No. 29: Spring Break

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

We enter the 20s on our countdown with another in a string of hit teen sex comedies, but unlike the rest of the films in that genre we’ve reviewed so far Spring Break is completely devoid of any recognizable stars. Despite that fact, the film apparently made quite an impact at the box office, opening at No. 1 ahead of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (coming soon on Back to the Movies) and remaining in the top ten for a full month. Even in recent years, the film is often referred to as a seminal cultural document of the college spring break culture, which was really beginning to hit its stride in early ’80s. Even TIME Magazine refers to the film in this 2009 piece on the history of spring break, though the writer and editors apparently didn’t bother to double check their claim that the film starred Tom Cruise and Shelly Long.

The film actually stars David Knell and Perry Lang, neither of whom are likely to be confused with Tom Cruise, as two typical nerdy college guys who head to the mecca of ’80s spring break culture, Fort Lauderdale. As they roll into town, the streets are absolutely crammed with hard-partying college dudes in cutoff t-shirts and bikini-clad, frizzy-haired babes. The motel they are staying in for the trip (which also serves as the center of a ludicrous secondary plot line that I won’t bother you with) accidentally double-booked their room with another pair of guys, only these two guys seem to have a little more experience with the spring break partying scene.

With an almost alarming lack of hesitation, the four guys decide to share the room and they hit the town to party it up. From this point on, the movie is basically a group of party scenes strung together by a handful of references to the fact that the father of Knell’s character, who happens to be a prominent and stuck up politician, is in town and searching for his son so he can put an end to all the fun. It’s a completely unreasonable plot device that just barely keeps the movie going forward and gives us an excuse to move from one scene to the next.

I have to believe the party scenes in question were pretty novel at the time, particularly for a mainstream movie. I constantly find myself reaching out to my readers and friends who were old enough to be culturally aware in 1983 but I’d love to know whether things like wet t-shirt contests were as well-known and commonplace as they are today. The film certainly seems to treat such contests as though they are novel and original scenes, though I will admit that one contest, the rather disturbing “Wet He-Shirt Contest”, was certainly not something I’d heard of before. To be honest, I’m not surprised that it never really caught on as a spring break tradition.

We are also treated to several scenes featuring a fictional all-girl rock band called (I love this) Hot Date. The band is fronted by an obviously lip-synching beauty by the name of Corrine Alphen whom Roger Ebert noted has plenty of charisma and personality on screen to warrant more dialogue (she has almost none outside of her songs). Sadly, Spring Break would be the height of Alphen’s mainstream film career as her filmography shows she quickly descended into, ahem, shall we say less savory roles.

The movie obviously features plenty of drinking and in today’s environment would almost definitely be criticized for the way it glamorizes binge drinking and makes it look like loads of consequence-free fun. Most of the drinking on screen involves beer, specifically Miller High Life who I suspect had a product placement deal with the film’s producers. Probably the most interesting alcohol-related moment to me was a scene in which a sign in a convenience store in the film offers a 24-pack of High Life for $7 (nice!).

Speaking of ads, there’s one scene in the movie that really sticks out for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s without question to me the most effective scene in the entire movie. Knell’s character has finally found the wholesome-yet-sexy girl he keeps seeing around town and she’s agreed to take him back to her hotel room. But as things are heating up between them, she asks him to grab her a Coke. He frantically searches the hallways of the hotel as the only actual hit song from a real band on the entire soundtrack plays, “Caught Up In You” by 38 Special (according to Wikipedia, the song’s appearance in the film was actually what helped elevate it to a hit). He pours money into the giant iconic red Coke machine as armloads of Coke cans come falling out and as he heads back to the room he makes a horrifying realization: he not only failed to notice her room number but he doesn’t even know her name and thus cannot find her by asking at the front desk.

It’s a scene with legitimate tension and a bit of painful comedy but also a scene so well put together from a technical standpoint that it looks as though it couldn’t possibly have been made by the same director that made the rest of the film.

A little research into scene tells me that maybe that hunch isn’t far off. In 1982, Coca-Cola actually purchased Columbia Pictures and over the course of the ’80s were constantly noted for using the studio and its output as a platform to promote their products. Spring Break was one of the first Columbia releases produced under Coca-Cola’s ownership and the parent company clearly was not shy about its use of product placement. While I have no evidence to support this, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Coke had a very large amount of creative control over this entire sequence as the look and feel of the scene is so different (and superior) to the rest of the film.

Conspiracy theories aside, once this scene has come and gone there really isn’t much going on for the rest of the film worth watching. It’s a group of obligatory scenes resolving the extremely un-fun and uninteresting side plots set up earlier in the film and the resolutions aren’t any more satisfying than their unnecessary story lines were to begin with.

The movie is at its best when it’s nothing more than a depiction of the pure anarchy of a beachfront town being overrun with wild, drunken college kids. Granted, I wasn’t in Fort Lauderdale in the early ’80s but I get the sense this movie is a depiction of the ultimate spring break that never was, a hyper-realized version of the slightly anarchic fun that a great spring break can feel like. I’d put this movie in a similar category as Valley Girl, another movie that did a great job depicting a very specific place and time in 1983 and just simply lets you live in that world rather than focusing too much on characters and story.

Next Up: Francis Ford Coppola’s star-making adaptation of The Outsiders.