Summer of 1976 was a pivotal year for Hollywood. It was only one year removed from the summer of 1975 when Jaws would turn into the first major summer blockbuster and become the highest grossing movie of all time.
Studio execs stood up and took notice and all of them scurried to find the next blockbuster now that they were aware that audiences would flock to theaters over and over again to see a great movie. With that in mind movie palaces, suburban theaters and drive-ins were inundated with first run product in the summer of 1976. An astounding 35 movies would be released that summer and while none of them proved to be a Jaws (that wouldn’t happen again until the following summer with a small sci-fi adventure called Star Wars) despite studio attempts to scare, excite or laugh you to death. There was also more than one attempt to capitalize on the Jaws success with the first of the Jaws rip-offs.
The summer of 1976 still provided loads of solid entertainment and several box office hits. Oddly the biggest failures at the box office were made by some of Hollywood’s top directors of the time. To show you the true quality, however, only 4 of the films released that summer would go on to be remembered at Academy Award time and none of them were nominated for any of the major awards.
Kids were still shortchanged as only three movies would be released designed for them but two of them would come from the Walt Disney company. Teenagers became the target audience even by such filmmakers as Mel Brooks. Sequels, available in plethoric numbers these days, were also not readily available although there were five of them released. Adults were also treated to fare not for children and they responded in kind making some of these films solid hits.
Studios finally took notice that the audience would dictate what they would and wouldn’t see and they tried to provide those audiences as best they could.
Here are the movies released in the summer of 1976 in alphabetical order. My love for movies was still relatively new that year but I did manage to see several of these films at their time of release. As always I hope this list brings back some fond memories for you or at least gives you the urge to perhaps see a few that you may have missed through the years.
BABY BLUE MARINE (Columbia; Director – John Hancock) 70’s heart throb Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a marine washout who returns home to a town that mistakes him for a war hero. He soon falls in love and lets the town believe the mistake. This is more of a serious version of Preston Sturges’ classic Hail the Conquering Hero only it doesn’t work as well and becomes very soap opera-ish and heavy handed. It was a critical and box office failure.
THE BIG BUS (Paramoount; Director – James Frawley) Pre-dating Airplane! By almost four years was this comedy that can be known as truly the first spoof of disaster movies. The film tells the story of the trials and tribulations of both passengers and crew aboard a gigantic passenger bus that could easily be described as nicer than some people’s homes. The large cast includes Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Sally Kellerman, Larry Hagman and many others. The film, more of a miss than a hit in its comedic targets, was critically dismissed and a failure at the box office.
THE BINGO LONG TRAVELLING ALL-STARS AND MOTOR KINGS (Universal; Director – John Badham) This comedic sports film tells the story of Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams), a Negro League player who, sick of the way he is treated by ownership, begins hand picking other Negro League players and takes the group on the road in the Midwest playing local teams – all in the hopes they can break the color barrier and join the still segregated Major Leagues. James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor co-star in this highly entertaining look at sports and racism through the eyes of lighter material. Critical reaction was strong but the film was a box office disappointment.
BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS (United Artists; Director – Robert Altman) Director Altman’s first effort following his masterpiece Nashville proved that, like The Missouri Breaks which you read about below, audiences did not turn out for Westerns no matter how good the cast unless that cast was headed by Clint Eastwood. Paul Newman headed the huge cast as Buffalo Bill in Altman’s skewering of heroism in the old West much like he skewered heroism in war in MASH. The large cast also featured Burt Lancaster, Harvey Keitel, Joel Grey, Geraldine Chaplin and Shelly Duvall. Like many of Altman’s films this was an ensemble with episodic glances at each of the characters. Critical reaction was sharply divided (some called it a “masterpiece” while others referred to it as a “disaster.”) and the film was a huge flop at the box office.
DRIVE-IN (Columbia; Director – Rod Amateau) Not surprisingly this was another of the so called “Southern comedies” of the era made for the drive-in crowd that tells the tale of a group of people who go to the drive-in one night. Also featured is repeated looks at the main feature called Disaster 76, which just happens to turn out to be much funnier than the main action in the film. There is plenty of shenanigans, necking, drinking and even a couple of idiots plotting to rob the drive-in. It’s a simple but sometimes fun little comedy. Critical reaction was weak but it was a mild hit at the box office.
DRUM (United Artists; Director – Steve Carver) In the spring of 1975 a repulsive film called Mandingo, about the relations between slaves and their owners, became an unexpected hit at the box office. This film is a continuation with the likes of Warren Oates, Pam Grier and Yaphet Kotto wasting their talents in a lurid tale of sex and violence. The film was panned by critics but was a mild hit at the box office.
EAT MY DUST (New World Pictures; Director – Charles B. Griffith) A pure drive-in summer movie starring Ron Howard as a kid who steals the fastest car in town to impress his girlfriend and soon the two of them find themselves being chased by the law (including the sheriff of the town – who happens to be the girl’s father). Roger Corman produced and this is a pure low budget action chase film. It may not be very good but it’s never boring. Critics dismissed it but it was a mild hit at the box office.
FOOD OF THE GODS (American International; Director – Bert I. Gordon) Loosely based on a novel by H.G. Wells, this 70’s B-movie schlock-fest was strictly drive in movie fare. A mysterious “food” comes up from the ground and, thinking it a gift from God, a farm couple begins feeding all their animals this new miracle food. Soon enough the animals grow ten times their size and start terrorizing everyone they can. Fine actors such as Ralph Meeker and Ida Lupino add their considerable talents to this mess with a cast headed by the ever failing Marjoe Gortner (previously seen in Earthquake). This film was so bad that many major critics even reviewed it and those that did were as harsh as expected. The film was not a success at the box office.
FUTUREWORLD (American International; Director – Richard T. Heffron) A B movie, drive-in made sequel to 1973’s Westworld stars Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner as reporters tipped off to the strange goings on at Futureworld but the informant is killed before revealing their information. So the reporters set out to find the truth before their lives come to depend on it. This was a silly, unnecessary sequel that even briefly brings back Yul Brynner (in a ridiculous cameo) from the first film. Critics dismissed the film and it was a box office flop.
GATOR (United Artists; Director – Burt Reynolds) 70’s superstar Reynolds made his directorial debut in this sequel to White Lightning picking up with Gator being released from prison and returning to his father and daughter but soon getting a visit from the Feds who blackmail Gator into helping catch a corrupt politician. This was a typical Southern good ole boy action film with plenty of chases and Reynolds’ winning charm and personality all over the picture. Critics were not kind to the film but it was a mild hit at the box office.
THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (American International; Director – Don Taylor) Coming on the heels of Blazing Saddles two years earlier was this low brow comedic western about a crooked politician who must deal with members of his ex-gang that he has screwed out of rightful shares of gold. The gang decides to hatch a plan to get the gold back from the politician. A good cast is headed by Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed, Robert Culp and Strother Martin but the script is thin on story and thinner on laughs. The film was a critical and box office flop.
GRIZZLY (Film Ventures; Director – William Girdler) The first of the Jaws rip-offs was this low budget thriller about a national park being terrorized by a giant grizzly bear. Christopher George stars as the park ranger (essentially the Roy Scheider role), Richard Jaekal as the bear hunter (the Robert Shaw role) and Andrew Prine as the helicopter pilot (the Richard Dreyfuss role) and the story also follows Jaws as it revolves around the political wrangling to keep the park open by its greedy owners. The film was terribly silly, poorly directed (you never get a true sense of the bear’s height due to shoddy camera angles) and bad acting save for Jaekal. The film is filled with gore that stretched the PG rating to the limit and its scares were cheap and unfulfilling. Not surprisingly the film was trashed unanimously by critics but the film was a big box office hit.
THE GUMBALL RALLY (Warner Bros.; Director – Chuck Bail) Michael Sarrazin stars in this drive-in summer movie about a multi-car coast to coast race that would, no doubt, go on to inspire the 1981 Burt Reynolds hit The Cannonball Run. This film is more of the same with plenty of chases and action – a typical drive-in movie of the era. The film was both a critical and box office flop.
GUS (Walt Disney; Director – Vincent McEveety) One of the Disney live action offerings that summer was this pleasant comedy about a struggling football team that recruits a young man and his mule from Yugoslavia because the mule is capable of kicking 100 yard field goals. Ed Asner, Tim Conway, Don Knotts and Gary Grimes star in this entertaining family film that was a solid hit making over $10 million. As expected critical reaction was mostly negative.
J.D.’S REVENGE (American International; Director – Arthur Marks) One of the most popular of the blaxploitation films of the decade was this horror film starring Glynn Turman (so sweet as Preach in the previous year’s hit Cooley High) as a man whose body is taken over by the spirit of a hustler killed 30 years earlier who is back to seek revenge on those who crossed him. Lou Gossett co-stars in this film which is silly and not very scary but did further showcase Turman’s talent. The film received mostly negative reviews but was a solid box office hit.
LIFEGUARD (Paramount; Director – Daniel Petrie) Sam Elliot stars in this slice of life character study about a man in his 30’s who is wasting his life away working at the local beach as a lifeguard, sleeping with younger women and generally doing nothing. He re-evaluates everything when he runs into an ex-girlfriend and her ten year old son and realizes perhaps he does need to change his life and lifestyle and do something more important with his life. Anne Archer and Kathleen Quinlan co-star in early roles in their careers but make strong impressions. This is a well done movie that got overlooked amongst the glut of other films that summer. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was not a hit.
LOGAN’S RUN (MGM; Director – Michael Anderson) Michael York stars as Logan, a sandman in the future where society deems that everyone will die at the age of 30. Reproduction is done not through love but through lust. There are no marriages or partners. If you choose to run when you are about to turn 30 you are considered a criminal and hunted by the sandmen. As the movie opens Logan is about to turn 30 and decides to run. This science fiction adventure is buoyed by a terrific musical score but its visual effects (considered tremendous in the day) seem more than a little dated. Still this is a watchable adventure film. Critical reaction was mixed (Roger Ebert gave it three stars while Gene Siskel gave it Zero stars and called it, “the worst major motion picture in seven years of film reviewing) and while the film made over $9 million at the box office, its budget was just under $9 million. The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Visual Effects, Cinematography and Art Direction. It would win for its effects.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (Cinema 5; Director – Nicholas Roeg) Rocker David Bowie made his starring fictional film debut in this strange and twisted odyssey from the ever strange and twisted director, Nicolas Roeg, starring as an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth in search of a way to transport water back to his planet that is going through an incredible drought. He soon meets a woman (Candy Clark) who takes him in but soon he becomes hopelessly addicted to alcohol and television. The film received a mixed critical response and while it wasn’t a huge box office hit at the time, the film has grown into a cult classic through the years. Earlier this year it received a limited re-release to celebrate its 35th anniversary which included an additional ten minutes of footage never before seen.
MIDWAY (Universal; Director – Jack Smight) One of the biggest hits of the summer was this recreation of the battle that was the turning point in World War II. The film involves us in the planning from the Japanese side headed by Admiral Yamamoto (Toshiro Minufe) and the defense from the American side headed by Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda). Unfortunately the film is also saddled with a silly love story featuring the son of the film’s hero (Charlton Heston), who happens to be in love with a Japanese woman. The film gets marred down in this sub-plot as does its overuse of stock footage for the war scenes, cheapening the effect greatly. Another gimmick added to the fray was the inclusion of Sensurround, no doubt added to bolster box office sales as it did with Earthquake two years earlier. What the film does have going for it is a terrific all-star cast also featuring James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson and Robert Wagner. Critics were almost unanimous in their dislike for the film but audiences flocked to see it and it grossed over $21 million.
THE MISSOURI BREAKS (United Artists; Director – Arthur Penn) Perhaps the most anticipated film of the summer became notorious for its failure to attract an audience. From the director of Bonnie and Clyde the film starred Marlon Brando in his first movie since Last Tango in Paris, and Jack Nicholson in his first role since winning the Academy Award for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The film, a moody Western about an evil land baron and cattle rustler who lock horns in what will become a fight for to the death. The film received mostly negative reviews and was a flop at the box office.
MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED (20th Century Fox; Director – Peter Yates) This entertaining black comedy tells the tale of a group of paramedics and their adventures on and off the job. Bullitt director Yates keeps the film lively with crisp action and chase scenes with plenty of doses of humor thrown in. The film is shockingly violent and dramatic at times but the mixture is more than satisfying. Bill Cosby as Mother, the leader of the paramedics, delivers one of his very best performances. Raquel Welch as Jugs is as wooden as ever but when you’re playing a character named Jugs your acting ability isn’t exactly what is being scrutinized. On that level Welch is a success. And in an early role as Speed, Harvey Keitel gives some level headedness to the crazy antics going on. It’s a most enjoyable film. The critical reaction was mixed and the film was a mild hit at the box office.
MURDER BY DEATH (Columbia; Director – Robert Moore) Neil Simon’s original screenplay tells of a weekend getaway for the greatest sleuths in the world who will be gathering at millionaire Lionel Twain’s house (played by author Truman Capote) to solve a murder for the prize of one million dollars. The sleuths (all based on famous fictional detectives) are played by the likes of David Niven, Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, James Coco and Elsa Lanchester. They are supported by Maggie Smith, Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker and Alec Guiness (hilarious as a blind butler). The film is funny but doesn’t hit all of its targets, but hits many of them. Critical reaction was mixed but it was a huge box office hit making over $19 million.
OBSESSION (Columbia; Director – Brian DePalma) Director DePalma returns to Hitchcock territory (following 1973’s Sisters) with this suspenseful mystery starring Cliff Robertson as a New Orleans businessman in the 1950’s whose wife and daughter are kidnapped for ransom – leading to tragic results. Twenty years later the man returns to the place he most loved being with his wife and finds a woman that looks just like her. Soon he becomes obsessed with turning her into the wife he lost two decades earlier. This is an eerie and sometimes well thought out thriller that, sadly, doesn’t hold up in its final act – a real shame considering how strong the first two-thirds of the movie is. The film’s critical reception was mixed but the film was a solid hit making $4.5 million on a budget of just over $1 million. Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann created his final original score for this movie and it would receive the film’s only Academy Award nomination.
ODE TO BILLY JOE (Warner Bros,; Director – Max Baer, Jr.) Perhaps the surprise hit of the summer was this old fashioned story of teenage love in a small southern town, based on the then popular song by Bobbie Gentry, about a young man who threw himself off the Tallahatchie Bridge. The film explores why and the events leading up to that moment. Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Conner star as the love struck couple. Critical response on the film was mixed but it became a surprising hit at the box office grossing over $14 million.
THE OMEN (20th Century Fox; Director – Richard Donner) This slick thriller was originally thought to simply be an Exorcist rip-off, or at least a clone, but benefited from good performances by a strong cast. Gregory Peck, who was badly in need of a hit, played the U.S. Ambassador in England who, as the film opens, is celebrating the birth of his son to wife Lee Remick. Before long it becomes clear that their son, Damien, is a spawn of the devil. David Warner, Leo McKern and Billie Whitelaw offered strong support in this chiller that was met with mixed reviews but was a huge box office hit making $28.5 million. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Song and Best Score, the latter winning the only award that great composer Jerry Goldsmith would win in his career.
THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (Warner Bros,; Director – Clint Eastwood) Clint Eastwood’s final Western of the decade (and last for almost a decade) was also one of his most popular films starring in the title role as a peaceful farmer and family man who is driven to revenge to avenge the deaths of his family. This was pure Clint Eastwood escapism put into the setting of a Western and his fans ate it up. Critical reaction was mixed but the film made nearly $16 million at the box office. The film’s musical score was nominated for an Academy Award.
THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE (MGM; Director – Irvin Kershner) Richard Harris continues in his role as Horse, the Englishman who returns to the American West to save his adopted Indian tribe from extinction. This was an overlong but sometimes fascinating look at tribal life, unfortunately not the type of film to show during the summer season. Critical reaction was mixed but the film was not successful at the box office.
THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (Avco Embassy; Director – Lewis John Carlino) An odd film to open in summer was this adult and erotic drama about a woman whose husband dies, leaving her to raise a teenage son. The son has become obsessed with watching his mother through a peep hole and has joined a gang involving a sadistic group of teenagers. The mother begins a sexual relationship with a sailor (Kris Kristofferson) and soon the two are in love and the teenage son is working with his gang on a plan to get rid of the sailor. This was a very peculiar film that was very strong and unusual and definitely not one for the kids. Critical reaction was mixed and it was a minor box office hit.
SILENT MOVIE (20th Century Fox; Director – Mel Brooks) Director Brooks was at the peak of his popularity having scored two years earlier with both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and he followed those up with a tribute to the silent film. Brooks stars alongside Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise as three friends trying to save a movie studio from being taken over by a greedy conglomerate. The plan? Make a silent movie in present time. The film is filled with wall to wall sight gags in scene after scene and Brooks populates his film with loads of sound effects, a loud musical score and several cameos from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time. Oh, yes, there is also one word spoken as well. Critical reaction was mostly favorable and the film was another solid hit for Brooks as it earned over $21 million.
STAY HUNGRY (United Artists; Director – Bob Rafelson) One of the most underrated and overlooked terrific films from the decade was this comedy/drama about a young millionaire (Jeff Bridges) who buys a gym that the syndicate needs so they can rebuild an entire city street. The kid makes many friends and falls in love with an odd young woman (Sally Field) and soon becomes close with many body builders preparing for the Mr. Universe contest. This quirky but very entertaining movie is much better than it sounds and is well written, directed and acted. It’s funny, shocking and sad all at once and one of the very best films of the year. Critical reaction was strong but the film was a huge flop at the box office.
ST. IVES (Warner Bros; Director – J. Lee Thompson) The Charles Bronson movie of the summer was this action/mystery with Bronson as a crime author hired by a thief to recover the plans for his next heist. Jacqueline Bisset, John Houseman and Maximillian Schell co-star in this dumb film with little mystery or excitement. The film was dismissed by critics and was a flop at the box office.
SWASHBUCKLER (Universal; Director – James Goldstone) Universal attempted to do the near impossible, revive the pirate movie who last saw its day back in the 1940’s. After this film came out it is likely the pirate film will stay buried another 40 years. A solid cast is headed by Robert Shaw, Genevieve Bujold, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle and Beau Bridges in this comedic adventure film that fails to catch fire and interest its audience. The film was a critical and financial flop.
THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT PART 2 (MGM; Director – Gene Kelly) A follow up to the successful documentary from 1974 showcasing classic musical numbers in MGM films, this documentary was not as widely released despite garnering greater critical acclaim than its predecessor. Because of that the film, considered a mild hit, was not as successful as the original. Still, for movie lovers, this is a must see.
TREASURE OF MATECUMBE (Walt Disney; Director – Vincent McEveety) The second Walt Disney offering of the summer was this adventure film about a boy and a travelling companion hunting for good. This family fare starred Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov and Vic Morrow and, like Gus earlier that summer was a solid hit despite mostly negative critical response.
WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (Paramount; Director – Michael Winner) This non-Disney film stars Bruce Dern (in a rare nice guy role) and Madeline Kahn about a woman trying to break into movies and the dog, who has followed her, that is the one who becomes famous. This was a silly little family film that featured some Hollywood in-jokes (and cameos) from older stars but critics were cold to the film and it was not a hit at the box office.