Summer School (1987): The Best Movie You Never Saw

Last Updated on October 20, 2022

THE STORY: A goofball gym teacher (Mark Harmon) is forced to teach a remedial English class over the summer.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Dean Cameron, Courtney Thorne-Smith & Shawnee Smith. Music by Danny Elfman. Directed by Carl Reiner.

THE HISTORY: Hollywood spent a couple of years trying to make Mark Harmon happen as a movie star. Fresh off an arc on “St. Elsewhere” which infamously had his character contract AIDS from a one-night stand, his career was red hot. For a while, he was seriously considered to replace Don Johnson on “Miami Vice” after contract negotiations fell through, and in 1987-88, we got a bunch of starring vehicles that would try him out in a variety of genres to see if one would stick. He did action in The Presidio (even doing his own stunts – although the film was stolen by co-star Sean Connery), drama in Stealing Home, and zany comedy in this week’s film, Summer School (1987).

Freddy Shoop! No, I get that. People wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop. Heck, I wanted a teacher like Freddy Shoop. [Laughs.] I give all that credit, every bit of it, to Carl Reiner. He was so special, and it was so much about his opinion. I had an agreement with him going into that movie. He was the one who grabbed me and said, “I want you to do this role. You, specifically.” And it’s funny: He made that decision based on an interview he saw me doing on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel when I was promoting The Deliberate Stranger (where he played Ted Bundy). – Mark Harmon –  The AV Club Interview

summer school harmon

Directed by Carl Reiner, this was another youth-oriented comedy featuring a wild cast of characters, not unlike the then-popular Police Academy series, albeit done with a lot more style by guys like Reiner and writer Jeff Franklin (famous for creating “Full House”). Harmon was cast against type In a role that seems like it was tailor-made for a guy like Steve Guttenberg, and while not a smash hit, the PG-13 flick grossed a solid $35 million in the U.S, not bad at all and coming in ahead of classics like The Lost Boys, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, and The Princess Bride.

WHY IT’S GREAT: While SUMMER SCHOOL did pretty well at the box office and was also a video hit, it’s not a movie that’s often talked about when we discuss classic eighties comedies. Fair enough, as it’s no Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or even especially funny, but it’s a pleasant programmer that made me pretty happy as a kid. Reiner’s got a big heart, and made Summer School into a movie that’s aged well and stands as a prototypical eighties comedy, but with a leading man who’s distinctly not a jerk.

You see, a lot of the eighties comedy leads come off as assholes through a modern lens. There’s a reason for this. Bill Murray was able to make palatable and even cool this kind of iconoclastic, take no shit leading man, and he’s great – but there’s only one Bill Murray. When people tried to ape him – oh man were the results not pretty. I feel like if virtually any other untested lead had played Mr. Shoop in Summer School, he would have tried to ape Murray, but Harmon makes the part his own. Rather than do the smart-ass thing, he opts to show off a goofy sweetness that makes him appealing. Sure, he doesn’t want to be teaching summer school and wants to be the “cool guy”, but he does it without a shred of meanness. Of course, he’s got the dickweed superintendent to show up in order to get Kirstie Alley as the teacher next door, but he does it just by being chill. Harmon makes the character legitimately cool.

A couple of years ago, they called and were going to reissue Summer School on DVD as a special edition after 20 years or whatever. They said, “We’d like you to do a commentary with Carl.” I said, “Are you kidding me? A chance, now that I’m older and wiser, to get to sit down with Carl Reiner and just tell him personally what he means to me? Yeah. Sign me up. Count me in.” [Laughs.] So, yeah, that’s what I’ll take from that experience. Mark Harmon –  The AV Club Interview

It’s weird that Harmon never quite made it as a leading man after this, but the issue probably was that his follow-up movies were just never as good, with him never again working with the caliber of talent he did in his two most successful flicks, this and The Presidio. No matter, he’s done pretty damn well for himself on NCIS, but again, with consistently good material he could have been a movie star.

summer school Kirstie Alley

Otherwise, SUMMER SCHOOL spots a strong teen cast of likable kids, with the standouts being Dean Cameron as Chainsaw and Gary Riley as his buddy Dave, maybe the first modern film geeks to ever show up in movies. The two are horror obsessed, “Fangoria” reading guys that should bring back a lot of nostalgia for anyone that loved gore in that era. Plus there’s Courtney Thorne-Smith as a surfer, Shawnee Smith as a pregnant teen, and more. And oh yeah, Danny Elfman does the soundtrack, which is pretty perfectly eighties and arguably has a stronger cult following than the film it comes from.

BEST SCENE: My first exposure to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came through Summer School when Chainsaw organizes a class screening, and I dig the way Reiner seems to understand the cult around Hooper’s film, not dismissing it as trash, like many other older directors of the era might have.