With apologies to Beverly
Frigid women. Manipulative wives. Bad mothers. Dumb blondes. Alcoholism. Failing marriages. Furtive sex. Before Mad Men revived these retro conventions and somehow made them hip, they were just tawdry. “Prepare to be shocked,” the trailer promised, “because this bold, outspoken drama is the kind of motion picture excitement demanded by audiences today.”
Really? I can’t imagine what audiences in 1959 found shocking about A Summer Place. As an exposé of sexual hypocrisy, it’s pretty tame. Yes, there’s an extramarital affair, but the betrayed spouses are so unsympathetic you’re cheering the adulterous couple on. There’s a pair of teenaged lovers having sex too, but they’re so wholesome, and so terribly in love, that you just know they were meant for each other.
Sloan Wilson, who wrote the novel, was also the author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a chronicle of anomie in the business world. Both were best-sellers that became hit movies, and clearly spoke to the anxieties of the postwar era. Wilson comes across as earnest on the page, and it’s likely the stories read better than they played out on the screen.
Take this little speech, delivered by the father of Sandra Dee’s character, Molly, after he realizes his little girl is sleeping with Johnny (Troy Donahue):
I can’t tell her to be half good because I’d feel like a hypocrite. Is there no completely honest answer I can give her? Is the only answer that youth must be a time of suspended animation? Or is the solution for parents to maintain a frightened, worried silence?
I know it was supposed to be heartfelt, but it sounds like something a social worker would say in one of those fifties movies about troubled youth. You can see why Molly and Johnny are troubled, what with the messed-up adults in their lives. But knowing the mess that both young actors made of their own lives, it’s tempting to read more into this picture. Like when Johnny’s alcoholic father calls Molly “a succulent little wench.” We’re obviously meant to feel, with Johnny, that this accusation is unjust (although he only disputes the “wench” part). Dee is indeed succulent, her surface innocence barely concealing her sexual readiness. Toward the end of her life, the actress revealed that she had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather as a child. The way she was presented in A Summer Place, it’s all there.