Friday, January 28, 2011

A Summer Place: Old Love Rekindled and New Love Set Aflame

Fans of Delmer Dave’s glossy New England soap opera are sharply divided between those who revere it as a classy, nostalgic sudser and those who regard it as camp. I hold the former view, for in spite of occasional plunges into overwrought drama, A Summer Place evokes a genuine warmth with its tale of old love rekindled and young love flaming for the first time.

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).

During a rainy afternoon in the attic, Ken confesses to Sylvia that his real purpose for returning to the island was to see her again. Trapped in a loveless marriage, he had never forgotten his one true love. His only reason for staying married to his wife Helen (Constance Ford) was that he feared losing custody of teenage daughter Molly (Sandra Dee). Sylvia returns Ken’s affections and admits that she remained with her lazy, alcoholic husband solely because of their teenage son Johnny (Troy Donahue). Cherishing a chance at happiness again, Ken and Sylvia begin a passionate affair.

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.
The frank discussions about sex undoubtedly shocked audiences of the late 1950s. Peyton Place, released a year earlier, broached the topic of teen sex, but without the bluntness of A Summer Place. Early in the film, Molly confesses to her father how she knowingly undressed in front of her window so the boy next door could watch her. Helen constantly chastises her daughter for her “cheap behavior” (e.g., letting Johnny kiss her). She also tries to dress Molly in childish clothes that hide the girl’s figure. Her worst moment, though, is when she has the physician examine Molly after telling her daughter: “I’m not asking for the truth because I know you’d lie.”

Dorothy McGuire as Sylvia.
Though not a "woman's picture" along the lines of Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (also released in 1959), A Summer Place clearly revolves around strong female characters. Sylvia is obviously the one who runs the hotel--not her self-pitying husband Bart. Once Sylvia leaves the island, the hotel falls into disrepair. Helen may be a sexually-repressed, domineering woman, but perhaps her drive helped transform Ken from a lifeguard into a successful businessman. Molly, meanwhile, displays a more quiet strength--defying her mother when she writes to and secretly meets Johnny. Ultimately, her strength leads to the happy ending that eluded Sylvia and Ken for much of their adult lives.

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.

A beautifully restrained Dorothy McGuire and a wonderfully over-the-top Constance Ford (as perhaps the decade’s bitchiest mother) give the best performances. However, A Summer Place is remembered as the film that launched the careers of Donahue and Dee (both had appeared in supporting roles in Imitation of Life). Director Daves and Donahue would reteam for three more films: Parrish (1961), Susan Slade (1961), and The Rome Adventure (1962). The best of the three was Parrish, an entertaining soap with several similarites to A Summer Place (e.g., it also features an older romance and a younger one).

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.


  1. Well, Rick, I've not seen this, but after reading your review I have to say I think this sounds like a soap even has Constance Ford in it, who was on the NBC soap Another World. I was never a big Sandra Dee fan, but I suspect her scenes with Ford where something to watch.

  2. Excellent review of a classic Delmer Daves work, Rick! The setting is picture post-card perfect and the musical score indelible. The characters are fascinating. Helen seems to find her greatest joy in her plotting conversations on phone with her mother. Bart escapes into alcohol. One can see why the allure of youthful memories push their spouses straight into each other's arms again. But it's Molly and Johnny that we watch with greatest interest, wondering what impact this summer will have on them. I am quite fond of "A Summer Place" and "Parrish" and even "Susan Slade" though it has a few stupid moments like Susan's mother leaving her lighter in a very accessible place to a toddler.
    The truth is, in the midst of winter, we all long for a summer place. Very well done!

  3. Since I recall you being a fan of the soapy films, Rick, I thought you'd have a weekly or monthly feature focusing on them. I've seen A SUMMER PLACE and enjoyed it. I really like Sandra Dee but have always found Troy Donahue to be somewhat bland and too rigid (though my sister thinks he's adorable). I haven't seen very many of the soapy movies from the 50s, but my favorite -- if it fits in the subgenre -- is PICNIC. Thanks, Rick, for a splendid read, with some great pictures (particularly the last one with Sandra Dee standing next to Gort... oh, that's Troy, isn't it?).

  4. Toto, I'm fan of PARRISH and SUSAN SLADE, too (though I agree that the former is the better of the two). You're right about the marvelous setting for A SUMMER PLACE. Sark, if though PICNIC was penned by playwright William Inge, it's a soap to the same extent as SUMMER PLACE--and I love it, too. Kim, I watched an episode of the THRILLER TV series, with Constance Ford as a conniving blackmailer...I think she got typecast in those kind of roles.

  5. Rick, I have always looked at A Summer Place as one of my "guilty pleasure" movies. It is indeed a soap (UNLIKE Picnic, a great play by a great writer -- really, you guys!) Summer Place is gorgeous to look at, has adultery and teen sex, virginity exams, alcoholism -- all the things that make a great soap. I dont' think it is a stand-out movie -- the music is the classiest part -- and yet I really like it! Go figure -- fun review, Rick.

  6. Rick, I haven't seen this movie for many years. I remember liking it, but not as much as I do Susan Slade. It was quite soapy with all the soup suds elements which are required for soap made movies. The best thing about this movie is Troy Donahue. He is so good looking that I just wanted him to be in every scene. Sark, your sister has good taste in men!! Had Gort been a man instead of a robot, I am sure he would have had Troy's golden looks! The music is haunting and is on my iPod. Enjoyed your review very much.

  7. Becky, there is a definite soap opera quality to PICNIC and I don't mean that as a negative at all. The strongest characters are all female: Flo, Millie, and Rosemary. Life without love--or on the case of Rosemary, companionship--is a predominant theme. The romantic ending glosses over the reality of the situation (i.e., Hal and Madge love each, but he has no career plans beyond taking a job as a bellhop). By the way, it's one of my favorite films.

  8. Aki, I'm a SUSAN SLADE fan, too, but probably rank it third among the Donahue-Daves collaborations, after PARRISH and A SUMMER PLACE.

  9. I like the description "classy sudser". All I remember of Parrish was Karl Malden chewing scenery. Susan Slade is great melodrama. A Summer Place is the best of the lot, but all are worth a viewing.

  10. Yes, Karl is a bit of a ham in PARRISH, but I still love him in it--especially the scene where he describes to Troy the rigors of his new job.

  11. TCM USA is showing "A Summer Place" on March 21, Parrish on April 17, and Susan Slade on April 22! Set your recorders!