Twenty-three movies opened on screens in the summer of 1974 and while some were solid hits, others were major flops. Only one movie was made specifically for children while violence for adults more then dominated the screen. One movie was X-rated while another was an R-rated sequel to its X-rated predecessor. Only three of the releases would be remembered at Academy Awards time but one of them was well remembered with 10 nominations including Best Picture.
1974 was not the best season for summer movie releases but it was the last summer before the executives took over and made summer movies what they are today: loud, explosions and more loud.
Here are the twenty-three movies released in the summer of 1974. Perhaps some of you actually went to see some of these movies and perhaps some of you were still in the future in the realm of film fans.
ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN (Bryanston Distributing; Director - Paul Morrissey) Marketing was the star of this campy horror film. First off was the addition of Warhol's name to the credits when Warhol had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. Second was releasing it to indoor theaters in 3-D which hadn't seen a movie in that process for years. Third was releasing it with an X-rating meaning no one under 18 could be admitted. This heightened every college boy's curiosity. The film tells the tale the evil doctor killing for human parts to make a breed of people that will obey his commands. The film is filled with plenty of sex (the doctor's wife is forever bedding the town's stud) and violence (fake intestines flowing at you). The film is badly directed and horribly written. Who can forget this immortal line, said with a straight face by the way, "To know death you must first f**k life in the gall bladder." Still audiences ate it up so much that another film, Andy Warhol's Dracula, would be released in September.
BANK SHOT (United Artists; Director - Gower Champion) Broadway legend Champion makes his directorial debut (and swan song) with this likable but dumb tale of a group of misfits who decide to rob a bank that has set up in a mobile home while the real building gets built behind it. The plan? Drive away with the bank. George C. Scott plays the leader of the game in what turns into a witless comedy that even Scott denounced as one of his worst films many years later. Not surprisingly the film was hammered by critics and did very little business as it grossed just under $1 million.
BIG BAD MAMA (New World Pictures; Director - Steve Carver) From producer Roger Corman comes this gangster movie loaded with sex and violence that became a sleeper hit in the summer of 74. Angie Dickinson stars in the title role and a gangster's moll who hits the road with her two daughters and meets up with a bank robber who takes them on a wild ride. William Shatner and Tom Skerritt co-star in the mildly entertaining film which critics dismissed but the public ate up, especially younger men who got a chance to salivate over Ms. Dickinson's frequent nude scenes. The film proved so popular that a straight to video sequel (also with Dickinson - clothed this time) came out in 1987.
BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (United Artists; Director - Sam Peckinpah). Wild Bunch director Peckinpah continued his films filled with violence and carnage in the story of a gangster promising a large payout to any man who brings home the head of Alfredo Garcia, who has run off with his daughter. Warren Oates stars as a bar piano player on his last leg and, figuring this could get him on the road again, decides to go on the hunt not realizing there are better and more powerful men in on the hunt. This stylish action film divided critics (Roger Ebert called it a "masterpiece") but the film did not appeal to the public and it grossed just $1.4 million.
BUSTER AND BILLIE (Columbia; Director - Daniel Petrie) Another drive-in, B movie sleeper hit was this tale of a high school romance in the 1940's between the stud (Jan-Michael Vincent) and a woman who freely gives of her body to the sexually repressed boys in school. Buster, who is engaged, begins seeing Billie for sex but soon becomes enraptured by her and the two fall in love which then leads to tragic results. This is an interesting failure of a film as it goes in unusual and unpredictable directions but then takes you right where you expect to go. Critics weren't taken with the film but teenagers made this a mild hit.
CALIFORNIA SPLIT (Columbia; Director - Robert Altman) Elliot Gould and George Segal team in this comedic drama about two gamblers that join forces and become fast friends. Gould plays the more experienced gambler while Segal is the more responsible one - until he meets Gould. Soon he is missing work, getting into hock with his bookie and selling his furniture. As usual Altman paints his picture on a canvas filled with memorable characters that almost makes the story secondary. The ending is deliberately left wide open as Altman always preferred his audiences to think on their own. The performances are all fine and this is one of Altman's lesser known great films. The critics were sharply mixed but the film was a hit thanks to the box office appeal of its leads, grossing almost $5 million.
CHINATOWN (Paramount; Director - Roman Polanski) Can you imagine a film like this opening today in the month of July as it did in 1974? No chance. The winner of 10 Academy Award nominations stars Jack Nicholson as private detective Jake Gittes, who gets caught up in an investigation involving a missing person, two wives, a mysterious millionaire and a possibly kidnapped teenage girl all tied to a water shortage in Los Angeles in the 1930's. This throwback to the classic Humphrey Bogart masterpieces is a masterpiece in its own right thanks to one of the best screenplays ever written, by Robert Towne (who deservedly one the Academy Award - the film's only win) and taut direction by Roman Polanski, who had a falling out with Towne during production when Polanski insisted the film end on a bleak note as opposed to Towne's more uplifting finish. Polanski got his way and Towne would later apologize and admit he was wrong. Nicholson is surrounded by terrific performances including Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Diane Ladd and John Huston in one of the best calculated villainous portrayals ever portrayed on screen. Besides Best Screenplay, the film would receive nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Designs, Editing and Sound. The film was a critical hit and a box office hit earning $12.4 million.
DAISY MILLER (Paramount; Director - Peter Bogdanovich) Hot off a three year succession of box office hits (1971's The Last Picture Show; 1972's What's Up Doc? And 1973's Paper Moon), director Bogdanovich fumbled for the first time in his career in what would be the beginning of a career slump that would last over a decade. Here Bogdanovich covers the costume romance based on a forty-three page novella by Henry James about an American woman who meets an American man in Switzerland and takes up with her despite warnings of her reckless behavior from his family. Bogdanovich's film was poorly received but the brunt of the criticism went to Cybill Shepard who was horribly miscast in the lead role, a fact made clear to Bogdanovich by anyone who would listen before filming began. Unfortunately those helpful criticisms would fall on deaf ears as Bogdanovich and Shepard were an item at the time. Despite some favorable mentions of the script, direction, supporting performances by Mildred Natwick, Eileen Brennan and Cloris Leachman and the lavish photography and costume design, the scowls at Shepard were much louder and killed the film before it even opened. This was a major dud in the 1974 movie year.
DEATH WISH (Paramount; Director - Michael Winner) Anything but a dud could describe this unexpected box office hit starring Charles Bronson as a mild mannered architect by day who becomes a bad ass killing vigilante by night after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked in their home by a gang. The wife is dead and the daughter is left for dead and Bronson becomes really angry and heads into the streets to track the thugs down one by one to make them pay. Vincent Gardenia co-stars as a detective hot on the vigilante's case. The reviews were not kind to the film but the audience was clamoring to see Mr. Joe Public take the law into his own hands and who better to represent the people then the tough talking Bronson? The film made over $22 million and would spawn four more sequels over 20 years, each one worse then the one before it.
DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century Fox; Director - John Hough) Another B movie chase film made for drive-ins that crossed over and became an unexpected sleeper hit. Taking place in 24 hours, Peter Fonda and Susan George star in this one long chase of a movie about bank robbers trying to get out of town while being pursued by a determined to stop them at all costs police sheriff (Vic Morrow). The film is exciting and rarely lets up with terrific stunts all leading up to an unexpected and shocking ending. This is one of those films you leave your brain at the door and just sit back and enjoy. In the summer of 1974, despite critical reaction, a lot of people did just that to the tune of over $15 million.
FOR PETE'S SAKE (Columbia; Director - Peter Yates) One of the oddest and least successful Barbra Streisand film is this comedy with Babs married to taxi driver Michael Sarrazin. They are struggling so Babs decides to borrow money from a loan shark so she can make an investment, an investment which fails to come through. Unable to pay the loan, Babs is sold to a woman is a local madam for a prostitution ring but Babs soon mucks up trying to play "hooker with a heart of gold" and soon she is sold again to be a cattle rustler and then, even worse, as a terrorist. Streisand does her best with the thin material she has. The critics were not overly kind to the film and the film was a box office flop.
THE GROOVE TUBE (Levitt-Pickman Pictures; Director - Ken Shapiro) This low budget comedy of skits lampoons American television and American culture. Barely running 70 minutes the film moves from one skit to the next with most of them being terribly unfunny. At the time of its release the film was a flop at the box office but then something interesting happened that led to this film's re-release in 1976. A little show called Saturday Night Live had premiered in 1975 and was fast becoming a runaway hit on television. The producers of this film pulled it out of the cobwebs when they realized one of the skits featured a then unknown Chevy Chase, who was fast becoming a top comedic artist. The producers re-released the film making sure that all television, radio and newspaper ads noted the film "starred" Chevy Chase when, in reality, Chase is on screen less then two minutes. On top of that the producers secured a film called Reefer Madness, a 1936 film that looks at the evil at drugs. The film had been re-released in 1973 and became a cult hit. The films were re-released in 1976 as a double feature and made more then $8 million so the producers would finally make their money back.
HERBIE RIDES AGAIN (Walt Disney Productions; Director - Robert Stevenson) Disney's first and only foray into the summer of 1974 was this long awaited (five years) sequel to the smash hit The Love Bug. The sequel picks up in San Francisco with Helen Hayes now owning Herbie but living with problems of her own. A ruthless billionaire (Keenan Wynn) is demolishing building after building so he can have constructed new skyscrapers and malls. Hayes lives in an old firehouse that Alonzo Hawk (Wynn) cannot buy so he tries to drive her out with the help of his dim witted nephew (Ken Berry) who will soon fall in love with Hayes' niece (Stephanie Powers) and learn the true nature of what it means to have Herbie on your side. The critic proof film was just what the doctor ordered for kids' entertainment and the film would gross almost $18 million at the box office.
THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (Columbia; Directors - Stephen Verona and Martin Davidson) Obviously inspired by the smash hit the previous summer that was American Graffiti, this film takes a more serious look at a gang of four in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. The gang leader is trying to woo a new girl in town while the gang tough has to deal with impregnating his girlfriend. This is a serious but sometimes sentimental and often funny look at life in the 1950's and should be seen today if only to see the performances of some unknown actors appearing early in their career including Perry King, Susan Blakely, Sylvester Stallone (who is rumored to have worked on the script) and Henry Winkler before his fame as Fonzie. Winkler claims to have modeled Fonzie after Stallone's performance in this film. The film was better received then expected by critics and was a mild hit.
MR. MAJESTYK (United Artists; Director - Richard Fleischer) Charles Bronson's summer movie was a more routine and far less successful action film though it did make a little money despite being one of Bronson's lesser films. Here Bronson plays a watermelon farmer being bullied by local toughs to use local men who are drunks instead of the Mexican migrant workers Bronson prefers. Soon Bronson is arrested for assault, set up for murder and chased by both police and the mob. This is a routine Bronson film with no surprises but plenty of action and audiences made it a small hit despite a critical lashing.
THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT (American International; Director - Robert Taylor) A sequel to the popular X-rated, animated feature from 1972 continues the adventures of the dope addicted cool cat but now in R-rated fashion and without the original film's talented writer and director Ralph Bakshi. In the new film Fritz is now married to a nagging wife and the father of an obnoxious son. Fritz lays on his couch, smoking a joint and the film takes the form of several vignettes as Fritz imagines what life would be like had he gone in a different direction. The film was less bawdy and less entertaining then the original thus it was less successful with fans and panned by critics.
THE PARALLAX VIEW (Paramount; Director - Alan J. Pakula) Warren Beatty stars in one of his most under appreciated films, this one a political thriller in which Beatty plays a reporter whose girlfriend, another reporter, is witness to a political assassination. While we learn there were two gunmen the case appears solved with a lone gunman theory put to rest. Three years later Beatty has moved to a small town newspaper and is re-visited by his girlfriend who tells him that witnesses to the assassination are turning up dead and she fears for her life. Soon enough she is dead and Beatty takes on the investigation to see if he can uncover the truth before the Parallax organization hunts down and kills him too. This is a well done, adult thriller and once again another odd choice for a summer movie release. The film received good reviews but, sadly, did not find an audience.
S*P*Y*S (20th Century Fox; Director - Irvin Kirshner) From the same studio and two leads from the smash hit M*A*S*H came this very bad comedy starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as a couple of oafs who are mistaken by the KGB as dangerous assassins and targeted for death. The two stumble around the world avoiding death while getting involved in one far fetched moment after the next. This was one of the worst films of 1974 and critics warned audiences who then rightfully avoided this terrible movie. You might ask why the asterisks between each letter in the title? It was a ridiculous marketing ploy to dupe dimwitted moviegoers into believing there was even more of a connection to M*A*S*H then there really was.
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT (MGM; Director - Jack Haley, Jr.) One of the biggest hits of the summer movie season was a documentary on classic movie musicals from MGM. This film is a compilation of some of the greatest dance numbers ever made with segments introduced by many hosts who were some of MGM's biggest stars including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, James Stewart, Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli. Each star walks the rundown MGM back lot and some of the most interesting moments involve looking at the sets that were at that time preparing for demolition as the studio had been sold. The film was praised by critics and film lovers alike and spawned 2 sequels (three if you count 1985's That's Dancing) in 1976 and 1994 after grossing over $12 million.
THREE THE HARD WAY (Allied Artists; Director - Gordon Parks, Jr.) One of the most popular "blaxploitation" films of the era starred Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly as three men out to stop domestic terrorism in the hands of some white supremacists. The film is all about action and audiences got what they wanted even if critics didn't think so.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (United Artists; Director - Michael Cimino) The annual Clint Eastwood summer flick was this tense caper film. In it Eastwood plays Thunderbolt, the only person in a gang of burglars that knows the whereabouts of money stashed from a robbery they committed. He meets young Lightfoot (played by Best Supporting Actor nominee Jeff Bridges) and the two travel to find the small schoolhouse in Montana where the money was stashed. Once they arrive they find a new school house has been built and assume the money was lost in the demolition. Soon the other gang members, including sadistic George Kennedy, arrive and are planning a new robbery. The rest of the film is the unfolding of the new robbery. This is one of Clint Eastwood's better but not most appreciated films and critics were not fond of the film though it was a hit grossing almost $14 million. Eastwood was originally going to direct but upon meeting with writer Michael Cimino decided to give him his big break which would lead, four years later, to the Oscar winning The Deer Hunter. Also this was the last time Eastwood worked with UA accusing them of poÿ…w(òorly promoting the film and costing the final gross a few million dollars.
TRUCK TURNER (American International; Director - Jonathan Kaplan) Isaac Hayes made his film debut as a former football player turned bounty hunter who goes too far on a job and soon becomes a hunted man himself. This was a typical action packed "blaxploitation" film which centered less on story and characters and more on violence and explosions. The film was a moderate hit but not well liked by critics.
UPTOWN SATURDAY NIGHT (Warner Bros.; Director - Sidney Poitier) Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby star as a couple of down on their luck blue collar workers who go out to a club one Saturday night to get away from their troubles only to be present when the club is robbed. The next day Poitier realizes he has won the lottery and that the winning ticket is in his wallet which was taken the night before. From there the two spend the rest of the film looking for the ticket and dealing with crooked politicians, the mob and the police - both real and fake. Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson and Harry Belafonte co-star in this very entertaining film which scored well with critics but was a box office hit. Poitier and Cosby would team two more times (1976's Let's Do It Again and 1977's A Piece of the Action) as different characters in each but the three films are today considered a trilogy.