Director: Joseph L. Anderson
Screenplay: Joseph L. Anderson, Franklin Miller, Doug Rapp
Starring: Larue Hall, Ted Heimerdinger, Marjorie Johnson, John Crawford, Betty Ann Parady
Running Time: 84 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The story behind the making and distribution of Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night Summer Night contains enough drama, twists and turns to be made into its own film. It began with the director and his friends Franklin Miller and Doug Rapp deciding one day they wanted to make a film. They originally wanted to adapt the short story ‘How Beautiful With Shoes’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele. However, they later discovered it had already been turned into a Broadway play and they couldn’t afford the rights. So they instead looked for inspiration from the local area surrounding Ohio University, where Anderson taught film. The trio researched for a while before Doug, who was also their intended lead actor, was killed in a motorbike accident. This tragic event spurred on Anderson and Miller to finish the script.
They grouped together some of Anderson’s students who were keen to make films and seemed talented enough to jump in as crew, then asked around for actors, choosing ones they’d remembered being good in plays they’d seen. This rag-tag bunch wasn’t paid, with most of the $25,000 budget likely going on 35mm stock, catering and other unavoidable production costs.
Anderson and Miller said the film was inspired by Italian neo-realism, Ermanno Olmi’s The Fiancés (1963), Robert Frank’s photography book ‘The Americans’ and Shirley Clark’s work, as well as other members of the early New American Cinema movement. With such lofty expectations, they sent the finished film to the Pesaro Film Festival in Italy. The leftist Italian community reportedly scoffed at the fact these impoverished characters owned cars, so it didn’t pick up any awards, but it was admired enough to be seen by those ‘in the know’ and was selected to play the New York Film Festival.
However, closer to the time, it was replaced in the schedule by John Cassavetes’ Faces, which drew great praise and launched its director to fame and fortune. This was an unfortunate missed opportunity and Anderson and Miller failed to get the film distributed or seen outside of a few local screenings.
A little while later, however, they were approached by Joseph Brenner, a distributor working in the exploitation market. He thought he could sell the film, but only with some changes to amp up the exploitation factor and tone down the artistic elements. Anderson and Miller reluctantly allowed this to happen, with the former shooting a relatively graphic sex scene to be inserted into the film. The resulting bastardised version, entitled Miss Jessica is Pregnant, was, by all accounts, disastrous and the film disappeared without a trace after playing the drive-in circuit with little fanfare. Though it was seen widely enough to attract the attention of the FBI, who raided Anderson’s archives, believing he made pornography. After this, Anderson abandoned the film entirely.
In an interesting side-note to this portion of the story, one of Brenner’s editors was none other than a young Martin Scorsese, who, when asked to hack down the film for distribution, reportedly replied: “I think you should leave it as it is”. Nobody’s sure if he did in fact cut what became Miss Jessica is Pregnant, but it’s a nice touch to an already quite eye-opening story.
Thankfully, many years later, the film found a new lease of life, first in rural festivals and later when Nicolas Winding Refn’s film preservation organisation picked it up and put together, with the support of Anderson and Miller, a fully restored Director’s Cut of the film. This helped spread the word further and now Indicator are releasing the film in a handsome Blu-ray package in the UK.
After that long introduction, let me tell you a little more about the film itself. Spring Night Summer Night is set in a rural backwater town in Ohio where Jessie (Larue Hall) lives with her parents (John Crawford and Marjorie Johnson), older half-brother Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and younger siblings. The family are poor and prospects are slim in the town, so Carl is itching to leave. Shortly before he does disappear to the state-capital Columbus, he has a one-night fling with Jessie.
Straight after the incident, we skip forward a few months and find Jessie pregnant, assumedly from her night with Carl, who has only just returned to town, after cutting off all contact with his family whilst away. Jessie has told no one what happened or who the father is, though her father is desperate to find out and get her married before the baby is born. Carl tries to convince her they should run away together and start a new life, but Jessie, though close to her half-brother, knows what they did was wrong and they have no future together. There is, however, doubt as to whether they are in fact blood-relations, so Carl tries desperately to prove they aren’t.
It’s potentially quite a melodramatic story and it’s no surprise the taboo subject matter attracted a sleaze-merchant like Joseph Brenner. However, Anderson and Miller treat it with surprising sensitivity. As one of the contributors in the special features puts it, the central couple are like Shakespearian “star-crossed lovers”. The film doesn’t excuse what they did. The act itself even comes across as rape at first (though Jessie’s behaviour and a key line, stating “I could have stopped ya”, suggest otherwise) but you do feel the connection between them and aren’t immediately repelled by their actions.
In fact, you root for the protagonists, not through condoning their sexual relationship, but in wanting them to escape their fate. This is the film’s main theme, that of being trapped or bound. The town is a character unto itself and we don’t only hear of how it’s holding back Carl and Jessie. Their parents also get poignant monologues about how their lives have been drained as their surroundings died (the town used to be full of life when the mines were still running). The father delivers his in a particularly powerful sequence, played out in one beautifully constructed long dolly shot.
Moments like this are particularly astonishing when you realise the production was pretty much a student film. Anderson was a teacher at the university, but the rest of the crew were pupils. None of the crew had worked on a film before, they were studying photography in fact. The film looks gorgeous though. The budget only allowed for a couple of lights, but this is used to the film’s advantage, leading to sumptuous low-key, often high-contrast imagery. They used any means possible to add movement too, strapping the camera to cars and homemade trollies. There’s even a thrilling sequence following a motorbike and car – not quite a chase scene but with all the visual excitement of one.
The editing is excellent too, with a great sense of pace – imbuing great energy to scenes such as a night in a crowded bar and then pulling it back when wanting to get more intimate with its characters.
The sound quality is the only aspect that clearly shows the low-budget, student nature of the production. The ADR is quite blatant in places and location dialogue is occasionally not clear. All things considered, they did a fairly good job though.
There’s quite a strong sense of naturalism to the performances. The leads were professional actors (though not paid here) and do a decent job, then you’ve got non-actors filling the background parts effectively. There’s a great sense of place and atmosphere through this technique, as well as through the use of locations. The lighting, editing and camerawork are a little stylised, avoiding a typically ‘gritty’ look, but there remains a raw quality to the film.
The film’s conclusion might prove unsatisfactory to some, ending quite abruptly with no easy answers to the questions brought up by the film. However, I quite liked it. Dramatically it wasn’t very impactful, but it left me with food for thought rather than tying everything in a neat bow.
So, although it’s low-key nature may not be for everyone, it’s a fine example of early independent American filmmaking. Authentic yet artistically presented, it’s clearly the work of a fine filmmaker. So it’s a shame the film never got the attention it deserved until decades later. If Faces hadn’t have trodden on its toes at the New York Film Festival, who knows what would have happened. Instead, Anderson was left to go back to his day job (though he’s credited as making one other feature in 1972, America First, of which I can find very little information).
It makes you wonder what other lost gems have slipped through the cracks over the years. No doubt countless talented people have worked hard to produce films that could stand tall against other independent and studio titles, but nobody’s been able to see them. Hats off then to film restoration champions like Nicolas Winding Refn and labels like Indicator who are giving some of these films a new lease of life.
Spring Night Summer Night is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Indicator. The picture quality is stunning, particularly given the obscurity of the film. It’s flawless, with a crisp, detailed look. The audio is as good as it can be, given the low-tech recording techniques.
There are a handful of special features included in the package too:
– New 4K restoration
– Original mono audio
– ‘Spring Night Summer Night’: 50 Years Later (2020, 25 mins): retrospective documentary by Glenn Litton featuring interviews with writer-director Joseph L Anderson, writer-producer Franklin Miller, actors John Crawford, Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall, and sound mixer Tom Peterson
– I’m Goin’ to Straitsville (2020, 14 mins): documentary revisiting the Columbus, Ohio locations with Franklin and Judy Miller, and archivist and restoration supervisor Peter Conheim
– In the Middle of the Nights: From Arthouse to Grindhouse and Back Again (2020, 13 mins): video essay by restoration supervisor Ross Lipman comparing Spring Night Summer Night to its ‘sexploitation’ recut, Miss Jessica Is Pregnant
– Cleveland Cinematheque Q&A (2016, 48 mins): cast and crew panel discussion
– 16mm Behind-the-Scenes Footage (1967, silent): rare and previously unseen material from the film’s production, with optional commentary by Franklin Miller and Peter Conheim
– Three short films by Anderson, comprising the ‘Bluegrass Trilogy’: Football as It Is Played Today (1961), How Swived (1962), and Cheers (1963)
– Image gallery: behind-the-scenes photography
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Ian Mantgani, Glenn Litton’s memories of director Joseph L Anderson, Peter Conheim on the film’s restoration, a look at the career of distributor Joseph L Brenner, Conheim on the ‘Bluegrass Trilogy’, and film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies
This is a fabulous package. There’s no commentary, which is a shame, but there’s plenty here to make up for that. In fact, the on-set behind the scenes footage does have its own commentary, and given this footage runs for a little over an hour it provides an extensive look into the production process, aided by the wonderful archive material.
The Q&A and ‘50 Years Later’ documentary are both very inspiring for wannabe filmmakers, with eye-opening tales of the production and aftermath. All involved speak warmly of the shoot without sounding like they’re merely back-slapping either.
The location piece is quite interesting, largely because it includes a few deleted scenes from the film. Also touching on some of these is the must-watch ‘In the Middle of the Nights’ featurette, which discusses the Miss Jessica is Pregnant debacle and how the new restoration differs slightly from the original, taking a couple of minor cues from the butchered version.
The short films are not bad. Football as It Is Played Today (1961) and How Swived (1962) are based around sped-up footage. The latter does it to satirical effect so did more for me than the football film, which was vaguely interesting but nothing special. Cheers (1963) was my favourite short. It’s a documentary account of a college basketball game, focussing largely on the cheerleaders watching and performing. I thought it did a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere and personalities of the crowd.
As is customary with Indicator’s limited edition releases, there’s a booklet included too, and as usual, it is superb. There are reams of fascinating material about the film’s production and release history.
So, all together it’s a release that comes highly recommended.