Starring Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue, and Constance Ford
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Sentimental romantic classic overcomes dated elements with tenderness and sincerity.
Based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, A Summer Place tells two parallel stories—one about young love, the other about a middle-aged couple rekindling their romance twenty years after they parted. Having made his fortune, Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan) takes his wife, Helen (Constance Ford), and his daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), on a vacation to Pine Island, Maine, where he was a lifeguard in his youth. There, he reconnects with Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), his first love, who now suffers in a loveless marriage to Bart (Arthur Kennedy), a useless and unsuccessful alcoholic, while Molly falls in love with Sylvia and Bart’s son, Johnny (Troy Donahue).
I watch this movie about once a year (in the summer, naturally), which is more than I watch most movies that I would rate higher. I consider it a favorite. I enjoy that it’s unabashedly romantic and sentimental, refreshing qualities in our cynical age.
However, watching it this summer, knowing I would review it, its flaws stood out, as they did when I taught it in my teen films class. For contemporary viewers, the acting, dialogue, and use of music all seem dated. I instructed my students to view the film as a historical document to examine what it revealed about life in 1959. Doing so cut down on student giggling during the parts that, today, seem old-fashioned and corny.
Although only a superficial problem, the use of music often provides unintentional laughter in serious moments. Max Steiner’s score has lovely melodic passages. However, the heightened music and stinger chords at dramatic moments were dated even in 1959.
The acting, too, is often over-the-top, particularly Richard Egan’s and Constance Ford’s performances. Egan’s intensity seems artificial today when more naturalistic acting is the norm. Ford suffers from a character who is a thoroughly one-note villain. Ford seems to have little choice than to play the cartoonish character with melodramatic excess. If Egan and Ford overact, then Donahue fails to act enough; his line-reading comes off awkward and stilted.
On the other hand, the performances by Dee, McGuire, and Kennedy hold up over a half century later. McGuire has a calm gentility that balances Egan’s overabundance of passion. Dee, who was 17 when the film was released, projects the guilelessness of a real teenager, bringing a sense of honesty to the role. Too often, teenagers are played by actors in their 20s, who either seem too worldly or too foolish if they try to capture the inexperience and sincerity of teenagers.
Kennedy gives the stand-out performance of the movie. He’s exceptional as the dissolute and cynical Bart. When actors play alcoholics, they often overdo the drunken mannerisms. Kennedy, who notably played an alcoholic in Peyton Place as well, lets the character come through the drunkenness. Kennedy brings out Bart’s intelligence, his cynicism, his misplaced pride, and his knowledge of his own failure.
Unfortunately for the film, the screenplay, by writer-director Delmer Daves, contains overly frank dialogue, which undercuts the sense of realism. In real life, people often speak circumspectly or struggle with finding the right words, especially in emotional moments. In A Summer Place, the characters are often too candid in their speech, especially in the scenes between Molly and Ken. I have a hard time imagining that any daughter would be so open with her father. Ken’s later speeches to Sylvia come off as lectures, imparting the movie’s themes, in case the audience can’t pick them up from the subtext.
Thematically, however, A Summer Place has a surprising relevance. Considering how attitudes toward sex have changed in the last 56 years, we would expect that the movie’s examination of the issue would have little bearing today. The movie questions what attitude parents should take toward their teenagers’ sexual behavior. In the film, the four parents each take a different position regarding the issue.
Helen’s answer to teenage development is to reject it utterly, to force Molly into childlike and restrictive clothing and to view all teenage desire as dirty and deviant. (Ironically, Helen’s obsession with Molly’s sexuality is a greater acknowledgement of it than simple acceptance would be.) When the teenagers seek help with the issue, they avoid Helen entirely as her attitude closes off all potential for dealing with the matter reasonably. Helen’s is the kind of mindset that is reflected today in virginity oaths and purity balls.
Bart’s outlook is similarly inadequate. He takes a traditionally sexist view of the issue. He sees sexual behavior in teenage boys as normal and acceptable. Yet, he condemns females as cheap for the same behavior. This attitude is one that persists today, despite much criticism. The film is similarly critical of that point of view, as it fails to provide adequate guidance for the teenagers.
Ken struggles with what he should do about the subject. As much as he views teen sexuality as normal and healthy, he has to work to figure out how to address the issue. It’s Sylvia’s progressive view that the movie endorses, giving her the last word when she advises Ken to acknowledge the teens’ sexuality and to discuss the matter openly and honestly.
In 1959, the film was noted for its focus on the subject of sex, yet the notion it presents that sex and love are linked is passé. This timeless issue, the emotional component of sexual behavior, is not one that movies often confront now, perhaps because of changing mores, or perhaps because films today are uncomfortable with emotion.
Most out of place now are the very attributes that I enjoy—the romanticism and sentimentality. Today, we appreciate irony and cynicism more than sentimentality, and, often, attempts at the latter drift into schmaltz, as with films, for example, adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels. A Summer Place maintains a touching tenderness without turning maudlin. Even so, the focus on the characters’ romantic lives and the emotional tone of the film might strike modern audiences as being unserious. And, yet, these traits, lacking as they are in modern quality films, make A Summer Place worth watching.
NOTE: This film is the one referenced in Grease by the song, “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee,” with the line, “As for you, Troy Donahue, I know what you want to do.”