Winning an Academy Award for Best Musical Score (Michel Legrand) and nominated for three additional Oscars, this box-office hit is the sensual, heartwarming and sentimental story of three 15-year-old boys who spend a pleasant but sometimes painful summer vacation in New England. While his friends fumble with girls their own age, one boy finds first love in the arms of Jennifer O'Neill ("Bare Essence"), a young war bride. An appealingly nostalgic and touching story rated three stars by Leonard Maltin.
Timing is everything when it comes to a movie’s release, even on a home video platform. At the right moment, a film can tap into our consciousness, reflect or incite trends, and influence how we think and feel about a particular topic. Take Summer of '42, which waxes nostalgic about lost innocence, coming of age, and a bygone America consumed by a devastating world war. Warner Archive recently released it on Blu-ray for the first time, but watching director Robert Mulligan’s comedy-drama today, it’s difficult not to let the current social climate color our perception and interpretation of this 46-year-old film. What I might have written about Summer of '42 upon its premiere in 1971 surely would be different than what I am writing now, because the social pendulum that provokes our thoughts and shapes our views has swung in a drastically different direction - not over the course of three decades, but over a period of six weeks. Such is the blessing - or curse - of timing.
The elephant in the room is sexual abuse - especially of a minor - and the echoes of the “Me, too” movement strongly reverberate during the climax and denouement of this very controversial story. (Warning: There are spoilers ahead, so if you don’t want the plot revealed, you might want to skip ahead to other portions of this review.) Yes, there’s a lot more to Summer of '42 than its shocking central relationship between a 15-year-old boy and fully grown woman, but the beautiful sense of atmosphere and thoughtful depictions of adolescent bonding and the insecurities of youth become overshadowed by a monumental and disturbing episode.
Based on the experiences of Herman Raucher, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay, the film follows the adventures of “The Terrible Trio” - three fun-loving, good-natured, sexually curious teens - on an unnamed island during the lazy, hazy summer days of 1942. War consumes the nation, but carnal thoughts preoccupy Hermie (Gary Grimes), Oscy (Jerry Houser), and Benjie (Oliver Conant), who spend their time cavorting on the beach, playing harmonica, getting into fights, and learning about sex from an antiquated medical journal, which they hope will prepare them for their first experience. Oscy just wants to get laid, but the more serious Hermie clings to higher ideals of romantic love, and Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neill), a gorgeous young newlywed who lives in a secluded beach house - and whose husband has just left for battle - is his ideal.
On a dare, Hermie introduces himself to Dorothy, and the two strike up a casual friendship. He helps her carry groceries home from town on one occasion and does an odd job for her on another. Meanwhile, he and Oscy try to pick up a couple of teenage girls at the local movie theater and Oscy goads him into buying some condoms “just in case.” Tensions intensify between the two when Oscy loses his virginity, but a day later, Hermie comes of age as well, when he visits Dorothy just after she receives a devastating telegram, and she turns to him for comfort.
Mulligan is a master of intimate character films like Love With the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall, and, most notably, To Kill a Mockingbird, and here he gently immerses us in the time, place, and attitudes of a simpler era. Though Hermie and his friends - who sometimes seem as if they’ve wandered in from a Philip Roth novel - live a sheltered existence on an isolated, idyllic island and can’t see past their own inflamed libidos, Mulligan subtly depicts how real world problems impinge upon them. Guys will certainly relate to the Terrible Trio’s preoccupation with sex and awkward attempts to cop feels, buy rubbers, and relate to equally insecure girls, yet interestingly, these nostalgic episodes lend Summer of '42 a more dated quality than many films actually produced during the World War II era.
Though Summer of '42 is presented as a memoir, complete with sober narration, it’s not clear while watching the film whether the story is fictional or true. Raucher has since revealed the incidents did happen as depicted, yet the romanticized presentation of the climax, which will remind viewers of Tea and Sympathy and Sophie’s Choice (both works of fiction), doesn’t play well at all in this current age of calling out and condemning sexual abuse. In fact, it feels really creepy. As I watched Dorothy remove her clothes and lead a stunned Hermie into her bed, only one thought continually ran through my brain: “This is so wrong.”
Dorothy’s grief aside, her decision to seek comfort with a 15-year-old virgin is both shocking and reprehensible. Raucher claims he and the real Dorothy didn’t have intercourse, but the film certainly makes it seem as if they do, and treats the episode far differently than Oscy’s frantic roll in the sand. The sequence‘s poetic beauty makes the liaison appear like the glorious realization of Hermie’s wild romantic fantasy instead of a calculated seduction by an older woman preying on an innocent boy to salve her emotional wounds. While Dorothy seems like a sweet, caring woman and she treats Hermie tenderly, that doesn’t excuse the behavior, even if Hermie is a willing participant. After all, he’s 15! (Summer of '42 was originally rated R, but over the years - for some bizarre reason - its rating was downgraded to PG! Hopefully, in light of recent events, that rating will be reconsidered.)
Because Hermie feels a connection to Dorothy that has built throughout the film, we’re led to believe this is a meaningful, almost positive experience (as opposed to Oscy’s casual, emotionless encounter) that magically transforms Hermie into a man. Yes, his innocence is gone and maybe he’s now better able to grapple with all of the important issues threatening the world, but Dorothy irrevocably changes him. Raucher himself admits as much and has spoken about the incident’s long-term negative impact on him. Unfortunately, Summer of '42 doesn’t explore the profound psychological after-effects of the seduction and how Hermie might have dealt with them, yet that would have been a far more interesting and possibly more meaningful story.
If the roles were reversed - if Hermie’s wife had been killed and he sought sexual solace with a young and willing Dorothy - the outrage would be deafening. Yet because Hermie is a sexually curious - okay, horny - teenage boy, we’re supposed to interpret the encounter as a simple rite of passage and dismiss any notion it could leave indelible scars and haunt him for the rest of his life. Times have certainly changed - as have our views on sexual abuse - since Summer of '42 was released in 1971, and as a result, it’s impossible to watch the film today the same way we might have 46 years ago...or even six months ago.
As the frisky triumvirate, Grimes, Houser (in his film debut), and Conant all shine, projecting just the right amount of innocence, immaturity, and adolescent attitude. O’Neill isn’t much of an actress, but her fresh-faced, Cover Girl beauty goes a long way, and she files a sincere, natural performance. The lovely seaside locations heighten authenticity, and the inclusion of period touches like an old-fashioned drugstore and clips of the iconic cigarette-lighting scene between Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager enhance the film’s nostalgic mood.
Just like Hermie’s relationship with Dorothy changed him forever, the events of the past several weeks have forever changed my perception of Summer of '42. While I can recognize the film’s artistry, appreciate its performances, and admire the meticulous depiction of a bygone time and place, I can’t watch its narrative without feeling deeply uncomfortable and more than a little angry. The permanence of film allows us to view stories through an array of prisms, which is why some movies affect us viscerally at one point in our lives and leave us cold at others. It’s just the way we’re wired as human beings. That said, some people might be able to divorce Summer of '42 from the events of yesterday, today, or tomorrow. Others won’t. I can’t.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Summer of '42 arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
One of Hollywood’s most distinguished cinematographers, Robert Surtees earned a whopping 16 Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars over the course of his 35-year career. One of those nods was for Summer of '42, and though the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Warner Archive tries its best to honor his work, occasional fluctuations in image quality diminish those efforts. The source material may be free of age-related imperfections like nicks, dirt, and scratches, but it appears a bit faded and is often hampered by a heavy grain structure that muddies the beautiful beach vistas and clarity of darker scenes. (One especially grainy shot of Benjie startles the senses and disrupts the film’s flow, making one think it might have come from an alternative source.) The crystal blue sky is often abuzz with noise and flesh tones err toward the rosy side, but those issues are offset by vibrant, clear stretches that feature well-balanced contrast and a cozy warmth that reflects the film’s nostalgic tone.
Splashes of bold color, such as the red carnations Dorothy buys at the town market, punch up the image, and sharp close-ups, especially those of O’Neill, evoke the glamour of Old Hollywood. Black levels are appropriately rich, the white beach sand and salty foam on the surf is crisp, and shadow delineation is quite good. No crush is evident, and to Warner’s credit, no attempts have been made to tone down grain or artificially sharpen softer scenes. While Surtees’ artistic photography is worthy of the acclaim it has received, it doesn’t transfer particularly well to the digital medium, and that might turn some viewers off when they watch this film on a large display.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. The continual crashing of the surf against the shoreline provides essential atmosphere, and while it underscores the track, it never overwhelms the action. A wide dynamic scale allows Michel Legrand’s memorable Oscar-winning music score plenty of room to breathe, and all the dialogue is well prioritized, clear, and easy to comprehend. Distortion is absent throughout and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude. This isn’t a particularly robust track, but the mix nicely renders all the subtleties and keeps the listener engaged.
The only supplement on the disc is the film’s three-minute original theatrical trailer, which is presented in high definition.
Though it brims with nostalgia and insightfully depicts the coming of age of adolescent males, Summer of '42 plays differently in 2017 than it undoubtedly did when it was first released in 1971 during the sexual revolution. Recent revelations of sexual impropriety across many spheres of American life can’t help but color how we now view director Robert Mulligan’s tale of innocence lost on the homefront at the height of World War II. While fine performances and location shooting heighten the impact of this funny, sensitive, and often identifiable film, in light of recent events, an uncomfortable creepiness now pervades it. The video transfer on Warner Archive’s Blu-ray edition might not be to everyone’s liking, and the paucity of extras is a disappointment, but Summer of '42 - which was controversial 46 years ago and just might spark some renewed scrutiny today - is still worth a look.