By Brett Yates
To make things immediately clear, “Hot Dog… The Movie” is not good. Indeed, one could go so far as to call its post-ellipsis subtitle aspirational, or at least a reflection of a certain need for self-reassurance: “Hot Dog,” a low-budget comedy directed by Peter Markle, really is just barely a movie at all, and it seems to know it. In a very minor sense, however, within the context of how skiing has been represented on screen over the years, it is sort of important.
Despite its critical acclaim and star power, the 1969 release “Downhill Racer” was not a box office smash, barely earning back its budget. The sports of the Summer Olympics—covered most famously by “Chariots of Fire,” the Best Picture of 1981—retained Hollywood’s favor as subjects for athletic competition dramas. Meanwhile, producers would eventually reorient the ski-movie genre, turning its focus away from the sport itself and onto the lifestyle surrounding it.
Skiing movies would become comedies about ski resorts, not dramas about skiing, in the same way that “Caddyshack” was about a country club, not about golf. In fact, destination ski areas allowed for a markedly similar set of comic possibilities in their exclusivity and presumed snobbery, and they even presented a more credible fun-loving opposition of unpretentious youngsters—specifically, the freewheeling “ski bums” who staff the resort.
In plot terms, “Hot Dog… The Movie” resembles “Downhill Racer” more than it does later comedies like “Ski Patrol” (1990) or “Ski School” (1991). Still, it marks an obvious shift toward the latter style, and by the end of the movie, the viewer has become fully immersed in the wacky world of amateur skiing—far, far away from the ascetic rigor of the Olympians.
The story follows a handsome young Idahoan named Harkin (Patrick Houser) who—in the process of road-tripping to Lake Tahoe for the Freestyle Skiing World Cup, for which he hopes to qualify—picks up a cute hitchhiker, Sunny (Tracey Smith), who’s on her way to San Francisco. She decides to tag along with Harkin and spend a few days at Squaw Valley. A romance blossoms between them as Harkin—alongside a ragtag group of chuckleheaded pro skiers who, in tribute to their penchant for Alpine mischief, call themselves the Rat Pack—struggles to best the Nazi-esque defending champ, the famed Austrian Rudolph Garmisch.
“Hot Dog” is casually sexist (and xenophobic) in the classic manner of teen sex comedies like “Porky’s,” which may strike some viewers as repulsive, others as nostalgic, and still others as both. Skiing, here, is properly a boys’ pursuit; Sunny has never tried it. When we see a women on the slopes (in this case, famed Playmate Shannon Tweed, as a silicone-enhanced seductress), we know she’s up to no good.
Besides its complete absence of funny jokes, the movie’s main failure, within the bounds of its low-level genre, is its failure to integrate its prudish, personality-devoid protagonist into the lascivious hijinks of the Rat Pack. The movie is saddled with Harkin and his traditional competitive ambitions, when its real interests are in the goofball antics of the mountain’s freeskiers and the drunken hookup culture of après-ski, in which Harkin participates only reluctantly or else not all, remaining an observer and stripping the scenes of storytelling purpose. Wet T-shirt contests, in film, tend to be gratuitous, but never so much as here.
It doesn’t help that Houser is a flat-out terrible actor, capable only of smirking at the camera in recognition of his own stock-standard good looks. His self-regarding performance doesn’t communicate any actual attraction in the direction of his character’s love interest, and as a consequence, Sunny’s attachment to her indifferent male companion becomes an oddly tender and incongruously pitiful affair: a teenage runaway’s desperation for any semblance of affection that she can find.
Although some of the best freestyle skiers of the era were hired as stunt doubles, the action sequences were staged for novice audiences: mogul skiing, in particular, is presented, egregiously, as a kind of flamboyant hopping from place to place rather than an effort to maintain a strict line of turns with as much speed as possible. Unfortunately, Markle lingers most of all over the sequences featuring ski ballet (or “acroski”)—which, to be fair, was a genuine discipline at the time, however ridiculous it may look today. We also see some colorful aerial skiing, but what we don’t see, significantly, is the austere perfectionism of the sport depicted in “Downhill Racer,” though in some sense Houser is just a degraded low-budget version of Robert Redford—“Hot Dog” simply takes the character’s dullness a little less seriously.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what Harkin does in competition, since the judging is blatantly rigged against the good-ol’-boy Americans, in favor of the decadent Europeans. The solution, amazingly, is not to insist upon an inquiry into the judging panel’s potential conflicts of interest; the American professional skiers in this universe are utterly unconcerned by the impact that their obviously unjust losses might have on their earnings. They just want to show that Austrian guy a thing or two, and in the film’s most famous sequence, they agree to an unofficial, unregulated race from the top of the mountain to the bottom, with a mass start, no gates, no set course, and all of the freestylists participating: an event called the “Chinese Downhill”—FIS contests were never what this movie was about, really.
The inexplicable abovementioned name naturally registered, for me, as a bizarre and ambiguously racist Hollywood concoction; reading online, however, I’ve found that the Chinese Downhill was an actual tradition at Squaw Valley (just like in the movie, but with a mandatory shot of tequila at the finish line) until one of the racers struck and killed a spectator in 1974. The event was barred thereafter, a decade before its insanity was immortalized on film—if “Hot Dog… The Movie” counts as immortality.