When I was 16 years old, all the high school students raved about a new movie playing at the local drive-in theater, an R rated comedy called The Swinging Cheerleaders. The drive-in theater management didn't take R ratings very seriously. If they saw a car load of teenagers drive up, and there were plenty of theater speakers still sitting on poles (instead of on car doors), chances were good they'd take your money and wave you past.
I was a bit leery about The Swinging Cheerleaders. The television ads made its comedy look limp and its sexual innuendo sophomoric. However, on Friday night, when my friends and I got together and tried to decide what to do that evening, they yelled for The Swinging Cheerleaders. Outnumbered at least 4 to 1, I gave in.
I wasn't particularly impressed with the movie. However, it was clear rightaway that it had its advantages. You could leave for the concession stand, come back ten minutes later, and not feel like you'd miss a crucial part of the movie. And the movie's titillation factor was just high enough that you could practically smell the hormones in the air. That night two of my friends picked up two blurry-eyed girls. With arms wrapped around the girls' shoulders like they'd been dating them for several weeks, they retired to the girls' car. That was the last time we saw them that evening.
The next week when we got together on Friday night, I wanted to show my friends a good movie. They eventually relented. So this time when we went to the drive-in, we saw Roman Polanski's Chinatown. A great movie. However, within 30 minutes after the movie started, everyone (and I mean everyone) was asleep--except for me. Needless to say, nobody picked up any girls that evening.
That was the last time I tried to educate my friends by forcing upon them a good movie at the drive-in. And I suspect it was the last time they would have listened to my opinion about appropriate drive-in theater material.
Colleen Camp in The Swinging Cheerleaders.
Twenty-five years later, drive-in theaters are an endangered species. But some things remain the same: The Swinging Cheerleaders is still available for viewing. Thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment, it is now available on DVD.
When The Swinging Cheerleaders appeared on Anchor Bay's release calendar, I thought now would be a good time to revisit the movie. The movie's director, Jack Hill, has attracted a cult following. Quentin Tarantino brought attention to another Jack Hill movie, Switchblade Sisters, when he re-released it through his own company. And thanks to the recent resurgence of Pam Grier's career, courtesy of Tarantino's Jackie Brown, interest has also been reawakened in Jack Hill's The Big Doll Cage, The Big Bird Cage, Foxy Brown, and Coffy--all starring a young Pam Grier. Best of all, Jack Hill's Spider Baby has attracted a cult-like following who appreciate the movie's bizarre mixture of family togetherness and genetic degeneration.
Described by Hill himself as "a Disney sex comedy," The Swinging Cheerleaders is filled with bright colors and sunlight. Set at a fictional college called Mesa University, the story follows the misadventures of a group of cheerleaders. Rosanne Katon (who would soon be featured as a Playboy centerfold) is in love with one of her teachers. They make out in his office after class. Colleen Camp (who has made a career out of supporting roles, such as her turn as Reese Witherspoon's mother in Election) plays the bitchy one. She's the only one of the four leads who isn't asked to take off her clothes for the camera. Rainbeaux Smith (who attracted a cult following after her performances in Caged Heat and Massacre at Central High) plays the virgin. Her fellow cheerleaders urge her to give it up and join the party, but the time just never seems right. And Jo Johnston (whose career pretty much went nowhere) plays a journalist who infiltrates the cheerleaders squad so that she can write an expose on "female exploitation in contemporary society."
The DVD cover boasts that The Swinging Cheerleaders is "one of the '70s most subversive and surprising drive-in favorites," but that's mostly hyperbole--as Hill himself admits on the DVD's audio commentary track. Much of the feminism angle, for example, begins to evaporate as soon as Johnston makes the cheerleader squad: she lets the football team's star quarterback grope her under the table at a restaurant while she grins like a Cheshire cat. She loves being a cheerleader. The movie's most subversive element is the way it exposes the campus radical as a sexist jerk who even initiates the gang bang of a cheerleader.
Contrary to what the DVD cover says, The Swinging Cheerleaders is a remarkably conservative teenage sex movie. The teachers (and the football coach) are the villains: they're betting on football and forcing players to throw games. The cheerleaders and football players come to the rescue and save the day. In the movie's climactic scene, the cheerleaders and football players team up to retrieve their quarterback from the clutches of a pair of crooked cops. So just like you'd expect for a movie aimed at teenagers, it shows adults can't be trusted. That's the prime motivation, to give us a situation where cheerleaders and football players can be the heroines and heroes--while mixing in enough sexual innuendo to fuel the imaginations of the teenage audience.
On those terms, the movie is a roaring success. It mixes in just enough intimations of politics to make the movie seem like more than a simple showcase for T&A. In fact, when the movie first hit drive-in theaters back in the summer of '74, teenagers of both sexes seemed to love the movie. For a few hot summer weeks, it was the movie to see.
25 years later, The Swinging Cheerleaders still feels like a drive-in movie. And without the drive-in experience surrounding it, it feels clumsy. The climactic scene--which Hill filmed like a slapstick comedy fight scene, complete with ragtime music--is so dreadful you have to see it to believe it. On the DVD's audio commentary track, Hill and exploitation expert Johnny Legend insist that the movie doesn't look dated. And they're right. Hill gave the movie a generic, almost timeless exterior. However, The Swinging Cheerleaders feels naked without the drive-in experience to help buoy the limp comedy and the underdeveloped politics.
The Swinging Cheerleaders is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Suggested retail price: $24.99. The alternate audio track features commentary by director Jack Hill and film historian Johnny Legend. The film is presented at a widescreen ratio of 1.66:1.