Heat Waves: A Summer Place (1959)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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10 Responses Heat Waves: A Summer Place (1959)
Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 23, 2013 12:58 pm

Enjoyed this write-up. I have unashamed love for this movie. In some ways it represents the end of an era.

Posted By swac44 : July 23, 2013 4:54 pm

Before I saw this film in its entirety, I used to assume the location stuff was actually filmed in Maine, maybe because Arthur Kennedy ended up settling down a little further up the coast on the Bay of Fundy in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia (where he’s now buried). But a quick trip to IMDb tells me the seaside scenes were actually shot in Carmel. (Kind of like the silent version of Evangeline directed by Raoul Walsh, set on the Bay of Fundy, but filmed in northern California.)

Oh well, if I try hard enough when I watch it, I can almost smell the boiling lobster and taste the Moxie…

Posted By Doug : July 23, 2013 5:21 pm

swac44-you just reminded me of “The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float” by Farley Mowat. Almost as good as his classic: “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be”. Those of you nodding your heads in agreement know what I’m talking about.
This post goes hand in glove with Susan’s last post about highlighting movies that are in danger of being forgotten. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sandra Dee in a film. Tab Hunter I know from his cameo in “The Loved One” and of course I’ve heard his name.

Posted By Gene : July 23, 2013 9:24 pm

Great write-up. I have avoided Troy Donahue movies like the plague anytime he appears on a television screen. I guess I grew up with enough 60s teen films that I’m just jaded, but I will definitely seek this one out and see what I think.

Posted By swac44 : July 24, 2013 8:44 am

Can’t go wrong with a good Farley book. And Never Cry Wolf was made into such a great movie, I wish more of his stuff got adapted for the screen.

Posted By Kingrat : July 24, 2013 12:35 pm

Emmet, Daves’ early WWII romance THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU is also quite good, as is the drama KINGS GO FORTH. Daves handles romantic drama very capably. I actually prefer A SUMMER PLACE to the better-known Sirk version of IMITATION OF LIFE. Daves either gets slightly better performances out of Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, or else they are just playing more sympathetic characters. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Dorothy McGuire has never looked more attractive, thanks in part to costumes in the colors which are most becoming to her.

The three Daves melodramas after this one are not on a par with A SUMMER PLACE, although ROME ADVENTURE has great scenery and Suzanne Pleshette. SUSAN SLADE is Bad Movies We Love heaven. Daves is a much undervalued director, however.

Posted By Nina : July 25, 2013 11:04 am

I love this swoon-worthy movie! Can I also take a moment to give a shout out to the awesomeness that is Constance Ford? I don’t remember her from too many films besides this one and “All Fall Down” where she briefly appeared as a lascivious woman on the prowl for a young Warren Beatty. But I loved her as Ada on the soap opera “Another World”!

And I also remember her from “The Creeper” episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Posted By robbushblog : July 31, 2013 12:02 pm

I have avoided this movie for years based solely on the fact that it stars Troy Donahue, just like Gene. I have always liked the song though. I may have to give the movie a try.

Posted By Cj : August 14, 2013 11:05 pm

I watch it whenever it is shown, but I think it a big cliche.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – The Grating American Novel: Youngblood Hawke (1964) : December 17, 2013 3:36 pm

[…] mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic […]

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