Sandra Dee & Troy Donahue Find Stardom Awaits at A Summer Place
As June looms around the corner, the time is right to venture to one of the great settings found in the melodramatic genre, 1959’s florid A Summer Place, featuring iconic 1950's teen idols Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue, ideally paired in their only screen teaming (Donahue appeared briefly in Dee’s other classic 1959 soaper, Imitation of Life, as the racist boyfriend who sadistically beats up Susan Kohner, but he shared no scenes with Dee). Physically and in temperament, the two match up extremely well; Dee clearly is enamoured with her lanky, boyishly awkward costar and, in return, Donahue manages to reciprocate Dee's attraction with some earnest baby-blue gazing of his own.
During Sandra Dee's breakthrough 1959 year, plenty of people were indeed looking at the young star, whether she was lousy with virginity (in her signature role as Gidget and as Susie in Life) or not (as the knocked-around, and eventually knocked-up, Molly in A Summer Place). Dee's screen persona as a type of insipid, junior-miss version of Doris Day is somewhat unfair to the late performer. Dee certainly could do the good girl perkiness thing in spades; however, possibly fueled by the many hardships she suffered in her personal life, Dee was also able to invest some of her roles with an impressive emotional grit and vulnerability, and Place probably afforded her the best chance to shine in this mode. Poor Molly gets kicked around plenty (both physically and emotionally) throughout the torrid course of the film, and Dee dives into the sometimes demanding role with aplomb, whether she's displaying mortification, then resentment, over the discovery of her father's illicit affair with her boyfriend’s mother or when, in her big scene, she breaks down when told by her heartless mother she is to be thoroughly examined by a doctor, after Molly returns from a night lost at sea with Johnny (this scene must have turned some heads in 1959, and it’s still uneasy to watch the young Molly unnecessarily subjected to such torment). Dee was only about sixteen at the time of filming Place, and her sensitive acting in these demanding scenes is convincing and moving, making one wish Dee had been afforded more opportunities to shed her “good girl” image, and take on heftier dramatic roles along the lines of her Molly Jorgenson.
Troy Donahue never showed much adeptness as a thespian during his brief rein as a leading man during the early 1960's, but in Place his California blond beauty and rigid demeanor suit his role as the pure-hearted, romantic Johnny. Although Donahue can't shake off his trademark stoicism, he focuses intently enough on Dee to display some star quality and, aided by the strong chemistry he creates with Dee, Place’s Johnny represents Donahue's best role and performance.
Dee and Donahue are surrounded by a solid lineup of players, with the lovely Dorothy McGuire headlining the cast as Sylvia, an innkeeper who effectively re-kindles some sparks when old flame Ken (Richard Egan) returns to the title locale to discover where life has taken his former love, while Arthur Kennedy convincingly stews in his brew as Bart, Sylvia's insolent spouse. The McGuire/Egan romance serves as a nice December counterpoint to the Dee/Donahue May coupling, and the gentle McGuire glows with love and warmth most effectively. It’s also nice to see parents being portrayed as intelligent and compassionate, instead of the overbearing, clueless stereotypes found in other teen-oriented films of the period, such as Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass. However, the Generation Gap is fully represented in Place by the drunken Bart’s oftentimes cloddish behavior, and especially whenever Constance Ford appears as Dee's vicious mother, Helen, whose only goal in life is to destroy any fun, happiness, or beauty that dares to creep into the lives of any person she happens to come across and, in particular, her nubile young daughter. In the early sections of the film, Ford works at giving a sense of humanity to the hard-nosed Helen, acting unsure and apprehensive enough of the time to at least suggest Helen understands she possesses some unhealthy hang-ups regarding Molly's burgeoning sexuality. However, once Molly begins to harbor serious feelings for Johnny, the control-freak Helen goes completely batty, and Ford has a field day illustrating the unbalanced woman’s execrable attempts to destroy her daughter’s life, whether she’s turning Molly over to that creepy doctor or slapping her offspring directly into the family’s Christmas tree- Happy Holidays, Molly!
One of Max Steiner's most famous scores (Percy Faith's recording of the title theme was #1 for nine weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart) lends an air of nostalgia to the film, and the lush soundtrack immeasurably aids in setting the proper dramatic tone for each flamboyant scene– without Steiner’s contribution, it’s hard to imagine the film coming off at all. Delmer Daves directs competently, and sometimes more than that; I love how Daves sometimes has Ford backlit with red lighting, such as in the scene wherein she's seated by a red lamp during one of her nastiest attacks, wherein Helen calls Sylvia a “harlot of a mother”- awash in a red glow during this retort, Helen looks as if she’s ascended directly from hell just to make life miserable for both pairs of lovers. Capturing the time and place of its era perfectly (well, at least as portrayed in the movies of the period- unlike Ken and Sylvia, not many people were lucky enough to end up in a magnificent Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house), A Summer Place is a worthy example of the entertaining type of potboiler Hollywood frequently served up with relish during the 1950’s.