A Summer Placerecommended viewing

That's what's cheap, wanting a man
★★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1959
Director: 
Delmer Daves
Starring: 
Richard Egan, Sandra Dee, Dorothy McGuire, Troy Donahue, Constance Ford, Arthur Kennedy
The Setup: 
Forbidden romances blossom in an atmosphere of sexual repression.
Discussion: 

This was featured in a book my friend got me, The Worst Movies of All Time, which went so far into discussing its fathers who find their daughter’s bouncing breasts “pleasant” and mothers obsessed with their daughter’s virginity that I became very interested. So me and that same friend [who has a taste for older movies] holed up one night to watch it.

We open on Pine Island, off the coast of Maine. Bart, the ascot-wearing alcoholic who runs the Pine Island Inn, is preparing for the arrival of the Jorgensons, old residents of the island. He doesn’t want to welcome them, but his wife Sylvia insists that they need the money, so badly that they’ll give the Jorgensons the main house and go sleep in the servant’s quarters. Bart is bitter because Ken Jorgenson, who used to be a lifeguard on the island—and who had a steamy teen affair with Sylvia—is now coming back a rich man, having made his fortune as a research chemist. Haven’t you met any filthy rich research chemists?

Meanwhile, on the approaching boat, the Jorgensons prepare for arrival. Out pops Sandra Dee as Molly, who proves that the sweatshirt and sweatpants look dates back at least to the late 50s. She spies Bart and Sylvia’s son Johnny looking at her from the island, and feels all tingly in her erogenous zones. Having anticipated this, her mother, Helen, has prepared a bra that will flatten her boombas, causing Molly to run to daddy and ask if HE likes the way her breasts bounce. They heave “in a pleasant and unobjectionable way,” he says, then excoriates Helen for how she “insists on de-sexualizing her! As though sex were synonymous with dirt!” Helen says she just doesn’t want men looking at Molly… and recall that Johnny was just looking at Molly. Hmm, it’s that pesky male gaze again!

So Johnny picks them up and delivers them to the house—I was really surprised we didn’t see the moment when Johnny and Molly meet—where the parents engage in rarified bitchery. Soon Molly is in bed and snuggling with her sexually-frustrated Dad, telling him that she likes it when men look at her. She says she sometimes has naughty thoughts, and asks him if it’s wrong, and he advises her not to listen to her mother and to let her sexuality blossom like a springtime flower.

Soon drunken Bart is extolling the benefits of skinny-dipping to a mortified Helen, and saying that the island has aphrodisiac qualities. Then Molly and Johnny slip away into the brambles, where she receives a scratch on her leg that requires him to look up her skirt. At this point I turned to my friend and said “You know what she looks like? A blow-up sex doll!” because she has this fake-looking blonde hair, black, blank eyes, a red mouth, and an overall mindless expression. “Yeah,” my friend said, “because they patterned the sex dolls after her.” Which I hadn’t thought of before. Troy Donahue as Johnny, it must be said, looks like a Ken doll come to life, but expresses approximately one-third the personality. Anyway, turns out Helen is watching from the window, and excoriates her daughter for letting Johnny “kiss and maul her.” Notice, around 23:24, the strong and unrealistic RED light in the apartment when Molly returns. One other thing about the mise-en-scene, while we’re on the topic, is how the director fills his film with lots of planes of rails and wicker and lattice-work, then films then all in deep focus, so one is aware of all these complex spaces around the characters.

So I’m starting to think “Is this movie a beloved gay movie? Because it should be,” and this goes into hyperdrive when the permanently-outraged Helen seethes “Must you parade in front of those open windows like a strip-teaser?” then advises her daughter “You must play a man like a fish. Never let him know you want him. That’s what’s cheap, wanting a man.”

SPOILERS > > > Then Molly goes once more to cuddle in bed with Dad, and ask him why he married her mother and why they stopped sleeping in the same room. Now I've begun to lose objectivity over whether certain things are really present in movies, or whether it's just my own dirty mind, so I was happy to hear my friend say of this scene: "Now that is overtly sexual!" I think this is actually the scene in which Molly confesses her dirty thoughts and her Dad tells her to let them flow free. Then Dad sneaks out to meet Sylvia in the boat house. Back in the day she was wealthy and he was just a lifeguard, so she married Bart, but thought of Ken every day. Ditto Ken. By this time both me and my friend were a little stunned at the sheer poundage of makeup on Sylvia's face, making her head a much paler shade than her shoulders, and drawing the comment "she looks like the zombie lady from the flea market," referring to a New York person we're both familiar with. They pledge to run away and get divorces, but both want custody of their respective kids. Oh, and by the way, have you put together that this will then make young lovers Molly and Johnny into BROTHER AND SISTER? Yup.

Well, news travels fast on Pine Island, what with that busybody handyman about, and by the time Sylvia gets back home, her Aunt greets her at the door and launches into a speech about how she SHOULD dump Bart and run off with Ken. Helen's heard of their tryst as well, and calls her mother, who advises her on how she can "get everything she can" out of Ken. I guess we get a little sense of how Helen ended up the way she did from that.

So, against this hotbed of smoldering passion, Molly and Johnny get permission to go out sailing for the day. Only the wind has come up bad—and poor Johnny seems wholly unable to sail—and they end up dashed on the rocks. Then fool Johnny loses the boat and they're stuck spending the night on some island. When Molly returns, she tells her mother than "the boat capsized and we spent the night on the beach," saying they didn't do anything, but that doesn't stop mom from having a doctor on hand to ensure the sanctity of Molly's hymen! Molly FREAKS OUT in a scene that had me wondering if this movie was, in some small way, one of the inspirations for Carrie, the book and film. That night it all blows up, the word "Harlot" is flung with non-ironic impunity, and Helen exposes Ken and Sylvia's affair. Both spouses talk it out, but both emphatically refuse to give up the kids.

After what is clearly "end of part one," we see that Molly has been sent to a private school, and Helen has blown the whole deal all over the papers, generating the headline "Outraged Wife Tells All." Ken shows up at Molly's school and invites her to come out to California to visit him and Sylvia—and Johnny will be there. She goes to her mother's, who has just finished decorating this hideously fake Christmas tree. Helen reveals that she's been reading Molly's secret letters from Johnny—and this is where the magically-zipping dress appears, around 1:17:00. Molly turns and her dress is clearly unzipped, and in the next shot, clearly zipped. Anyway, Molly then slings some sass at her mom, causing Helen to smack her into the Christmas tree—or at least NEXT to the Christmas tree, since it's obvious that Molly has to reach out and grab it to pull it down atop her. Drama queen. Then Molly delivers a bitter "Merry Christmas, Mama" from her position in a clump on the floor bedecked in strewn Christmas ornaments and fake pine branches.

So Molly goes to visit Dad, but is disgusted—just DISGUSTED!—that her father is an adulterer! AND he got a divorce! Scandal taints their name! Johnny's not too happy about it either, at one point calling his mother a "common slut!" So you just have to accept that it's a scandal, although watching it now is akin to watching a science-fiction film. By the way, Ken and Sylvia live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Johnny and Molly tell their parents they're going to see King Kong—"maybe twice"—and this leads to the famous scene in which Molly recites the ending so they can say they've seen it—while actually Johnny is popping the hymen he got in so much trouble for NOT pricking before. Meanwhile, at home, Ken and Sylvia are discussing how they have to just be strong and let their kids come to them; "They've got to want us."

Around now and continuing until the end is this strange dialogue in several different scenes that sounds one way but ends up the other. For example, Ken will be saying how you have to be true to yourself and be with the person you love, then tells the kids "stop this affair right now!" He goes on about the dangers of passion and all that, and you're like "well then why did you invite the two of them out to your house and imply that their love can finally blossom? It's a lot of mixed messages. I guess they're upset that the kids are now brother and sister, which leaves to this unspoken conflict that either the adults can have their relationship or the kids can, but not both. Anyway, surely you know that virgins with anti-sex mothers invariably get pregnant the very first time they have sex, and sure enough, Johnny is Molly's babydaddy. Blah, blah, blah it all goes on, until Johnny and Molly forgive their parents for their adulterous ways, and Sylvia says something to the effect of "I'm so glad you wanted us." The end. < < < SPOILERS END

To my surprise, I LOVED IT. Not even ironic, oh-this-is-so-adorably-bad kind of love, but real, sincere love. Yes, it's about ninety miles over the top and the dialogue--! Some of the most outrageously "poetic" declamations ever heard on screen, and everything else, but I think one has to look at it on its own terms, which is a 50s teen melodrama, and within that purview it is wonderfully successful. It's so purely emotional, characters never talk about thinking or intellectualizing, they're all acting on the impulses of their hearts. This is not even to mention the overwhelmingly emotional score, which includes several renditions of the famous "Theme from 'A Summer Place.'" It's also gorgeous to look at, lushly photographed in wonderful vivid colors, and with the aforementioned intricate frames and deep focus. This is like movie comfort food. This is exactly the kind of thing Buffy and her mom would watch together after Buffy had to kill her mom's fiancé because she found out he was secretly John Ritter.

Now I have been trying to determine if this movie has a large gay following, and if not, I CANNOT see why. It's got pretty boys, horny dads, naïve teens, and bitchy, overbearing mothers who sling the words "harlot" and "slut" without the slightest trace of irony. Not to mention the whole sheen about one's secret, forbidden sexual urges and parents that try to shame you and stifle them—who turn out to be morally licentious themselves! And then just all the gossip, melodrama and sass. And then true love finally conquering all.

So there you go. This is one of those movies that definitely deserves it's place in The Worst Movies of All Time, but also justifies its designation in the 'classics' bin, and can be just ludicrously enjoyable if this is what you're in the mood for. Recommended for small groups of friends or couples, as this is the kind of thing you want to be able to laugh at and talk about and—who knows—maybe even cry about. Hold me.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! This is really the pinnacle of a certain type of late-50s melodrama cheese!

Comments

loved your write up on A SUMMER PLACE. i always liked the movie, the oversaturated colors, the OTT dramatics, the music, but i never looked at it as a GAY fave before. there is something innocent about sandra dee's dewy damp bambi eyes, and troy's blond mattel looks (and knowing he was gay in "real life") that makes their sexing seem sweet, while the rest of the cast is going OFF about the illicit forbidden lust. it is a hoot.

similar movies that look at 1950's and burning romance:

A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) with montgomery clift (another gay man in real life) and liz taylor in glorious black and white. shelley winters plays against the bombshell type to portay the mousy gal who loves monty, while he falls for the glamorous liz. raymond burr is on hand to play a dramatic attorney in the film's climax. it is gorgeous, directed by george stevens, and also has a sexy score evocative of the lost romance of another time. this movie has no camp value of note, it's actually well made and beautiful to watch.

PEYTON PLACE is another vein, more like douglas sirk in its garish use of technicolor and simmering sexuality under the tranquility of a sedate new england town. lana turner is the star, and her emotions run the gammut from A to B, she furrows her brow and frets and poses and spreads the corn like an iowa farmer. it's another potboiler of 50's morality, and the hypochrasy just beneathe the surface.