“On This Day” is a new column, one which we hope to be somewhat of a regular constituent of the ‘hole, that will explore the box-office on a given date in history – usually, 20 or 25 years ago (keeping it nice and round-numbered; no loose change so we don’t weigh down our pockets). It’s always interesting to look back at films that opened on the same week/day/month as current offerings, but more so, enjoyable – we believe, anyway – to revisit, if even in text form, some of the classics from yesteryear. We’re almost providing a service to both the film-fan and the local video library’s ‘classic’ shelf here.
Released 25 years ago this week.
I didn’t love it in the day. I’m not among the many who count it as one of 1987’s best, who helped it become the first million-selling home video or its soundtrack to multi-platinum, and I don’t drop its most quoted line when I see an infant cooing in a corner. In the dance & romance genre, I prefer “Footloose,” the one with that unstoppable, implausible warehouse dance (Seriously Ren, how could you have known that rope was safe?). Even so, there’s something about “Dirty Dancing” that’s worth revisiting. Sorry guys.
Summer of ’63, southeastern New York. Francis “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is the youngest of two daughters on their way to a family getaway in the Catskills. The 17-year-old is a product of optimistic times and a household that espouses equality for all, at least in theory. A contrast to her bubbly, even bubble-headed sister, Baby plans to join the Peace Corps but is guileless in matters of love. She’ll get a crash course over her 3-week vacation. Her family is welcomed with open arms by resort owner Max Kellerman, who is sometimes kind, sometimes downright brash depending on what tax bracket he’s addressing. Baby’s father (Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach) is Kellerman’s physician, however, and the family is handled with golden gloves. Not so appreciated is Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), the resort’s lead dance instructor. Kellerman blasts Johnny and the working class entertainment staff with a warning early on. Keep things profressional with the guests, or else. The Ivy League wait staff are given more leeway.
Baby is restless at first, and with a recreational program that includes charades and wig-fitting who can blame her. She’s saved by a watermelon. When Baby sneaks a peak at what the entertainment staff do after hours, her interest is piqued, and as much towards Johnny as the sweaty gyrations that accompany The Contours “Do You Love Me?” This is dirty dancing. Johnny gives her a quick how-to in the expressive art-form and the look on her face says it all. A door has opened. To where she’s still unclear. Soon Baby finds herself involved in the private affairs of Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), a dancer desperate to end an unplanned pregnancy with Robbie, an obnoxious waiter. For someone of Baby’s moral character, this is a no-brainer. She gets the needed cash from daddy and agrees to sub in a dance routine while Penny has the abortion. All the pretext needed to get Baby closer to her crush, and through those now famous training scenes in studio, on logs and in lakes (freezing cold according to the production notes) she earns Johnny’s respect first and later his hungry eyes.
• The film was written by Eleanor Bergstein who plucked the what’s and where’s of the movie from her own life. Like the Grey character, Bergstein was herself a doctor’s daughter who vacationed in the Catskills. She was also nicknamed “Baby,” and was a self-confessed “teenage Mambo queen” who later taught dance for Arthur Murray. The road to bringing the story to the screen likely resembles a good number of films but of course reads with a certain energy given the film’s unexpected success.
• For a while there, it looked like Billy Zane (then best known as one of Biff’s cronies in “Back to the Future”) and Sarah Jessica Parker (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”) would play Johnny and Baby, respectively. Then in came to young actors from MGM’s “Red Dawn”, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey – who, as the story goes, didn’t much like each other at the time.
• After a false start at MGM and subsequent rejections, the script was green-lit by the home video distributor Vestron as their inaugural screen production.
• To elevate the dance numbers, director Emile Ardolino (“Sister Act”) insisted that his stars at least qualified as a double threat. They should be able to act and hold their own on the dance floor.
• At the end of the shoot though, reaction to the coming-of-age romance was chilled. According to one Vestron executive, one notable film producer’s reaction was to “Burn the negative and collect the insurance.” Ouch!
• Clint tells me that when he worked at a Drive-In Cinema as a kid, say of the age of 12 or 13, the exhibitors weren’t expecting “Dirty Dancing” to do anything – as such, the main cinema chain in his town gladly let the local, struggling Drive-In cinema have “Dirty Dancing” first. That was rare, but in this case, the cinema chain thought they’d have the last laugh. No doubt they regretted their decision once the reviews and the numbers started coming in from the U.S, and those cars started packing out the drive-in.
• You have to consider inflation, of course, but even then for a $6million dollar production to do $10 million in its first week was huge. And it wasn’t so much the light sprinkle of marketing that got people to attend but word-of-mouth, which spread real fast.
• Love it or hate it, “Dirty Dancing” is still on the map today, from its sold-out stage production to the reputed remake by the original’s choreographer, the Gene Kelly trained Kenny Ortega (“This Is It”). The film isn’t without its missteps. Yes, it’s predictable, thanks to what Roger Ebert labelled the “idiot plot,” that overused boy-from-the-other-side-of-the-tracks-meets-girl storyline. I’d rather call it, “Oh, this again? And what else?” Fortunately there is something else beyond clip-art characters the likes of the Kellermans who pop up to remind us that the Johnnys of the world will always have to fight for their respect. Notice how quickly they jump on Johnny’s bandwagon during the closing number, suddenly having the time of their own lives. But even that’s excusable given the performances of the leads, led by Grey. From sanguine and virginal to vulnerable and capable, her Baby feels her way through dance and womanhood with similar ups and downs. Neither is easy, and thanks to Grey both are as believable as they need to be to drive the romance and the film. And I haven’t even gotten to the music.
• So… the music. Yes. Numerous number one songs originated on the original MPS, including this one, from Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes..
• And this one, from Patrick Swayze himself.. (originally written for one of Swayze’s other films, “Grandview U.S.A”).
• And, of course, Eric Carmen’s ode-to-burger-chains….
• We could speak about the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film, we could even touch on the tragic sequel “Havana Nights”… heck, some might even say we should mention the upcoming remake. We won’t. It’s not nice to tease.
• The movie’s line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” was voted as the #98 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100).