Summer Place, A (1959): Daves’ Romantic Melodrama, Starring Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee (Relevant to Christmas)

Delmer Daves’ lavishly produced small-town melodrama, A Summer Place, captures all the sexual anxieties and domestic angst of the 1950s.
The film is now known for offering  handsome heartthrob Troy Donahue his first starring role, and for Max Steiner’s song “Theme From A Summer Place,” which was the most popular tune of the year after the movie’s release.
Based on the hyperbolic novel by Sloan Wilson, the narrative deals, like “Peyton Place” and other films of the late 1950s, with sexual repression, adultery, teenage love and pregnancy, and adult hypocrisy.
Set on a gorgeous island off the Maine coast (but largely shot in California’s Carmel). the text contrasts two troubled and unhappy families.
One is headed by self-made millionaire Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), who arrives for a vacation with his nasty, frigid wife Helen (Constance Ford) and their teenage daughter Molly (Sandra Dee) on Pine Island, Maine, where 20 years earlier he was a working class lad, making a living as a lifeguard but too poor to marry her. Jorgenson now rekindles his romance with island resident Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), who is trapped in a loveless and barren marriage to Bart (Arthur Kennedy)—so does Jorgenson, for that matter.
Hysteria and scandals erupt when their illicit romance becomes public knowledge, and when Jorgenson’s daughter and Sylvia’s teenage son Johnny (Troy Donahue) begin an affair, determined not to repeat their parents’ mistakes.The message of “Parents should be obeyed up to a point but never emulated” is loud and clear in a series of explicit confrontations between the protagonists, in which every “secret” and conflict is spelled out bluntly.
In this picture, an act of rebellion occurs when Sandra Dee complains about the “cast-iron girdle” her mother buys her–to hide her budding curves– before throwing it into the ocean.
Though a two-generational drama, “Summer Place” was clearly made for the youth market, trying to show honest adolescents who are almost (but not quite) crushed by delinquent, inadequate parents.
Both Sandra Dee and Donahue were popular with younger viewers. In the same year, both appeared in Douglas Sirk’s superior melodrama “Imitation of Life,” though they had no scenes together. Dee played the major role of Lana Turner’s troubled teenage daughter, and Donahue had a cameo as the boyfriend of Susan Kohner, who beats her up when he finds out that she’s black passing as white.

Narrative Structure: Detailed Plot

Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy), an alcoholic, his long-suffering wife Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), and their teenage son Johnny (Troy Donahue) operate a crumbling inn on Pine Island off the Maine coast. The inn was previously Bart’s elegant family mansion in an exclusive resort, but as his fortunes have dwindled, the Hunters are forced to rent rooms to paying guests.

Bart receives a reservation request from an old acquaintance, Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), who was a lowly lifeguard on the island years ago, but is now a successful research chemist. Ken wants to bring his wife and daughter to the island for the summer. Bart, holding that Ken is just coming to lord his new wealth over him, wants to refuse the reservation, but Sylvia insists that he accept because they badly need the money, even going so far as to move themselves into the small guest house so their own master bedroom suite can be rented out.

Ken arrives with his wife Helen (Constance Ford) and teenage daughter Molly (Sandra Dee). Helen and Ken sleep in separate bedrooms, and frequently argue, including over proper behavior standards for their daughter. Helen is a prude who disapproves of Molly’s developing figure and healthy interest in boys, particularly Johnny Hunter.

Ken is much more relaxed and permissive, and tells his daughter that her natural desires are not shameful. Helen also tries, unsuccessfully, to put on airs and impress the upper class residents of the island, while Ken is not interested in pretense and is even happy to talk with older people who remember him from when he worked as a lifeguard.

Ken and Sylvia were lovers twenty years ago, and they still love each other. In fact, Ken returned to Pine Island hoping to see Sylvia again. They had broken up because Ken was a poor college student, while Bart was the son of a rich family, so Sylvia married Bart. Ken, after seeing Sylvia’s wedding announcement in the newspaper, married Helen. Both marriages were unhappy but Ken and Sylvia stayed in them because of their love for their children.

Ken and Sylvia, still drawn to each other again, resume meeting ecretly. They are soon spotted by the island’s night watchman, who informs Helen. Helen keeps quiet, on her mother’s advice, planning to catch them in the act in order to ensure a large divorce settlement.

Ken goes on a business trip for a weekend, and Molly and Johnny, with Ken’s permission, go sailing around the island. Their boat capsizes in rough water, stranding them on the beach overnight. The Coast Guard rescues them the next day, but Helen is suspicious that the teenagers were intimate, although they deny it. Helen sends for a doctor to forcibly examine Molly to make sure she is still a virgin. Horrified, Molly runs away and sees Johnny, who threatens to kill Helen if she hurts Molly again.

Helen contacts law enforcement and then in a fit of anger reveals Sylvia and Ken’s affair in public. Bart offers to forgive Sylvia, but she cannot go back. The Hunters and Jorgensons each go through acrimonious public divorce, and Molly and Johnny are sent to different boarding schools.

Molly and Johnny become increasingly dependent on each other for emotional support despite Helen’s constant interference and criticism of Molly’s morals.
Ken and Sylvia eventually marry and move into a beach house. They talk Molly and Johnny into visiting them there, to which the teenagers agree because it will give them a chance to be together away from Helen, who is unable to prevent the visit due to a court order.

During their visit, Molly and Johnny secretly consummate their love.  Molly discovers she is pregnant, and she and Johnny run away together planning to get married. They seek Bart’s blessing, but he is about to be admitted to the veterans’ hospital due to ulcers from drinking.

The local justice of the peace sees they are under legal age to marry, and turns them down. In desperation, Molly and Johnny go to the house of Ken and Sylvia, who are supportive.

In the end, a happy Johnny and Molly, just married, return to Pine Island for their honeymoon.

Melodic Tune
The instrumental hit “Theme from A Summer Place,” composed by Max Steiner, was used in the film as musical theme for the scenes of Molly and Johnny. The film’s version, which was recorded by Hugo Winterhalter, was later arranged, recorded and performed by Percy Faith.
At the time, critics complained that Max Steiner’s schmaltzy, melodic music “hammers away at each sexual nuance like a pile driver.”
But in 1960, Faith version reached Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a record of 9 consecutive weeks. The theme has been covered in instrumental or vocal versions by The Lettermen, Andy Williams, Cliff Richard, Julie London, Billy Vaughn, Joanie Sommers, The Ventures, and others.
The picture was enormously popular at the box-office, when it played at Radio City Music Hall.


A Summer Place left huge impact on film and popular culture.

In The Omega Man, in 1971, the lead character Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) listens to the film soundtrack main theme in his car on an 8-track tape cartridge during the pre-credit opening sequence.

In Barry Levinson 1982 film Diner, set in 1959, Boogie and his friends attend a movie theater showing of A Summer Place, where Boogie plays a sexual prank on his date as Molly and Johnny kiss onscreen.



Richard Egan as Ken Jorgenson
Dorothy McGuire as Sylvia Hunter
Sandra Dee as Molly Jorgenson
Arthur Kennedy as Bart Hunter
Troy Donahue as Johnny Hunter
Constance Ford as Helen Jorgenson
Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Emily Hamilton Hamble
Jack Richardson as Claude Andrews
Martin Eric as Todd Harper


Directed by Delmer Daves
Screenplay by Delmer Daves, based on A Summer Place by Sloan Wilson
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Edited by Owen Marks
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date: November 18, 1959
Running time: 130 minutes