I struggled to figure out the best way to convey my disdain for this film. A Summer Place desperately wants to be a Douglas Sirk film (and for a while I believed Sirk was behind it), but it doesn’t have the panache or the inherent camp quality that Sirk did. While this may have been hot stuff back in the early 60s, it’s tired, weird, and downright unlikeable. Each character’s worst traits are painted liberally onto their character, and at times I wasn’t sure if the “heroes” were true, or simply the least hateful people. So, get a coffee and put on the schmaltzy earworm from Hell known at the “Theme From A Summer Place” (Google it and you’ll instantly recognize it) and let’s explore this late 50s stinker!
Self-made businessman Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) returns to the small, coastal town of Pine Island with his frigid wife, Helen (Constance Ford) and sweet daughter Molly (Sandra Dee). Ken also hopes to see the girl the got away: Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), who has married drunken lout Bart (Arthur Kennedy). As Ken and Sylvia get closer together, their children, including Sylvia’s son Johnny (Troy Donahue) are bristling to explore their burgeoning sexuality.
Director and screenwriter Delmar Daves had a prolific career, both behind the camera and on the page. In running over his filmography he’s crafted one of the foremost romance films, An Affair to Remember (which he wrote), and one of the lesser Bogie/Bacall dramas, Dark Passage (director/screenwriter). He’s certainly diverse, but here he hopes to create a paragon to Douglas Sirk without any of the technique. Sirk was able to utilize melodrama to create layered narratives; he used irony, parody, and interesting camera angles to give the audience his true intentions while having the characters appear tirelessly corny. While it might have been revolutionary – and the frank discussion of teenage sexuality are appropriately adult, when talked about by adults – here there’s too many elements that feel dirty.
The movie’s claim to fame is in the discussion of sexuality, which starts out well. Ken and Helen live a sexless life, for reasons that are unknown outside of Helen screaming that sex is dirty and something that must be “endured.” Because we’re meant to see Helen as a villain, you don’t need any further characterization. Instead of wasting time having Ken and Sylvia discuss the merits of an affair, and how it could ruin lives, they simply say “Okay, let’s do this thing!” (Okay, they might have said it in a more eloquently). The parents affair is intriguing because it’s acted and scripted with an eye on reality. Helen finds out about the affair easily, and during a ludicrous conversation with her mother, decides to find a way to catch them. Unfortunately, that’s dropped when the couple admits it. However, the fallout feels very real, right down to Arthur calling Sylvia a slut! Nice to know in 1959 there was no shame in calling a woman that word!
The problem is that once the affair is revealed, the plot meanders in discussing how everyone and the family dog knew Ken and Sylvia would get together, right down to Arthur telling Sylvia how he should have realized something was amiss when she called for Ken during the birth of their son…and you figured you’d be together forever? If you can’t tell, the dialogue is meant to be sudsy, but comes off laughably ridiculous; no one talks like these characters do, forsaking eloquence for frankness. Some of the discussions that take place are just uncomfortable, wrapped in the guise of showing a strong relationship.
When I reviewed Jane Withers‘ films, I mentioned how she tended to play the makeshift mother and had a strong relationship with her father. In that case, it wasn’t uncomfortable; it was a relationship I wished I had with my dad. Here, I got the heebie-jeebies! I don’t know many girls that would discuss their parents sex lives with said parent, but Molly and her dad have such a great relationship they discuss the Jorgensen parents not having a fruitful sex life! This is after Molly has admitted to her father that she left a neighbor boy spy on her undressing. If the point is to make them bond, it comes off as completely unsettling.
When it comes to the teenage relationship the fear is that mistakes will be made; and really there’s no winners when it comes to teenage love in this film. Helen wants to “desex” Molly, “as though sex were synonymous with dirt.” Ken’s point is valid; there’s no way to deny these children are going to be sexual, so why act as if sex is so terrible? Hell, Helen is nothing short of committing child abuse, particularly when she forces Molly to undergo a physical examination after Molly comes home from spending a chaste night on the beach with Johnny.
The problem is that with all this control of the teens, the actual kids are so underwritten that their decision making capabilities are never developed. Don’t say that you believe these children will make the right decisions, and then create teenage characters who are so dumb they can’t make said decisions. The adults have strong dialogue discussing sex, but the script treats the teens as little more than walking sex machines creating a contradiction in what these characters are supposed to say overall.
Dee and Donahue are fairly awful in their roles, Donahue in particular. Dee is hampered by a weak script that’s content to have her say “Johnny” ad nauseum. At one point I started to believe that by her saying “Johnny” over and over (literally every sentence concludes with it) that she’d get pregnant! Dee relies on being scared all the time to convey all necessary emotions, and all the parents believe she’s too dumb to say no to sex.
Literally, the majority of conversations about Molly go along the lines of “Well she’ll meet a guy, and she’ll be so in love she won’t say no.” This isn’t helped by Molly continually being seduced by Johnny and having him respond with how he’s sick of being “good,” by proxy making her feel terrible that she won’t sleep with him. She seems to be doing a pretty good job of saying no, and yet the script creates a male lover for her that wants to force her into something she doesn’t want!
As for Donahue (I didn’t intentionally mean to quote Grease), he’s a living robot with blonde hair! I’ve never watched any of his prior work, but I can only assume he was a teen idol based on looks because it certainly isn’t talent. He has one moment where the intent is to threaten Helen if she hurts Molly, but Donahue’s delivery makes it sound as if he’s asking a question. He’s flat and lifeless, and certainly not the man who you’d spend the rest of your life with! And maybe I’m the only one skeeved out by this but step-sibling relationships…creepy or no?
The movie should have stuck to class distinctions and a dose of sexuality, maybe then it wouldn’t have been so unintentionally hilarious. When Sylvia says to Helen, “You seem to have an infinite capacity to hurt” I believed she was talking to the audience about the movie. I flat-out hated A Summer Place! It desperately wants to be as grand as Douglas Sirk and ends up falling to the ground, hard. The acting is hammy and over-the-top with non-existent motives and characterization. Oh, and don’t forget the theme song which plays throughout the entire movie, and even when it’s not you’ll hear it; it still haunts me! I’ll stick to Sandra Dee in Gidget, please!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.