Guilty Film Pleasures: A Summer Place (1959)

Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee in “A Summer Place” (1959)

I have three main guilty pleasures: ridiculous, flashy clothes; Krispy Kreme doughnuts and trashy classic films.

I love pre-code 1930s films because of their quick witted lines, snappy pace and how down trodden women somehow pull themselves out of horrible situations-whether  they are adjusting to life after Sing Sing or secretly bringing up an illegitimate child.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, not many movies were as delightfully dirty as these pre-code films. There were a few salacious films, but viewers have to sometimes read between the lines to pick up on scandal.

 But then the late 1950s happened. Actors like Connie Stevens, Sandra Dee, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue emerged and were perfect to play teens that constantly got into trouble.

“Susan Slade”, “Parrish”, “Rome Adventure” are just a few deliciously trashy films that came out during the late 1950s and late 1960s.

However, one of my all time favorite trashy 1950s films is “A Summer Place” (1959).

Family dinner at Pine Island. Cut the awkwardness with a knife.

The film revolves around two families: the Hunters and the Jorgenson’s.

Sylvia and Bart Hunter (played by Dorothy McGuire and Arthur Kennedy) own a summer resort on Pine Island in Maine. They live there year round with their son Johnny (Troy Donahue). The Pine Island home was owned by Bart’s family, but once he took over it fell into shambles. Bart is an alcoholic but Sylvia sticks by him in the interest of their son.

This particular summer Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) returns to Pine Island with his wife and daughter (Constance Ford and Sandra Dee). Ken was a lifeguard at Pine Island when he, Bart and Sylvia were teenagers. We soon find out that Ken and Sylvia were romantically involved during those summers but she married Bart because he was wealthier.

Ken and Sylvia start to secretly meet and rekindle their romance…and their children begin to follow this suite.

 Midnight meetings in the boat house, nosey old women, divorce on the grounds of adultery and teen pregnancy are sprinkled throughout the film.

This may sound like a run-of-the-mill 1950s trash fest, but there are so many things that make it very special:

Troy Donahue: Troy was a big star in the 1950s but he wasn’t running on much more than his looks. His emotions usually run from A to A. But I do feel that in “Summer Place” we get the special treat more emotion from Troy, including a tear running down his face.

Beulah Bondi: She doesn’t have a large role but she is wonderful as the busy body, but understanding aunt of Bart. My favorite line of her’s is when she first sees Sandra Dee, “Hardly proper to be so pretty. Seems all the nice girls I know have bad skin, are too fat, too thin or have thick ankles.”

•I love Constance Ford’s role as Helen Jorgenson. She does a wonderful job making you hate her. I love how she does ridiculous things like trying to strap down her daughter with a bra and de-sexing clothes. At one point Richard Egan gives a powerful speech about Helen and her prejudices. During the film’s screening at Radio City Music Hall, the audience gave a standing ovation at this part of the film, according to IMDB.

•There are so many great scenes.

            -Molly’s bra floating in the water after her dad throws it out the window.

            -Johnny awkwardly holding up Molly’s skirt after she is cut by a thorn.

            -Helen examining Molly to make sure she is still a “good girl” after having to spend the night on the beach with Johnny due to a boating accident.

            -Molly telling Johnny the plot of “King Kong” right before he um…deflowers her.

            -And my favorite part: Helen pushing Molly into a plastic Christmas tree. While still on the floor Molly looks up and says, “Merry Christmas Mama.”

Wait for it….

 “Summer Place” is also a special movie to me, because I have had the good fortune to be able to read the book written by Sloan Wilson the film was based off. It is a great read and one of my favorites and gives more insight of why the different characters are why they are.

The book explains that Helen and Ken married out of loneliness. After being jilted by Sylvia, Ken worked to be rich and successful to spite her. Helen’s father is Ken’s business partner and goes home with him for dinner where he meets Helen. They are both lonely and decide to get married. Helen is very sheltered and taught by her parents that sex is dirty-it’s a wonder Molly was ever born.

We learn that Sylvia liked Bart and was more of a tease to Ken. She married Bart because her recently wealthy father had gone bankrupt. The night they were engaged, Bart’s grandfather found out they had also lost all of their money too. Not only do Bart and Sylvia have a son, Johnny, they also have a daughter in the book.

Bart is an alcoholic because he has an inferiority complex. He is one of the idle rich who has little purpose in life. He marries a woman who he knows doesn’t love him which only makes matters worse. The book describes the only time Bart felt he had any purpose in life was when he was a commander of a ship during World War II. After the war, his alcoholism increased.

Lastly, in the film Molly wants Johnny to protect and help her when she finds out she is pregnant. In the book, Molly is more pissed than anything. She likes him still but is mad about the situation. At the end when the two stay on Pine Island together to start their life, you get the feeling that Johnny loves Molly more than she loves him.

Excited about their life of unplanned parenting!

Before I watched this movie to review, my dad had never had the pleasure of seeing it. I would like to leave you with some of his reactions I wrote down during the movie:

– “Whatever you do that woman shoots dogs, I wouldn’t trust her!” –Referring to Dorothy McGuire’s role in “Old Yeller”

-“My god, a bunch of crabby people!”-referring to the people in the Pine Island resort

-“Now I know why they don’t sleep together, surprised they have any kids!” (after Mr. and Mrs. Jorgenson fight about sex and race)

-“They’re going to do a pelvic exam?? Oh my god!”

– “Probably mom’s out hanging from her heels spying in a tree.”-While Molly and Johnny meet

-Dad making Psycho music noises about mother waiting for Molly to come home.

-Movie: “Frank Llyod Wright designed our house.” Dad: “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” (seriously)

-“I may never like that music again. It gets on my nerves after awhile”-referring to the ‘Summer Place’ theme

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28 thoughts on “Guilty Film Pleasures: A Summer Place (1959)

  1. Nice review. Not a film that I’ve seen, bu it did remind me, slightly, of another guilty pleasure: Grease 2–because Tab Hunter and Connie Stevens play teachers in it.

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    • Thanks! I think I saw Grease 2 a long long time ago, but was too young to know who Tab and Connie were. I recommend this movie, it’s really great and trashy lol

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  2. Ah, yes, this is pure guilty pleasure material. It’s like an early Lifetime movie. So wonderfully trashy and overly dramatic, I couldn’t help but like it.

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  3. This is a movie that, in my book, defines a true “guilty pleasure.” In its day, “A Summer Place” – boasting teen idols Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue – was considered risque – and it was a big, big hit. As was the ubiquitous “Theme From A Summer Place.” Both have been guilty pleasures of my own – though now I have to wonder how many teenage pregnancies the movie and song must’ve inspired in those pre-pill days!

    An excellent choice, well-done. And I love your dad’s comments.

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  4. Jessica – I love this movie, too. There is something about the Hollywood films of that era that get me. Even if they are trashy, they are gorgeous to look at and are filled with genuine movie stars. Every year Sandra Dee looks better and better to me. Even mediocrity back then passes for classic now! A really fun, entertaining movie and a fun, entertaining post. And glad you brought your dad along for the ride!

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    • I know! For trashy movies, they have huge stars! I mean Susan Slade has Brian Aherne and Parrish has Claudette Colbert!
      I love Sandra Dee too, always so so beautiful.
      On a side note-I loved your post about Three on a Match. I laughed out loud soooo much 😀

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  5. I’m with you there on the guilty pleasures, especially the trashy movies. I haven’t yet seen A SUMMER PLACE, but now I will check it out – what a tangled nest of neuroses! And that lousy Christmas tree – couldn’t they have made a better effort? Really enjoyed your great review, particularly your dad’s insightful comments – dumb movies are always good for bringing family generations together!

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    • You definitely need to check it out! Not only is it colorful and has a great cast, but so so so perfectly trashy.
      Man that Christmas Tree scene-I agree though, if it was a full fledged 10 foot fur, that sure would have gotten a point across.
      Yeh my family has watched our share of dumb movies, thought this would be perfect for comments 😀

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  6. Boy, did your review ever bring back memories. Terrific choice.

    Your Dad’s asides were perfect. The last time “A Summer Place” was on TV my husband commented “Ah, back when sex was dirty and the air was clean.” He’s not always very original, but that about covers it.

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    • I’m glad it helped bring back some memories! Love this movie 🙂
      Haha I’m also glad you enjoyed them. I giggled the whole time while I documented. And I love your husband’s comment-right on the nose I say lol

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  7. HAHAHAHAHA! I LOVED this post. I actually almost laughed out loud (while sitting in class at college, er, um, taking notes! ;-D)

    And your dad’s reactions were priceless. I wouldn’t trust her either.

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    • Hahaha I’m glad! I laughed out loud at your comment (I understand as a recent college grad).
      I’m glad you enjoyed them….he didn’t really know I was documenting hehehe

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  8. Jn:

    Gotta admit, I’m more partial to Susan Slade (because that movie is just mind-boggling in some of its WTF plot turns) but you so rightfully point out that there are fun moments in A Summer Place that make it prime trash-o-rama. (I just about choked on the “Cut the awkwardness with a knife” caption, too.)

    (And you like Krispy Kreme doughnuts — clearly a person of impeccable taste!)

    When the soap opera Capitol was on the air, my mother would always hum (Theme From) A Summer Place when Richard Egan would enter a room. Took me years to figure out why.

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    • Haha I’m partial to Susan Slade as well for the complete ridiculousness of it. I mean the BURNING BABY! or when Susan finds out her lover is dead and screams and rips her clothes off? It’s all just so….perfect haha
      Ooo I didn’t know Richard Egan was in a soap opera. The only other thing I really know him from is Pollyanna, but I do enjoy seeing him. Definitely easy on the eyes.
      (As for KK doughnuts-chocolate covered cream filled are the way to go 😀 )

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    • haha yeh, poor Troy. His movies are so great for the wrong reasons. I’ll admit, I record his movies because they are a guilty pleasure-certainly not his acting ability.

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  9. This movie made me very uncomfortable. However, you make a very good point about how much it (and other movies like it at the time) resembles pre-code films.

    Your father’s comments are hilarious! Most of it was just what I was thinking!

    -Java

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed them 🙂
      And you aren’t the first person to say it made you uncomfortable. I loaned a good friend of mine this DVD along with some other classic films. She usually likes trash and romance films, but when she returned my movies all she said was, “Wow….that Summer Place movie was really trashy.” haha

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  10. Ah … A Summer Place. I so agree with it being a guilty pleasure. I once worked with a woman who was a teenager when the film was released. She loved it and said it was so scandalous and how much she hated the mother in it. I also like how you link the movie to the book (I am not familiar with it) and finally your dad’s comments, which were great. All in all a fun read on a true guilty pleasure.

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    • Man the mother in that film is so horrible! I read they considered Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland for the role of Helen. I don’t know about Teresa but I think Olivia would have been excellent for an evil mother!

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  11. I loved Helen Jorgensen’s line after Ken told John Hunter he wouldn’t blame him if he killed Helen. “Of course you wouldn’t. It would make it easier for you to sneak off and have sex with his harlot of a mother!”. She was a gorgeous, gutsy woman, Constance Ford.

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