The Best Classic Hits of Summer Cinema

SUMMER RENTAL, John Candy, 1985.
Everett Collection

Summertime’s the setting for a bumper crop of memorable movies, from frothy beachy romances to poignant coming-of-age dramas to toss-the-popcorn summer scares. Here’s our look back at summer cinema’s greatest hits, with a special spotlight on Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, the undisputed king and queen of the beach party!

Summer Vacation

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION, Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Dana Barron, 1983

Everett Collection

Remember piling into the family vehicle for a summer vacation with the whole brood? You all got a little closer than you wanted to — even if you had a big ol’ station wagon, like the Family Truckster in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), one of the most classic summer vacation flicks of all time. The Griswolds take a wacky cross-country trip to visit Walley World, only to find out that it’s closed for two weeks. Similar mishaps have always been a theme in summer vacation movies, from 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (starring James Stewart) to ’80s flicks Summer Rental (1985) and 1988’s The Great Outdoors. All involve summer getaways that should for all intents and purposes be relaxing and fun, but instead are plagued by a series of hilarious problems. 

DIRTY DANCING, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, 1987,

Artisan Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection

For the nostalgia factor, Dirty Dancing tops them all. Released in 1987, but set in 1963, the film appeals to different generations for different reasons. It stars Jennifer Grey as Baby and Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle — she’s a wealthy kid vacationing with her family for the summer in a Catskills resort, and he’s the tough (yet somehow sensitive) dance instructor her daddy does not approve of. But as that daddy soon learns, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” 

Summer Camp

MEATBALLS, from left: Cindy Girling, Margot Pinvidic, Bill Murray, Sarah Torgov (top), Norma Dell'Agnese, Kristine DeBell, 1979,

Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

What better incubator for teenage angst than sleepaway camp? No parents to force good decisions. Your bunkmates are often strangers. Mean ones. And yeah, that cute camper over there by the fire ring probably doesn’t love you back. Our favorite summer-camp movie, 1979’s Meatballs, featured the endearing combo of Bill Murray’s loopy counselor Tripper and Chris Makepeace’s sweetly awkward North Star camper Rudy, who teach each other to be winners. Bonus points to Meatballs for giving movie-quote obsessives such gems as “It just doesn’t matter!” and the counselors’ theme song (“We’re gonna smoke and drink and fool around”).

A year later, and at the height of her Tiger Beat, teen-dream fame, Kristy McNichol costarred with Tatum O’Neal, Matt Dillon, Armand Assante and a then un-kown Cynthia Nixon in 1980’s camp-meets-coming-of-age film Little Darlings, which offered a surprisingly moving and honest exploration of the pressure to grow up too fast. But for lots of film buffs, cinema summer camp will always mean 1961’s The Parent Trap, which starred Hayley Mills as twin sisters — one a stuffy Bostonian, the other a freewheeling Californian — who meet for the first time at summer camp and discover their connection, and plot to reunite their long-divorced folks (Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara). 

Summer Lovin’

A SUMMER PLACE, from left: Troy Donahue, Sandra Dee, 1959

Everett Collection

In 1957, Summer Love — the sequel to the previous year’s Rock, Pretty Baby — blended music, love triangles and sleepaway camp into swell summer fun. 1959’s A Summer Place told the tale of long-ago lovers (Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire) who reunite at the resort where they met and battle rekindled feelings and the budding romance of their own lusty teens (Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee). That same year, Dee also starred as the title character in Gidget, which some credit for launching the beach-movie phenomenon, and which centered on the spunky teen’s love of surfing and a boy named Moondoggie (James Darren). And almost everyone had them a blast while watching 1978’s Grease, the delicious Alan Carr/Robert Stigwood musical that starred pop sweetheart Olivia Newton-John and a post-Saturday Night Fever John Travolta as star-crossed summer lovers from opposite sides of the tracks — and the world. 

GREASE, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, 1978.

Paramount Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

But not every beloved cinematic romance has a happy ending. The Oscar-winning Summer of ’42 (1971) paired newcomer Gary Grimes and famous model Jennifer O’Neill as a naive teen vacationing on Nantucket and the beautiful young soldier’s wife he falls for.

Beachy Keen

The surf-and-sun scene was big in the early 1960s. As the rigid mores of the ’50s eased, the Beach Boys ruled the record stores, and Elvis singing — and swiveling — in his swim trunks on the big screen drove all the girls crazy. Meantime, a new cinematic power couple was packing their beach bags, waxing their surfboards and preparing to make pop-culture history.

BEACH PARTY, from left: Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, 1963

Courtesy Everett Collection

Frankie Avalon was a clean-cut, 22-year-old pop heartthrob and sometimes-actor when he was paired with raven-haired, 20-year-old former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello in a comic bit of American International Pictures summer fluff called Beach Party. The charismatic duo promptly sang, surfed and watusi-ed their way into moviegoers’ hearts, and a movie franchise was born. Frankie and Annette played variations of their Beach Party characters in five more AIP beach films, with Avalon’s role eventually dwindling as he sought meatier roles. But to movie buffs around the globe, they would forever be Frankie and Annette, the Big Kahuna of the beach and his bubbly queen — an iconic duo that almost wasn’t, as Fabian was AIP’s first choice for Avalon’s role, and Funicello’s former boss, Walt Disney, disapproved of her playing a beach babe, clean-cut or otherwise.

BACK TO THE BEACH, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Demian Slade, 1987,

Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1987, Avalon and Funicello reunited — this time as middle-aged marrieds Frankie and Annette — in the beach-movie parody Back to the Beach (a planned sequel fell through), and later embarked on a multi-city musical tour.


Summer Scares

JAWS, running out of water, 1975

Everett Collection

Not every summer blockbuster has to be light and sunny and covered in sand … some are covered in blood! In fact, the first summer blockbuster was 1975’s Jaws, a film that had some of us terrified of the water. Naturally, Jaws led to plenty of campy-yet-scary B-movie parodies, like 1978’s Piranha, which featured smaller flesh-eaters in much smaller bodies of water — the rivers of a summer resort. 

Sea monsters weren’t the only things that scared us — the swimming flicks of the ’70s gave way to slasher flicks in the early ’80s. In Friday the 13th (1980), a group of teenagers tries to reopen a summer camp that the locals believe has a death curse. Spoiler alert: It does! The Burning (1981) won’t just have you scared of the summer bonfire … you might look at your garden shears a little differently, too. And we won’t give away the ending for 1983’s Sleepaway Camp — it’s one of the most shocking twists in horror film history. And yes, these cult classics are creepy and, well, a little bit campy.

Summer's Biggest Movies, Music & TV
Want More?

Summer's Biggest Movies, Music & TV

July 2017

Summer nights at the drive-in, summer love, songs for the beach and tiki time!

Buy This Issue