|"You can't ever let him think your kisses come cheap!" Troy Donahue & Sandra Dee... *Batteries not included!
A Summer Place was a smash in 1959, due in equal doses of Percy Faith’s pop take on Max Steiner’s music, dream team Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, and the titillating teen sex story line.
Triple threat director, producer, and screenwriter Delmer Daves moved from western flicks to glossy soaps starting with A Summer Place. This daring melodrama was also his most successful.
|The cast of 'A Summer Place,' with appropriate facial expressions: Dee & Donahue as the teen lovers;
Richard Egan & Constance Ford as the Jorgensons; and Arthur Kennedy & Dorothy McGuire as the Hunters.
Adapted from the novel by Sloan Wilson (The Man in the Gray Flannel), the Warner Brothers’ film version of A Summer Place was obviously inspired by 20th Century Fox’s recent racy novel-to-movie hit, Peyton Place. Like that ’57 sexy soap, there’s the nostalgic New England setting, glossy production values, heart-tugging score, plus a cast comprised of fresh young stars and familiar favorites. And after salivating over the sizzling stuff, audiences get a reassuring moral message by the veteran male star at the finale.
Despite the 2 hour and 10 minute running time, A Summer Place squeezes a lifetime into one year. (The novel takes place over 20 years.) The story starts with a splash as lush Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) sets up the stakes in his snide way. Former love rival for his wife, Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), is bringing his family back, years later, for a summer visit. They plan to reside at the Hunter family estate, now run as the Pine Island Inn. Bart wants to say no, but wife Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire) protests that they are buried in debt and need to take in these summer guests. Kennedy’s pompous response: “Just because we’re broke doesn’t mean we have to lose our dignity!” Let’s just say more than dignity is lost in A Summer Place.
|Charming host Bart Hunter to his guests: “Do you and your husband often swim in the raw, Mrs. Jorgenson?”
Whatever possessed Ken, who went from island summer help to successful chemist, to marry Helen (Constance Ford) is never explained. (In the novel, she’s the daughter of his business partner). Helen is a frigid, pious, pretentious, overbearing, and humorless shrew. In the first scene, she tries to control her family by dressing Ken up like Gilligan’s Island’s Thurston Howell III in a yachting get up, and daughter Molly (Sandra Dee) like Shirley Temple in a sailor dress. Not only that, Helen wants Molly to wear an iron clad bra and girdle that would be more suitable for the ample mama.
Molly Jorgenson: [to Ken] “She says I bounce when I walk. Do I?”
Helen Jorgenson: "When we arrive at the inn, I want her to look completely modest."
Molly: "She means like a boy. Flat as a pancake!"
There’s a voyeuristic tone to the whole movie. First, the locals are checking out the Jorgenson family as they arrive on their yacht. Then Dee’s Molly and Johnny Hunter (Troy Donahue) are scoping each other out through binoculars. At the end of day one, the smitten teens peer through their bedroom windows at one another good night. Their respective parents, Ken and Sylvia, once teen lovers, are also wistfully doing the same. The handyman is hired to spy on them by suspicious Helen. Once Molly and Johnny fall madly in love, everyone is spying on the teens. Most of all, audiences were eating this all up, along with their popcorn!
|“You have to play a man like a fish.” No problem here!
A Summer Place made a star of Troy Donahue. The teen idol possessed striking blue eyes, set off with a mane of blonde hair, with the soft jaw line of George Peppard. Apparently, Donahue wanted to be an actor since he was a kid, with the family background in showbiz. Sadly, it doesn’t show. Donahue is so wooden, there’s absolutely no conviction to his line readings, and in his big scenes, the camera cuts away, and comes back to him in tears. Troy’s voice sounds like a disembodied Tony Curtis—when Tony was trying to sound like he wasn’t from the Bronx! It also doesn’t help credibility that 6’ 3” Donahue towers over the rest of the cast, who treat Troy like a troubled boy, even though he was 23.
|Bart Hunter: “Oh, Johnny, stop being a silly sentimentalist. It's stupid! Molly is merely
a succulent little wench!” Johnny: "She's not a wench! She's everything I've ever dreamed of in a girl."
Sandra Dee on the other hand, has her moments, but whether by her choice or the studio’s, falls back on her perky persona that borders on hyperactive. This was a major debit in the same year’s Imitation of Life; depending on your taste, it’s either endearing or unendurable. I am of the latter camp. Still, Sandra shines in comparison to dull Donahue. They make a pretty, white bread screen team.
Helen (about daughter Molly): “I don't want her stared at.”
Ken: "So you insist on de-sexing her, as though sex was synonymous with dirt."
The veteran actors save the day in A Summer Place. While Richard Egan’s dialogue is often speechy—though Ken’s papa actually preaches in defense of the teens—he plays it as straight as possible. Some of Ken’s most high-minded speeches sound just like Lloyd Nolan’s Doc Swain in Peyton Place. Physically, Egan’s rugged masculine looks are a pleasing contrast to the elegant Dorothy McGuire. As Sylvia, the long-suffering wife of Bart, McGuire comes off with the most dignity intact. That’s because her dialogue doesn’t contain as many clinkers as the script as a whole contains.
|Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire as the sane parents...they only committed adultery!
However, it’s the two dysfunctional parents who have the most delicious dialogue. Arthur Kennedy, at this point in his career, was adept at playing slime balls, such as Peyton Place and Some Came Running. As Bart, he is never without a drink or dirty quip as the drunken father of Johnny and spouse of Sylvia. Some of the lines are so sleazy, that I wonder how they ever slid the censors. Kennedy is nearly a comic villain, and he has a field day.
The real scene stealer is character actress Constance Ford, as Molly’s monstrous mother and Ken’s witch of a wife. Later, Ford was a favorite on daytime TV for 25 years as Ada, the no- nonsense mother of willful Rachel, on NBC’s Another World. Here, as Helen, she is a bulldozer, burying her husband and daughter alive. With her dour face, dumpy figure, and a whiny voice that rises to caterwauling, she’s like Shelley Winters long-lost sister—but without the humor! Ford makes the most of her moments and over the top dialogue.
|The infamous "Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee, got knocked over with the Christmas tree!"
|Constance Ford's sister in cinema Shelley Winters serves up some Mama slaps in "A Patch of Blue!"
|Divine ain't gonna go down like Sandra Dee and the Xmas tree!
A Summer Place’s Delmer Daves deserves much credit for not bending to censorship in trying to tell a positive story about teenage love and sex. Though there are consequences, neither Dee nor Donahue’s characters must “suffer” for their sins. No convenient miscarriages. No running away. No car crashes. Audiences can appreciate that message while wallowing in the glossy suds—enjoy!
|Molly Jorgenson: “Are you bad, Johnny? Have you been bad with girls?”
Film footnote: Though the Hunters’ home turned inn and Ken and Sylvia’s later modern home are set on the New England coast, the Pine Island Inn exteriors were filmed at an actual home in Pacific Grove and the latter day Frank Lloyd Wright house is in Carmel, both in California.
|"Pine Island Inn" house was actually in Pacific Grove, CA.
|The Frank Lloyd Wright House is actually in Carmel, CA.