January 26, 2016

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.


Susan Slade was based on the novel The Sin of Susan Slade (1961), by Doris Hume, and was quickly optioned by producer Edward Small (Kansas City Confidential), who turned around and sold it to Warner Brothers. Eager to further capitalize on the success of one of their last studio-manufactured stars, they turned the book into the latest Daves-Donahue potboiler. Donahue’s real name was Merle Johnson, but WB’s publicity team re-christened him as Troy Donahue. Mere/Troy recalled the process to People magazine: “At first they had Paris, the lover of Helen of Troy, in mind,” Donahue says. “But I guess they thought they couldn’t name me Paris Donahue because there was already a Paris, France and Paris, Illinois.”  So Troy it was. Two years earlier A Summer Place had made Donahue a star, but his screen presence remained ethereal and remote. He was never really fit to take on the role of approachable West coast dreamboat, as he was an incorrigible alcoholic who drank his way out of the movie business in a few years. Resentful of the limited roles he was offered, he told People that,  “I would like to forever get rid of that image of the California beachboy.” He takes a drag on his cigarette and says matter-of-factly, “I’m an actor. Not an ornament.”


But these are beautifully ornamented features, with Donahue perhaps the most beautiful. Susan Slade’s director of photography was Lucien Ballard, whose first gig was doing additional photography for Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). Donahue is outfitted in an apple red jacket to reference Rebel Without a Cause, and his character Hoyt Brecker is something of a destabilizing force. Brecker’s father was arrested for embezzlement and then hung himself in his jail, and all of the old family friends disassociate themselves. So Hoyt withdraws from society, only occasionally drawn out by Connie Stevens as Susan Slade, who still keeps in touch with this awkward, strikingly handsome lad.


Slade’s life is a parade of tragedies. The opening sequences detail her shipboard flirtation and passionate romance with a young playboy mountain climber named Conn (Grant Williams), who sleeps with her and cuts off contact. Hard to believe you can’t trust a man named Conn. There is a languorous, highly suggestive crane shot of slumped and supine partygoers lazily cuddling on a stateroom floor. Many are smoking, an intimation of post-coital bliss as the love theme from A Summer Place twinkles over the radio. It is here that Conn dips Susan down for a deep, loving kiss. It is here, one assumes, the doomed coupling takes place. Conn dies trying to summit Mount McKinley, leaving a distraught Susan pregnant and alone.


Her parents are played with glowing warmth by Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy McGuire, the models of connubial bliss. Nolan is all empathy, his jowly face in a continual mask of concern for his poor daughter. One of the more moving sequences occurs in close-up, after the Slades move into their new cliffside home in Carmel, CA, where he thanks God for all his blessings. It is an unusual sequence in how it slows down the narrative, but it is the kind of character grace note that gives these films their emotional punch. McGuire’s performance is more guarded, as she becomes more inward when the family decides to pretend that Susan’s baby is actually her mother’s. McGuire then has to convey a protectiveness of her pseudo-baby, hinting that she might be willing to take Susan’s son for good. This mother-daughter jealousy is further ramped up after the father’s passing, leaving the two women to fend for their son/grandon’s affections.


Connie Stevens has the most difficult role here, with Susan stuck between different phases of life: She is a doting daughter and a thwarted mother, an immature girl and an experienced lover. Connie threads the needle with the aid of costuming, hair and makeup. On the ship she has a sophisticated evening gown and up-do, whereas home in Carmel she ties back her hair in girly bows and dresses in giant sweaters. 23 at the time of shooting, she has a button-nose Mickey Mouse Club cuteness that makes the “adult” scenes even more shocking. But Stevens is an agile enough actress to balance these two extremes of her character. In the climactic scene of revelation, in which she lays the whole story bare, she speaks with steel in her voice, and bends Donahue to her will.


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.