Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: As August kicks off and the warmest season begins drawing to a close, we’re looking back at some of our favorite summer-themed movies.
Many are familiar with “The Theme From A Summer Place,” a lilting, somewhat haunting instrumental that seems to evoke the very process of nostalgically looking backward. But though the frequently covered song has left a far greater imprint on pop culture than the movie it was written for, A Summer Place itself is worth a watch, too, as it is a fascinating time capsule of the societal mores and sexual constraints of 1959, which would be smashed to bits in the decade that followed.
Setting aside its sociological value, A Summer Place is still a grand, glorious soap opera, its painting-worthy beach landscapes ripe for vicarious enjoyment. Successful research chemist Ken (Richard Egan) takes his wife, Helen (Constance Ford), and daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), to a resort on Maine’s Pine Island, where he was a lifeguard about 20 years earlier. His wife is one of the most vicious prudes ever committed to celluloid, and it soon becomes clear that Ken is really there to look up Sylvia (a luminous Dorothy McGuire), with whom he once had an affair. She chose to marry the resort’s heir, Bart (Arthur Kennedy), leaving the then-blue-collar Ken to rebound into a romance with Helen, which became a loveless marriage.
Unsurprisingly, the star-crossed lovers find their way back to each other, but their romance is mirrored by a new one between their offspring, as Molly quickly falls for Sylvia’s son, Johnny (Troy Donahue). While Ken and Sylvia meet for a late-night rendezvous in a boathouse, Molly and Johnny fumble toward each other, overwhelmed by the ferocity of their hormones, pushing against the constraints of a society in which nice boys and girls were not supposed to think about the things they were thinking about.
A Summer Place is based on a 1958 bestseller by Sloan Wilson, whose novel The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit had previously been adapted into a Gregory Peck vehicle that raged against the social climbing and conformity of America’s postwar era. Here, the target is restrictive sexual attitudes. Sylvia is called a harlot and worse and almost loses custody of her teenage son for being an “adulteress” (who wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night), though her husband’s alcoholism is an actual problem. The constantly frowning Helen embodies the worst of the time period, continually trying to repress and de-sexualize her blossoming daughter; when Molly and Johnny get stuck on an island overnight after their sailboat capsizes, Helen insists on having Molly examined by a doctor to make sure she’s still a virgin.
Dee was known more for her appealing screen persona than her acting, but she rises to the occasion here with, for example, a hysterical tantrum before the doctor’s examination. She does have trouble with some of A Summer Place’s stilted dialogue, particularly its odd approximation of how teenage girls talk. Still, the casting is a master stroke: If Sandra Dee was ready to sleep with her boyfriend before marriage, America could rest assured that everyone was. (Donahue said years later of his breakout role in the film, “I knocked up Gidget, and it was a sacrilege to do that.”)
These soapy plots play out against some truly breathtaking scenery, with California standing in for Pine Island. Maybe there’s a metaphor, too, in the lovely backdrops. It’s no surprise that Helen appreciates the resort, with its antique furniture, drawing rooms, and leaky roofs; it’s stuffy and antiquated. Eventually, however, the adults move to a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the coast of Carmel, and it’s refreshingly updated—a mid-century-modern fan’s dream. In its beauty, one can see the promise of a future that prioritizes happiness over pointless repression.