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I Survived the Fifties Again!

summer place

Though it’s the first day of summer, Father’s Day got me thinking about it, but Barry Levinson made me do it – watch the 1959 movie, A Summer Place with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. I recently saw Diner again and was compelled to actually watch the movie within that movie – remember the scene where Mickey Rourke’s sleazy character tries to trick a pretty girl into grabbing his penis in a movie theatre, AND make money off his friends from it ?

A Summer Place is the movie they were watching when she squeals and walks out. So . . . after all these decades of avoiding it, I had to see for myself. Thanks to Turner Classics and You-Tube TV, it was possible to fulfill this cultural obligation of “high historical importance” in three measured doses. At 2 hours 10 minutes, it would be tough to take all at once. I must commend Levinson for his choice of that period piece, which defines and encapsulates all the angst, sexual repression, class-consciousness and perverted values of the 50’s as well as any.

I must commend Levinson for his choice of that period piece, which defines and encapsulates all the angst, sexual repression, class-consciousness and perverted values of the 50’s as well as any.

No one did asexual cuteness like Sandra Dee. Then came Gidget. And I can’t think of a more over-rated actor in history than Troy Donohue. I mean his range of emotion goes from brooding angst to just plain stiff and back. He delivers the line, “I love you Molly” in the exact same tone and passion as when he said, “Molly, we’re in trouble” right before their sailboat crashes into the rocks. When he tells the evil mother played by Constance Ford, “If you hurt her again, I’ll kill you,” the same absence of passion and reality is conveyed. The fact that THEY were teenage heartthrobs illustrates the sexual vapidness and vacuum of the 1950’s. Apparently, the producer of A Chorus Line shared my opinion of Donohue’s acting chops. The lyric went, “If Troy Donahue could be a movie star, then I could be a movie star.”

It was compelling for me to watch because the song “A Summer Place” by the Percy Sledge, um…I mean…Percy Faith Orchestra WAS the soundtrack to summers throughout my childhood. It was a ubiquitous fixture at my country club pool and tennis courts, every restaurant that had a band or tableside accordion player, vacations at Ponte Vedra, Florida and Gulf Hills Dude Ranch in Gulfport, Mississippi, on the car radio on those long drives to the aforementioned and of course elevators. Maybe it defines elevator music. Thank G-d the Beatles came along to knock that shit off the popular music charts in 1964! Regrettably, it was also on EVERY jukebox in America, so it persisted well after the British invasion. My long-term memory is haunting. Fortunately for me, I fell in love with Louis Armstrong before I even KNEW about rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to my parents’ exquisite taste in music and movies. They took me to see The Five Pennies with Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye, which is a GREAT musical movie, and spared me the angst of A Summer Place. Thanks Mom & Dad.

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Watching Diner reminded me of all this. Constance Ford’s character is the most un-nurturing and cruel celluloid mother other than Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Ken Egan’s father character represents what goodness there was in men of the time, illustrated by his passionate critique of Ford’s capacity for hate: “Must you suffocate every natural instinct in our daughter, too? Must you label young love-making as cheap and wanton and indecent? Must you persist in making sex, itself, a filthy word?

Dorothy MaGuire played the suffering wife of the alcoholic inn keeper, and former flame of Egan (Ken Jorgenson). Most viewers rooted for the good parents to finally hook up, while the teenagers endured the pangs of teenage angst. (“Oh Johnny let’s be good,” Molly (Sandra) says to Troy right before they consummate their romance and get “in trouble.”)

An important co-star of the flick is Frank Lloyd Wright, or rather one of his residential masterpieces in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, where it was shot. The home is breathtaking for its melding of simplicity with complex, yet understated architectural elements. Any fan of Wright recognizes the furniture he also designed, flat roofs and striking angles to create a sensory masterpiece. And it’s so CLEAN it looks like no one lives there – this was the late 50’s, remember.

So . . . I crawled into the rabbit hole of 1959 and crawled back out, something I could not do when I was four years old. As I said, Father’s Day got me thinking about it. Now comes the first day of summer 59 years later than 1959. So I’ll listen to the smooth strings of the Percy Faith Orchestra (maybe TOO smooth), remember the idyllic days before JFK was killed, and recover by listening to Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye do their unforgettable duet riff on the classics as they sing, “When the Saints Go Marching In” from The Five Pennies.

scott prosterman

H. Scott Prosterman