Thanksgiving isn’t the first thing to come to mind when you think of the Rocky franchise, but three of the original run, and both Creed movies, opened on that holiday. While this could be because the Thanksgiving box office is traditionally a celebratory event, it may also be a kind of apology. The relationship between the boxer and the holiday got off to a rocky start.
“To you it’s Thanksgiving, to me it’s Thursday,” Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) tells Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire) as he leads her away from a failed family dinner. He says this moments after Adrian’s brother Paulie (Burt Young) threw the turkey she was cooking into the alley. The sibling even rips off a leg before tossing it out the side door, with a big chunk of thigh attached.
He deserved it. It may not appear like Paulie does when you first watch the scene of him abusing a tasty bird while at the same time belittling and humiliating his sister. But that seemingly insensitive act sparks the flame at the center of the film. Rocky isn’t a boxing movie; the later sequels were, but not the original. It’s a love story, and the Thanksgiving date sequence is as exciting, nuanced, and important as the final round.
Rocky doesn’t fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the Heavyweight Champion of the World, for Adrian. He does it because that’s what boxers do. He also goes the distance against all odds to overcome the stigma of breaking thumbs for a living.
So he didn’t take the fight to impress his lover. He’d even been discouraged by his own trainer and gym manager Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who warns the southpaw “women weaken legs.” What does Mickey know? He’s also the guy who gave away Rocky’s locker and called him a “leg-breaker.” Rocky doesn’t have to prove anything to Adrian, she would be happy to support whatever decision he makes. But when the fight’s over, Adrian is the only thing that matters to Rocky.
None of this would have happened if Paulie hadn’t thrown that bird out the door. This isn’t to say Paulie is cuddly with brotherly love in doing this. When Rocky first tells him he wants to date Adrian, Paulie can’t see why he’d even be interested. There’s a reason Adrian’s pushing 30 and still not married, she’s “busted.”
Paulie sees his sister as a responsibility he’d like to pass off, and Adrian doesn’t even want to be seen. While their family dynamic is problematic, when Paulie rips the turkey from the oven, he does it for altruistic reasons. He wants his sister to have a nice time so much he gives her no choice but to get out. Paulie may not completely agree with himself on what he’s doing, but he knows he’s putting together two lonely people who could each use company. Rocky got roped into following his instincts after a really bad day. He lost his locker for breaking legs, and his job for not breaking them. On his way home, he does a good deed for the mid-week holiday and gets treated like a jive-ass turkey.
It doesn’t look like the antipasto is any better at the Pennino house either. The first thing Adrian does when Paulie brings Rocky into the apartment is lock herself in the bedroom. Paulie may not always be in his sister’s corner, but he coaches Rocky to a win in round one of their first date: getting her out of the house, all while nibbling the turkey leg. But it’s Paulie’s parting gift which will ultimately clinch the match. As Rocky’s walking out the door, he asks Paulie what his sister likes to do. “Ice skating,” Paulie says.
The ice-skating rink scene is the centerpoint of the courtship. The walk up to it is aimless, and Rock delivers street poetry in almost onomatopoeia. Director John G. Avildsen gets an amazingly vulnerable performance from Stallone the actor, and Stallone the screenwriter fuses his lines with beautifully inarticulate eloquence. Rocky calls himself a moron, you have to be dumb to be a fighter. He says being a boxer is halfway to being a bum. Rocky’s father told him to work with his body because he had no brains. Adrian’s mother told her to develop her brains, because she didn’t have a good body. Rocky concludes he and Adrian “make a really fine couple of cocoanuts,” with him being so dumb, and her being so shy.
Shy is an understatement. Adrian looks like she wants to be completely invisible. With every step she takes, we can feel Shire willing that character to fall into a crack in the sidewalk and disappear from existence. This is so far removed from the young Connie Corleone who shouted “vaffanculo you” to her cheating husband in The Godfather before throwing a plate of spaghetti at his nuts. Both of her characters rise from emotionally oppressed beginnings to mark their place in a competitive world. But the contrast is as interesting as the dramatic contradiction of Adrian warming up while skating on ice. Rocky can’t even skate and has to maneuver in shoes. She is more in her element than he is, yet still out of it.
The sequence concludes at Rocky’s apartment, where he reintroduces Adrian to the turtles she sold him at J&M Tropical Fish pet shop. She was intimidated by Rocky when he first came into the store. Rocky uses that tension and suspense against itself to infuse a tender uncertainty into one of cinema’s most sexually heated scenes.
Rocky may have been able to convince the manager to open the skating rink, but the fact remains, it was closed for Thanksgiving when they got there in the movie. If Rock lived in New York, he could have taken her to see Rocky, which opened there on Nov. 21, 1976, just in time for the Thanksgiving weekend.
At the end of that film, heavyweight champ Apollo swears he does not want seconds. But when Rocky “the Italian Stallion” Balboa gets to fight Apollo “The Master of Disaster,” “The King of Sting,” “The Dancing Destroyer,” “The Prince of Punch,” “The Count of Monte Fisto” Creed again in Rocky II, the rematch is set for Thanksgiving Day. The championship belt he then wins becomes the second greatest thing he has to be thankful for from the holiday. Adrian watched it on TV with her brother.