Dog Days of Summer Movies: A Summer Place
by Mark Blankenship
Tilt your head the right way, and you can see A Summer Place as a thoughtful and progressive discourse on sexuality. Cock it in the other direction, however, and you'll see a smutty, kitschy diamond, just waiting for a stage parody by a group of enterprising drag queens.
I'll reflect on the class in the top half of this report, and I'll use the special categories to revel in the trash.
So…class. The sexual politics of this movie would be provocative even today, let alone in 1959, when the film was released. The action launches on Pine Island, an exclusive chunk of land off the coast of Maine where all potential residents must be approved by a vote. Unsurprisingly, the islanders are rich and white, and they wear natty suits or crisp tennis skirts at all times. They project an image of perfect upper-class harmony.
But beneath the surface, of course, perfection collapses. For one thing, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy), his wife Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), and their son Johnny (Troy Donahue) have lost all their money, so they've turned their mansion into a resort hotel. For Bart, giving tourists access to this exclusive society is so shameful that he's become a bitter drunk who can't walk through a room without snarking about so-and-so's fat bottom. Granted, he was a drunk before poverty struck, but without the shield of great wealth, his eccentricity has become an embarrassment.
Sylvia and Johnny, however, aren't worried about appearances and money and all that. They just want to live good lives, which aligns them with Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan), a former groundskeeper for the Hunters who has since become a wealthy scientist. Now he's bringing his wife Helen (Constance Ford) and his daughter Molly (Sandra Dee) to lounge for the summer in the very house where he used to work. For him, though, that's not a way of proving his new power, like some American version of Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard. He's just coming back to see if this place is as grand in real life as it is in his memory. (Which is a flimsy premise, really, but let's be churlish.)
Conversely, Helen is thrilled to be putting on a show. She insisted that the family arrive in a yacht, and in an early scene, she tries to make Ken wear a fancy yachtsman's cap. He won't hear of such foolishness, so he tosses the cap out the window. Right away, then, we've got Ken, Sylvia, and Johnny on the side of honesty, integrity, and decency, and we've got Helen and Bart on the side of superficiality, nastiness, and judgment. Which will prevail in the enclave of America's privilege?
Obviously, it'll be the side that wins Molly, the virginal white girl! Duh! But seriously: Moments after he pitches his yachting cap, Ken tosses a girdle that Helen wants Molly to wear when they visit the island. "Molly has a lovely, healthy figure," Ken says. "Why do you try to destroy it?" Helen replies, "I don't want her stared at," and seconds before the girdle gets tossed, Ken barks, "So you insist on desexing her, as though sex were synonymous with dirt."
And there are your progressive politics. From there, the movie sides with people who root for sexual freedom and frankness. Helen, meanwhile, becomes an oppressive gorgon who schemes to keep Johnny and Molly apart once they fall in love, and who plots to divorce Ken and keep all his money. She also has the gumption to sleep in a room separate from her husband, keeping her daughter in the bed with her, the better to keep the lock closed on her chastity belt. To a lesser degree, Arthur mimics her. He discourages Johnny from marrying Molly because "all women are harlots," and when Phyllis says she wants a divorce, he says that he'll never let her see Johnny again.
Meanwhile, over in Camp Sexual Freedom, we learn that Ken and Phyllis have loved each other since Ken was a gardener. Because of their endless love (and their horrible spouses), they start having an affair in the Pine Island boat house. Eventually, they get divorced and then remarry each other, moving into a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (It was the '50s, y'all. He designed everything.) When Molly and Johnny come to visit the new couple, they have sex, despite Molly's internalized fear that her sexuality is evil, just like Helen said. And then…oops! Molly gets pregnant. But in the end, the kids get married and Ken makes a speech about how nobody should judge anyone for wanting to be sexual.
Ken's speech resonates because there are so many scenes of Molly suffering because of her mother's crotch-phobic insanity. Not unlike the mid-aughts comedy Saved!, A Summer Place ultimately insists that if we just chill out with the constant morality talk and let people be themselves, then everyone will end up happy, healthy, loving, and socially productive. I dig it.
Enviable Vacation Locale: I also dig the overheated symbolism that turns up on every corner of Pine Island. The resort, for instance, is gorgeous, but it's also falling apart, just like the family that owns it! Phyllis and Ken can sneak up to the attic for some forbidden love, but the nosy granny on the first floor can hear everything they say through the vent in her room. It's as though the sexual truth cannot hide!
Meanwhile, when Johnny and Molly go on a "picnic boat tour" of the island, they get lost in a metaphor for their burgeoning urges when a storm breaks just as they start holding hands. It capsizes their little boat, leaving them to spend the night on a deserted, smaller island until the Coast Guard rescues them the next day.
Extracurricular Activities: The islanders clearly love an unwanted medical exam. Once Molly gets back from her castaway night with Johnny, Helen is so convinced that she and Johnny had sex that she brings in a mainland doctor to give her daughter a full-body exam in order to check for signs of hanky-panky. In a scene that would be disturbing if it weren't so over the top, Molly tries to flee from the doctor, screaming that she's been a good girl while the camera gets closer and closer to her terrified face. If you listen closely, you can hear the Wicked Witch of the West cackling in the background. I'll get you, my pretty, and your intact hymen, too! ["For what it's worth, this is also the movie that's playing during the scene in Diner when Boogie inserts his dick into a box of popcorn." -- Bunting]
Off-Season Getaways: Despite this festival's summer theme, I must mention Christmas break, when everyone's divorced and Molly has to live with Helen. Mommy Dearest learns that Molly has gone to a motel to have a secret chat with Johnny, but before she can explode, Molly says, "All we did was talk, mother. Don't you believe me? Or do you want to get another doctor in here to make sure?"
And with that, Helen slaps the lippy strumpet in the face. Molly spins around several times in slow motion, tries to grab a Christmas tree to support herself, then pulls the tree over as she falls to the floor. Looking up from a pile of shattered ornaments, she screams, "Merry Christmas, Mother!" and I fantasize about playing that scene with Neil Patrick Harris in the Belasco Theatre.
Quality of Beach/Summer Fashions: If you like wearing sweaters and ties and heels, no matter the weather, then this movie is your fashion dream. In our flip-flop age, this formality does have an exotic appeal, but given how difficult it is for me to handle long pants in any temperature over 77 degrees, I'd rather watch than participate in the pageantry.
A special note about the hat Sandra Dee wears while she's visiting her dad and Phyllis at the Frank Lloyd Wright house: It's a bell-shaped, braided-straw number that comes down past her nose, making her look like a coastal version of Mush Mouth. Yet the hat also has built-in sunglasses, so that Molly can see the world and still resemble a J. Crew space alien. It's spectacular.
Credit Where It's Due: I've got to praise Arthur Kennedy, a five-time Oscar nominee, for making Bart such a delightful character. He injects the guy's drunken rants and pissy comments with obvious intelligence. He suggests that Arthur realizes he's an asshole and that his behavior is a salve for his own self-loathing.
Worth the AC? Hell yes. Few movies succeed as both serious social commentaries and wretchedly wonderful camp.
Mark Blankenship runs The Critical Condition (www.thecriticalcondition.com), a website bursting with pop culture criticism and embarrassing enthusiasm for '90s music. He also edits a theatre magazine and tweets @CritCondition. In the summer of 1997, he watched the movie Beautiful Thing ten times.
Tags: A Summer Place Arthur Kennedy Constance Ford Dog Days of Summer Movies Dorothy McGuire Mark Blankenship movies Neil Patrick Harris Richard Egan Sandra Dee Troy Donahue