Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Summer of '42


Director Robert Mulligan

Author Herman Raucher












SUMMER OF ‘42                  B-                                                                                                    USA  (104 mi)  1971  d:  Robert Mulligan                                                                                                                                                          Forever known as the director of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), a phenomenally successful film that helped generate a spirit of racial tolerance during the violently conflicted times at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, yet this film inexplicably generated 4 times the box office profits of that film, a nostalgic piece of romantic schmaltz that was extremely popular when it was released, tapping into similar territory as Arthur Hiller’s LOVE STORY (1970) released a year earlier, using Erich Segal’s rather sappy best-selling novel to hype the interest, where the media was simply infatuated by Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw at the time, endlessly replaying the musical love theme on the radio, Theme From Love Story YouTube (3:20), literally saturating the markets, making gobs of money for everyone involved with that project.  This film was hugely successful as well, very photogenic, shot on the pristine beaches of a picturesque ocean, revealing a coming-of-age theme that turns into a memory play, where the entire film is a flashback into an ephemeral universe that happened long ago, recalling it like a snapshot in time, where events are recalled as you might want them to be remembered, not as they actually happened, becoming a wish-fulfillment fantasy where an idyllic first love is turned into a dreamlike reverie, given enormous personal significance even after the passage of time, winning an Academy Award for a generic, overly romanticized theme song written by Michel Legrand, Michel Legrand - The Summer Knows (End Title Theme From ... YouTube (1:47). This film features a subjective camera identifying with the protagonist, seeing only what he sees, even indulging in slow-motion and stop-motion shots with soft focus, capturing the essence of what is now routinely shown in ultra-chic fashion or perfume commercials, an offshoot of an elegantly romanticized style utilized in Bo Widerberg’s sumptuously beautiful ELVIRA MADIGAN (1967), accompanied by the Adagio movement of Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 - 2. Andante YouTube (7:15), one of the most exquisitely beautiful musical compositions ever written.  Those films actually provide the cinematic backdrop to this film, which is a flashback to earlier times, narrated by the director himself, signifying the degree of dramatic importance this one event has had in his life, like no other, a memory of first love, revealed in an idealized setting, supposedly Nantucket, an isolated island off Cape Cod, but it’s actually shot on the opposite coast in the picture postcard town of Mendocino, California, an enchanted place with a Main Street running along a cliff overlooking the ocean, where the alluring beauty is simply unsurpassed, also featured in Elia Kazan’s EAST OF EDEN (1955), where not much has changed in the interim years in this tiny coastal community, where the fog rises off the ocean every morning covering the town in a mist, featuring the same wooden towers (2,048 × 1,536 pixels) and incomparable views of the ocean. Very few films capture the rugged beauty of the coastline in symbiotic relation to the ocean like this film, where it’s an utterly spectacular setting.      

Herman Raucher wrote the screenplay, with seven years of rejections before finally finding a willing director in Mulligan, written in tribute to a grade school friend, Oscar Seltzer, who was drafted into the Korean War as a medic but was shot down while saving the life of another American soldier, awarded the Silver Star posthumously.  As kids, their respective parents visited Nantucket in the summer of 1942, recalling autobiographical childhood events, but changing the first person emphasis to his own character, beautifully integrating the tragic death of a soldier, as that’s the life-altering event that leads to the stunning finale, much of it told wordlessly.  Leading up to that, however, is a completely different style of film with horny and rambunctious teenagers who seem to have only one thing on their minds, sex, becoming obsessed with the subject, which literally dominates most of the early dialogue.  The trimmed down budget didn’t have enough money to pay the screenwriter, so they offered him a percentage of the movie while suggesting he write a novel of the story to help publicize the picture, becoming a national best-seller released prior to the movie, both of which made him a wealthy man for the rest of his life.  In total contrast to the social turbulence of the 60’s and early 70’s, the film helped jump start the nostalgia craze, though largely overshadowed by the car-crazed, radio-infused American Graffiti (1973), bearing similarities to Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), both filmed by the same cinematographer Robert Surtees, one in black and white and one in color, both poignantly using older women as a sexual outlet for younger, emotionally confused male teenagers, with both women offering exceptional performances, each given credit for helping them grow and evolve into young men.  One tragedy of the film is the annoying sexual banter, accepted as typical juvenile behavior, but much of it is hard to stomach.  American raunchiness stands in stark contrast to Louis Malle’s MURMUR OF THE HEART (1971), a more overtly observed film released the same year thriving on the ease and naturalism of the performances, where the French even have a way of making “incest” feel natural, like an extension of parental affection.  Similarly, this film romanticizes what might otherwise be described as statutory rape, as sex with a minor is never viewed as morally acceptable, no matter what era, hence, Roman Polanski’s exile to Europe following a criminal conviction of having sex with a minor about the same time this film was made.  What we find instead is an extended portrayal of sexual immaturity, 15-year old Hermie (Gary Grimes), and his best friends Oscy (Jerry Houser) and Benjie (Oliver Conant), described as “the terrible trio,” growing up during WWII, yet there’s no sign of parents and only a single reference to war, suggesting these kids are largely insulated from reality.  Spending their days roaming around the beach, one scene in particular stands out, a lover’s lane where guys and girls in swimsuits on beach blankets are draped all over one another in extended embraces, a near surreal picture of sexual expression, a more innocent version of Antonioni’s pot-induced fever dream of orgiastic naked bodies writhing in the desert in Zabriskie Point (1970), becoming a dream sequence of what they might aspire to be doing, yet these kids just walk right through a landscape of merging flesh like it’s an ordinary, everyday occurrence.    

The unique factor is Hermie’s wild infatuation from afar of a stunningly beautiful young woman (Jennifer O’Neill), an older person aged 22 living in a beachfront home overlooking the ocean, happily embraced by her husband, with both dreamily appearing madly in love, but the husband in uniform is also seen exiting the island on a boat, leaving the woman in tears.  Nonetheless, Hermie remains obsessed and intoxicated by her presence, seeing her again struggling to carry a heavy load of groceries, stepping in to help, offering to carry them a great distance to her home, which she greatly appreciates.  She offers coffee and donuts in return, but he awkwardly burns his lip, exiting gracefully, but Oscy immediately wants all the juicy details.  His friend is a self-styled sexist, viewing girls only as sex objects, where getting laid is his only reason to live, talking about little else.  Benjie finds a medical journal in his house that the boys view with reverence and utter fascination, surprised by what they see, with Oscy taking notes, discovering sex is a 12-step plan that he intends to put to use, sharing his discovery with Hermie, as Benjie is still too young to take much of an interest in girls.  Finding a couple available girls at the movie theater, they hook up to watch Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER (1942), but all they’re interested in is feeling up the girls, with Miriam (Christopher Norris) continually slapping Oscy’s aggressively roving hands, while Aggie (Katherine Allentuck, Maureen Stapleton’s daughter) seems content with Hermie’s go slow approach.  The juvenile nature of their obsessive search for sex can get pretty annoying, particularly the obnoxious nature of Oscy, who seemingly has no principles and will do anything to score, becoming something of a nuisance, but he does push Hermie into an embarrassing scene where he has to awkwardly ask for condoms at the local drugstore, ridiculously lost for words by his predicament.  Oscy is also the instigator behind a marshmallow roast on the beach that turns into a big fiasco, disappearing into the tall grass with Miriam while Hermie and Aggie are stuck with the marshmallows, comically interrupting them from time to time to ask for a condom, each time more out of breath and slightly less clothed, eventually arriving in just his underwear happily reporting that he’s exceeded the 12 steps, stumbling into unchartered territory as he goes back for more.  The pubescent part of the film is largely irritating and forgettable, standing in stark contrast to the haunting quiet of the beautifully choreographed, almost completely wordless finale, easily the best edited sequence in the film.  Hermie heads off to Dorothy’s cottage with high expectations, but is stunned to see a telegram on the desk announcing the death of her husband killed in combat, doing a circular inspection, seeing other untouched items in the room suggesting an unseen presence, where Dorothy is distraught and overcome with grief.  Playing a phonograph record of the movie theme, she attempts to tidy things up, but they end up doing a slow dance, still holding an ashtray behind her back, reaching for some semblance of affection, moving into the bedroom, where it’s all tenderly expressed, poetically capturing the anguishing internalized dynamic.  Like a dream, she’s gone with the wind, disappearing without a trace, leaving a huge impression on his fragile psyche, closing a chapter on that childhood memory, Summer of '42 1971 Ending Scene YouTube (3:26).


According to Stanley Kubrick’s wife Christiane, this was inexplicably one of Kubrick’s favorite films, a small piece of which is shown in THE SHINING (1980), as Shelly DuVall is watching the heavily romanticized film on television, specifically the scene where Hermie proudly carries Dorothy’s groceries.  According to the comments from this website, Mendocino on My Mind | Lee Rentz Photography Weblog, they identified the precise location of Dorothy’s house, which is no longer there, but it was built on a bluff at MacKerricher State Park Beach just a few hundred yards north of the Ward Avenue access to the southern tip of Ten Mile Beach, just two miles north of Fort Bragg, and approximately 15 miles north of Mendocino, so that would have been a really long walk carrying groceries from Main Street in downtown Mendocino.  In one scene from her house you can see riders on horseback walking along the beach, which would be from nearby Ricochet Ridge Ranch (Ricochet Ridge Ranch | Horseback riding on California's ...) which offers daily rides along the beach.

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