Most historians agree that Jaws was the first "summer movie." It was the first time that studios made the connection that summer = summer vacation = kids home from school with disposable allowances. It was also a movie that actually took place during the summer and on the beach. It was also a brilliantly simple film that could be advertised almost exclusively by word of mouth and by a great poster. Hence, it practically invented the term "blockbuster." But just because the studios officially established the summer movie season from then on doesn't mean that people didn't go to the movies during the summer before that. Here's my list of seven great summer releases from the days before the hype.
1. North by Northwest
Released July 17, 1959
Hitchcock released quite a few of his great films in the summer -- including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window and Psycho -- but I like to think that this big, lightweight, but precision-perfect thriller is his best "summer movie," due to its general brightness and upbeat tone and its impressive collection of picturesque locations. (It's like a mini-vacation from your seat.) And, on a hot summer day, Cary Grant in his sleek gray suit is the epitome of cool.
Released June 19, 1962
Open air, sunshine, suspense, romance and comedy, all in one film. John Wayne leads a team of wild animal trappers in Tanzania. Half the time they're racing around at exciting, top speeds on the dusty plains, roping rhinos and other extraordinary beasts (for the zoo, of course), and the other half, they're sharing witty banter back at the bungalow. Director Howard Hawks is known in this country in conjunction with a handful of classics, but he still has not received his due; for this he sets an invitingly casual pace and keeps it going for 157 minutes, but also effortlessly weaves in breathtaking bouts of suspense and danger, and even a bit of screwball comedy. Today, the film is probably best known for Henry Mancini's music score, and his jaunty "Baby Elephant Walk" single.
3. Mr. Hulot's Holiday
Released in the USA June 16, 1954
Here's another one that's about relaxing and setting a causal pace rather than racing through a story. Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati, who also wrote and directed) arrives at a summer resort and tries to have a good time. The low-key jokes take their sweet time unfolding. Sometimes the film focuses on Hulot and sometimes not. There's an old couple that takes sauntering walks (the husband always a few steps behind the wife) and a pretty young girl... and a waiter, who has been driven nearly (but not quite) to the breaking point. Sometimes nothing at all happens. Of all movies, this one is most like a vacation.
4. Enter the Dragon
Released August 19, 1973
OK. Now we're talking. No more relaxing vacations. This is the movie that would have sent boys out into the streets wanting to be Bruce Lee, just as later generations would want to be a pirate just like Johnny Depp. Every kid on the block would have to see this, and it would be the subject of conversation for months to come. This was Lee's canny attempt at an American crossover, and for a genre packed with cheap quickies, it holds up remarkably well, filled with beautiful visuals and extraordinary, physically powerful sequences. It's the Elvis of kung fu movies.
5. Once Upon a Time in the West
Released May 28, 1969
Westerns have long been part of summer movie viewing; they send the imagination far away, to wide-open spaces and to more primal, primitive concerns. There were lots of great ones to choose from, including Winchester '73 (1950), Seven Men from Now (1956), Ride the High Country (1962) and High Plains Drifter (1973) but I went with this one because it must have blown the lid off of everyone's expectations. It's one of those summer movies that you continue to talk about, in awe, the next day. First and foremost, there was the casting of Henry Fonda as one of the screen's nastiest villains. Then its use of awesome, endlessly wide landscapes crossed with extreme, sweat-and-pore-filled close-ups and minimal dialogue is a style that seems to have eluded most other filmmakers to this day.
6. Rosemary's Baby
Released June 12, 1968
Summer usually isn't the best time for horror movies; they're much better when the leaves are falling and the nights are longer. But summer is a perfect time for word-of-mouth horror movies, the ones that are so scary and interesting and unusual that you tell all your friends to go see them. Jaws was like that, as was Psycho in the summer of 1960 and The Blair Witch Project in the summer of 1999. Roman Polanski's dark, twisted horror film was so intense and psychological that many people were convinced he had dabbled in Satanic worship himself.
7. The Seven Year Itch
Released June 3, 1955
This isn't my favorite Billy Wilder comedy, but it's a great, widescreen summer movie; it makes memorable use of city heat, both literally and erotically. Tom Ewell is the not-very-masculine family man whose wife and kids head off to the country while he stays behind, a summer bachelor, to bring home the paycheck. He meets his new neighbor, a giggly unbearably sensual blonde Marilyn Monroe and spends the rest of the film alternately wanting and trying not to sleep with her. All the while, you can feel the oppressive concrete heat and melting ice cubes. Let's not forget that that indelible image of Marilyn letting her dress blow up over the subway grate because she wanted to cool off!
Note: I stopped at 1950 because to go back any further would be to venture into black-and-white studio bound films, which seemed to defeat the purpose of bright, outdoor, escapist adventures (the Zorro and Robin Hood films notwithstanding). Plus my list was already getting pretty darn long. A few runners up include: The War of the Worlds (1953), Robinson Crusoe (1954), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Donovan's Reef (1963), The Nutty Professor (1963), A Hard Day's Night (1964), American Graffiti (1973), Chinatown (1974), and lots more.