Monday, 3 September 2012

"A Summer Place": An Endless Love

Why do I love this movie so much? What compelled me at the age of thirteen to watch it on television? I don't know, but I fell in love with the film, and all these years later, I love it still. It was years before my time, and still I felt as though it was an important part of my adolescence.  And now, when I hear Max Steiner's glorious theme, the nostalgic feelings of my own teenage days coming rushing back. By today's standards, "A Summer Place" may seem dated to some, even corny or over-the-top.  However, melodramas of that time, or dare I say it, soap opera melodramas were very different than what makes it to the big screen today. The issues the movie addresses, however, are as relevant now as it was back in 1959.

Significantly for me, this was the first time I saw Sandra Dee in a film, and it was easy to see why she became a pop culture icon.  This, along with her two other films of that same year - "Gidget" and "Imitation Of Life", solidified her status as a teen idol and household name, immortalizing her in the song "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in "Grease".  At the time when I first viewed the movie, I had no idea the traumatic and tragic circumstances of Sandra's life and what hastened her retirement from the entertainment industry. If I did know, the significance of her character's relationship with her mother would have resonated all the more. Her portrayal is that of an innocent young girl, stifled by her mother's control and inspired by her father's free spirit about being true to and not being ashamed of herself. Her Molly Jorgenson finds herself caught in the middle between her parents and conflicted about whether to act on her feelings toward the dreamboat she meets at Pine Island.

Which brings me to the other teen idol that made a splash in his first starring role: Troy Donahue, here playing Johnny Hunter. Admittedly, he was pretty much a one-trick pony, and his stardom was even shorter-lived than that of his costar. However, he did have a few years of success and a screaming fanbase of teenage girls. Tall, blond, and with a deep voice, his appeal is not hard to see, but acting-wise, well, he was passable at best. But he and Sandra did make a striking onscreen couple and the chemistry was believable. After the success of "A Summer Place", his home studio, Warner Brothers, put him into two other similarly themed films, "Parrish" and "Susan Slade" (both 1961) and both, perhaps not too coincidently, paired him with another new young star, Connie Stevens.

Constance Ford is thoroughly detestable as Molly's mother Helen, who is so frigid, cold, and nasty that you have to wonder how Molly was even conceived in the first place. Indeed, she is definitely a Mommie Dearest, and the scene where her husband Ken (Richard Egan) calls her out on her biases and prejudices rings true all these years later and this scene apparently received a standing ovation when it premiered at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Determined to make sure that her daughter will remain a "good girl" even if it causes her pain, Helen does her best to turn Molly against her father and stop her from loving Johnny.

Egan's performance has more dimension than most less than favorable reviewers have given him credit for. He has a ruggedly handsome quality, yet he has a warmth along with the occasional sternness as a father who not only wants to protect his daughter but also wants her to experience life and love. Inevitably, the conflict between the two, his own loveless marriage and his rekindling an affair with old flame Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), who also happens to be Johnny's mother (oh, the drama), causes emotional storms for all involved.

Dorothy McGuire never won an Oscar, and that is one of the many injustices of the Hollywood system. She certainly had enough warmth, humility and talent to be deserving of one. Sylvia, like Ken, was trapped in an empty marriage to the seemingly affluent and wealthy Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy, in another standout performance), but in fact he is a drunk, and his family fortune was long gone. Because Ken was not considered a decent prospect for her family, Sylvia had to make a choice, and while Johnny was perhaps the only good thing to come out of her union with Bart, she's had to live a dreary and dull existence.

As if our young lovers don't have enough to deal with, when their parents' divorce their respective spouses and Ken and Sylvia tie the knot, both Molly and Johnny feel angry and betrayed.  While I can certainly understand their viewpoint, Molly's anger toward her father and Johnny's toward his mother did get a little bit tiresome, especially considering that Helen and Bart hardly provided loving environments. Things to come to a head when the kids join the newlyweds at their beach house (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, ultra-modern '50s design), and they too, find their way back to a level of intimacy that was interrupted when Molly abruptly left Pine Island when Ken and Sylvia's affair was revealed. As Ken puts it, their children take after them, which concerns him. Should Molly and Johnny succumb to their desires? And what will happen if they do?

That's not to say that there are not any campy moments (who can forget Helen's slap, causing Molly to knock over the plastic Christmas tree?), but more often than not, you sympathize with both pairs of lovers and their struggles to listen to their hearts. "We live in a glass house, we're not throwing any stones." With those words, Sylvia and Ken let Molly and Johnny know that they will love and support them no matter what. It might be a tough road, but when you have love, it makes it a little easier. As Ken tells Molly early in the film, "We have one purpose in this life - to love and be loved. That is our sole reason for existence." So, the title means both the place where lovers meet and reunite, but also a place where love and understanding lives. And that, I think, is why this movie still holds up over fifty years later.

I should also add that the novel by Sloan Wilson ("The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit") is excellent as well. Published in 1958, the book has much more detail, more sub-plots and back stories of the characters. I managed to get a first edition hardcover copy that was in excellent condition. It was easy to see why it was such a big bestseller, and why the film was such a box-office smash. And what can be said about the interior design of the locations/sets and the costumes? Not to mention the glorious cinematography and Carmel locations, doubling for Maine. Who wouldn't want to visit?

Bask in the beauty of the California coast, in the beautiful lovers, and whatever feelings or memories "A Summer Place" brings you. In 2007, the movie finally made its long-awaited DVD debut, after having been only available online as out-of-print, pan-and-scan VHS tapes. The Warner Brothers DVD is in widescreen, and the print looks wonderful, with a few scratches here and there and little discoloration. The Dolby sound is fine. The only extra is the theatrical trailer, and while it's interesting to see, it's too bad that the main actors and the director Delmer Daves have all passed on, therefore making a commentary somewhat difficult, but not impossible since there would have to be some film expert or historian who could have provided one. That aside, it's still a worthy addition to any DVD library.

Richard Egan, Troy Donahue, Sandra's mother Mary and other cast members and crew celebrating Sandra's birthday on the set.


  1. thank you. i love this film also. it is so much more than merely a 'soap opera' movie. keep up the great work!!!

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