LOS ANGELES — Duh-dum ... duh-dum ... Movie audiences didn’t know what hit them — or bit them — 35 years ago this week as “Jaws” became the cinematic sensation of 1975. The lazy, hazy days of summer and summer movies would never be quite the same.
On June 20, 1975, Universal released the first true summer blockbuster, “Jaws,” to 466 theaters across the country. Wide distribution of a film was practically unheard of in those days. Usually, a studio would release a film piecemeal, with limited engagements in the big cities before finally entering neighborhood theaters.
And, for better or worse, because of the phenomenal success of “Jaws” — it became the first film to surge past the $100 million box-office mark — movies became massive events. And studios began to make summer blockbusters to capture the attention of a mass audience. It’s hard to imagine now, but before “Jaws,” summertime was considered the box-office dog days.
The shark tale of “Jaws” first captured the world’s attention in 1974, when Peter Benchley’s novel introduced us to a great white shark dining on vacationers at New England’s Amity Island (a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard) and the three men attempting to destroy the huge, sleek beast. Benchley’s fish story spent 44 weeks on the bestseller list. That same year, Benchley and Carl Gottlieb were tapped by Universal to adapt the book, and the directing job went to young Steven Spielberg, who had caught the attention of the industry in 1971 with the ABC movie thriller “Duel” and then made his feature-film debut in 1974 with “The Sugarland Express.”
Throughout the fall of ‘74, there were grim dispatches from the set. The production in Martha’s Vineyard was beset by weather issues and a balky mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce that threatened to sink the movie’s credibility.
Still, the film thrived. To hide the mechanical shark, Spielberg and company took the approach of “what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see” and used music, point-of-view tricks and even floating barrels to suggest the shark without giving a good look at the ocean predator. Thanks to Verna Field’s seamless Oscar-winning editing, the result was movie magic. Then there were the performances from Robert Shaw, as the tough-as-nails shark hunter, Captain Quint; Richard Dreyfuss (who thought the film would be “the turkey of the year”) as the marine biologist Matt Hooper, and Roy Scheider of “The French Connection” fame as the “everyman” of the thriller, Sheriff Martin Brody.
I was at the very first public showing of “Jaws” at a long-demolished movie palace, The Cooper, in Denver. And I can recall everyone in that matinee crowd screaming — including myself — at the opening moments when the young woman is attacked by the shark while skinny-dipping in the ocean. I let out another shriek when the shark reared its massive body out of the sea while Brody, Quint and Hooper are on the orca, causing Brody to intone, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Perhaps the finest moment in the film was the quietest, when Quint gravely recalled his time aboard the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk July 30, 1945, by a Japanese torpedo in the Pacific. The survivors who hadn’t been eaten by sharks weren’t rescued until Aug. 2. Though there have been conflicting reports on who wrote that speech, it is generally credited that Shaw, who was also a playwright and novelist, penned most of it.
“Jaws” also changed the career of composer John Williams, who won an Oscar for his unnerving and unforgettable score. Is there any other piece of music that is so recognizable with just the first two notes?
It was just the beginning of a beautiful collaboration between Spielberg and Williams, which still continues.
But perhaps the height of “Jaws”-mania took place when I started graduate film school at the University of Southern California in the fall of 1976. My “on-campus” housing was at an old apartment complex, the Regal Trojan, which was actually off-campus on Adams Street. As I entered the apartment with my parents, I checked out the bathroom. A “Jaws” fan had to have lived there before; the toilet lid had a decal of the “Jaws” shark on the top and a decal of the ocean was on the seat itself! And there it stayed for the 18 months I lived at the Regal Trojan.