School’s In For Summer: Summer School (1987) – Retro Review

Fresh off his run on the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere and being named People Magazine’s 2nd Annual Sexiest Man Alive, Mark Harmon found himself on the Hollywood A-List in 1986.  Harmon, looking to capitalize on his momentum, attempted the difficult transition from TV star to movie star.

Harmon’s first big movie role came with the 1986 action film Let’s Get Harry. Harmon played the titular character alongside an all-star cast that included the likes of Robert Duvall, Gary Busey and Glenn Fry. Fast forward to 1987 and Harmon would find himself starring in a much different movie…

1987’s Summer School, directed by comedy legend Carl Reiner, gave Mark Harmon the opportunity to show off his comedic chops. Harmon’s character Freddy Shoop is a high school gym teacher who thought he was about to embark on a Hawaiian vacation with his beautiful girlfriend and instead finds himself forced to teach remedial English in summer school to a bunch of kids who don’t want to be there.

Mr. Shoop taking roll on the first day of class is the perfect opportunity to introduce the individual students. There’s surfer girl Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith) who ends up having an unhealthy obsession with Shoop, the very pregnant Rhonda, football player Kevin, street smart Denise, dorky Eakian, student by day/stripper by night Larry and foreign exchange student Anna-Maria. Last but not least, the two straws that stirred the drink, Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp and his best friend Dave, which is fitting because in addition to being the world’s biggest Texas Chainsaw Massacre fans, Chainsaw and Dave are also alcoholics in the making.

There’s no denying that Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley) are responsible for some of Summer School’s most memorable moments…  Their classic response to Mr. Shoop’s request that everyone take their seats… The gory scene they create in the classroom with their fellow students that would make their idol Tobe Hooper proud…  Summer School would not be the same without Chainsaw and Dave. Per the DVD commentary, director Carl Reiner was surprised when Cameron and Riley weren’t cast together in more movies following Summer School to showcase their undeniable comic chemistry.

Speaking of chemistry, there was a great deal of chemistry between Mark Harmon’s Freddy Shoop and Kirstie Alley’s Robin Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop is teaching history in the classroom next to Shoop’s and she quickly becomes the apple of Shoop’s eye. Shoop’s pursuit of Bishop gives the movie a romantic subplot and creates more tension between Shoop and Vice Principal Phil Gills (Robin Thomas), since Gills is dating Ms. Bishop.

I was glad Summer School kept some sense of realism throughout. When Vice Principal Gills threatens to fire Shoop if all his students don’t pass their final exam that is more than enough motivation for Shoop to shape up, but his students don’t instantly fall in line. Shoop has to cut deals with each of them to give them an incentive to do the work that is required of them and to take the class seriously.

Summer School also avoided the ultimate happy ending that some might have been expecting. Instead of the class full of students on academic probation all passing their final exam with flying colors, their average score was actually BELOW passing.

At its core, Summer School is a story of redemption. Shoop and his students begin their summer school tour of duty blowing it off with field trips to the amusement park, the petting zoo, and partying on the beach… but by the end they all learn and grow and are better off for their summer school experience.

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