Adoption in Film: A Summer Place Revisited and Expanded

Summer Plaace 1This is a revision and expansion  of a portion of  Where We Came From:  Natural Mothers in Adoption Films,  a paper,  I delivered at the 2005 Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Kinship conference at the University of Tampa.

A Summer Place, (1959)  the penultimate dirty movie for a generation of high school girls, is full-blown melo, featuring family secrets, illicit sex, repressed sexuality, and alcoholism all exposed in public scandal. The plot centers on nice girl Molly Jorgenson (Sandra Dee) and her summer romance in Maine with clean-cut Johnny Hunter (Troy Donohue). Molly is sexually precocious but clearly a virgin with a disturbing habit of chatting up her dad while wearing nothing but babydoll pajamas. Johnny vacillates between wanting to sleep with Molly and putting her off.

summer place 2Only a few days into the vacation, Molly and Johnny take an afternoon boat excursion, get caught in a storm  and are forced to spend the night on an island. When the Coast Guard brings them home the next morning Molly’s man-hating monster mother, Helen, (Constance Ford) obsessed with Molly’s virginity, her own dirty thoughts, and social status, sends for a doctor to make sure Molly is still in tact. The forced and degrading  exam, which feminist film scholar Martha Mays rightly calls “maternal rape,” is one of the most chilling scenes in teen film, with Molly wrapped in a blanket pleading, “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m a good girl.”

Lately I’ve wondered if there was a subtext to the “maternal rape” scene. The early scene of Molly bouncing around in her babydolls with Dad has always bothered me.  The  intent of director Delmar Daves may have been simply to show affection between the two which both lack with Helen Jorgenson,  but it has implied incest all over it. HDaves was setting up the “maternal rape scene.”  Helen is cold, petty, stupid, jealous and vindictive. She may have suspected Molly and Johnny of sex in the cave, but was that her real motive for calling in the doctor? Could it be that she wanted to get “evidence” of Molly’s true sexual staus?  Whatever the motive the results would be the same:  utter degradition of her daughter and by extension her husband..

This scene is posted on YouTube, but embedding is disabled.  You can go directly to the infamous clip here. 

I saw the film at the Saturday matinee when I was a freshman in high school.  Although I enjoyed the smarmy parts, the film  also scared me.  A Summer Place lobbed a direct hit on the Motion Picture Production Code,  but it t was also a cautionary tale of what happens when good girls appear to go bad, (Actual bad girls nearly always get away with it.). I’m reminded of the line from Gidget, another Sandra Dee teen vehicle:  “Good girls go out on a date, go home, and go to bed. Nice girls go out on a date, go to bed, and go home.”

Constanace FordConstance Ford is one of my favorite actresses I  first  knew her as Rose Peabody on  Search for Tomorrow–her brother Wilbur, was played by Don Knotts (!) , She’s probably best remembered as Ada Lucas Davis Downs McGowan Hobson, Rachel’s strong but long suffering mother–on Another World.. I could never watch Ada without thinking of Helen Jorgenson.  Even 30 years later I expected working class heroine Ada to break into Monster Mom.  Viewers might see Helen Jorgenson as over the top. Some of her real life counterparts, though, showed up in Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away.

After all the melodrama, A Summer Place tidies itself up. Molly becomes  pregnant after all, but not during the storm.  At the close of the film, the married Molly and Johnny, mentored by Molly’s father (Richard Egan) and Johnny’s mother (Dorothy McGuire), former teenage lovers themselves who have left their respective abusive spouses and are now married to each other.  We see Molly and Johnny back at  “the summer place”  where their parents now live, holding hands, untroubled by being totally unprepared for marriage–much less parenthood.

Summer Place 3The Summer Place: Message

A Summer Place has been hailed as a break through film, even if it’s trashy.   Fuzzy on morals, but strong  on facts–the way things really are.  I find the oh-they’re sleeping-together-isn’t-that-nice attitude of Molly’s father and Johnny’s mother a little shocking. That is definitely NOT the way the 1959 middle class operated. As adults they’re living out their own teenage affair through their kids.Parents of teenagers who “got in trouble” might have accepted it, (especially  if marriage happened) but they weren’t clinking their martinis over it either.

Teen sex may be a fact, but the wages of sex is marriage.  A Summer Place ostensibly takes a more understanding and liberal view of teen sex, but teaches that proper sexual relations will occur only within the bourgeoisie marriage bed. Bastardy (or abortion) will not be tolerated. While “nice kids” Molly, and  Johnny superficially represent a turn from post-war conservatism, they are simply characters in a cautionary tale of youth and its consequences.

Watching A Summer Place now I expect to see Molly and Johnny a few years down the road trapped in marriage counseling sessions paid by their parents after a day at some low-end job.  Johnny will eventually toke up and chuck it all for the Summer of Love. Molly will collect ADC and food stamps, start keypunch school. and wonder what  she ever saw in Johnny except  his cute dimples and blond surfer looks. She’ll probably read The Feminine Mystique, join a CR group, and end up running a Planned Parenthood office.



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