A Look Back: Dirty Dancing

A couple of years ago one summer, I exited the grocery store with my bags and the vague sense that I was missing something.  Sure enough, the bagger was kind enough to pursue me out to the parking lot in order to point out the following.

“Excuse me! Excuse me, but I think you have forgotten your watermelon!”

Returning sheepishly to the store to pick it up, I resisted the temptation to make a “Dirty Dancing” joke, but it was tempting.  I resisted, however, because you never know if a movie that made an impression on you had the same impact on a stranger.

But I think the line, “I carried a watermelon,” ranks right up there with, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!” as one of the most quoted lines from “Dirty Dancing.”  And really, is there a dorkier, and hence more endearing opening line to the cinematic man of your dreams than, “I carried a watermelon,” which is what Jennifer Grey’s character blurts out to Patrick Swayze’s hot dance instructor at a Catskills resort in “Dirty Dancing”?  The  resort is populated by mostly middle class Jewish families on summer vacation, many of whom appear to be already retired.  Jennifer’s parents, however, played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop, are a bit younger, and her dad is still a doctor, which will become integral to the plot.

Though there’s a shortage of males under 30, Jennifer’s sister falls in love with a guy her age who appears to be an upstanding citizen, but who actually turns out to be scum; and Jennifer falls in love with Patrick, who she spots dirty dancing with the rest of the young staff off duty.  Though Patrick initially appears to be a hunky, but not particularly upwardly striving guy, Jennifer’s dad is not pleased with his daughter’s choice – although Patrick is actually a really good guy.  Because – irony – and one of the movie’s themes is that you should never judge a book by its cover.

Jennifer becomes involved with the staff when she volunteers to take Patrick’s dance partner’s (Cynthia Rhodes) place when she has to undergo an abortion the same time as a performance (held away from the resort).  Despite having no sense of rhythm whatsoever, Jennifer generously begins to bypass the cribbage and Bingo tournaments and spend most of her free time being tutored by Patrick.  Soon she’s exchanging steamy glances, as she comes of age to a really cool soundtrack.  Her debut is actually a success, but they return to find that something has gone wrong with the operation, and Jennifer makes the decision to blow her cover and get her father to help Cynthia.  Jerry is pretty cool with lending his expertise (unlike many teen movies, the parents are allowed to have more than one dimension), but he is displeased to find out how involved Jennifer is with “those people” and orders her to stay away.  Surprisingly, she does not become the first teenager in movie history to decide that her parent has her best interests at heart and so keeps on seeing Patrick.

Eventually, there is drama surrounding who really impregnated Cynthia and there’s a mystery concerning a rash of wallet thefts that needs to be cleared up.  Jennifer, who is heading for Mount Holyoke and the Peace Corps, and lives on Planet Young Starry Eyed Idealism, tries to persuade Patrick to take a stand and arrange a more R-rated dance number for the end of the summer show.   But Patrick winds up leaving early – simply so he can return in the middle of the show and utter the famous line, “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.”  Then they start dirty dancing, and Jennifer’s mom is surprisingly impressed saying, “I think she gets it from me.”  Soon the audience has joined in, and they are all having the time of their life.  And coolest of all – at least from my viewpoint the first time I saw it, Jerry actually apologizes for misjudging Patrick.  Although the older, more cynical me wonders now if it was also reverse psychology.

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