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Sun-Drenched Classic Movies

An interview with John Malahy, author of Summer Movies, the newest book in the TCM library.

Who doesn’t love a good summer movie? As soon as school lets out, movie night can begin. We all have our favorite summer films but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in the movie night schedule for a few more. Turner Classic Movies, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, has released a guide to 30 sun-drenched classics that—through beach parties, road trips, outdoor sports and summer camps—manage to keep summer alive year-round.

Summer Movies is packed with production details, stories from the set and more than 150 photos, taking an in-depth look at films from the silent era to the present day that reflects the full range of how summer has been depicted on screen. The book highlights 30 movies set in the summertime, from beach comedies to simmering big-city dramas, wild American road trips and lush European travelogues, and also includes recommendations for vacations, summer activities and outside-the-box picks for further viewing.

We talked to author John Malahy, who grew up in Germantown, Tennessee, about his first book and love of summer movies. Read on to find some new favorites before school starts again.

Erin Z. Bass: How did this project come about, and did you ever think a title about summer movies would be your first book?

John Malahy

John Malahy: I’ve worked at TCM for several years and we’ve released about 20 film-related books to date. Being behind the scenes on this program, I’ve been able to develop some of my own content ideas in the past, always with other authors. Summer Movies was a concept that I brought up in a pitch meeting a couple of years ago, and both the TCM and Running Press teams took to it immediately. The idea is that, just as you watch Christmas films around the holidays or scary movies on Halloween, there are a bunch of movies set in the summer that can help get you in the mood for the season. Eventually, I got so wrapped up in the planning process, coming across more and more fun and interesting movies that could be included, that I hated to give up control of it to another writer—so I decided to try it myself.

I had always thought it would be amazing to write a book, but I never really had a topic in mind. At least, not a popular topic. I wrote a master’s thesis about various films made after World War I that adapted the war experience as their narrative structure. I still think that’s a fascinating subject, but I doubt anyone would read it. And it’s about as far from Summer Movies as you can get!

EZB: How did you go about choosing the “30 sun-drenched classics” in this book? There are some great picks, but there are so many summer movies out there.

JM: I started by creating a long list of possible titles. It was a really diverse slate of movies and I would end up with over 300 to pick from. Some of the movies were only tangentially related to summer, though, whether they were about people going on vacation generally or were set in traditionally summery locations, like Hawaii. Or, as in the case of “Grease” or “American Graffiti,” they were more about the beginning or end of the school year rather than summer proper.

BEACH BLANKET BINGO, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Deborah Walley, John Ashley, 1965

The book sprang partially from the realization that there are lots of different ways that the movies depict the summer. Many people automatically think of the beach party movies, but there’s a whole world of summer experiences out there and I wanted the book to be as diverse as possible, in terms of setting, genre, tone, time period and country of origin. I love drawing connections between movies that may not seem as closely related on the surface.

EZB: f you could have picked just one more movie, what would it be?

JM: There’s nothing I’m heartbroken over, but one I had originally wanted to include was Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” from 1956, with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. It’s a movie about a family vacation that goes off the rails (in this case, they get pulled into an international espionage plot), which I think many people can relate to, but it was taken out ultimately because it didn’t necessarily feel “summery” enough.

I’m also aware that there are certain gaps. No horror film is listed (outside of “Jaws”) and there are no action films to speak of. Maybe “Friday the 13th” could have worked, though I really don’t think it’s a great movie. When selecting the final list, I wanted each of the films to depict regular people in some sort of universally relatable experience, so that readers could identify and draw some inspiration to get in the mood for summer themselves. But I found that most action films feature fairly extraordinary events, with extraordinary people at the center. Does “Independence Day” feature a typical 4th of July?

Also, a little more diversity would have been nice. There are a lot of middle-class white characters represented, perhaps because that demographic regularly takes summer vacations.

EZB: Do you have a favorite movie in the book?

JM: Aside from “Rear Window,” which may be my favorite movie ever (I could watch it endlessly, on a loop), I think my favorites are the European-set films. This has to do with my own love of travel. I love stories of other people exploring the world and experiencing different cultures, and it’s one of the things the movies (and now TV and YouTube) can do better than just about any other art form—they bring the world to you. I did connect with one in particular, “Summertime” with Katharine Hepburn, because I had spent time in Venice a few years ago as a solo traveler, exploring the city just as her character does. (No affair with an antiques dealer, though.) It’s a really magical place, and I think the movie depicts it perfectly.

EZB: How have summer movies changed over the years—or have they? Are there some elements that all summer movies have to have?

Do the Right Thing (1989) Directed by Spike Lee Shown from left: Rosie Perez (as Tina), Spike Lee (as Mookie)

JM: I think the basic theme has stayed the same: summer is a time in which characters are taken out of their routines and made to experience life in new ways or from different perspectives. Whether it’s Andy Hardy in “You’re Only Young Once” or Jesse in “Before Sunrise,” we see these characters grow and change based on who they meet and what they learn on their travels. And the theme even applies to the films set at home. The main character of “The Seven Year Itch” is a man whose family leaves for the summer (putting him out of his routine), and when he meets the beautiful woman upstairs (Marilyn Monroe) his whole understanding of married life is thrown into doubt. Don’t worry, it all ends well. But it’s another example of a summer of disruptions, challenged perceptions and personal growth.

At the same time, there are a lot of different types of movies in the book and you can definitely trace an evolution in film style, setting and character type, largely based on how Hollywood changed over the decades. For example, we start to see European travelogues in the movies during the ‘50s (think “Summertime”) because the studios were starting to shoot abroad in an effort to bring bigger and more compelling productions to movie audiences (and thus outdo television). In the 1960s, the beach movies were an effort to reach younger viewers, and “The Graduate” really cemented that trend. “Do the Right Thing” and “A League of Their Own” happen later on because people of color and women are finally given the reigns of production by major studios. The first movie in the book, “Lonesome,” is a lot different than the last movie, “Call My by Your Name,” with its depiction of a gay relationship. But they’re each essentially telling a similar story: two outsiders who have a serendipitous summer romance.

EZB: How do you escape the summer heat in Atlanta? Do you head up to the mountains or the beach?

JM: I’m more of a beach bum. I just got back from Hilton Head, as a matter of fact, and I did my best to disconnect from work and just relax. In the back of my mind was the French movie “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” which is set at the beach and has a thing or two to say about our inability to truly get away and enjoy a vacation. It’s so difficult these days when everything is on your cellphone.

But normally I’d be on a plane overseas. There’s a classic film festival in Bologna, Italy, every July, and I’m a little sad to have missed it this year. But I’m letting Europe get a little bit more on its feet before visiting again.

EZB: What’s your job at TCM when you’re not working on a book, and why do you think classic movies remain so beloved in today’s film world of over-the-top special effects?

Dirty Dancing

JM: My team at TCM works on various events and businesses that connect with our fans outside of the regular TV channel. I do a bit on the TCM Classic Film Festival and Classic Cruise, but I also work behind the scenes on the TCM Wine Club, the movie memorabilia auctions we do with Bonhams and our library of books that are published by Running Press. It’s great because I get to dip my toe in a lot of different areas. And it meant that when I was writing this book, I had a really unique perspective on the process.

Why do people love classic movies? I think part of it is nostalgia, but also that certain classic movies have embedded themselves in our culture, including a few that are featured in Summer Movies. Film has a really special power to depict certain situations or experiences—like a fear of the ocean in “Jaws” or a young woman’s coming-of-age in “Dirty Dancing“—that just can’t be rivaled elsewhere. Those movies will continue to be cultural touchstones for many years.

I was drawn to classic films because I loved current movies. I’m sure this is true for many people. I wanted to see what had influenced the movies I was seeing in the theater, so I kept digging back farther and farther into the past. It’s actually difficult for me to draw a line between “old” and “new.” I tend to see everything as part of a tradition. You mention the wide use of digital effects today, but I’d argue that filmmakers have always been using special effects to tell stories or embellish movies when it was otherwise impossible to film something (they didn’t actually burn Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind,” nor did Kong climb the real Empire State Building). My mind goes to George Melies and his 1902 sci-fi short, “A Trip to the Moon.” It’s pretty corny and very, very fake. But it sure is fun.

All images courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

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