Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Summer Place was a genuine teen phenomenon in 1959, driven by a hit radio cover version of its romantic theme song. Slick writer-director Delmer Daves struck gold by making a glossy up-market Teen Exploitation film of the kind that had kept American-International afloat for several years. Instead of a tawdry story of unwanted pregnancy (Unwed Mother) for the drive-ins, this picture's glamorous take on teen angst is a mainstream Technicolor release. A Summer Place grabbed the imagination of a generation thanks to sincere performances and the iconic presence of Sandra Dee.
Exclusive, private Pine Island is the home of Bart and Sylvia Hunter (Arthur Kennedy and Dorothy McGuire) and their run-down summer boarding hotel. Bart is shocked when a reservation comes in from Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), a millionaire who began as a lifeguard at the resort twenty years ago. Bart swallows his pride to welcome Ken and his wife Helen (Constance Ford) and daughter Molly (Sandra Dee). Trouble follows immediately. Ken's real reason to return is to see if his teenage romance with Sylvia still has sparks, and on the very first night they make plans to leave their spouses. While Brad drinks heavily, the ultra-repressive and frigid Helen loses control of the young Molly, who drifts naturally into the arms of the Hunters' handsome young son John (Troy Donahue)
Establishment film reviewers and church representatives condemned the late 50s cult of Teen Pix for celebrating gang violence and other forms of teenage irresponsibility. The fear was that movies like The Cool and the Crazy encouraged 'nice' kids to try drugs and go bad; over-reacting high school principals tried to compensate by enforcing lame dress codes.
The major studios soon stepped in to get a piece of the teens-in-trouble fad. Why go see a cheap B&W picture with unknown talent when Warners can give you Sandra Dee in Technicolor? Delmer Daves' writing reputation was built a decade earlier and his work outside of westerns was showing its age ... his fine 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree were written by others. His script for A Summer Place is obvious, awkward and wholly artless, and propped up with sensitive psychological lectures for the audience. Ken Jorgenson spouts off against his wife's obnoxious prudery as if he'd just discovered it, eighteen years into their marriage. Helen practically foams at the mouth as she imagines her daughter's 'kissing and mauling' at the hands of the impossibly clean-cut Troy Donahue.
Parts of the show are now unintentionally funny. Director Daves allows Arthur Kennedy to grossly overact the alcoholic snob Bart, while the normally benign Beulah Bondi hangs around dispensing unwanted advice to poor tortured Dorothy McGuire.
All of the exaggerated nonsense -- the bras and girdles thrown overboard, Helen Jorgenson's rabid attitude -- suddenly melts when Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee take a stroll on the Maine shoreline (actually Carmel, California) to the smooth melody of Max Steiner's 'summer love' romance theme. John and Molly kiss immediately. She may look like a blonde creampuff but she's no Shirley Temple. When these two exchange 'the look', A Summer Place grabs the interest and sympathy of every petting-age young person in the audience.
1959 was still the era of issues like, 'how far should a good girl go?' Unprotected hearts were mowed down just as cruelly as in any other era, but the psychology of the late 50s applied all kinds of mottos to define Good Girl behavior: The most horrible fate imaginable seemed to be being branded as a Bad Girl. Unlucky girls that got into trouble soon learned how cruel the Double Standard could be.
A reasonable argument can be made that A Summer Place is actually less responsible than its sleazy cousins down in the trenches of Allied Artists and A.I.P.. Delmer Daves' glamorized fantasy (from a novel by Sloan Wilson, the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) eliminates any trace of the harsh economic realities that unwed mothers must face. Molly Jorgenson arrives at a private island in a chartered yacht. Her father is so wealthy that we never even hear him mention work; his home is a Frank Lloyd Wright dream fortress perched on a dazzling beach. Ken accuses Helen of prejudice for not wanting to live near unpleasant minorities, and then sets himself up in a millionaire's roost far away from the madding crowd.
Helen's tyranny is so overstated that A Summer Place could easily become a story of justified murder. When we first meet Molly she's rebelling against wearing the rigid underwear chosen by her perverse mother to 'de-sex' her. On the other hand, Molly is allowed to wear adult makeup that sets off her doe eyes and peaches 'n' cream complexion; the real Helen Jorgenson would never allow this (and Molly would surely be just as cute). We instead get dozens of drop-dead soft focus close-ups of Sandra Dee guaranteed to make any teenage girl demand a full Max Factor makeover.
The example of the 'bad' parents (one alcoholic snob, one frigid harpy) is used to excuse John and Molly from any wrongdoing. Purposely getting pregnant might seem a proper revenge against a mother like Helen. At any rate, A Summer Place surely encourages every kid feeling the weight of parental pressure to conclude that it's all the fault of rotten Mom and Dad. Angry John and pouting Molly reject their 'Good' parents while demanding that the world recognize their right to love.
A Summer Place indulges John and Molly's illusion of isolation. "We're all alone," Molly whispers, even though they can flee to the understanding and forgiving Ken and Sylvia at any time. The extreme of their suffering is being forced to sell Molly's mink coat so they can flee to get married. Scenes in which Molly sees a doctor and Ken pawns the coat were filmed but dropped; in the average teens-get-preggers saga they would be key material. A Summer Place spares the young lovers from the consequences of their irresponsibility. We last see John and Molly inheriting the fixer-upper family mansion. They forget about college educations and instead become proud owners of a bed & breakfast stopover for the exclusive set. I recommend they fire the handyman Todd right away ... he's the rat who finked on them in the first place.
When Molly and John's father and mother become husband and wife, A Summer Place takes on a weird quasi-incestuous feel. That added emotional confusion makes the 'perfect' Molly and John seem all that more attractive ... and dangerous as role models. In this show, 'getting in trouble' guarantees true love, lots of attention and a quick ticket to the best things in life. I don't think the average unwed mother has it quite so cushy.
Director Daves drenches A Summer Place in pretty scenery, handsome crane shots and beautiful close-ups. Sandra Dee, in 1959 parlance, is truly dreamy. Dee and the underrated Richard Egan put in the best work. Egan looks radiantly happy to be reunited with his daughter while McGuire remains in the background. Poor Constance Ford is stuck playing the Wicked Witch of the West. Troy Donahue made a big splash in this picture. Delmer Daves took a career nosedive by starring the inexpressive actor in a pair of subsequent romantic soaps.
Warner DVD's disc of A Summer Place is a sparkling and colorful enhanced transfer of good film elements. Only a few shots seem grainy and we get to see exactly why the camera loved Miss Dee. Max Steiner's memorable score sounds great, and his main theme has definitely transcended its original context. Many people between 50 and 65 or so will have a galvanic reaction to the tune's first appearance, when Dee and Donahue take their little walk by the shore. The song perfectly evokes the feeling of young love at the end of the 1950s.
The only extra is a trailer that sells the film as Peyton Place, only with a much more permissive attitude. I mean, the word 'place' in both titles can't be a coincidence, can it?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Summer Place rates:
Movie: Very Good of its kind
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 29, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson