The plot focuses on two families: the once rich, but now middle-class, Hunters and the once poor, but now wealthy, Jorgensens. The families cross paths when Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) takes his family on vacation to posh Pine Island, where Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has turned his family’s mansion into a hotel. The Maine island holds fond memories for Ken, who worked as a lifeguard there twenty year earlier and—unknown to almost everyone—had a passionate affair with a young socialite. The identity of Ken’s former lover becomes apparent when he exchanges longing glances with Bart’s wife Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire).
Meanwhile, Molly and Johnny become interested in each other romantically. When their boat capsizes during a storm, they must spend a night alone on a nearby island. Molly’s sexually-repressed mother accuses her daughter of making love with Johnny. She even has a doctor conduct an examination to ensure that Molly is still a virgin. This act sends Molly into shock, prompting Johnny to threaten to murder Molly’s mother. As both families try to address these problems, secrets are revealed, relationships are fractured, and acceptance triumphs over all.
Thematically, A Summer Place explores forbidden love (Ken and Sylvia) and innocent love (Molly and Johnny) through a subtle form of voyeurism. Everybody seems to be secretly watching everyone else. Johnny first sees Molly with a telescope and she watches him simultaneously with binoculars. Later, Helen spies on Johnny and Molly kissing in the garden. The hotel’s handyman spies on Ken and Sylvia and reports back to Helen. When Molly returns to boarding school, a gossipy classmate fortuitously sees Johnny kissing Molly outside a church. Even when the teens are cuddling in a private spot on the beach, a group of rowdy boys happen by to whistle at them.
|Constance Ford as Helen.|
|Dorothy McGuire as Sylvia.|
No review of a Summer Place would be complete without mentioning composer Max Steiner's haunting, lyrical musical score. Steiner interweaves two melodies, one for the Ken and Sylvia and another for Molly and Johnny. The theme for the older lovers also opens the film as the main title. However, it’s the music for the young lovers that Percy Faith recorded in 1960 as The Theme from “A Summer Place.” The instrumental piece became a million-selling record and spent nine weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Dee and Donahue would remain screen fixtures throughout the 1960s, although Dee became a bigger star (Donahue drifted into television, appearing in the series Hawaiian Eye and Surfside Six). Sandra Dee’s abrupt retirement from acting in the early 1970s contributed to her cult status among teen idols of the 1960s. On the other hand, Troy Donahue was relegated to minor roles in major films (The Godfather Part II) as well as direct-to-video features.