A Summer Place  is one of those Hollywood potboilers that filled theaters decades ago and now pops up on AMC and TCM. Based on Sloan Wilson’s novel, it is a 1950s coming of age epic that treats the viewer to some of the best footage of the coast and islands of Maine that can be found. Rocks and waves galore, unfortunately it is all California.
The story is that of a crumbling family desperately attempting to hold on to the family’s island resort home. Arthur Kennedy and Dorothy McGuire are the last remnants of the family. His drinking is damaging her ability to keep the guests they have. Richard Egan, a lifeguard at the place long ago and now wealthy, and his wife Constance Ford show up and the sparks fly. The lifeguard is now the rich guest. Kennedy cannot stand it. Of course, Egan and McGuire had an affair during the earlier era, but then moved on, though not in their hearts.
Complicating this are the children played by Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee. They fall for each other amid struggles over virginity, love, kissing, sex, and what ever else they can toss in. Here in 2004, one wonders about the quaintness of it all. Troy and Sandra move ahead in their love, while Egan and McGuire rekindle.
The setting for all of this action is Pine Island. Even the opening credits have the crashing of waves, all set to Max Steiner’s brilliant music. [Percy Faith’s more famous Theme from a Summer Place is actually the love motif for Dee and Donahue. If you can recall dancing to that, or have the record album, then you are a true child of the early 60s.] Donahue takes Dee on a sail around the island ending in a wreck. The crashing waves take their toll mostly on the parents. Everything comes to a head with Egan and McGuire getting back together after twin divorces. Donahue and Dee find themselves in each other’s arms after a little more time.
The most spectacular scenes come as Dee and Donahue visit the now married Egan and McGuire in their prairie-style Frank Lloyd Wright home on the beach. If you are into Wright, you just want to join them in this magnificent house. If you just need to see it: try www.geocities.com/soho/1469/ca_walk.jpg. The site lists it as the Mrs. Clinton Walker house, on the beach in Carmel, CA as built in 1948 and since altered by another architect.
The human setting is one that shows the pleasant summers of Maine, but contrasts that with descriptions and suggestions of the lonely nature of island life during the winter. Health care requires notifying the Coast Guard for transportation. The mail comes by boat. The place screams “empty.” Aside from the geographic elements, the film is a time capsule of the values and questions of the 1950s. Dee worries about dabbling in a sexual world while remaining a “good girl.” The parents tussle over admitting their children have sexual sides, or whether to place them in straight jackets while ignoring the issue. In the end Dorothy McGuire has the classic line, said to her son played by Donahue: “We live in a glass house. We’re not throwing any stones.”
As it goes in the world of Hollywood, it appears that the movie was made in California. The Film in America web site claims that Monterey County was the filming site. Oh well, I guess ocean waves look alike when they crash. So you are getting the West Coast version of the East Coast. But then, they claim the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty was made there, too. That is one of the issues involved in Hollywood’s presentation of the world: the film maker can make one place into another. In the end it is all beautiful, if only a bit mislocated.
Updated from: Meartz, Paul D. 2002. Geography in Media: A Summer Place. Dakota Alliance XIV (2): April-May 2004: 7.