‘Jaws’ took a bite out of movie history 35 years ago this week

June 21, 2010 | 6:22 p.m.

Susan King covers classic Hollywood for the Hero Complex blog. Here, she dips a toe into the history of the first summer blockbuster, “Jaws,” which was released 35 years ago this week.

Jaws poster Spielberg shark movie


Duh-dum … duh-dum … Movie audiences didn’t know what hit them — or bit them — 35 years ago this week as “Jaws” became the cinematic sensation of 1975. The lazy, hazy days of summer and summer movies would never be quite the same.

On June 20, 1975, Universal released the first true summer blockbuster, “Jaws,” to 466 theaters across the country. Wide distribution of a film was practically unheard of in those days. Usually, a studio would release a film piecemeal, with limited engagements in the big cities before finally entering neighborhood theaters. Back in Los Angeles, for example, the old Cinerama Dome would have exclusive engagements of the biggest films.

Steven Spileberg set Jaws Hollywood

And, for better or worse, because of the phenomenal success of “Jaws” — it became the first film to surge past the $100-million box-office mark — movies became massive events. And studios began to make summer blockbusters to capture the attention of a mass audience. It’s hard to imagine now, but before “Jaws,” summertime was considered the box-office dogs days.

The shark tale of “Jaws” first captured the world’s attention in 1974, when Peter Benchleys novel introduced us to a great white shark dining on vacationers at New England’s Amity Island (a stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard) and the three men attempting to destroy the huge, sleek beast. Benchley’s fish story spent 44 weeks on the bestseller list. That same year, Benchley and Carl Gottlieb were tapped by Universal to adapt the book, and the directing job went to young Steven Spielberg, who had caught the attention of the industry in 1971 with the ABC movie thriller “Duel” and then made his feature-film debut in 1974 with “The Sugarland Express.”

Throughout the fall of ’74, there were grim dispatches from the set. The production in Martha’s Vineyard was beset by weather issues and a balky mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce that threatened to sink the movie’s credibility.

Still, the film thrived. To hide the mechanical shark, Spielberg and company took the approach of “what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see” and used music, point-of-view tricks and even floating barrels to suggest the shark without giving a good look at the ocean predator. Thanks to Verna Field’s seamless Oscar-winning editing, the result was movie magic. Then there were the performances from Robert Shaw, as the tough-as-nails shark hunter, Captain Quint; Richard Dreyfuss (who thought the film would be “the turkey of the year”) as the marine biologist Matt Hooper, and Roy Scheider of “The French Connection” fame as the “everyman” of the thriller, Sheriff Martin Brody.

I was at the very first public showing of “Jaws” at the long-demolished movie palace, The Cooper, in Denver. And I can recall everyone in that matinee crowd screaming — including myself — at the opening moments when the young woman is attacked by the shark while skinny-dipping in the ocean. I let out another shriek when the shark reared its massive body out of the sea while Brody, Quint and Hooper are on the orca, causing Brody to intone, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Robert Shaw Jaws Spielberg shark

Perhaps the finest moment in the film was the quietest, when Quint gravelly recalled his time aboard the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk July 30, 1945, by a Japanese torpedo in the Pacific. The survivors who hadn’t been eaten by sharks weren’t rescued until Aug. 2. Though there have been conflicting reports on who wrote that speech, it is generally credited that Shaw, who was also a playwright and novelist, penned most of it.

“Jaws” also changed the career of composer John Williams, who won an Oscar for his unnerving and unforgettable score. Is there any other piece of music that is so recognizable with just the first two notes?

It was just the beginning of a beautiful collaboration between Spielberg and Williams, which still continues.

But perhaps the height of “Jaws”-mania took place when I started graduate film school at USC in the fall of 1976. My “on-campus” housing was at an old apartment complex, the Regal Trojan, which was actually off-campus on Adams Street. As I entered the apartment with my parents, I checked out the bathroom. A “Jaws” fan had to have lived there before; the toilet lid had a decal of the “Jaws” shark on the top and a decal of the ocean was on the seat itself! And there it stayed for the 18 months I lived at the Regal Trojan.

— Susan King


Steven Spielberg on the set ofJaws with Dick Zanuck

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Photos, from top: An iconic post image for “Jaws” (Credit: Universal). Steven Spielberg on the set of “Jaws (Credit: Richard Zanuck); Robert Shaw in Jaws (Credit: Universal); Spielberg and Zanuck on the set of Jaws (Credit: Richard Zanuck)

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27 Responses to ‘Jaws’ took a bite out of movie history 35 years ago this week

  1. Cal Godot says:

    “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
    That famous line was improvised by Roy Scheider. I don't think anyone argues that.
    Still, for my money, the all-time best chase movie in cinema history. A fine and excellent piece of filmmaking. The old book, "The Making of Jaws," is an excellent account of the numerous problems the production faced.

  2. Horace Austin says:

    Great motion picture.

  3. David says:

    As a young 13-year old I recall going to see JAWS three times at our local suburban San Jose, CA theatre. When Sheriff Brody and Hooper head out for that midnight dive, to investigate that fisherman's boat… and then the severed head pops out!!… my sister shriek-spilled her medium popcorn all over my JC Penny jeans! Classic!

  4. KTZ says:

    Can you ask Zanuck whose genius idea it is to continue enforcing the 35-year DVD window to disallow iTunes movie rentals/sales of "Jaws"…?

  5. Zomer Rill says:

    The Cooper in Denver was the best place to have seen Jaws for SURE!

  6. Xian says:

    Nice rememberence of "Jaws," but I beg to differ with your assertation that Shaw wrote the famous USS Indianapolis speech. Generally that is credited to screenwriters Howard Sackler and John Milius, who wrote the first draft of the memorable USS Indianapolis speech for Spielberg (though they were uncredited in the film itself). Check your sources and research.

  7. My opinon means noth says:

    I remember when that head popped out of that boat! Man, I thought I was going to wet my pants!

  8. LPB says:

    I always heard that John Milius wrote the Indianapolis monologue; Robert Shaw was fine actor, but I doubt he knew the first thing about US Navy, let alone the sinking of the Indianapolis.

  9. Stephen says:

    I remember summer of '75 well. Beachgoers that year stayed in shallower waters and all day at any beach shouts and cries of 'SHARK' or 'JAWS!' were heard. People ran from the water just as they did on Amity Island. Lifeguards continually proclaimed the waters clear of maneating sharks, but to no avail.
    Even people in pools cautiously looked around first and most refused to swim after dark. Sadly thousands and thousands of sharks were killed due ro media frenzy panic.

  10. Q Smith says:

    That was the big scary thing at the time. Brings back some memories from that era too. Thanks!

  11. Kevin says:

    even better than all these comments was seeing it at a theater in Long Beach Island, NJ: the origin/inspiration for Jaws.

  12. […] ‘Jaws’ took a bite out of movie history More in: Movies, E.T., Noelene Clark, Steven Spielberg […]

  13. Alex Krajci says:

    1975's Jaws Is One Of My Favorite Films.

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