This Month In… 1981 (June)


Bringing you all the box office news from June 1981


June 5


Blockbuster season certainly lived up to its promise in June of ’81, two of cinemas biggest and best-loved movie icons battling it out for summer supremacy, but it was the introduction of a future icon that had moviegoers flocking to theatres for an endearing dose of derring do in a stacked-to-the-rafters month for cinema lovers.

Outrageous, Zippy, High-spirited and Infantile were all words used to describe cult stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong’s third feature-length outing Nice Dreams, one of four movies released on June 5th, and easily the most successful. The film was also called out for it’s rudimentary execution, but stars Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin, who both have roots in improvisational theatre, would rely on storyboards as a device to keep the plot progressing, using improv as their driving force.

Chong, who would also write and direct, lived by his formula, insisting that such an open format was vital to their inimitable act, a bonkers blend of off-the-wall comedy and counterculture irreverence that introduced audiences to a multiracial Los Angeles rarely glimpsed on the silver screen. “Improv has its own disciplines,” he would explain. “When it works, it’s as if you had tapped into some crazy force. There’s a spontaneity that’s funnier than anything an all-night story conference could produce”.

The duo would also shine a very different light on recreational drug use, promoting the long-demonized Marijuana as a bonding device for collective laughter. “We always smoked a little before we went out there. That was part of the job,” Chong would admit. “It was my job as a writer and performer to deliver the goods. So if that meant being stoned, I gladly did it. I found that the more stoned I was, the more crazy the movie was, and the more successful we were.” 

Nice Dreams, which certainly wouldn’t exist as a lighthearted comedy in today’s PC industry, sees Cheech and Chong disguised as a pair of ice cream vendors, making — and ultimately losing —millions of dollars in drug money thanks to a new strain of marijuana that turns people into lizards. Stacy Keach also stars as Sgt. Stedenko, a DEA agent who has been using the product to get inside the head of a drug kingpin known as ‘Mr. Big’. I can’t even begin to imagine the tactical briefing explaining that operation.

Though the film received mixed reviews, audiences were still keen enough on their favourite stoner duo to part with $35,000,000 dollars of their hard-earned cash — a healthy figure for such a low-risk venture. However, there was a notable decline in figures as their anarchic act entered the Reagan 80s, the film grossing roughly $6,000,000 less than previous outing Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. Their debut film Up in Smoke, released only three years prior, grossed an astonishing $104,000,000 dollars on a budget of only $2,000,000. Now that’s some good shit!

Coming slap-bang in the middle of the genre’s ‘Golden Age’, Jimmy Huston’s college campus slasher Final Exam, despite a surprising level of technical skill for an indie movie that cost somewhere in the region of $350,00 dollars, proved one of the most underwhelming, though it did prove a minor financial success for indie distributor Motion Picture Marketing, making four times its production outlay with a gross of $1,300,000.

Final Exam poster

Part of the reason why the movie proved so middling was its lack of a notable villain. Credited simply as ‘Killer’, Timothy L. Raynor’s campus scourge had no motive, with a generic, plain-clothes guise that proved utterly underwhelming. Huston set out to create characters we can relate to, but the movie’s slow build, a noble endeavour at a time when a plethora of cack-handed slashers were rushed through the door with the sole intention of turning a profit, descends into a laboriously-paced outing that makes you want to snatch the knife out of Killer’s hand and show him exactly how it’s done. Raynor would land the role after impressing Huston with his martial arts and knife-handling skills, and would even use a real butcher’s knife instead of a prop. Taylor was also responsible for some real-life, on-set heroics after actor Ralph Brown, who played murdered-by-gym-equipment jock, Wildman, was choked unconscious when a weight machine wire wrapped itself around his neck and almost killed him, and likely would have if it were not for Taylor’s quickfire response. Those poor kids!

In a year that gave us superior slasher vehicles The Prowler, The Burning, The Funhouse, My Bloody Valentine, and crowd-drawing franchise sequels Friday the 13th Part 2 and Halloween II, Final Exam‘s borderline-bloodless shenanigans, a fact that can likely be attributed to a severe lack of funds, would fall into relative obscurity, though an utterly ludicrous campus shooting fraternity prank, the kind of plot development that has no place in 21st century cinema, has to be seen to be believed. 80s slashers, you gotta love em!

June 12


A kind of mythological reworking of the hugely popular Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back was released the previous year), Desmond Davis’ epic romantic adventure movie Clash of the Titans did fantastic business at the box office considering its somewhat outmoded swords-and-sandals premise, which did little to live up to modern science-fiction tastes (asides from the inclusion of a mechanical owl that has more than a hint of the R2D2). It would also pale in comparison to June’s first modern blockbuster, released on the same day, in terms of both action and budget, but more on that shortly.

With an incredible all-star cast that included Sir Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress and Jason and the Argonauts‘ Jack Gwillim, the movie revolves around Harry Hamlin’s Perseus, a mythical hero who wages war on evil gorgon Medusa and the colossal sea monster Kraken as he sets off on a mission to rescue the beautiful Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker).

Fans of stop-motion visual effects will have a field day with this one, particularity since Clash of the Titans would be legendary SFX artist Ray Harryhausen’s final work. Harryhausen pioneered stop-motion animation effects for more than three decades, with high-profile fans that include Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton, all of whom have cited Harryhausen as having a huge influence on their careers. As well as the aforementioned Jason and the Argonauts, Harryhausen had worked on such visual classics as One Million Years B.C., Mysterious Island, and the Sinbad movies.

Despite its pedigree in just about every area, Clash of the Titans received mixed reviews as cinema veered more towards modern practical effects. Harryhausen and co-producer Charles H. Schneer had no intention of updating their formula, instead choosing to carry on in the tradition of earlier productions, resulting in a charmingly archaic venture with one foot in the sinking sands of time. Variety called Clash of the Titans, ‘an unbearable bore of a film’ that was ‘mired in a slew of corny dialog and an endless array of flat, outdated special effects’. Roger Ebert, who had been somewhat critical of modern practical effects indulgence, was one of the movie’s few admirers, praising it for its ‘faith in a story-telling tradition that sometimes seems almost forgotten.’ Clash of the Titans would rake-in a not-too-shabby $41,000,000 million at the North American box office, making it the 11th-highest-grossing film of the year.

With both 007 James Bond and DC’s Man of Steel set to unleash brand new instalments in the coming weeks, Harrison Ford certainly had his work cut out for him with the release of Indiana Jones’ much-anticipated first outing Raiders of the Lost Ark. He wouldn’t disappoint. Ford brought a roguish charm to the fearless archaeologist who would win the hearts of a generation, and would go on to star in three sequels, with a fourth currently in the making.

It certainly helped to have two of the industry’s hottest names behind him in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Derived from Lucas’ lifelong dream of making a James Bond movie, the script evolved from a series of brainstorming sessions based on the old theatre serials of the 1940s, which invariably featured an adventurer racing from one cliffhanger to the next.

Spielberg, who would later claim he was “put on this Earth” to tell the story of the Holocaust, would choose the Nazis as the movie’s villains, a coldblooded regime who go in search of the titular Ark of the Covenant’s unspeakable power, leading to a thrilling race against time that is fuelled by themes of greed, duplicity and, most importantly of all, the kind of reluctant heroics that made the Indy character one of the most enduring in modern cinema. Gestapo agent Toht was even modelled on the notorious head of the SS in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler, who played a central role in the Holocaust.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was considered extremely violent for a family movie, particularly the aforementioned Toht’s horror-esque ‘face-melting’, a wonder of practical effects achieved by Chris Walas of Industrial Light and Magic, who would use casts of the late Ronald Lacey’s head made from gelatin that was then melted, a ten-minute process that was sped-up to only a few seconds. It’s a stunning visual even by today’s standards. The series would inhabit even darker territory three years later, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom contributing to the founding of the PG-13 rating.

Co-starring Karen Allen as Indy’s punchy love interest, Marion, and featuring one of legendary composer John Williams’ most iconic scores, ‘Raiders’ would sweep the 54th Academy Awards, winning five Oscars (Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing, Special Achievement Academy Award) and a further four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography). It would also dwarf the summer competition, becoming the highest-grossing film by some distance with an incredible return of $212,000,000 from only $20,000,000, though it didn’t come easy.

Though the film opened at number one, an underwhelming first weekend for a movie that Paramount were expecting to be one of the highest-grossing movies in history due to promises made by Lucasfilm would quickly lose its spot to Superman II, slowly narrowing the gap as the film was added to more theatres. After 111 days it would finally surpass Paramount’s highest-grossing movie at the time in Grease ($135,000,000), before ultimately selling over 70 million tickets during its initial run. Unsurprisingly, Raiders of the Lost Ark was lauded by critics across the board and is now one of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies.

June 19


On the subject of Superman II, Christopher Reeve’s ‘Man of Steel’ would return to our screens on June 19 to sell-out audiences, battling arguably the most iconic villains in the series in General Zod, Ursa and Non, a trio of criminals unleashed on Earth after a hydrogen bomb shock wave frees them from a fictional prison known as The Phantom Zone, a dimension created by Robert Bernstein and George Papp that first appeared in Adventure Comics #283 released in April 1961. The movie is also notable for Lois Lane’s discovery that bumbling Planet reporter Clark Kent and the indestructible ‘Last Son of Kryptonite are in fact the same person.

Superman II, which was released in Australia and mainland Europe in December 1980, was notorious for its deeply troubled production, fuelled by behind the scenes animosity involving members of the film’s cast and crew. Tensions had developed between original director Richard Donner and producers Alexander and IIya Salkind and Pierre Spengler way back in 1978 during the filming of the original Superman. The two movies were originally set to be shot back-to-back, with Donner receiving a then-whopping fee of $1,000,000 to direct both, but a failure to meet deadlines and increased budgets brought the production of Superman II to a crashing halt with 75 percent of the movie having already been shot.

Replacing Donner would be The Three Musketeers director Richard Lester, who began as an uncredited associate producer on the film. Lester would re-shoot much of the movie, though many cast members refused to return out of respect for Donner. Perhaps the most high-profile was film legend Marlon Brando, who claimed he was cheated by the Salklands and filed an unsuccessful restraining order prohibiting the use of his likeness in the sequel, though he would ultimately receive a further $15,000,000 in compensation.

Despite the movie’s patchwork presentation and an obvious contrast in styles (Lester preferred a sillier tone to Donner, something that would become increasingly apparent in Superman III two years later), Superman II was well-received by critics for its rich characterisation and strong performances, particularly those of Reeve and a returning Gene Hackman as the unconscionable Lex Luther, with Chicago Sun Times critic Gene Siskel suggesting that the film was “better than the original”. Janet Maslin of The New York Times would write, “Superman II is a marvelous toy. It’s funny, it’s full of tricks and it manages to be royally entertaining, which is really all it aims for.” 

Though ultimately dwarfed by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II broke all kinds of commercial records, with a first-day gross of $4,300,000 and a second day gross of $5,500,000, the highest single box office day in history at the time, a record previously held by Star Wars ($4,500,000). It would also surpass Star Trek: The Motion Picture with the highest-grossing weekend of all time ($14,100,000). Superman indeed!

Also released that week was another of the year’s most successful movies, The Cannonball Run, which as well as sporting an all-star cast that included Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore and Farrah Fawcett (later nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress), was also notable for featuring a young Jackie Chan in only his second Hollywood role. Chan, who would become famous for his post-credits blooper reels, would pinch the idea from Cannonball Run director and long-time Reynolds collaborator Hal Needham.

Originally planned as an action movie starring Steve McQueen before the stars untimely death, The Cannonball Run would instead become a comedy about an illegal, cross-country race featuring an array of eccentric competitors who will stop at nothing to win. Very much in the Wacky Races mode, the film would include a plethora of mouthwatering vehicles, including a souped-up Dodge Tradesman ambulance, a Lamborghini Countach, a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and a Mercedes 280 SEL sedan. Moore, who would play a self-aware parody of the increasingly kitsch James Bond character, would drive a silver Aston Martin DB5. Naturally.

Reynolds was more than a little fortunate to replace McQueen, becoming the highest-paid actor to date after banking a cool $5,000,000 for four weeks’ work, though that didn’t stop him from complaining. “I did that film for all the wrong reasons,” he would later admit. “I never liked it. I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham, and I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out, so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.” The movie, which was full of lousy inside jokes, was slaughtered along with its star, respected critic Roger Ebert awarding it half a star and calling it, “an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition.”  

On a more serious note, 24-year-old German American stuntwoman Heidi von Beltz was critically injured in a car crash during production. Von Beltz had been called up to replace the original stunt person, who had left production to attend to a family illness. The crash was caused due to a defective Aston Martin that was riddled with mechanical problems, including defective steering, a broken clutch and speedometer, bald tires and no seat belts. Yeesh!

Initially assured by then-fiancee and stunt coordinator Bobby Bass that the stunt would be “a piece of cake”, driver Jimmy Nickerson was told to “Make do” with the defective vehicle. After colliding head-on with a van, former championship skier Von Beltz broke her neck, becoming a paraplegic. The aspiring actress was initially awarded $7,000,000 dollars for her life-changing hardship, a sum that was inexplicably reduced to $3,200,000 by a judge presiding over the case. Much of the remaining fee was swallowed up by attorneys and medical bills.

Making $72,179,579 in the United States and Canada, The Cannonball Run became the sixth-highest grossing film of 1981.

June 26


The ever-popular James Bond series was subjected to yet another irony with the release of John Glen’s 007 debut For Your Eyes Only on June 26. In the same week that Moore indulged in his camp persona as The Cannonball Run‘s silver-tongued sophisticate Seymour Goldfarb, Jr., he would deliver his most hard-edged performance to date in an instalment that played out like a serious espionage thriller. Moore, who was originally contracted to a three-movie deal, was yet again tempted back into the fold after previously returning for ludicrous Star Wars cash-in Moonraker, which would become the highest-grossing film of 1979.

By 1981, many fans were calling for a then-53-year-old Moore to be replaced, but Glen felt he needed the actor’s experience to guide him through, and would ultimately cast him twice more in 1983‘s Octopussy and 1985‘s A View to a Kill. Moore was eventually replaced by Welsh thespian Timothy Dalton, arguably the finest actor to ever wield the Walther PPK, who in 1981 had turned down the role for the second time in three years as he didn’t like the way the series had been heading. This is something of a shame since Dalton’s leaner, meaner portrayal of 007 would have been perfectly suited to For Your Eyes Only, though ditching Moore would have been equally unfortunate as he delivers arguably his greatest performance as the irrepressible super spy.

For Your Eyes Only Lotus

This time around, Bond goes in search of a missing British vessel equipped with a weapons encryption device, recruiting the help of charming Greek smuggler Milos ‘The Dove’ Columbo (Flash Gordon‘s Topol in scintillating form) as he attempts to prevent the contraption from falling into enemy hands. For Your Eyes Only also features some truly elegant underwater camerawork from cinematographer Alan Hume and one of the most memorable Bond girls in Carol Bouquet’s fiercely independent Melina Havelock. The film would infamously play host to the demise of an unnamed man who looked suspiciously like iconic Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, due to the fact that producers had lost the rights to the character’s name. “We just let people use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions… it’s a legal thing,” Glen would say of the movie’s underhanded, yet thoroughly enjoyable prologue, which sees Blofeld dropped down an industrial chimney from a Bond-manned helicopter.

Glen was more than aware of Moore’s advancing age, giving us a Bond light on libido who turns down the ceaseless advances of the young and irrepressibly flirtatious Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson) in a much darker instalment motivated by vengeance. In For Your Eyes Only, Moore journeys from the sun-kissed splendour of the Greek Isles to rural Spain via the breathtaking Cortina d’Ampezzo in the snow-tipped Dolomites, the site of some of the most breathtaking action sequences in the entire series.

Though the movie received mixed reviews (partly due to Moore’s age-related stigma), For Your Eyes Only has grown in stature over the years and is now regarded as one of the superior entries in the series. The movie would rake in an incredible $195,300,000 dollars, becoming the second-highest grossing instalment after Moonraker. Despite the naysayers, the figures showed that the series remained as popular as ever, and though For Your Eyes Only would have been a fitting end for the actor, it was a case of “Farewell, Mr. Bond. But, not goodbye”.



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