The summer of 1969 was a strange one when you compare it to the summer movie seasons these days. Overall there were twenty-four films released that summer but only one made strictly for kids. But it was a huge hit for the Walt Disney Company and you could bet dollars to donuts Walt Disney would be part of every summer for the next decade and sometimes two or three times. But showing the sign of the times even summer movie stalwarts Jerry Lewis and Don Knotts released movies geared more for older teens and adults then for the kids.
Looking at this list it is striking to see how many films made for adults to come out. Six of the releases were either war related or westerns. One film was actually X-rated but made movie history that year. Two of the films are considered classics and four of the films would be remembered the following year at Academy Awards time. It should also be notes that two of the five top grossing films of 1969 were summer movie product.
Here is a look at the twenty-two films that came out in the 1969 summer movie season.
THE APRIL FOOLS (National General Pictures; Director – Stuart Rosenberg) This rather lame comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve was the follow up film from director Rosenberg who had triumphed two years earlier with his debut film, Cool Hand Luke. Here Lemmon and Deneuve play unhappily married people (not to each other – in fact she is married to Lemmon’s boss) who decide to start an affair with one another. The film is silly and farcical while trying to tackle difficult subjects and fails miserably. Rosenberg would continue on a path of box office duds after this one and never did attain the promise expected of him. The film was both a critical and box office failure.
THE BRIDGE AT REMAGEN (United Artists; Director – John Guillerman) Another in what was a plethora of war films at that time starred George Segal, Ben Gazzara, Robert Vaughn, E.G. Marshall and Bradford Dillman in the story of an Army troop fighting the Germans for control of a bridge near the end of the fight in what turns out to be one of the most prized pieces to capture in Germany. This film was just another basic WWII movie that critics dismissed but was a mild hit at the box office.
CASTLE KEEP (Columbia; Director – Sydney Pollack) Yet another WWII movie is best remembered as one of director Pollack’s earlier efforts. Here a troop of GI’s take over a castle where unexpected adventures take place all over the castle. This oddball film stars Burt Lancaster, Peter Falk, Patrick O’Neal, Scott Wilson and Bruce Dern. The film is better remembered today then it was then and was a box office flop.
DADDY’S GONE-A-HUNTING (Warner Bros; Director – Mark Robson) You may have never heard of this film but such hits as Play Misty For Me; Fatal Attraction and the current Obsessed owe more then a little to this story of an unhinged man who begins to stalk the woman whom he impregnated and aborted the fetus years before. The film has some interesting ideas that lead to a major let down of a pay off and is benefited by its mostly unknown cast in the leads. Critics knocked the film several pegs down but audiences made it a small hit.
HOOK, LINE AND SINKER (Columbia Pictures; Director – George Marshall) The annual Jerry Lewis summer comedy found our hero being told he is dying by his doctor and good friend (Peter Lawford). With the help of his sexy wife Anne Francis and family, Lewis goes on a spending spree as he lives life to the fullest only to find out he is not really dying and it was all a mistake. This was a terrific idea for what could have been an ideal black comedy but Lewis yucks it up too much for that and it turns out to be one of his weaker efforts. This film is best known as being part of a double feature with the X-rated classic Deep Throat which, when Lewis saw this marquee at a movie theater decided to quit making movies – which he did for seven years. Critics were not kind to this film much like to most of his movies but the film also failed to yield Lewis-like numbers at the box office.
IF… (Paramount Pictures; Director – Lindsay Anderson) A dark look at British schools for boys stars a young Malcolm McDowell as one of three students returning to school and the persecution they endure there. This was an art film that has become a cult classic through the years but was overlooked by the public despite some strong critical reaction.
LAST SUMMER (Allied Artists; Director – Frank Perry) The sleeper hit of the summer was this tale of adolescent love and lust during one summer. Three friends, two guys and a girl form a circle that is infiltrated by a heavy set nerdy girl (played by Best Supporting Actress nominee Catherine Burns in her film debut) and the three devise plans to get her out of their circle which leads to things unexpected, dramatic and tragic for all of them. The film was well received by critics and turned into an unexpected hit.
THE LOVE BUG (Walt Disney Productions; Director – Robert Stevenson) Whether it was a distinct lack of kids films or the lack of entertaining, well written kids films, Walt Disney devised a marvelous film for the whole family featuring Herbie, a Volkswagen that has a mind of its own and drove it to one of the most successful films of 1969 and in Disney’s history. Dean Jones stars as a down on his luck race car driver who finds Herbie, or Herbie finds him, and soon his luck changes for the better. Buddy Hackett co-stars as his mechanic and Michele Lee plays the love interest. The film received decent reviews but the public went crazy for it as it eventually earned $23 million and was the second highest grossing film of the year. Oddly, despite the fact that three more movies would follow in the next decade, it was almost five years before the first sequel would come out, Herbie Rides Again.
THE LOVE GOD? (Universal Pictures; Director – Nat Hiken) One of the most unusual films you may ever see was this attempt by Don Knotts to break out of his goofy characterizations and become more adult. Here he plays the editor of a magazine that is soon going to turn into the next Playboy with Knotts becoming the next Hefner. The film has a wide array of beautiful women and adult situations but the film ends up failing because too much of the old Knotts slipping through his characterization. A better director might have made a more interesting film instead of the interesting failure Nat Hiken made. The film was a critical and box office failure.
MACKENNA’S GOLD (Columbia; Director – J.Lee Thompson) Guns of Navarone director Thompson delivers a fairly enjoyable western starring Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif in the tale of gold prospectors and how the continued drive for fortune takes its toll on a group dedicated to finding the title stash. The film features some gritty action and beautiful photography and ends up ultimately satisfying if not overly memorable. Critical reaction was mixed and the film did disappointing business.
ME, NATALIE (National General Pictures; Director – Fred Coe) One of the biggest bombs of the summer (and year) was this comedy/drama starring Patty Duke as Natalie, a young woman convinced she is ugly and will live a life of loneliness. Her mother constantly tries to convince Natalie she will grow up to be beautiful while her less optimistic father tries to arrange a marriage with a near sighted boy he hopes won’t notice Natalie’s looks. Natalie finds this out and flees to Greenwich Village to start life on her own and searches for love. This long forgotten film is mainly known today as being the screen debut for Al Pacino who has a small and unremarkable role. Critics panned the film and audiences stayed away in droves.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY (United Artists; Director – John Schlesinger) Who could imagine today an adult film (then X-rated) about
sex, friendship and survival that would be one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year would be a summer release in 1969? Then unknown Jon Voight stars as a Texas good ole boy who leaves his dish washing job behind and heads for the bright lights of New York City to become a gigolo. Not long after arriving he realizes that task is going to be more difficult to attain then he first thought and is soon out of money. Along comes the near homeless con artist Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who first cons him and then becomes his best friend as the two look for any way to earn a dollar. This beautifully acted, written and directed film is clearly years ahead of its time and its X-rating only reminds of the controversy the film stirred up in 1969. Critics raved and audiences couldn’t get enough as the box office total was just over $20 million making it the third highest grossing film of 1969. Early the next year Cowboy became the first X-rated film to be nominated for Best Picture and would then become the only X-rated film to date to win the Best Picture award. Overall the film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won 3 (Picture, Director, Screenplay). The four other nominations were for Editing, Best Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles) and two Best Actor nods for Voight and Hoffman.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Paramount; Director – Sergio Leone) After having made the Clint Eastwood spaghetti western trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars; For A Few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), director Leone turned his focus to an epic western about good guys and bad guys. Henry Fonda was cast against type as a mad killer who, in the film’s first act kills a child. Charles Bronson plays “Harmonica,” the man hunting Frank’s gang. Jason Robards is a gunfighter who takes up the cause of a woman (the stunning Claudia Cardinale) whose husband and children were killed by Fonda. That is just the basic set up to an elegant, masterful epic film that opens with a wonderful scene of three men waiting on a train at the station without a single word of dialogue heard in the film’s first fifteen minutes. Sadly this epic was cut before its release by 30 minutes against Leone’s wishes. The un-cut film played to packed houses over Europe for years but the film flopped here both critically and financially. Today it is considered by many to be one of the greatest westerns ever made.
PARANOIA (Director – Umberto Lenzi) This Italian made thriller was released throughout the world under the title of Orgasmo but had to be changed for the uptight American public to make it sound more like a mystery then the adult thriller it is. Carroll Baker stars as a woman staying at a villa who is soon visited by a man and his sister. Before long Baker is bedding both of them and soon the two of them start to drive her crazy as they blackmail her. Or do they? When all is said and done this is not a bad little thriller that seems to have been forgotten over the years much like its sexy star. The film was released as more of a drive-in movie release so it made a small amount in a few short weeks and then disappeared.
POPI (United Artists; Director – Arthur Hiller) This is a sweet, sensitive comedy/drama starring Alan Arkin as a Puerto Rican single parent who constantly worries for the safety of his two young sons. One day he realizes that Cuban immigrants are living better lives so he devices a plan to make his sons look like immigrants so they can have a better life. Rita Moreno co-stars in this tender film which, sadly, flopped at the box office despite some solid reviews.
THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (Director – Robert Altman) Robert Altman’s long neglected thriller is the film he made just before becoming a superstar director with MASH. Sandy Dennis plays a spinster of a woman who spots a young mute man near her home in the park and invites him to her home to live and eventually ends up imprisoning him. She then manages to take care of his every need including bringing him the services of a prostitute. Altman’s subtle but brilliant film showcases his talents from the start though the film may have been too much ahead of its time. The film received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
TRUE GRIT (Paramount; Director – Henry Hathaway) John Wayne won his only Academy Award as a drunken U.S. Marshall who aids a Texas Ranger and a young woman in the hunt for a man who killed the woman’s father. The chase will eventually take them into the dangerous Indian territories where their very lives will be at constant risk. This was a likeable, audience friendly picture that reminded the country that the Duke could still have fun and be a box office draw. The film would receive wildly mixed reviews but was a box office smash earning over $14 million. Besides Best Actor the film would receive another nomination for Best Song.
THE WILD BUNCH (Warner Bros; Director – Sam Peckinpah) Another seemingly odd choice for a summer movie release was this now classic Western that would change the movie world forever with its depictions of brutal violence. Director Peckinpah refused to back down on his promise to show it the way it really was despite heat coming from the studio heads (who would eventually cut several minutes out – these minutes were restored in the 1990’s) and depicted many of the deaths with violence and in slow motion. The film tells of a gang of outlaws in 1913 trying to keep up with the modern times they find themselves enveloped in. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jamie Sanchez and Bo Hopkins played the bunch while Robert Ryan plays an ex-member of the bunch trying to hunt down Holden in exchange for freedom. The film was quite powerful for its time and though it may be tamer these days the film’s editing and tremendous final shootout still rank among the best. The film was nominated for its Screenplay and Score and sharply divided critics with some calling it “repulsive” and “sickening” while others, including Roger Ebert, calling it a “masterpiece.” In the end the film was not a box office hit though it gained clout through the years and is now recognized as the masterpiece some like Ebert saw 40 years ago.
WINNING (Universal; Director – James Goldstone) Paul Newman began a steady streak of box office flops for the next four years with this soap opera-ish tale of a race car driver who dreams of winning the Indy 500, even at the cost of losing his wife and straining his relationship with his stepson. Joanne Woodward, Robert Wagner and Richard Thomas co-star in a film dripping with bad dialogue and situations hidden by some impressive race footage which doesn’t come close to saving the movie. Critics hated the film and audiences stayed away.