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Warner Bros. and producer-director-writer Delmer Daves looked at infidelity and scandal from a multi-generational angle in the 1959 hit A Summer Place. The sins of the parents are visited on their children when childhood sweethearts reconnect years later during a summer vacation only to discover that their children have also fallen hard and in a very foolish way. This was one of the first Hollywood films to tackle the issue of teen pregnancy. Its success, bolstered by a hit title tune and the growing popularity of teen stars Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, helped loosen censorship standards. And though, like most of Warner's '60s romantic dramas, it is not highly regarded by critics, A Summer Place is now considered the definitive Hollywood statement on teen love.
Novelist Sloan Wilson had scored a best seller in l955 with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a look at a staid advertising man whose life is upset by the revelation that he fathered an illegitimate child during World War II. The book's 1956 film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, was a big hit for 20th Century-Fox, so naturally Hollywood was interested in whatever Wilson produced next. They weren't disappointed. His 1958 novel, A Summer Place, became a best seller on the heels of controversy over its treatment of divorce, adultery and teenage sexuality.
Warner Bros. picked up the screen rights, a natural move since they already had several teen heartthrobs like Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter under contract. Wilson wrote the first-draft screenplay, but kept the novel's multi-year time span, which displeased Daves. Since he had started his career as a writer, Daves took on the screenplay, condensing the action to a single year.
A Summer Place marked Daves' transition from Westerns like Broken Arrow (1950) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957) to romances. In fact, with the success of A Summer Place, Warner's assigned him to more teen romances, including Parrish (1961) and Rome Adventure (1962), most of them starring Donahue. Those critically lambasted box-office winners destroyed Daves' reputation as a major director despite efforts by some French critics to re-evaluate his Westerns. Yet some critics have suggested his '60s soap operas are ripe for serious study, pointing out that the criticism of his work echoes that of the more acclaimed director Douglas Sirk, now revered for such films as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation of Life (1959). Although critics at the time viewed A Summer Place seriously, its camp elements today suggests that, like Sirk, Daves may have viewed the melodramatic plot more ironically than was apparent at the time it came out. In particular, some of the coy dialogue about sex (Dee asks Donahue, ""Have you been bad with girls?") and Constance Ford's over-the-top villainy as the mother, particularly when she slaps Dee so hard she falls down and pulls a Christmas tree on top of herself, seem more parody than serious drama.
Warners tried to interest Wood in the role of young Molly, but she turned them down, a move she would later say she regretted. Instead, the studio borrowed Dee from Universal. They didn't need to borrow Donahue from Universal. That studio had just let him go after a brief contract during which his most notable role was the racist boyfriend who beats up Susan Kohner in Imitation of Life when he learns she's black. To bolster the younger actors, the studio cast seasoned pros in the major adult roles, including Richard Egan as Dee's father and Dorothy McGuire as Donahue's mother. Multiple Oscar® nominee Arthur Kennedy played McGuire's alcoholic husband, while stage actress Constance Ford, later a fixture on the daytime drama Another World, got her first major film role as Egan's prudish, bigoted wife.
The studio gave the picture top production values, with cinematography by Harry Stradling, who had won an Oscar® for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and would win another for My Fair Lady (1964), and a score by their top composer, Max Steiner. The New England locations were shot on the Monterey Peninsula and the Clinton Walker House in Carmel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, became Egan and McGuire's beach home after their marriage. Unfortunately, the West Coast locations led to one major mistake in the film -- a scene in which the sun sets in the ocean, something that would never happen on the Atlantic coast.
Dee was already building a solid fan following thanks to appearances earlier that year in Gidget and Imitation of Life. With A Summer Place, however, she had her strongest dramatic role to date. Although she had grown up fast as a teen model and, as her son would reveal years later, a survivor of child sexual abuse, Dee was still a child when she made the film (17 according to her mother; 15 according to son Dodd Darren, who claimed his grandmother had added two years to Dee's age so she could go to work younger). This meant she still had to attend school for three hours a day while filming. During one of her most emotional scenes, in which her mother forces her to visit a doctor to determine if she is still a virgin, she had to interrupt shooting to take a French test.
Donahue had won his screen test for A Summer Place because Daves owed his agent, the famous Henry Willson, a favor. As agent to Rock Hudson and some of Warner's top contract players, Willson even got Daves to direct the test, with Donahue opposite Dee rather than some studio starlet. Though he had little film acting experience, Donahue had lots of experience with women, which almost cost him the role. The test required a kiss, something Donahue had never done on screen before. It took several takes for him to conquer his natural instinct to open his mouth. But conquer it he did, landing the role that would make him a star. Daves showcased him perfectly in the film, with a brilliantly lit first shot in which he turns to the camera revealing perfect (if vacant) blond good looks and a flattering V-neck sweater. In perfect Hollywood style, nobody recognized Donahue when he went into the film's preview in Pasadena, but teenaged girls and more than a few Hollywood executives mobbed him once the screening was over. Universal tried to hire him back, only to learn he had already signed with Warner Bros. One measure of his success in A Summer Place was the fact that sales of V-neck sweaters soared after the film came out.
The critics were not exactly the film's target audience. The New York Times dismissed it as "one of the most laboriously and garishly sex-scented movies in years. With a tedious bluntness of speech and imagery that few people should accept as adult realism, this raucously sensual drama spells out the clashes and intertwinings of two clans on a New England island. It tells -- trumpets, is better -- how two nice adolescents are almost crushed by four persons best described as delinquent adults. The whole thing leaves a rancid taste." Variety, while acknowledging the picture's box-office appeal, complained that Daves "has missed the mark by a mile....The film runs at least 20 minutes too long and has a tendency to use dialogue to 'preach' what should be implied, to be harsh where it should be sensitive, and it makes the most of Hollywood's newly-discovered freedom to display the voluminous vocabulary of sex." It also landed on the Harvard Lampoon's ten worst list and won Dee their Worst Supporting Actress Award.
Yet A Summer Place had undeniable appeal. Whether it was the scandal or the simplicity of Daves' adaptation, it clearly resonated with audiences. Egan's condemnation of his wife's bigotry earned a standing ovation during the premiere showing at New York's Radio City Music Hall. With its October 1959 release, A Summer Place didn't place on the top 20 box office lists for either 1959 or 1960, but its $4.7 million in rentals was higher than most of the films in the 1959 list. It also helped Dee land a place as one of the top ten box office stars of 1960.
No doubt, A Summer Place was helped tremendously by its hit theme song, the biggest success of Steiner's career. The Percy Faith recording held the number one slot on Billboard's Top 100 for nine weeks and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The theme would become a hit again in 1965 in a vocal arrangement for the Letterman and even scored in a disco version, again by Faith, in 1976. The theme's status as an icon of young love in the late '50s is attested to by its inclusion in the soundtracks of later films like Diner (1982) and Ocean's Eleven (2001).
Producer-Director-Screenplay: Delmer Daves
Based on the novel by Sloan Wilson
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Score: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Richard Egan (Ken Jorgenson), Dorothy McGuire (Sylvia Hunter), Sandra Dee (Molly Jorgenson), Arthur Kennedy (Bart Hunter), Troy Donahue (Johnny Hunter), Constance Ford (Helen Jorgenson), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Emily Hamilton Hamble), Eleanor Audley (Mrs. Harrington), Richard Deacon (Pawnbroker), Ann Doran (Mrs. Talbert), Bonnie Franklin (Girl in Dormitory).
by Frank Miller