‘Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics’ Author John Malahy: The Conskipper Interview

Turner Classic Movies Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics is an ode to the spirit of summer, as captured by filmmakers across numerous decades and genres. Author John Malahy explores films that contain many aspects that immediately spring to mind when the word summer is mentioned, including beach parties, road trips, baseball, summer camps, and, like it or not, the inescapable heat.

We got a chance to speak to Malahy about how the book was put together, how the 30 entries made the cut, and how the concept of summer has been depicted on U.S. and international screens since the very beginnings of the moving picture.

What was the genesis of Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics?

John Malahy: I work behind the scenes on TCM’s publishing program, which includes a couple of seasonal titles like Christmas in the Movies. The idea for a summer-themed book sprang from a similar place – just as you watch Christmas films around the holidays, or scary movies on Halloween, or war films on Memorial Day, you can watch movies set in the summer to get you in the mood for the season. And there’s such a variety of experiences – from beach trips to middle-American traditions like state fairs and Labor Day picnics, to big European vacations, to New Yorkers struggling through a heat wave – that it made for a very rich collection of films and film genres. 

In your introduction you clearly explain the criteria used for the summer movie designation, one being that the vast majority of the film must take place in the summer.  Was there a film that didn’t make the cut that embodies the feelings/atmosphere of summer?

Malahy: Funny enough, the very first entry I wrote wound up being cut because we couldn’t decide if it really felt “summery” enough. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart, and it tells the story of a family that takes a vacation to Morocco and gets unwittingly pulled into an international espionage plot. Does the film take place in the summertime? It’s never explicitly stated. But it does depict—at least in the first half—a couple trying to have a nice, normal vacation with their young son until things go awry. Who can’t relate to that?

Does the concept of an American summer change through the decades, as evidenced by the films selected for Summer Movies?

Malahy: One interesting thing I found while researching is that there’s a definite ebb and flow to summer movies, depending on the time period. It has to do with economics and geopolitics; during hard times (the Depression, the Vietnam War, etc) there seem to be fewer films made about characters who go off on leisurely vacations. But during more peaceful times and periods of economic prosperity, it’s the reverse. The 1950s and 1980s both are major decades for summer movies, as evidenced by the number films I’ve included from those decades in the book. 

National Lampoon’s Vacation is a good test case for how the American summer may have evolved. At a time when most Americans still couldn’t afford to fly (certainly not a family of four) Clark Griswold seems determined to relive the great American road trip of the ‘50s and be a good dad by taking his family to a theme park. I think as more and more leisure options have appeared (Walt Disney World, for instance) there has been more and more pressure on families to make a bigger deal out of the summer. 

Jaws is both a quintessential summer movie and the original summer blockbuster.  What do you think accounts for the film’s staying power?

Malahy: I think the raw power Jaws has on audiences today is the same that it had in 1975 – it makes people terrified of the water. Rational or not, the fear of sharks is something that Spielberg exploited so effectively that the film will surely continue to be a cultural reference point for years (as long as there are sharks, there will be a fear of sharks).

Of course, it’s also a perfectly structured thriller movie with great characters; the Jaws sequels are fun (I have a fondness for the silly Jaws 3-D, set in Sea World), but the reason they haven’t aged as well is that the storytelling prowess just isn’t quite up to that of the original.

Many genres are covered in the book, but there are no action films.  Is there an action film that would fit your definition of a summer movie?

Malahy: That’s an interesting point – I suspect it’s because most traditional action movies don’t speak to more universal summer experiences. In fact, it’s usually the opposite – action movies are about fairly extraordinary events (and extraordinary people). There are some giant summer-set films that just didn’t make sense in the book – like Saving Private Ryan, for instance. I think a movie like Independence Day falls into this category too; it doesn’t really have much to do with what people normally experience on the 4th of July. 

One that did jump out at me (so to speak) is Spider-man: Far from Home because it’s about a school summer trip to Europe – another vacation gone awry, this time with superheroes. Another that might work is Jurassic Park, if you’d consider that an action film. One way to view it is, “family visits an island theme park during the kids’ summer break.” And there’s always Speed 2: Cruise Control

You also include a few foreign films in the list.  How does the conception of summer differ overseas in these films?

Malahy: This book is very American-focused, both because it’s the culture and movies that I know best and because the audience I’m writing to is largely American. But I wanted to throw in a few examples of what other countries were doing—particularly if, like Bergman or Tati, they made an impact on Hollywood filmmakers. I also include a few foreign films as ‘double feature’ suggestions, like pairing Summer Stock with the Japanese film Floating Weeds; both are about out-of-town actors and the people that host them. It’s always nice to expand a reader’s horizons. 

One good example of how summer differs around the world is Sweden. I mention in the chapter on Smiles of a Summer Night that director Ingmar Bergman had earlier made several summer-set films (like Summer with Monika) that were advertised in the U.S. as risqué, even dirty films, because they depict young people living more freely (and yes, a little nudity). 

America is unique in that many people don’t have much time off work to begin with. The average private sector worker gets about 10-15 days per year (and often doesn’t take them all); other major industrialized nations guarantee a higher minimum amount of paid vacation time for everyone. I imagine, like the Griswolds, we feel more pressure to make those days count. 

One thing appears certain, though – everyone loves the beach. 

After each selection, you included a “Make It a Double Feature” recommendation of a similar summer movie.  If the book included 31 entries, which one would you bring over and why?

Malahy: The double features were all picked because they had some thematic similarity to the main film, but in some cases they just didn’t quite warrant a full entry (or weren’t technically ‘summer’ films based on my definition). There are a few I really love, though, like The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges’ zany gold digger story with Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert. The documentary Riding Giants is an incredible primer for the world of surfing and contains some amazing footage. Ghost World is a modern, quirky update on the summer-after-graduation malaise. 

If I had to choose one, it would probably be Two for the Road, which tells of a series of summer road trips taken by the main characters (Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) over the course of their marriage. It’s so entertaining, with two really appealing actors at the center, and shows how people’s priorities change as their lives evolve—all against the backdrop of summer vacation.  

Future projects?

Malahy: I have a few ideas I’m toying with, but in the meantime I’m continuing to shepherd more books through the TCM Library program. In July we have TCM host and ‘Czar of Noir’ Eddie Muller’s updated edition of Dark City – a rich overview of Film Noir. Later in the year, we’re releasing Scott Eyman’s history of 20thCentury-Fox, a book on essential film directors from classic Hollywood, and a look at the film industry’s efforts during World War II, called Hollywood Victory.

Turner Classic Movies Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics is currently available in finer bookstores everywhere.

Leave a Reply