Let’s continue on with a look at some summer movie seasons from the past. I last wrote about 1966 so now let’s take a look at 1971.
Movie palaces were still popular and still in control to hold the exclusive rights to any movie they opened. With the huge popularity of suburban twin screens and drive-ins still a viable choice, there were plenty of screens available for plenty of film product.
The 1971 summer movie season consisted of 27 first run releases and was an eclectic mix from adventures to documentaries to horror films to more artsy fare. 1971 saw only two films made specifically for kids, neither of them being animated and only one coming from Walt Disney. Seven of these films would be remembered at Academy Awards time though none of them would be up for Best Picture.
1971 saw films come from the pens of Neil Simon, Jacqueline Susann, Jules Pfieffer, and Richard Matheson. Some of the lists directors include Mike Nichols, Alan J. Pakula, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet. The biggest oddity of that summer was the release of two documentaries.
Here are the summer movie releases from 1971 listed alphabetically. As always I hope this article brings back fond memories if you were around to see some of these films first run. If you weren’t I hope you enjoy seeing what a summer movie season from forty years ago looks like and perhaps even inspires you to see a movie or two off the list.
THE $1,000,000 DUCK (Walt Disney; Director – Vincent McEveety) Walt Disney’s only major release for the summer was a typical silly affair with Dean Jones and Sandy Duncan and a duck that lays golden eggs. As expected critical reaction was poor but family audiences made it a solid hit.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (American International; Director – Robert Fuest) This dark but somewhat witty horror film is considered today to be the best film horror veteran Vincent Price ever starred in (my vote would go to 1973’s Theater of Blood). In it Price plays a doctor badly disfigured in an accident that would ultimately take the life of his wife. The doctor decides to seek revenge on each and every person he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Not for the faint of heart but filled with loads of horror and laughs if you can stomach the blood. The film was generally well received and was a hit at the box office, prompting an awful sequel the next year, Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
THE ANDERSON TAPES (Columbia; Director – Sidney Lumet) This is a fast paced and well directed action thriller about an ex-con who moves in with his girlfriend with and plans to rob the building unaware that he is on round the clock surveillance, only he isn’t the subject. Sean Connery stars as the thief with Dyan Cannon looking fabulous as his girlfriend. This is a thrilling and enjoyable film that was well received by critics and was a hit at the box office.
BIG JAKE (National General Pictures; Director – George Sherman) John Wayne yarn starring the Duke in his typical role who is called home by his ex-wife to rescue their grandson, who has been kidnapped by a group of murdering thieves lead by Richard Boone. This was standard John Wayne fare but who can complain about that? Reviews were mixed but the film was a hit making just under $4 million at the box office.
BILLY JACK (Warner Bros.; Director – Tom Laughlin) Co-writer/director Laughlin stars in the title role in what was the smash hit of summer 1971. Laughlin played Jack, an ex-Green Beret half breed karate expert out to save wild horses from being slaughtered and protect a group of “freedom schoolers” being harassed by over reacting townspeople. Critics were unanimous in their dislike for the film but it struck a chord with the public. Made on a shoe string budget of just under $800,000, the film would go on to gross an astounding $32.5 million at the box office, making it the second highest grossing film of 1971. The film would inspire two sequels, The Trial of Billy Jack in 1974 that was another box office hit and 1977’s Billy Jack Goes To Washington that was deemed so bad by the studio it was never widely released theatrically but can be found on DVD.
BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH (National General Pictures; Directors – Peter Gimble, James Lipscombe) The more successful of two documentaries released that summer was this fascinating look at great white sharks documented beautifully with plenty of exciting footage that thrilled audiences. Critical reaction was positive and the film was a solid hit with mainstream audiences.
CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (Avco Embassy; Director – Mike Nichols) Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle star in this thought provoking adult drama about the sexual attitudes and obsessions of two close friends from college to middle age. Candice Bergen and Ann-Margret co-star as two of their many conquests in this dramatic tale that is well written and superbly acted. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was a big hit earning $12.1 million at the box office. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Ann-Margret for Best Supporting Actress.
DRIVE, HE SAID (Columbia; Director – Jack Nicholson) Nicholson made his directorial debut with this slick but ultimately mundane and confusing look at two friends feeling their own versions of alienation. The film had strong performances (particularly by Bruce Dern as college basketball coach) but the film meanders under the weight of its heavy themes. Critical reaction was generally positive but the film failed at the box office.
EVEL KNIEVEL (Fanfare Films; Director – Marvin J. Chomsky) Strictly B movie drive-in fare stars George Hamilton as the daredevil in this slick but ultimately slight biopic that is highlighted by some great action scenes. The film was dismissed by the critics but was a mild hit at the box office.
THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE (Cinema 5; Director – Walon Green) This was a widely seen documentary about a scientist trying to deal with man’s impending struggle with insects is best known today for two reasons: One as the film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary beating out The Sorrow and the Pity and, two, as a film that was enjoyed by teenagers under the influence. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was a surprise hit for a Documentary.
KLUTE (Warner Bros; Director – Alan J. Pakula) Creepy character study about the lives of a high class call girl (Jane Fonda) and the private detective (Donald Sutherland) trying to track down a missing husband who was once a customer of hers. Soon a murder mystery forms with the call girl seemingly in line to be the next victim. This was a strong adult drama that was a critical hit and a success at the box office making over $8 million. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for its Original Screenplay and for Best Actress for Fonda. Fonda would go on to win the Academy Award. One oddity? The title character, Klute, is played by Sutherland even though Fonda’s call girl, Bree, is clearly the star of the show.
THE LAST RUN (MGM; Director – Richard Fleischer) George C. Scott stars as a gangland driver who decides to make one more run to satisfy his ego instead of for the money. This is a routine action film with Scott somewhat miscast in the lead. Reviews were mixed and the film was a failure at the box office. Interestingly this film may be best known as the film Scott was making when he sent a telegram to the Academy asking his name be withdrawn from consideration from the nominees for his role in Patton.
LeMANS (20 th Century Fox; Director – Lee H. Katrin) Steve McQueen’s real life for racing and his desire to make a racing film resulted in this well filmed but uneven look at the lives of Grand Prix racers. The racing sequences are well filmed and quite exciting but the film grinds to a halt every time they move away from the race track. Reviews were mixed and the film was a disappointment at the box office considering McQueen’s track record.
THE LOVE MACHINE (Columbia; Director – Jack Haley, Jr.) Adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s lurid novel about a television executive who will go to any length, and use anyone and everyone, to rise to the top. This was a trashy soap opera, as would be expected from a Susann novel, that relied heavily on trash instead of entertainment. The film was trashed itself by critics and was a flop at the box office.
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (Warner Bros.; Director – Robert Altman) This moody western from director Altman takes place in a small town at the turn of the century stars Warren Beatty as a small town loser with big dreams who opens a brothel with the aid of a madam (Julie Christie). Typical of most Altman films this was not a film for everyone and it was a critical sensation. The film did make over $4 million but considering its star power and fine director should have done better. Christie would receive the film’s lone Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
MURPHY’S WAR (Paramount; Director – Peter Yates) Peter O’Toole stars as Murphy, the sole survivor of an attack by a German U-boat in the waning days of WWII. Murphy plots revenge on those responsible and works to knock off each man one by one. Well directed, the film’s pacing is a bit slow but the action scenes liven the film up. Reviews were mixed and the film was a flop at the box office.
THE OMEGA MAN (Warner Bros.; Director – Boris Sagal) Based on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (which was adapted a few years back into a hit film starring Will Smith), Charlton Heston stars as seemingly the last human alive after germ warfare has hit Earth. Soon he encounters a group of zombie-like mutants who only come out at night and come looking for him. The film received mixed reviews but was a solid hit at the box office.
PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (20 th Century Fox; Director – Jerry Schatzberg) Of the many “drug” movies made in the era, this was considered the best of them by far. In their starring debuts, Al Pacino plays a small time crook who meets up with a sweet young girl played by Kitty Wynn (best known as Ellen Burstyn’s assistant in The Exorcist) and the downward spiral they both take when they get hooked on heroin. Critical reaction was strong but the film was a disappointment at the box office in its initial release. When it was re-released in 1974 after both Pacino and Wynn became well known, the film became a mild hit but its subject matter still seemed to hold the film back from finding the audience it deserved.
PLAZA SUITE (Paramount; Director – Arthur Hiller) Neil Simon adapted his hit Broadway play for the big screen starring Walter Matthau in each of three separate comedic stories all taking place at the Plaza hotel. The film was well received by critics but barely broke even at the box office.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM; Director – Roger Vadim) Director Vadim’s naughty comedy/mystery about high school women who are being murdered. Rock Hudson stars as a teacher and prime suspect who seems to be sleeping with half of the female enrollees, Angie Dickinson as a sexy student teacher and Telly Savalas in a scene stealing role as the detective trying to solve the crime. The film is filled with Vadim’s trademark sexy scenes but the film is often silly and unrealistic. It was a critical and box office flop.
THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (American International; Director – Bob Killjan) This was a sequel to the surprise 1970 hit Count Yorga, Vampire bringing back English stage actor Robert Quarry as the title count who, this time, begins to wreak havoc on a local orphanage in San Francisco. This was a mildly clever follow up that received mixed reviews (somewhat surprising for a film like this) and was a mild hit at the box office. A third film was planned but Quarry was not interested in taking another turn so the project was scrapped.
THE SEVEN MINUTES (20 th Century Fox; Director – Russ Meyer) Best known as adult filmmaker Meyer’s only “straight” film is this adaptation of Irwin Wallace’s steamy novel about the indecency trial of a bookstore clerk who was selling pornography. Critics dismissed the film but it was a solid hit, thanks mostly to male audiences thinking this was another hot Meyer production despite its original R-rating.
SHAFT (MGM; Director – Gordon Parks) One of the most important films of the 1970’s was this smash hit that lead to the several years wave of the so-called blaxploitation film. Richard Roundtree stars in the title role as a tough private eye hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem gang lord. Filled with loads of sex and violence, not to mention a smash hit theme song by Isaac Hayes, Shaft would go on to gross well over $7 million at the box office on a budget of just over $1 million. More surprising was the general positive reaction from critics who helped to make Roundtree a star. The film would be nominated for two Academy Awards, for its title song and for its score, and would win for Best Song. The film also inspired two sequels, Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa, that were also solid box office hits and also good in their own right. In 2000, director John Singleton remade this film with Samuel Jackson in the lead role but it wasn’t as successful. Should you ever see it look for cameos by Roundtree and director Parks in the same scene sitting at a table in a restaurant.
TWO LANE BLACKTOP (Universal; Director – Monte Hellmann) James Taylor made his film debut in this actioner about two drivers racing against one another through the Southwest. Great photography and good direction lift this film above the standard car chase pictures and is buoyed by Warren Oates’ strong performance that was sadly overlooked by the Academy Awards. Critical reaction was strongly divided and while the film was not a success it has become a cult hit through the years.
WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? (National General Pictures; Director – Ulu Grosbard) Not surprising from its oddball title, this is an odd little film starring Dustin Hoffman as a rock composer whose life isn’t all roses and sunshine, particularly when he discovers someone is spreading vicious (and untrue) rumors about him to all the women in his life. The film is hard to grasp but Barbara Harris comes in well into the second half and delivers a riveting performance that makes the film worth seeing. Harris would receive the film’s lone Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The film was a critical and box office disappointment.
WILLARD (Columbia; Director – Daniel Mann) One of the sleeper hits of the summer of 1971 was this thriller starring Bruce Davison as a loner who befriends a group of rats and soon has them acting out devious deeds for him. Ernest Borgnine co-stars as his loud mouth boss who comes to learn that you should always treat your employees with respect. The film was dismissed by critics but audiences flocked to see it, earning more than $8 million at the box office. The film inspired a sequel, Ben, two years later and a lesser remake in the 2000’s.
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (Paramount; Director – Mel Stuart) Based on the dark novel by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Paramount brought this children’s film to the big screen and changed it into a family musical starring Gene Wilder in the title role. Regarded now as a classic film for the ages, Willy Wonka was not a box office hit at the time of its release. It’s budget came in at just over $3million and grossed $4 million. Also surprising was the critical reaction that was very mixed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score but did not win.