Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Film Appreciation - Ain't No English Teacher

In this installment of the Film Appreciation series, Cody Hamman talks up the 1987 comedy Summer School.

The stars swirl into place around the Paramount logo, "Happy" by Oingo Boingo kicks in, and one of my favorite comedies begins.

Directed by comedy legend Carl Reiner, Summer School starts off on the last day of school, with students turning in their textbooks and looking forward to summer break. Several of them are given slips of paper telling them to report to a classroom, where they are informed by Vice Principal Phil Gills that they've flunked their English Skills test and will have to take Remedial English courses over the summer. Normally this class would be taught by Mr. Dearadorian (Reiner himself in a cameo), but he skips out on it after winning $50,000 on a scratch-off ticket.

Several teachers escape Gills' attempt to give them the job, leaving physical education teacher Freddy Shoop as his last resort. Shoop is about to head off to Hawaii with his girlfriend Kim, but is blackmailed into taking the job when Gills threatens to withhold his recommendation for Shoop's tenure otherwise. Kim goes to Hawaii alone and Shoop is stuck at summer school.

Played by Mark Harmon, Shoop is likeable and easy-going, spending most of his time hanging out on the beach with his dog Wondermutt.

He "ain't no English teacher" and doesn't belong in a classroom. He doesn't even grade his phys ed students, he lets them evaluate themselves. He reports to summer school and finds his classroom is next to one taught by Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley). Shoop falls for Robin immediately and spends most of the film trying to get her to go on a date with him. Problem is, she's dating Gills.

The kids who make up Shoop's English class are a fun, entertaining bunch: surfer girl Pam, football player Kevin, pregnant Rhonda, nocturnal Larry, sassy Denise, Alan Eakian (whose six siblings are all straight-A students), and the team of horror fans Chainsaw and Dave. Italian exchange student Anna-Maria joins the class to brush up on her English and Chainsaw and Dave quickly take her under their amorous wings. There's also a student who asks to use the bathroom break on the first day and doesn't show up again until the test at the end of summer, and around a dozen other nameless ones who gradually disappear between the first day and the final test.

Shoop's first day teaching doesn't go well, only getting as far as roll call and Shoop accidentally setting off a swearfest. (One anonymous student who's around a bit more than the rest who disappear gets his only two lines there.) For a while, the class isn't taken seriously at all, with Shoop content to take the kids on field trips with forged permission slips. It takes Gills threatening his job again to get Shoop to embrace the role of teacher, with Robin giving him advice. The remaining kids agree to show up, pay attention, maybe even do some homework, but they aren't content to just get literacy out of it. They need Shoop to grant them each one wish, a favor.

The rest of the film covers these favors and the advancement of the characters as Shoop becomes a better teacher and the kids become better students. (Of course, things develop between Shoop and Robin along the way, too.) They all grow to have a good rapport and gain respect for each other, with Shoop doing all he can to help them out and defending them from Gills and other troubles. When things go wrong, the kids stand up for him as well, even scaring off a substitute teacher with an awesome display of special effects gore in one of my favorite scenes.

Summer School was one of the movies that was in constant rotation throughout my childhood, whether being rented on VHS or watched during its TV broadcasts, I never got tired of it. I tried to record it off of TV, but the VCR crapped out in the middle of the amusement park field trip. I finally got my own copy of the VHS in early 1994, with my grandmother buying it for me from a local video store that was closing. Once I could watch it at any time, I really became obsessed. I tried to get my friends to watch it, even took the VHS to a sleepover, but I could never get it to happen. We were ten and eleven year olds in fourth grade, my friends weren't even allowed to watch PG-13 movies. I told them that there wasn't any really objectionable material in it, but no dice. Thinking about it now, I'm sure the swearfest would've led to the VCR being shut off even if I had gotten a parent to start the film.

During that time, I was writing a teen comedy of my own. I would draw up covers for my stories back then, and on the cover of this one I added a blurb from Siskel & Ebert - "Better than Summer School!" The highest compliment a teen comedy could possibly get. (I later came to find out that Siskel & Ebert didn't even like Summer School, but whatever.)

The standouts of the film are Chainsaw and Dave. These guys were always heroes of mine, characters as obsessed with the horror genre as I was. Their favorite film is the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of my favorites as well, and they show the kind of gleeful enthusiasm for horror that I can totally relate to. Chainsaw has a collection of masks and his bedroom walls are covered with horror posters - Zombie, Friday the 13th, The Hills Have Eyes, Jaws 2 and 3D. One of the favors Chainsaw and Dave ask from Shoop is an in-class screening of a beautifully scratched-up print of Texas Chain Saw, after which Shoop's homework assignment for the class is to write a review of the film. The greatest homework assignment imaginable. Chainsaw is played by Dean Cameron, who I always loved seeing in movies after this - Ski School, Men at Work, Miracle Beach, Sleep with Me - and still wish I'd see in movies more often.

The film is even tied to my perception of time. When I got the VHS, it was seven years after it was released in theatres. Now we're coming up on its twenty-fourth anniversary. This is how thinking of Summer School makes me feel old.

There's a special "Life's a Beach" edition of the movie on DVD that includes a couple featurettes and a commentary by Carl Reiner and Mark Harmon. For $1.50, you can also download a commentary featuring Dean Cameron, Patrick Labyorteaux (Kevin), and Richard Horvitz (Eakian) from OddComment.com. It's a really good commentary and features some interesting facts, like that the film was originally going to be directed by Amy Heckerling, with John Candy as Freddy Shoop.

Things turned out just right for the film, though. It's funny, the characters are entertaining and good people to spend time with, and it's still a lot of fun to rewatch after many viewings over the years. Plus the soundtrack is cool.

As Chainsaw would say, "Hasta Lego, Placido Domingo."

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