Monday, February 17, 2014

Movie Monday: Summer of '42

Have you ever had...a Summer of '42?
I had heard of this movie a long time, and was familiar with the tagline, but never knew what it meant. Then I happened to watch the trailer for the film a few weeks ago, and realized what the film was about. I was instantly intrigued.
For the uninitiated, Summer of '42 is a 1971 film set in, yes, 1942, on a Nantucket Island. It stars Gary Grimes as Hermie, who spends his days with his two pals Oscy (Jerry Hauser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant) wasting time on long Summer days. They walk the beach, see movies, and try and put the moves on girls. Related to that, they also try and learn about sex, since, as they are teenage boys, that is pretty much all that's on their minds.
Here, the boys have smuggled a medical book about reproduction out of the vacation house Hermie and his family (who are never seen) are renting, and are fascinated--and a little terrified--but what they read.

Right away, we realize that Hermie is a little more thoughtful, a little more mature, than his two pals. He's interested in girls all right, but his tastes run a little different: instead of the teenage bikini clad girls on the beach, he has a major crush on an older woman who is renting a cabin with her husband just down the beach. The guys tease him about it ("She's old--she must be twenty!"), but he doesn't care. He only has eyes for this vision of beauty to whom he has never spoken.

After the woman's husband ships off to war, Hermie's pals dare him to talk to the woman as she sunbathes. It almost happens, but then they ruin it by yelling embarrassing things at their friend ("Watch out, he's a rapist!") and Hermie takes off. But an opportunity arises when he sees the woman trying to lug too many bags of groceries home from the store, so Hermie offers to help, and the woman--Dorothy (Jennifer O'Neil)--takes him up on it:
Hermie is terrified of this woman--she's sweet and friendly, but also an adult and undeniably gorgeous. Dorothy is charmed by this kid (who orders his coffee black so as to appear more manly, and then is repulsed by the taste), and she asks him to come by the house and move some stuff in her attic. He obliges, and finds himself almost unable to handle how sexually alluring this woman is. 

Hermie keeps running into Dorothy, doing little jobs for her, as well as in town when he and Oscy are on a double date with some girls their own age. After the movie the foursome goes to the beach, and all Oscy wants to do is get laid. Hermie is alone with his girl, but really can't think of anything else but Dorothy.

Time passes, and one late afternoon Hermie goes to visit Dorothy. He finds a letter from the War Department, saying that her husband has been killed in action. He finds Dorothy, alone and in tears. He comforts her, which turns more intimate, until she leads Hermie to the bedroom and they make love.

The next morning, Dorothy awakes and wanders out of the bedroom, onto the porch, staring off at the sea. Hermie puts his clothes back on, says goodbye, and walks off, but not before stopping to look back at her: 
The next day, Hermie and Oscy talk, but all Oscy wants to do is talk about getting laid again. Hermie says nothing, finally wandering back to Dorothy's house. He finds it empty, with a note for him on the door. It's from Dorothy, who says she had to go back to her life, and she hopes that someday Hermie will be able to understand what happened, and what that night meant. Via voice over from the adult Hermie, we learn that he never saw or heard from Dorothy again, and realizes what was left behind after that Summer of '42.

Most movies, when dealing with male sexuality, are immature in the extreme. Don't get me wrong; when I was a kid I enjoyed those stupid R-rated sex comedies that ran on cable as much as the next guy. But you really don't see measured, thoughtful examinations of this subject very much. And Summer of '42 has scenes like that--when Hermie goes to buy condoms, it feels barely more mature than that sequence from Amazon Women on the Moon.

Author and screenwriter Herman Raucher based this story on a real life experience. In a case of a creative person not knowing what they had, Raucher thought the main focus of the story was Hermie and his friends, not Hermie and Dorothy (when he later adapted the screenplay into a book, he beefed up that aspect of the piece). But he was wrong--as I watched the movie, I could not have cared less about Hermie's goofball friends, as the scenes with him and Dorothy are the film: lock, stock, and barrel.

That said, I was surprised how little interaction Dorothy and Hermie had in the film; they barely know each other before their big night, which undercuts a bit of the emotional resonance. And while the sex scene itself (which runs about five minutes, with no music behind it) is handled well, the scenes immediately following it have a darker cast than I expected: Dorothy immediately seems sorry it happened, which makes the whole thing seem sad.

One scene that is spot-on perfect is with Hermie and Oscy the morning after--as Oscy drones on about his teenaged concerns, Hermie keeps silently staring at the horizon. The film lets the whole scene play out uninterrupted, keeping focus on Hermie. He can't quite explain it, to himself or to anyone else, but something is unalterably Different now. Summer of '42 captures that feeling of confusion, excitement, and terror quite well.

Raucher, when promoting the film, went on The Mike Douglas Show, and revealed that he got a letter from the real Dorothy following the movie's release. She was a grandmother, having been happily remarried for many years. She said that she had been worried that their night together had been traumatic for him, and was relieved to see he had dealt with it. He never heard from her again.


Neal P said...

I saw this movie several times as a kid because it was one of my dad's favorite movies. I liked aspects of it, but the love scene made no sense to me. Why at such a moment of extreme grief would she want to sleep with a 15 year old boy? I could understand if the husband died before the start of the movie and she was dealing with loneliness, but not immediately after getting the news.

There's a sequel called Class of 44, but it's not worth the time. There's no real emotional resonance; just the three friends getting on with their lives.

rob! said...

I can understand the whys of the love scene, but I think it would have been more powerful if the relationship between Dorothy and Hermie had been established more. They are essentially strangers here,and while that might have been what it was like for the real guy it happened to, in the movie it feels incomplete.

I've heard about Class of 44, but since the scenes with his pals were for me the least interesting scenes of this movie, seeing a while film of just that hold no interest to me at all.

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