Interview: John Malahy Talks TCM, Summer Movies and Jacques Tati
Okay, we’re coming quickly toward the end of summer, but the lure of the summer movies is strong with this Beach Party fan. There’s so much joy in the sunshine, the sand and the surf we all associate with “Summer Movies”.
It is in this vein that we turn our attention to TCM’s new book: Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, which takes a fun and fascinating look into many of the ultimate “Summer Movies” ranging from 1928’s Lonesome through 2017’s Call Me By Your Name… and everything in-between. Truthfully, yours truly found herself stunned by the variety of films covered within these pages.
Author John Malahy tackles an extensive history in his book with an equal parts entertaining, but scholarly eye as he deep-dives into a series of films which really don’t get the love they deserve. There are some definite preconceived notions as it relates to summer movies (these aren’t all teen films, by the way), and this book shines a light on a great many movies which we really should be talking about more.
Our own Kimberly Pierce was lucky enough to sit down to talk with Malahy:
I’d love start with a broad question and just hear your history with classic film. What got you started as a fan?
Oh, wow… when I was younger, I think getting into newer films and exploring, you know, Disney stuff when I was really young and then watching Jurassic Park four times in the theater…. you start to look back at what came before, right?
Around the time Jurassic Park came out, I was like, ‘I want to be Steven Spielberg someday’. So all of that kind of led me (to) just going deeper… into the past. I think the American Film Institute Top 100 list (the first version) came out, right when I was about 15 or 16 and that inevitably led to me trying to watch all the movies and then going through Oscar stats from back in the day.
Is there a movie you remember first fueling your passion for cinema?
I think actually, it’s in the book… Rear Window. I could probably watch that movie on a loop forever and be satisfied. I just think it has a little bit of everything. It’s so enjoyable… with the incredible camerawork and sound work and all that.
You know, everybody has these movies… they saw when they were certain age that… made them think more deeply about film, or got them more passionate about film. One was Raging Bull, which is a movie… I kind of have mixed thoughts about (today). But it struck me (again, when I was about 16 or 17). It was like, ‘Oh, this is what films can be!’. And it was more than just the popcorn stuff that I was used to watching. Another one was The Grapes of Wrath, the John Ford film.
How did this book come to you? What struck you about it?
I work behind the scenes at TCM in the publishing program. And we had (published) books on Christmas films. We did a book on films to watch around Halloween. And I was sort of thinking… there are certain movies you watch during the holidays to get in the spirit of season and others, you know, maybe scary movies, you watch around Halloween. There are more films around Veterans Day.
I think the more films you watch, the more connections you make between films that are otherwise pretty different. Something like Jaws, which is an iconic summer film, and maybe Do the Right Thing, which also takes place that time of year, but it shows a different group of people with different struggles (and) challenges. (However) they both speak to… universals for the summer experience.
So I started looking at those kinds of films, Summertime with Katharine Hepburn is another completely different movie, but it’s one that I’ve always loved. And actually, when I was in Venice a few years ago, I went around to the different sites and… took pictures of them, you know, the place she falls into the canal, and the antique shop and all of that.
I just thought it would be fun to… collect some of these films from all eras and all different genres to… give a sense to people about how the movies have captured and depicted summer time and maybe give inspiration (for) people (to use) for their own vacations or… seasonal activities.
Diving into these films, you had such a wide swath of historical eras you focused on, from the 1920s up until Call Me By Your Name (2017). As you were watching these and doing the research, was there anything that jumped out or surprised you in how depictions of summer changed over the course of the history?
Most of them have some themes in common. A lot of that is people just getting outside of their routines, (or) outside of their comfort zone. Summer is… a time where you can get away from work or school, or sometimes… your family and meet new people… have new experiences… visit new places and… have your worldview expanded. So that’s a theme across all of these.
I think even Lonesome (1928) features two characters (who) basically get an afternoon off for the Fourth of July… visit Coney Island and meet each other. It’s sort of a typical… summer romance and Call Me By Your Name is sort of similar. But all these films, they feature characters who are… getting a sense of, I guess, perspective on the real life based on a vacation they’re taking or a relationship that’s formed.
I think as you go through… the 20th century in America, you can see these films… sort of ebb and flow. During World War II or the Vietnam War… these low points of national stress… there are fewer films about people taking vacations, I just think it wasn’t something that was represented as much on screen. But then you get into… quote-unquote… peaceful, prosperous times, like the 1950s, or the 80s… there are suddenly booms of these films. So I think that is interesting.
I also think it’s fun to see… the 1950s are considered… this repressed era, this Eisenhower, traditional gender role era, but it’s interesting to see the amount of… sexuality in (these films). There’s a group from like, 1955, that includes… Smiles of a Summer Night, which is a Swedish film, but (it) had a huge impact here, Picnic, even Summertime. Katharine Hepburn’s relationship (with) Rossano Brazzi… and the fireworks going off after they finally consummate their affair… though, it’s obviously treated as it needs to be for the Production Code. I feel like these films were exploring… a deeper sense of sexuality and sensuality then we normally give that era credit for.
Later in the (19)60s, it’s sort of like, you know, the kids, obviously. (There’s) a lot happening (in the) culture… and later… with the ‘New Hollywood’ era. Even starting with Gidget in 1959, and then the Beach Party films, (there’s) this sense of the kids… becoming the main characters and… having a little more agency.
There’s a famous scene in Picnic where William Holden‘s character gets his shirt ripped from the back… it’s… this iconic moment of raw masculine sexuality, you know, but in a 1955 way…. I… went back and forth (about including) Picnic because I do think it’s a little bit… melodramatic. I think, if it were made today… it would be a completely different film…. But I do think if you put yourself in the place of audiences at that time period… it can be really enjoyable and a kind of revelatory.
How did you find the writing and research process?
I think normally, it would have been different. I wrote this, basically starting at the beginning of 2020. So I had a couple of months of planning normal research. I was going to… go to LA… and go to the library and all that stuff, but COVID kind of got in the way.
Luckily, my partner is a research librarian, and I had some connections to a lot of resources. So (the) research process was helped a little bit by that. And honestly, it was kind of a blessing… to not have a social life at that time because I could really, you know, have my day job, which was working from home (at) TCM, but I can also have a lot of time to kind of focus on the book.
It’s funny, I sort of wrote it chronologically…. (it was)helpful just to contextualize and to kind of see the evolution of these films from… the silent era to the present. I fell in love with all of these films, like… Picnic or you know, The Parent Trap, or On Golden Pond…. Before Sunrise… because I was seeing them in the same context.
As far as the actual writing… this is my first book, I didn’t really know what I was doing. And (I) had those moments of panic, where it’s like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’, but I think breaking it up into smaller pieces is the way to do it. Now, this (book) obviously is 30 different films, plus, you know, some double features and some little asides about vacation inspiration you can take. And (it was helpful) putting… those (into) little chunks and saying: I need 1000 words on this, I need 200 words on this… this helped a lot. So I don’t know what a normal writing process is like.
Going off of that if money was no object and publication was no object, is there something you would love to tackle as another project. Where’s your passion for research?
Oh, gosh, I have such a wide variety. Somebody asked me… ‘You haven’t written a book before, but what (have) your other ideas (been in) the past?’. I did a master’s thesis on films of the 1920s and (their) relationship with the First World War and I was like, ‘That’s kind of the complete opposite of summer movies’.
So I’m… all over the place. I do think a book on, or maybe a podcast or something… (about the) films of the (19)80s would be fun. I do feel like from a TCM perspective… the network gets associated with the (19)30s and (19)40s and (19)50s so often and that’s true. I mean, that is a huge (amount) of what we show. But I think we also like to… celebrate films from all (eras). (The films of the 1980s) are now somewhere between 30 and 40 years old… as shocking as that sounds to say out loud, and I think they deserve a new look. There’s been a lot of books on… teen films or action films, that kind of stuff from the 80s. But I think there’s so much (still) to talk about from finally tackling Vietnam War… to women in the workplace, to films by independent filmmakers and black filmmakers… to women getting more behind the camera with major studios. I just think there’s so much to say there. So that’s another area where I’m looking into.
As I was sitting down and looking at this book, before I even opened it, I kind of went, “Oh, Summer Movies! Teen films”. For some reason, I had that preconceived notion. Did you have any preconceived notions about these movies that you learned more about as you went?
I always like to do (a) wide approach to these things. But I think the book is kind of eclectic…. People (do) think summer movies, and they think, Gidget or Beach Party, right… I started off with Jaws, Do the Right Thing, Summertime and films like that, (which) are completely different and I wanted to keep that approach. I did with the double features too, trying to connect films that are like The Graduate with Ghost World… which have a lot in common, but you don’t necessarily associate those off the path.
There were certain things that I had trouble with, like, again, the Great Depression and the World War Two era. So I was trying to find films there that would work for the book. I had seen a few Andy Hardy films and found You’re Only Young Once, which is I think, maybe just the second true Hardy film. And it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the same story (as) National Lampoon’s Vacation or something like that’.
Moon over Miami was another Betty Grable film from 1940s… and my editor actually is a huge Betty Grable fan… had sort of thrown that one (to me). Originally, it wasn’t a film I had seen. And in fact, a lot of Betty Grable’s work, I don’t think is as well known today as it probably should be…
I started with a list of like, 300 films, and I was trying to get a little bit of everything. So discovering those areas and… (in) some cases those stars, was probably the biggest discovery.
In the process of building that huge list, were there any painful cuts that you can think of it you just couldn’t work in there. But golly, you wanted to?
You know, I was trying to work in an Elvis film somewhere. I’m from Memphis. So not that I am a huge Elvis fan, but I do appreciate his work. And I think people again, associate (him) with 60s youth (and) adolescent culture. Rock and roll and all that all that stuff that was happening (at) the same time as the Beach Party films.
I almost included Viva Las Vegas. I think that was just a terrific movie. Ann-Margret is fantastic and Elvis is great… I wasn’t quite sure if it was a summer film, it’s (something) to be kind of careful about you know, just because I had 300 and I needed to narrow it down (and )pick the ones that are actually set in the summertime…? I was thinking Blue Hawaii could work …. but again, that’s not necessarily summer. Anyways, I ended up including Elvis as a double feature. So I was able to kind of slop that in.
There’s not any action films in here or horror, you know. I had… Friday the 13th for a while, but… we (me and the team (at) TCM and the printing press) kind of (asked), is it really that great a movie… and ultimately (it) didn’t make cut.
I found that a lot of action films from all eras (are) about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. I really was trying to put films in the book that were about experiences that everyone can relate to. So… I wish I could have found a slot for maybe Independence Day or something. But that one seems maybe too new. And it’s not a typical Fourth of July story, is it?
Going back to a more broad question, as a film fan, is there a film, or filmmaker that you feel is overlooked and you wish more people would pay attention to?
I just read a biography of him too, which is completely fascinating and made me fall even more in love with him, is Jacques Tati… the French comedian and filmmaker. He didn’t make that many movies, but I think all of them are maybe not masterpieces… but definitely worth viewing from his very first (Jour de Fête) to the movie that’s in the book, which is Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, which is a classic sort of week at the beach movie.
(It) doesn’t really have a plot, but it’s more about… observing all the different people who are on vacation (at) this seaside resort and… finding the humor in the every day. He has this great character Mr. Hulot. (Tati) mostly got to start in mime work and pantomime, so he doesn’t speak a lot. It’s just all of his movements and his observations and he gets on all these high-jinks… (he) never has any terrible consequences, which is fun. I think Tati and all of his films, starting (with) those early ones through Playtime and Trafic and some of those are just so great. (I’ve) talked to so many people who don’t know who he is, and it frustrates me, so that’d be my pick.
Where can listeners find more information on the book information for you?
Sure. Well, you know, we have so many books coming out from TCM. We just released Eddie Muller‘s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir revised edition which is (a) fantastic book. I’m always working behind the scenes on the books that come out of TCM.
This book can be found at the TCM shop that’s just shop dot TCM dot com or really anywhere books are sold. It’s also in ebook form. And you can find me on Instagram at at John Malahy and Twitter as well at that same handle.
Summer Movies: 30 Sun Drenched Summer Classics is available wherever you purchase your books, from Amazon to TCM and everything in between! Malahy has put together an entertaining historical study sure to delight classic film fans the world over.
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