summer Movie, which you can do in John Malahy’s new book from Turner Classic Movies.
We spoke to Malahy about selecting the films, different ‘flavours’ and subgenres of Summer Movie and how they’ve evolved over the decades.
What was the selection process like, in terms of deciding which films to include? How long did it take to decide and how did you narrow them down?
Some of the films were obvious, like Jaws and The Endless Summer, since they had given me the idea for the book in the first place. To that, you could add National Lampoon’s Vacation, Summertime, and others. Once I started really doing research, I came up with a list of about 300 movies that covered a wide swath—many of them were loosely connected to the summer or were just about vacationing (Now, Voyager or Elvis’s Girl Happy), weren’t that great in general (Corvette Summer, anyone?), or didn’t fit the tone (Dog Day Afternoon). I knew we wanted to get it down to around 30 final films, similar to TCM’s books on Christmas movies and Halloween horror. So at that point it took a few months of watching and re-watching before settling on a list.
There are subgenres of Summer Movie, such as beach movies or surf movies and road trip movies – do you think most people view the Summer Movie as fundamentally about ‘getting away from it all’?
I think the ‘beach party’ series is probably what comes to most people’s minds, those splashy, candy-colored, youth-oriented hits from the sixties. I’ve had to explain more than once that there’s a wide range of topics and settings in what I define as “summer movies”, which is really anything set during the summertime that can help shed some light on what the season means. In most cases, I think the theme of these movies is still, like you say, ‘getting away from it all’ – or maybe more precisely, getting out of your routine or your comfort zone. Summer is a big break in the middle of the year that allows for a new perspective on the other nine months, and that’s true even for the main character in The Seven Year Itch, who has to stay in New York City to work while his family goes off to the lake for the summer. And it’s true for Ben Braddock in The Graduate, who finds himself adrift after coming home from college – stuck in that limbo between school and entering the real world. But at the end of the day, I think a movie like Gidget contains all the stereotypical elements of a summer movie. It’s basically lighthearted, low-stakes, youthful entertainment geared towards teenagers, and it was shot in Malibu.
You didn’t just include idyllic, escapist portrayals of Summer though, but also more hard-hitting ones, such as Do The Right Thing. Also; Rear Window, Seven Year Itch and DTRT all feature being trapped in the city, while many are vacationing, which offers a different perspective on Summer as an oppressive force, rather than a happy, joyful one – why did you think it was important to show this alternative viewpoint?
Everyone knows what it’s like to spend at least part of the summer working or sweating it out in the city – unless you’re one of those people who spend three months at the lake. So I think a non-escapist summer is actually more common than not, and I wanted to highlight movies that speak to universal understandings of the season, in all its contexts. Sadly, I think Do the Right Thing is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago – even though Brooklyn has changed a lot and we’re getting more diverse voices in the mix and starting to have a national conversation about things like police brutality. The other thing about Spike Lee’s movie is how expertly made and supremely entertaining it is, which is why I don’t think it’s out of place here at all. There are more mundane examples. Caddyshack is about a kid taking a summer job to pay for college (at least, in premise). Breaking Away has a lot to say about class and privilege. And Rear Window is about a man who’s forced to stay home and winds up going a little stir crazy. After Covid, I think we all know what that feels like.
Both The Graduate and Before Sunrise are about that limbo period that many of us have experienced – the Summer after college and very much feature drifting, aimless characters who don’t know what they will do or who they will become – do you think Summer is, by definition a liminal space and we never shake that association because of our years in education?
Summer as we know it exists because of the traditional school year, so I think there’s no getting past that association for most of us. Several of these movies feature young characters who are off for the summer (The Parent Trap, Moonrise Kingdom, Gidget) and having those mid-year breaks in our formative years sets the tone for the rest of our lives, to the point where the summer after graduation can be pretty unsettling. For the working class guys in Breaking Away, that liminal stage lasts much longer. Historically, weather had driven a lot of vacation habits. It’s interesting to look at earlier examples of movies set in Florida, like Key Largo and Moon Over Miami, when summer was the off-season. Northern ‘snowbirds’ would primarily fly down in the winter to escape the cold. There’s still a bit of that tradition alive and well, but nowadays Florida is a family vacation mecca, and the high season is the summertime, when kids are out of school.
A high proportion of the films chosen feature romance – why do you think Summer and Romance go together like peaches and cream?
Summer is a time to get away from your regular life, go new places and meet new people. So it’s only natural that romantic relationships form in these movies. But they’re often only temporary. An early example is Andy Hardy in You’re Only Young Once, who leaves his girlfriend at home, goes on vacation with his family, and meets a more worldly California girl. It opens his eyes to romantic relationships (without going too far) and also allows for a scene of fatherly advice at the end. One interesting and related trend is the series of ‘runaway’ productions Hollywood made in Europe, starting in the 1950s. These films – like Three Coins in the Fountain and Summertime, which is in the book – function on one level as travelogues but also feature wholesome American women who fall under the spell of amorous European men (usually Italian, usually Rossano Brazzi). Again, these relationships serve as foils – they instill an appreciation for the women’s lives back home and the traditional American style of dating and romance.
Do you think each decade has a different ‘flavour’ of Summer Movie? And could you expand a bit on why you think some decades offer more Summer Movies than others?
If the movies look and feel different at various times periods, I’d say it’s mostly due to industry trends in Hollywood, or society in general. Summertime was filmed in technicolor in Europe because studios in the fifties were trying to lure audiences back to the theater with things they couldn’t see on television. The beach party movies came from indie distributor American International Pictures, who determined that there was an untapped teenage audience; they even did focus groups with young people to determine the content – and in some cases even the title – of their films. I think part of what made Jaws so resonant in the 1970s is that it came out just after Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, and a year before the bicentennial. It was a time of patriotic celebration with an undercurrent of anxiety, which plays out in the movie’s 4th of July setting. Taking a step back, you can tell that when America was in a strong economic period (or in peacetime) more summer vacation-themed movies emerge. The 1950s and 1980s are both disproportionately represented in the book because I think more people were able to take vacations in general, and the movies reflect that.
I think you’ve only included English Language films – was this one of the ways that you narrowed down the films chosen? Apart from A Room with a View, I think they’re all “Hollywood” films?
I actually did include a couple of non-English language films from Europe – the French beach comedy Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night – but I picked those because they’re lighter and fairly accessible for today’s audience. In general, I did focus on American movies because I was writing primarily to a US audience, and I wanted the experiences and perspectives of the characters to feel familiar to readers. That said, I was able to squeeze in a few more international films as “double feature” suggestions; if you enjoy the main film, consider watching something similar that’s a bit outside the box. That’s how I snuck in Floating Weeds, A Day in the Country, and The Green Ray, as well as several other British films (Chariots of Fire, Shirley Valentine, Bend it Like Beckham, Pride) and the Canadian comedy Meatballs. These double feature picks, and others (I suggest the Martin and Lewis comedy The Caddy with Caddyshack), give the book a bit of an eclectic feel, which I like. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be talking about and comparing movies from all over the world, or from different eras or genres. The book has a few documentaries, a film noir, a couple of soapy melodramas, even a Shakespeare adaptation (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Do you have a favourite film from the ones featured in your book or is it like choosing a favourite child?
I’ve spent so much time with these movies that I do feel a bit protective about them – even the ones I don’t think are so great, like Picnic (a fifties melodrama that can feel very clunky if you’re not in the mood for it). But there are a few clear favorites, starting with Rear Window, which I could definitely watch on a loop for days. Hitchcock’s movie is endlessly fascinating, and I love the witty script, the camerawork, the enormous indoor set, all the performances from Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly to bit parts like Thelma Ritter and all the people who live across the courtyard. And I love how grounded it is. It’s a murder mystery, but it’s not melodramatic. It’s played in a very matter of fact way. It also says a lot about culture and how we watch movies.
For more on classic movies, check out this article on two early anti-fascist films that played at TCM Film Festival earlier this year.