Spielberg and Jaws Make Motion Picture History

On this day in 1975, Universal releases Jaws, its tale of torn flesh and teeth directed by wunderkind Steven Spielberg. The infamous story of a 20-foot great white shark that terrorizes a New England resort town became an instant blockbuster and the highest-grossing film in movie history until bested by 1977’s Star Wars.

Jaws was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and took home three Oscars for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound. The breakthrough film for director Spielberg, just 27 years old, spawned three sequels.

The film starred Roy Scheider as heroic police chief Martin Brody, Robert Shaw as Ahab-esque shark hunter Quint, Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss as Dreyfuss), Murray Hamilton as Larry Vaughn, the craven mayor of Amity Island, and Lorraine Gary as Brody’s long-suffering wife, Ellen. The screenplay is credited to both Benchley, who wrote the first drafts, and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb, who rewrote the script during principal photography.

Shot largely on location in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the film had a troubled production, going over budget and past schedule. As the art department’s mechanical sharks, generally named “Bruce,” suffered many malfunctions, Spielberg elected to mostly suggest the animal’s presence, employing an ominous, minimalistic theme created by composer John Williams to foretell the shark’s impending appearances. Spielberg and others have compared this suggestive approach to that of classic thriller director Alfred Hitchcock, and the pre-feeding theme is of the most iconic in film score history.

Universal Pictures gave the film what was then an exceptionally broad release for a major studio picture on over 450 screens, accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign with a heavy emphasis on television spots and tie-in merchandise. Now seen as the archetype of the Summer blockbuster genre, its release was a watershed moment in motion picture history.

Along with successor blockbuster Star Wars, Jaws was pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which revolves around high box-office returns from action and adventure pictures with simple “high-concept” premises that are released during the Summer in thousands of theaters and supported by heavy advertising. Sadly, Jaws itself was followed by three ever weaker sequels, none with the participation of Spielberg or Benchley, but still spawned countless serviceable imitative thrillers.

In 2001, Jaws was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” To this very day, your humble scribe recalls 1975 himself, swimming together with friends Jonathan Kampner and Jimmy Quagline, rapid heart rates beating wildly, insisting we saw sharks in Keego Harbor’s Cass Lake all Summer long.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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