Looking Back at the Extraordinary Movie Summer of 1962

The “Great Pandemic” of 2020-2022 has wreaked havoc on movie theaters and altered movie industry distribution patterns, perhaps irrevocably. Despite the seeming rejuvenation of moviegoing with a handful of box office successes in the summer of 2022, inflated ticket prices and the paucity of films available at cinemas resulted in audience attendance for the crucial summer season declining nearly 40% compared to the pre-pandemic summer of 2019.

1962 seems a halcyon era comparatively, but movie theater operators of that day had challenges typical in that period. As the summer of 1962 opened for business after a steady spring at the box office, exhibitors were concerned with competition from backyard barbecues, swimming pools, beach excursions, and the great American pastime, baseball, amidst family vacations (little did they know the Cuban Missile Crisis and the threat of nuclear war was looming on the October horizon). But the anxious theater owners needn’t have worried about the summer box office. Brisk business propelled grosses to near record levels, and the year’s final take would finish as the best since the greatest grossing year of the studio era, 1946.

Aside from the box-office bounty, the most important aspect of the summertime success was the astonishing array of movies. Unlike the 21st century reliance on superhero spectaculars, fantasy franchises, and sequels accounting for the vast majority of movies in modern cinemas and other viewing platforms, 1962 offered a plethora of releases representing a full range of genres which could be seen only at your local, single-screen movie theater. Whether conventionally indoor or seasonally outdoor at a drive-in (with the “ozoner” venues comprising nearly 25% of the 19,000 total movie screens), among that rich variety were the following select titles, a sampler of the extensive movie fare made available by the studios and independent producers.

Family Fare – Movies aimed directly at the family trade, targeting the nearly forty million school age baby boomers (who were the most frequent moviegoers), were an eclectic mix of adventure, comedy, and fantasy. Youngsters were entertained at Saturday “kiddie matinees” and drive-ins with the likes of Jack the Giant Killer, Tarzan Goes to India, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Zotz!, and Walt Disney’s Big Red, a formulaic boy and dog story that was foolproof at the box office. The Three Stooges in Orbit featured the trio of former vaudeville comics who had been rediscovered on television. The low budget quickie was shot in time for a July release, capitalizing on the historic space flight of U.S. astronaut John Glenn in February 1962. Hardly considered classics, these films exemplify the types of movies parents entrusted their children to see at the era’s “best babysitter,” their neighborhood movie theater.

Attracting Teenagers – For the younger demographic who had outgrown the kiddie menu, offerings included the sword and sandal “muscleman” movies Son of Samson and The Trojan Horse (with champion bodybuilder Steve Reeves); a remake of the ever popular The Phantom of the Opera, Roger Corman’s fourth entry in his well-received cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Tales of Terrorthe Japanese creature feature Mothra, a critically acclaimed (and prophetic) British sci-fi thriller The Day the Earth Caught Fire, the apocalyptic drama Panic in Year Zero! costarring pop star Frankie Avalon, one year away from major “beach party” success, and Kid Galahad, starring the biggest teen pop idol of them all, Elvis Presley, in one of his three hit movie musicals that year.

For All Ages – Major studio productions that appealed to a wider audience included the African adventure-comedy-romance Hatari!, starring perennial audience favorite John Wayne, shot on location with an international cast and crew, directed by Hollywood Golden Age stalwart Howard Hawks, with a best-selling soundtrack by the most popular composer of the era, Henry Mancini. In many ways it epitomized the crossroads between the old and the new in moviemaking that existed in 1962. Other popular lightweight hits featured aging stars of the studio era with support from younger players: Walt Disney’s Bon Voyage (Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Tommy Kirk), Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (James Stewart, Maureen O’Hara, Fabian), The Road to Hong Kong (the last of Bob Hope-Bing Crosby vehicles with new sidekick Joan Collins), and the heavyweight hits The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (the first narrative Cinerama spectacular) and the commercial and critical titan, The Music Man.

Movies for Adults – Hollywood found an audience for romantic “sex” comedies that appealed to adults but still conformed to the restrictions of the creaky, three-decade-old Production Code that safeguarded the nation’s morals. Titles like Boys Night Out, The Notorious Landlady, My Geisha and the gargantuan hit That Touch of Mink featured top contemporary stars (Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and the year’s #1 movie star, Doris Day), along with Golden Age giants Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes, The Counterfeit Traitor, War Hunt (Robert Redford‘s screen debut), Merrill’s Marauders, Ride the High Country, and Lonely are the Brave represented the war  and western genres.. Prominent entries included the political drama Advise and Consent, prestige stage adaptations The Miracle Worker and A Taste of Honey; the thriller Cape Fear (with one of the screen’s all-time villains), and Stanley Kubrick‘s provocative version of Lolita. Also the acclaimed biopic Birdman of Alcatraz, Ernest Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, Two Weeks in Another Town, and August box office smash, The Interns, a melodrama which helped launch a slew of medical shows on television, a medium that would inherit a number of these genres abandoned by Hollywood in the 21st century.

Apex of the Art House – Distribution patterns of the day found initial New York City openings for the avalanche of international films that inundated arthouses in that era, with slow rollouts into the hundreds of specialty theaters nationwide. Foreign-language films and popular British imports could be found playing somewhere in the country all summer long. For example, the spring hits Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, and the Oscar-winning documentary The Sky Above-the Mud Below were still found in the hinterlands while such titles as Boccaccio ’70, Shoot the Piano Player, andWaltz of the Toreadors opened in New York during the summer months.

The Summer Box Office Top Ten  – The variety of genres represented in the summer of ’62’s top-ten grossing hits demonstrate popular acceptance of a wide range of movies, a reality unheard of in the 21st century. Moviegoers were offered a cornucopia of movie fare in 1962 that audiences feasted on, unlike the undernourished patrons of the present era.

1. That Touch of Mink  2. The Music Man  3. Hatari!  4. Bon Voyage  5. Lolita  6. The Interns  7. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm  8. The Miracle Worker  9. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation  10. Advise and Content

Bygone Era – Unfortunately, with changing release patterns and viewing habits, the migration of many types of film to non-theatrical platforms, and limited production, the 21st century has seen a virtual decimation of  specialty theaters and their suppliers. Additionally, a number of commercial multiplexes have not survived the devastating effects of the global pandemic and trends in distribution. Comparatively, the enriched film experience that audiences of all ages and tastes enjoyed in the summer of 1962 can be considered one of the  highlights in moviegoing culture.

This post is a supplement to Appendix A in the acclaimed book, CINEMA ’62: The Greatest Year at the Movies.

Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of 1962!

GET A COPY of CINEMA ’62 –  Special 30% Discount and Free Shipping (within the USA) from Rutgers University Press; simply place the book in the shopping cart and enter the discount promo code (RCINEMA62)    Click the link below 




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