July 23, 2013
The infernal weather system that soaked the Northeast in sweat this past week was moving backwards. In the United States these systems usually travel west to east, but this persistent “dome of hot air” was traveling in reverse. I feel a kinship with this contrarian gasbag, so in its honor I will look back at an undervalued movie set during summer. A Summer Place (1959) is mainly remembered for birthing the #1 instrumental single by Percy Faith (adapted from the Max Steiner score), but it was a sensation at the time for its frank discussion of sex. It marked a transition in director Delmer Daves’ career from macho action-adventure films into melodramatic women’s pictures, one of the more reviled shifts in film history. He completed his twilight Western The Hanging Tree in August of 1958, and made four candy-colored romance pictures for WB afterward. Dismissed by both critics (the NY Times memorably called it “garishly sex-scented…. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste”) and ardent admirers (Jean-Pierre Coursodon called this period “dangerously close to artistic suicide”) , today they are ripe for rediscovery. A Summer Place is bursting with erotic energy that spreads out in the Technicolor widescreen frame, and treats adultery and teen sex with a forthright shrug.
Sloan Wilson was a hot commodity in Hollywood after his novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) became a hit movie (1956) for 20th Century Fox. So when his 1958 book A Summer Place created another stir,with its teenage bed hopping and middle age lust, it was swiftly optioned by WB. Wilson wrote the initial script, but Daves rejected it because it retained the ten-year arc of the novel. Wanting a more linear, compact story, Daves re-wrote the screenplay himself, and compressed the action into one year. Daves had started his career as a scribe, and even had some experience with love stories, having co-written Leo McCarey’s sublime Love Affair (1939). His decision to switch to studio-bound melodramas can be attributed to his health, according to Delmer’s son Michael. Daves had a heart attack in 1958, and doctors advised him to limit his exertions, which would be easier to do at the studio than on location in the Arizona badlands.
The leading role of Molly, the young girl who falls for an inn owner’s son in Maine, was initially offered to Natalie Wood. She declined, and admitted to later regretting it. The part went to Sandra Dee, on loan from Universal, the up and coming emblem of innocence from Gidget (1959). While retaining her perk, the 17-year-old Dee gives an unselfconscious performance as a pragmatic teen in lust, ready to follow her body wherever it tells her to go. The location is Troy Donahue, the sensitive and slender blonde-haired blue-eyed preppie of every suburban white girl’s dreams. He had just been released from his contract with Universal, and after A Summer Place went nuclear signed a long term deal with WB. His earnestly handsome face would grace each of Daves’ next three films. Their parents, involved in an inadvertent wife-swapping roundelay, were played by consummate Hollywood pros Richard Egan, Dorothy McGuire, Arthur Kennedy and Constance Ford. An A-picture all the way, the film received a lushly romantic score from Max Steiner and ripe Technicolor cinematography from Harry Stradling (Johnny Guitar). Kennedy is especially memorable as Donahue’s dad Bart Hunter. A cognac swilling inn-owner who squandered his family’s fortune, Bart is a lost man who Kennedy plays with a slow, sad burn. Punctuating every line with a shot of booze and a lascivious glance, he’s the image of a decadent aristocrat gone to seed.
Bart’s whole kingdom is falling apart at the Maine resort town of Pine Island. Formerly a wealthy scion of a prominent family, he is reduced to renting rooms at the family mansion. A vindictive drunk, his wife Sylvia (McGuire) can barely stand his presence. Their son Johnny (Donahue) is the only proof their union wasn’t a waste. Then Ken Jorgenson (Egan) decides to bring his family for a visit. A former lifeguard at the Hunter estate, he’s now a self-made millionaire with a lingering crush on Sylvia. His wife Helen (Ford) is a neurotic terrified of sexuality, who sleeps in separates beds and browbeats her daughter Molly (Dee) about the sanctity of virginity. When they all come together in the inn, the atmosphere turns hothouse. Bart, sensing the ratcheting erotic tension, teases Helen about his “perverted garden” and its “aphrodisiac” qualities. Within days of the the Jorgenson’s arrival Molly is necking with Johnny while Sylvia and Ken rendezvous in the boathouse. There are divorces and recriminations and unexpected pregnancies, but these are not punishments, they are brute realities waiting to be overcome by couples who are truly in love.
A hallmark of Daves’ films are the forthrightness of his characters. They fall for each other with total abandonment. There is no manufactured tension about “will they or won’t they”, only about the realities of what happens after you do. In Pride of the Marines (1945) doughboy John Garfield woos Eleanor Parker in the opening scenes – the majority of the film revolves around how they cope with his blindness inflicted by the war. Love is total and intoxicating in his movies, but are then rattled with the impositions of living. Late in A Summer Place, Ken is agonizing over how to speak to Molly about sex, wanting to warn caution without robbing her of its joys. Sylvia responds, “Warn her that first it’s the passions and desires that rule a girl’s wants, but that love is far wider and deeper than that. Love is a learned thing between a man and a woman. And after those first, fierce passions start to fade, it’s that love, that learned love, that counts for everything.” Delmer Daves’s movies are about this learning.