We’ll start with the greatest golf movie ever made, the greatest movie featuring a gopher puppet ever made, and the 34th greatest stick-it-to-the-Man comedy ever made. We’re talking about Caddyshack and it opened today in 1980.
I used to marvel at how Stephen King could crank out 10,000 words a day without breaking a sweat. Turns out, he was loopy on cocaine the whole time, and if you’ve seen his directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive, you can see its effects at work. King adapted his own short story, about the hapless occupants at a truck stop where the rigs outside have come to life, and it’s exactly, precisely as goofy as it sounds (though it did produce a kick-ass AC/DC song). The director is clean and sober now, and even he looks back on it with a mixture of regret and gape-jawed disbelief. It opened today in 1986.
We’ve been getting our 80s on recently, and today is a red letter date for that. We’ll start with the earliest: Trading Places, John Landis’s Wall Street retake on The Prince and the Pauper, remains a doggedly entertaining comedy provided you can accept that its heroes emerge triumphant via insider trading. Buoyed by Dan Aykroyd’s fantastic blue-blood buffoon and Eddie Murphy just hitting his stride as a fast-talking con man, it rides their chemistry all the way to the bank. It doesn’t hurt to have greats like Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy and Denholm Elliott strutting this stuff, or Jamie Lee Curtis definitively breaking out of her scream queen typecasting as a deliciously self-assured leading lady. Trading Places opened 35 years ago today in 1983.
Just one year later, the #1 and #3 movie at the box office both opened on the same day. We doubt that will ever happen again, but what’s doubly interesting is how well both of them held up. At the top of the list, of course is Ghostbusters, another Dan Aykroyd flick that has justly earned its place as a comedy classic. Beyond the way he provides an 80s update to the old fashioned monster comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, director Ivan Reitman actually touches on some reasonably scary conceits — almost Lovecraftian at times — and never sacrifices the core of the scenario for the sake of cheap laughs.
That same day, another film in a similar vein opened, slightly closer to the horror end of the scale than the comedy end, but touching some of the same emotions nonetheless. Joe Dante’s Gremlins not only found a dark heart beneath a façade of Normal Rockwell America, but let us buy into the sheer anachronistic glee of watching it all burn down. Its old-school effects hold up quite well, and it even managed a sequel that people think is pretty awesome too.
And here’s the catcher: a third movie opened that same day in 1984, and while it didn’t make nearly as much money as the other two, and it may never escape the shadow of its iconic predecessor Airplane!, Top Secret! may be the best film the trio of David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams ever produced. So before we sign off, ask yourself: how do we know he’s not Mel Torme?
Frank Langella — who played a pretty mean Dracula himself — summed it up best. “It’s Bela’s cape. The rest of us are just keeping it warm for him.” Horror legend Bela Lugosi starred in the role that defined his career (and to a large extent defined the character) in Tod Browning’s Dracula, which premiered today in 1931.
In other news… it came ten days late, but considering it’s one of the best comedies ever made, we’re gonna let that slide. Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day opened today in 1993, putting Bill Murray’s smarmy weatherman in an endless time loop that forces him to become a better human being.
On a much darker note, the original (and superior) adaptation of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives opened today in 1974. Though overtly satirical in many ways, director Bryan Forbes understood the inherent creepiness of the scenario, in which Katharine Ross’s liberated feminist arrives with her family in a small town where the women seem permanently stuck in Donna Reed mode. As social commentary, it works just fine, but its real power comes as a pro-feminist horror movie.
Chevy Chase movies aren’t exactly the stuff of cinematic legend, but if one focuses on the high points, then it’s hard to ignore National Lampoon’s Vacation, the surprisingly dark comedy about an overbearing father who drags his family on a hellish cross-country road trip in the name of fun. Chase holds it all together with maybe the best performance of his career: playing a man so committed to making the best of a bad time, he just might be going insane. Vacation opened today in 1983.
While we’re on the subject of funnymen, we should also mention The Mask: one of the breakout films that made Jim Carrey (and Cameron Diaz, for that matter) a big star. The two are absolutely on fire in an oddball comic book adaptation based on the Dark Horse line, about a mask that turns whoever wears it into an id-driven Tex Avery cartoon. It opened today in 1994, and if you need a break from traditional superhero movies, we can’t recommend it more.