These failures were, according to Spielberg, the making of the movie, which became more Hitchcockian, (compare the shower scene in Psycho,which also relies on music and inference). Spielberg had to rely on John Williams’ award-winning duh-dah-duh-da duh-dah-duh-dah, because, among other impediments, none of the pneumatic shark models ever entirely graduated from mechanical shark school.
Meanwhile, for us first-time movie exhibitors, the film bombed, failing to fill even a third of our two-thousand-seat main floor, despite the fact that the forties-era air conditioning was actually functioning. This movie had taken watchers of the previous summer by storm, becoming, in its release year, the first movie to exceed a hundred million dollars gross in U.S. film rental history. So why’d it bomb the following year at the St. George, sitting as that palace does, right up the hill from the finest harbor in the North Atlantic?
Why does any movie bomb in one place and not another? Audience, of course. Not for nothin’ was that shark white. White, like its literary predecessor, Moby Dick; but the crew in Melville’s novel (think Ishmael, think Queequeg).would have engaged our audience. Moby's cast of characters is diverse, which can’t be said for Jaws. The wharves of 19th century sea towns, where those characters came from, were about as diverse as a contemporary New York subway car — or the streets of St. George, Staten Island.
Not so “Amity Island” (Martha’s Vineyard, where Jaws was shot). Chrissie Watkins takes her fatal skinny dip there, in a community our mean streets crowd had little knowledge of, or interest in.Even though our patrons craved action, they also craved identity. So it’s a no-brainer that J.D.’s Revenge, about a black law student possessed by the spirit of a thirties‘ mobster seeking retribution, did better numbers for us than Jaws; or that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with its richly-diverse cast of characters, drew twice the ticket sales. Dog Day Afternoon was polyglot in its larger street scenes and overall mean streets feel, which is what our audience was looking for; same can be said for Taxi Driver.
If I had a movie palace to run again (there’s a Quixotic thought!), I’d think hard about who the audience is, and what or who they identify with. At least half our audience came from the ‘hood. There just wasn’t enough diversity available to keep us in business. Spike Lee would come along eventually; Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, his first student film, would play Lincoln Center in 1983, seven years after we’d left the St. George. We did run the previously-mentioned J.D.’s Revenge, a case of demonic possession, with a black/white slant. Horror/thriller movies starring black actors weren’t there yet. J.D. was ahead of its time, as attested by James Evans of Starburst, writing in 2017 on Rotten Tomatoes, “Its appeal is certainly wider than simply a Blaxploitation curio and it transcends any labels to be a great thriller, horror film and social commentary.” Horror involving black alienation does seem to have hit the mainstream recently with Get Out, which is aimed at just plain everybody.
Of course Jaws was a summer movie, the ultimate summer flick for its time, a great fun film, never expected to bear the weight of social commentary. Still, it didn’t speak to at least half our audience, and I wouldn’t be thinking about it in this light at all, if I hadn’t been surveying empty movie seats. The shark, I guess, was, in the eyes of many of our patrons, what privileged people were scared of, far away in the coastal waters off Massachusetts — and in the communal imagination — where white girls skinny-dipped in the moonlight.
- The shark will return to our St. George Theatre tomorrow, Thursday, July 25. Movies aren’t the theater’s stock-in-trade anymore (true of most saved movie palaces), so it’s unlikely the film will sell out and doubly unlikely it’ll do better than it did forty-three years ago; still, I think I’ll go.
- "The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen," Spielberg reflects. See Wikipedia for a well-researched treatment of Jaws, including some of the whys and wherefores of the shark’s malfunctions.
- Social Horror is a well-respected genre. Here, for your edification, is a list of films, including an argument FOR Jaws as a member of the Social Horror genre, whose social subtext, Jeremy Sklar surmises, is our failure as a nation after the fall of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War. This subtext, I believe, works, and no doubt delivered well in the white working-class ‘burbs, just not in the ‘hood.
- For alert readers who are wondering what the third thing I remember about showing Jaws at the St George is, it’s a moment behind the candy case. It was my shift, and the movie had just begun, along with its terrifying midnight swim — which claims with agonizing slowness the life of the swimmer. From the candy stand, you could easily see through the glass into the theater. As the swimmer’s head disappeared below the waterline, I can remember needing, suddenly, to find something below counter level to clean. Whatever it was, it kept me down there till the screaming stopped. Spielberg’s a master.