Summer Place (1959): From Our Archive

summer_place_poster.jpgDelmer Daves’ lavish melodrama, ” A summer Place,” captures all the sexual anxieties and domestic angst of the presumably conservative Eisenhower better than other films of the era.
The film is now known for offering the handsome heartthrob Troy Donahue his first starring role, and for Max Steiner’s song “Theme From A Summer Place,” which became 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 adultery, teenage love and pregnancy, and adult hypocrisy.
summer_place_5.pngSet 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.
summer_place_4.pngHysteria 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” that 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, and irresponsible parents.
Both Sandra Dee and Donahue were popular with younger viewers.  In the same year, Donahue and Dee appeared in Douglas Sirk’s superior melodrama “Imitation of Life,” with Dee playing Lana Turner’s troubled teenage daughter and Donahue, the boyfriend of Susan Kohner, who beats her up when he finds out that she’s black passing as white.
Even at the time, critics complained that Max Steiner’s schmaltzy, melodic music “hammers away at each sexual nuance like a pile driver.”
The picture was enormously popular at the box-office, after its premiered at Radio City Music Hall.

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