For Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), the trip back to Pine Island is bittersweet. He’s married to Helen (Constance Ford), a woman he can’t stand, and raising a daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), confused about the difference between his permissiveness and his wife’s frigid primness. Moreover, the residential resort holds a lot of mixed memories for Ken. He was a lifeguard there in his youth, working for the Hunter family and wooing local lass Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire). Desperate to make something of himself, Ken left his love, and she wound up marrying the bumbling son of the owners. As an adult, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has squandered the family fortune and spends his days in a half-drunken stupor. Luckily, the couple has a conscientious son named Johnny (Troy Donahue), who wants to help as much as he can.
The reunion between the parties is problematic, especially with Helen acting extremely suspicious and the young people discovering a burning desire for each other almost instantaneously. Things come to a loggerhead when Ken and Sylvia begin an affair, a series of secret encounters that leads to the break-up of their respective families. Naturally, the teens are devastated, hoping to keep their love alive. But with the infighting and legal wrangling, feelings get deeply hurt. Even a new marriage can’t mend the damage. As they struggle to stay together, Molly and Johnny long for A Summer Place, somewhere they can go and be happy—and alone.
A Summer Place is a movie about sex. And hate. Actually, it’s a film about the unbridled passions of ardent lovers separated, either by distance or design, and how they will stoop to all manner of anger-based schmaltz to realize their throbbing biological urges. Based on the scandalous novel by Sloan Wilson (also famous for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), this overheated sudser, loaded with more histrionics and innuendo than a tent full of Cub Scouts with a National Geographic, does almost anything to draw us in. It provides one of the most heinous, hissable villains of all time—a woman who has basically boiled life down to a series of prejudices, predilections, and presumptions. This porkpie shrew, expertly essayed by Constance Ford, is the kind of cow who makes you want to reach out into the screen itself and choke that smug smirk off her obviously overfed face. She delivers such devastating attacks on everyone in the film—her fragile daughter, her dour husband, the innkeepers of the vacation spot—that you wait in desperation for her well-earned comeuppance. In fact, you beg the movie for the moment where all the cards she’s carefully stacked against the rest of her brood come falling back on top of her. Unfortunately, A Summer Place doesn’t provide that kind of denouement. Instead, it has other things on its mind, issues involving carnality and its expression, both physically and emotionally.
If you weren’t aware that it wasn’t invented until the mid ’90s, you’d swear the entire cast of this film was strung out on maximum-strength Viagra. Wild cats with biologically modified animalistic urges aren’t in this much heat. Our primary horndog is Richard Egan, playing the husband of the horrid housefrau mentioned before. His position as a lowly teen lifeguard was especially helpful in wooing the ladies, and as he’s aged into a man of wealth, he’s got lovin’ on his brain morning, noon, and night. Having never gotten over his affair with Pine Island local Sylvia, he despises his wife for withholding her prudish favors and preaches a kind of corporeal clemency to his hormonally hopped-up daughter. In fact, it’s safe to say that if he didn’t invent the hedonistic philosophy, Egan’s Ken Jorgenson was a staunch advocate of the “if it feels good, do it” mantra. As a result, his offspring, essayed with a syrupy strangeness by ’50s cinematic chastity belt Sandra Dee, is simultaneously stunted and sizzling, ready to rock and roll once the right guy comes along, only to feel tremendous guilt afterwards. In essence, she’s organized religion without the burden of the “Big V.” Lucky for her then that Troy Donahue is in residence. The minute she meets him, it’s major lip lock time, with just a few cautionary words about “being good” before proceeding through the rest of the adolescent “bases.”
Naturally, all of this makes Donahue’s parents all the more unhappy. In fact, the filmmakers felt so bad for mother Hunter, played by Dorothy McGuire, that they had to put a glaucoma-level of soft focus on her just to keep the lust issues in check. In a scene guaranteed to give the casual viewer a compositional headache, Egan and his former love have an attic assignation where, half the time, you can barely make out the features on McGuire’s face. Granted, she was five years older than her costar, but the more unbelievable element was the film’s apocryphal timeline. Sylvia and her swim stud were teens when they made their “mistake.” He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly 20 years. He has a daughter whose 16, while she has a 17-year-old. Math majors out there will see that the McGuire, pushing 44, is trying to pass for mid-30s. Even worse, Egan, who looks like a bulldog beaten about the face and head with a case of bourbon and Old Spice, is also in his post-20s prime. Call it an old-fashioned casting conceit, but these two make youthful indiscretion seem positively prehistoric. And then there’s Arthur Kennedy. As McGuire’s husband Bart, this constantly inebriated loser is like old money gone to super seed. Aperitif glass permanently glued to his hand, conversational skills both enhanced and exaggerated by his constant snorts of booze, he’s supposed to be the unredeemable harlequin of this menagerie. His bon mots are aimed at making him seem witty despite his permanently pickled nature. He simply turns out as pathetic as a human can possibly be without resorting to stories of childhood molestation.
In the end, it’s all in service of cheese so ripe and sensationally stinky that we anticipate every amazingly aromatic moment of it. Writer/director Delmer Daves, whose pen was responsible for the whacked-out weeper An Affair to Remember and whose eye delivered Dark Passage and the baby-on-fire masterpiece Susan Slade, is an expert at making this kind of potboiler pulp percolate with sentimentality and spice. Not one for subtlety, he keeps his characters cranked over to “11” and never once stops to examine the authenticity of his moments. Instead, he takes the standard soap opera material and makes an elephantine opera out of the smallest situations. Preempting John Waters in the Christmas tree defilement department, and letting each face slap—and threat of medical virginity checking—sink in like an interpersonal war crime, he’s not just making a regressive romance picture. No, Daves is delving into the heart of human darkness, illustrating the actual ways in which people decipher and destroy each other. Rendering every conversation an experiment in socio-anthropology and reducing the slow sensual burn into an aberrant art form, the end result is an unapologetic campfest fashioned onto a cleaned-up copy of The Kinsey Report. You’ll hate yourself for loving every insinuation-laced minute, and the aftershock is akin to a hangover from too many bottles of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine. But you’ll be as happy as a casino-ed clam once it’s all over.