History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.
November 2

63 years ago today, famous aviator, industrialist, film producer, philanthropist, and urine collector, Howard Hughes piloted the first, and last, voyage of the much ballyhooed Hughes H-4 Hercules, which the press had snarkily dubbed the “Spruce Goose.” While it is hard for me to resist the urge to talk about The Rocketeer and Jason Robards, even more alluring is the chance to talk about my Alma mater and girls in short skirts.

It was 112 years ago today, that a proud American tradition was born…

On November 2, 1898, the University of Minnesota football team (for our non-American readers out there, I’m of course referring to the kind of football where you’ll get a penalty for using your feet) was playing their final game against Northwestern University. The U of M’s team had been having a lackluster year, and there was a general feeling on campus that this was due to lack of enthusiasm during the games. So several students, lead by Johnny Campbell on a megaphone, decided to lead the crowd of spectators in a chant: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” The crowd went bananas, as they say, and an energized Minnesota team won the game 17-6.

Johnny Campbell
(what a 21-year-old looked like in 1898)

That day Johnny Campbell and his (presumably drunk) friends became the first cheerleader squad.

Excited by the results of the Northwestern game, the following season the U of M rolled out an organized “yell leader” squad of six male students. By the 1920’s females started getting involved due to a combination of limited female collegiate sports and pesky wars stealing away able-bodied men.

In 1948, Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, a former cheerleader at Southern Methodist University, formed the National Cheerleaders Association. Herkimer also founded the first cheerleading uniform supply company, created the “Spirit Stick,” and invented the classic cheerleading move the “herkie” – this bad boy…

Herkimer was largely responsible for the creation and organization of competitive cheerleading competitions, which surged in popularity nationwide when CBS broadcast the Collegiate Cheerleading Championships in 1978. But probably nothing did more to alter and forever cement the current cheerleader stereotype than the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL teams had been adding professional cheerleading squads to their game-time entertainment throughout the 1960’s, but they were largely perfunctory. By the end of the 60’s, Cowboys manager Tex Schramm decided that the Dallas cheer team, the CowBelles & Beaux, needed a face-lift. He saw cheerleaders as something to not only keep fans entertained during the numerous downtime moments that occur in American Football, but as a potential draw themselves. His history changing epiphany?

Get rid of the dudes.

The renamed Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders debuted in the 1972–1973 season, and exploded onto the national scene during Super Bowl X (1976). These new cheerleaders bore a far greater resemblance to a Vegas chorus line than a high school cheer squad. Gone were the complicated pyramids and cheer routines, in were skimpy outfits and sexy dance moves. To say that audiences liked the change is an understatement. Very quickly the popular image of a cheerleader went from this…

To this…

And an American icon was born – for better or worse. Only Catholic schoolgirls have rivaled the cheerleader as the ultimate wholesome/naughty male fantasy in these ensuing decades.

While cheerleading has appeared in sports cinema since sports cinema began, it always served as background detail or fodder for minor gags. Unsurprisingly, it was not until this new female-centric cheerleading image was seared onto the male psyche that we started to finally see films about cheerleaders. The flood gates were now open.

The Cheerleaders (1973)
Just one year after the Cowboys introduced their revamped all-girl team, Hollywood came back with this tedious yet amiable boobfest, which assuredly began the consolidation of the high school cheerleader fantasy for American men. There are few other films I can think of outside of I Spit On Your Grave that more heavily feature gang rape than The Cheerleaders. The big difference here is that it is girl on guy rape, and no one is inspired to get bloody revenge. The plot is almost simplistically brilliant (as far as softcore films go). Our horny cheerleaders are cheering on a lousy football team, so they decide to take matters into their own, um, hands. Their plan? To kidnap and have sex with the members of the opposing teams the night before each game, thereby making them too tired to play effectively the following day. Aside from all the “rape,” the film also features the various girls seducing a bus driver, a fellow cheerleader’s brother and father, and their own coach. Turns out this was a winning formula…

The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)
This inevitable sequel to The Cheerleaders from exploitation master Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Switchblade Sisters) is an icon of 70’s trash-cinema. We move from high school to college, where an aspiring journalist, Kate (Jo Johnston), joins the cheerleading team with plans to write a damning exposé on the female-exploitative institution, but of course ends up boinking the quarterback and repeatedly taking her top off. This has decidedly more plot than its predecessor, featuring a sinister collusion between the football team’s coach and the dean to rig the games for gambling purposes. The film co-stars my childhood Clue crush, Colleen Camp. Two forgettable films followed this in the Cheerleader series: Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1976), and Cheerleaders Wild Weekend (1979).

Lovely But Deadly (1981)
Speaking of Jack Hill, this film is a reworking of Coffy. Written and directed by David Sheldon (writer of my favorite Jaws knock-off, Grizzly), the film tells the story of vigilante cheerleader Mary Ann ‘Lovely’ Lovett (Lucinda Dooling), who decides to take on her high school’s drug dealers personally after her brother OD’s and she discovers a number of her fellow cheerleaders are hooked too. Using her attractiveness, she gets close to the dealers, then beats the shit out of them and kills them. The film features this fantastic exchange:
“You wanna hit?” To which Lovely responds, “No… but you do.” Then she punches the dealer in the face. Solid gold.

Gimme an “F” (1984)
Before the Mighty Ducks, there were the Moline Ducks, the ragtag no-hope cheerleading squad at the center of this “comedy.” The first produced screenplay of James V Hart (Hook, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Contact), this film centers on a competition at a cheerleading camp. The camp’s owner makes a bet with one of the camp instructors (Stephen Shellen), that the instructor can’t turn the Ducks into champions. Sexy dance sequences, pranks, and nudity ensue. Laughs do not.

Lucas (1986)
The tragicomedy that helped launch Corey Haim to Tiger Beat super stardom, and taught a generation of boys what would happen if you put icy/hot on your junk, tells the story of a lovable nerd, Lucas (Haim) who finds himself the invisible corner in a love triangle between Maggie (The Goonies’ Kerri Green) and Cappie (lover of women, Charlie Sheen). Lucas has a crush on new-girl-at-school Maggie, and becomes forlorn when she joins the cheerleading squad to get closer to Lucas’ older friend/protector, Cappie. In a bold move to win Maggie’s affection, the diminutive Lucas joins the football team, to disastrous results. The film’s finale features one of the all-time greatest 80’s slow-claps. Random personal anecdote: for an embarrassingly large chunk of my childhood I mistakenly thought this movie was called Locust – I assume because of an extremely minor role the insects play in the film. And because I was stupid.

The Majorettes (1986)
This 80’s Slasher oddity comes from the pen of Night of the Living Dead screenwriter James A Russo (based on his own novel), and is directed by Bill Hinzman, who played the Cemetery Zombie in NOTLD. It was originally to have effects make-up by Romero regular Tom Savini too, but the gore master had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. What is left is a fairly middling work about a masked killer who is bumping off members of a high school majorette team (technically not classic cheerleaders, though it all amounts to the same thing here). The film’s one saving graze is its bonkers transition into an action movie during its final third.

Cheerleader Camp (1988)
This goofy horror comedy stars Private School‘s Betsy Russell as Alison, a troubled pill-popping cheerleader with some personal demons, who is attending the cheer camp, Camp Hurrah, with her squadmates and for some reason her womanizing boyfriend (Leif Garrett) and his idiot friend, Timmy (Travis McKenna). What is largely an 80’s sex-romp – Timmy dresses as a woman to get a better view of the undressing cheerleaders, for example – eventually turns to horror when Alison becomes haunted by nightmares of murders that soon become reality. When she learns of these real-life murders, Alison begins suspecting that she may in fact be the killer!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Fran Rubel Kuzui, now best known for her executive producer screen credit on this film’s TV adaptation, first introduced Joss Whedon’s titular vampire killer in this Kristy Swanson sub-classic. Viewed separately from its vastly superior television counterpart, the film – which tells the tale of Buffy Summers (Swanson), a cheerleader who learns she is a prophesied vampire slayer – has some merit. Aside from Whedon’s not entirely watered down script, it features memorable turns from Rutger Hauger, Paul Reubens and David Arquette, along with bit parts from then unfamous Ben Affleck and Tom Jane.

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993)
This Emmy and Golden Globe winning HBO movie from Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, Fletch) stars Holly Hunter as, well, I kind of feel like the title of this film lets you know the gist of things. In real-life, the Texan Wanda Holloway got her brother-in-law hire a hitman to try and kill the mother of one of her daughter’s classmates, for the purposes of advancing her daughter’s middle school cheerleading career (presuming this girl would be too heartbroken over the loss of her mother to succeed at cheering). Ritchie was smart enough to see the obvious humor in this, unlike the makers of CBS’s Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, which decided this was no laughing matter. They were wrong. It is. Beau Bridges, Swoosie Kurtz, and Gregg Henry co-star.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
Jamie Babbit’s satirical look at the ridiculous world of conversion therapy stars Natasha Lyonne as Megan, a happy high school cheerleader, whose friends and family are convinced is a lesbian. After an intervention, Megan is sent to a therapy camp to cure her lesbianism, but it is here that Megan ironically discovers said lesbianism. The film, which is mediocre John Water lite, ended up being most notable for getting slapped with an NC-17 by the MPAA, requiring Babbit to tone down a lot of the homosexuality – something she had a thing or two to say about in the 2006 anti-MPAA documentary, The Film Is Not Yet Rated. The film co-stars Clea DuVall, RuPaul, Mink Stole, and Bud Cort.

Bring It On (2000)
The cheerleader film to end them all. The story of Torrance (Kirsten Dunst), who takes over leadership of her cheerleading squad, The Toros, after former team captain, Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) graduates, only to – dun dun dunnnn – discover that Big Red had been stealing all her routines from the East Compton Clovers, an African-American inner-city team. Bring It On’s stroke of genius was finally finding a way to exploit cheerleading in such a way that girls actually wanted to see the film, yet without having to tone down cheerleading’s inherent sexual appeal (ie, so boys would still be willing to buy a ticket). A perfect balance that gives us both Eliza Dushku in a bikini and a healthy serving of grrrl power. It is also the rare cheerleading film that puts men back on the cheer squad. Often unfairly lumped in with its imitators, Bring It On stands above the rabble because of Jessica Bendinger’s script, which is surprisingly dirty for a PG-13 teen comedy.

Sugar & Spice (2001)
This weird and not entirely successful teen comedy/crime film (shot in my home state of Minnesota – woot! woot!) stars Marley Shelton as Diana, the airheaded captain of her high school cheer squad. When Diane gets knocked up by the school’s quarterback, Jack (James Marsden), their families cut them off financially. In order to get enough money to raise the baby, Diane and her squadmates Kansas (Mena Suvari), Cleo (Melissa George), Lucy (Sara Marsh), Hannah (Rachel Blanchard), and Fern (Alexandra Holden), slap on masks and turn to bank robbery. Complicating matters further, Lisa (Marla Sokoloff) a scheming member of the school’s B-squad cheer team, suspects what our girls are up to. The film also stars Sean Young and Deadwood’s W. Earl Brown.

Well, that’s about all the cheerleading I think I can handle. See you all next time. There is still plenty of history and plenty of movies to talk about.