Much as Robert Mulligan’s film of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) stands for many of us as the definitive film about the loss of innocence, his Summer of ’42 (1971), based on the best-selling novel by Herman Raucher, is its note-perfect complement: the definitive film about the loss of virginity.
It was Warner Bros.’ most surprising hit of 1971, a year that also found the studio upping the ante to the level of Dirty Harry, The Devils and A Clockwork Orange. Amid such menacing scenery, something like Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy (1958) – the former standard bearer of such storylines – suddenly seemed quaint, if not ridiculous. A newer, more relevant model was called-for, a need apparently also noted by the makers of Carnal Knowledge and The Last Picture Show, two other pictures released that same year which covered similar ground though with more adult cynicism. There was room at the table for all these varieties, but what made Summer of ’42 so popular was how it managed to be romantic enough to please teenage girls and raunchy enough to keep teenage boys amused and in their seats. These qualities were also masterfully filtered through a soft-focus yet heart-punching nostalgia, the magic ingredient that sold the picture to everyone who had survived their teenage years to settle down and have teenagers of their own.
Long before Summer of ’42 was published to critical and commercial acclaim, it was a screenplay written sometime in the early 1950s, more than a decade before Raucher finally got a byline as screenwriter on Anthony Newley’s X-rated flop Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969). For all those years, he “couldn’t give it away’ – but then it somehow caught the attention of Robert Mulligan. Without a real hit to his name since 1963’s Love With A Proper Stranger, Mulligan recognized in the material the possibility of the Mockingbird follow-up that audiences craved and which his critics were becoming increasingly plaintive about not getting from him. Warner executives, fearing the worst and recognizing that Mockingbird had been helped by the title’s presence on the best-seller list, paid Raucher to write a novelization of his screenplay (along with an unusual promise of a 10% cut of the eventual box office take), and – to his own surprise – it became a national best-seller.
Above all, what Mulligan brought to the project was a poignancy that is deeply felt beginning with its main titles, a mélange of faded beach photos and vintage movie posters that seem to be shed like tears over a movingly simple, eventually Oscar-winning piano theme by Michel Legrand. Mulligan’s control of the project is immediately inherent in its narration. We’re in the palm of his hand from the first spoken words: “When I was 15, my family came to live on the island for the summer…” That voice – supposedly the adult voice of its teenage protagonist Hermie – belongs not to Raucher but to Mulligan himself, who opted to leave the island in question unidentified. Raucher’s book is less ambiguously set in Nantucket, and one assumes that Mulligan knew better than to tempt limericks. (The film was actually shot on location in Montecito and Mendicino, California.) Seeing the film today, it’s impossible to not hear the influence of its narration on Earl Hamner Jr.’s series The Waltons, which premiered on CBS-TV the following year.
Summer of ’42 documents with great tenderness and a good deal of low, contrasting humor the sexual awakening of “The Terrible Trio,” three vacationing friends: Hermie (Gary Grimes, the most cerebral and self-controlled of the bunch), Oscy (Jerry Houser, the raucous extrovert), and Benjy (Oliver Conant, who is so much emotionally younger than his years as to seem backward). We follow them through sweaty perusals of an illustrated sex chapter in a purloined medical book, attempts at copping feels from local girls at a showing of Now, Voyager, and even a descent upon the local drugstore to procure condoms that is every bit as suspenseful as any castle-storming scene in an historical adventure. Unlike Mockingbird, whose childhood drama was grounded in the enriching adult presence of Gregory Peck, Mulligan denies these three boys any adult supervision; we never meet their parents nor gain any insight, that way, into the formation of their respective characters… but that’s not the story. The real story here is Hermie’s first crush, and how the boys’ collective sexual frustrations lead to in-fighting and other demonstrations of rechanneled machismo that drive them further into the fated company of women.
Our likeable hero’s crush is Dorothy (Jennifer O’Neill), a lonely young Army wife whom he literally admires from afar until he seizes an opportunity to become her gallant knight, carrying her groceries and performing odd jobs around her weather-beaten summer cottage. O’Neill exudes a wonderfully natural, even unconscious, beauty in her screen debut. Her Dorothy seems aware of Hermie’s admiration, never condescends to him because of it, though she does tweak it a little by burdening him with her groceries while she treats herself to some flowers. It’s all small talk between them – Hermie becomes awkward and courtly in Dorothy’s presence, offering up stilted compliments like “Laughter becomes you!” – so we don’t learn much about her, except what we are shown through her admirer’s romantic projections. She is such a wholesome vision of young womanhood that, when she emerges one day wearing a white two-piece summer garment, we are as stunned as Hermie – it’s like being granted a view of her in her underthings. Their mutually amused friendship of convenience culminates in Hermie dropping by her place one evening when he unexpectedly finds her at her most vulnerable, her dropped defenses showing us a woman we haven’t seen before in Dorothy, a woman who smokes and drinks and cries. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Hermie is eventually granted his fondest wish – albeit as part of a scenario he would never have wished for. Though the film is narrated, there is a great deal in its story that is deliberately left unspoken, kept on the level of absorbed emotion. Ultimately, it’s a good deal more than a loss-of-virginity story; it’s about unexpectedly moving beyond one’s own selfishness into the pain of romantic involvement and the empathy that completes our emotional growth.
Central to the pleasures of Summer of ‘42 is the broadly comic performance of Jerry Houser as Oscy, whose incorrigible ribald energy compliments Hermie’s more wary sexuality perfectly. What makes Oscy laugh makes Hermie tremble. Oscy looks ahead to the raunchy characters who would inhabit Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981), but – loudmouth, taunting, occasional prick that he is – he’s also remarkable in his openness and has a disarming philosophical side (“Sometimes, life is one big pain in the ass”) that ultimately makes him more endearing than annoying. He also provides valuable, healthy evidence that there is more than one path through this hormonal jungle. Unlike Hermie, who commits more of his head and heart to this mystery than a boy of 15 should, Oscy demonstrates that anyone who approaches sex in a happy, honest, uncomplicated way is more likely to get laid first – and far less likely to come out of it hurt or damaged or forever looking back with regret.
Budgeted at only $1,000,000, Summer of ’42 became Warner’s second highest-grossing film of one of the studio’s most remarkable years ($32,000,000), its success helping the studio to weather the commercial disappointments of such classic films as The Devils, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Klute, and THX-1138. The only Warner release to outperform it that year was Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, which may have earned a few million more but had cost a few million more to make, making their shared earnings something of a photo finish. It became the biggest success of Robert Mulligan’s career, due in no small part to his post-release agreement to trim some of Oscy’s most bluntly sexual dialogue (“He’s gonna carry her right into that bedroom and screw her!” lost its last few words), allowing the R-rated film to earn GP certification. It’s this softer version that prevails today, but even in this form it remains one of the most truthful, honest films about sexuality ever addressed to all audiences by a major studio.
The film’s commercial success demanded a sequel, which soon materialized as the uneven but still affecting Class of ’44 (1973), which follows the Terrible Trio from high school graduation into young adulthood. Though also a Raucher original, Class of ‘44 is more rooted in fiction than autobiography, and therefore swaps out the former’s softly nostalgic patina (the work of Robert Surtees, whose Oscar nomination was foiled by his own win for The Last Picture Show) in favor of warmer colors, harder edges and deeper blacks – just the right atmosphere for characters who find themselves standing on the cusp of unclear, even uncertain futures. (Was director of photography Andrew Laszlo chosen because he had shot Jennifer On My Mind?) There is a noticeable lack of continuity with its predecessor, other than the allusions to an offscreen war and the return of the principal characters and actors; there is no narration, no reference to the events of the earlier film, nor is there a memorable score to hook us. Class also hasn’t Summer’s organic flow or consistent tone, its feel of a sea breeze rustling knitted curtains, which it replaces with something more episodic – possibly instilled by the guidance of director Paul Bogart, whose career was spent mostly in television (including 96 episodes of All in the Family).
That said, for all its conspicuous faults, Class of ’44 should not be written off in haste. Like its predecessor, it captures an important, transitional time of life overlooked by most storytellers, and does so with warmth and unflinching clarity, allowing for humor and levity but focusing on those parts that hurt and engender growth and character.
The spectre of war overhangs the film from its opening graduation ceremony, where “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is among the sing-along offerings and a prominently posted slogan (“When Duty Whispers Low, Thou Must – The Youth Replies, I Can”) overhangs the stage assembly like a guillotine blade. Benjy, so often shunned by his older friends, becomes the first of the Trio to man-up by enlisting in the Armed Forces, leaving the other two to pack off to college and share quarters in a rooming house until fraternity life beckons – with its attendant second adolescence of brutal hazings (supervised by a young William Atherton). As before, there is only incidental, anecdotal scene-sharing with adult characters, keening the film’s focus to a believable teenage solipsism.
Once again, Jerry Houser’s performance as Oscy – here more nuanced – is vital to the film’s charm and vigor, though here we begin to see the downside of his character’s approach to life, as his quest for the perfect rack involves him with a girlfriend later revealed to be a 32 year-old prostitute, whose attempt to lay his entire fraternity with Oscy pimping her out gets him tossed out of college into the waiting arms of the U.S. Marine Corps. Hermie’s love life is obviously the more prominent story; this time, he becomes involved with Julie (Deborah Winters, subsequently the heroine of Blue Sunshine), a blonde rich kid with a tear-like beauty mark and pretensions of becoming a writer. Their meet-cute scene in the office of the campus paper shows Julie to be comically void of talent, but her ambition turns out to be nothing more than a stunt to amuse herself. As with Dorothy, we never learn too much about Julie, aside from her quirkiness, but her strengths complement Hermie’s weaknesses and they form a plausible couple. What is winning about their relationship, above and beyond Winters’ eccentric appeal, is the film’s sensitive attention to how these young people will themselves together, how they negotiate the various stages of their relationship, weather the frictions caused by past and lingering attachments, and their cautious advancement to sex. More than forty years after seeing this film for the first time, I sometimes find myself wondering whatever became of these two. I suspect they’re still married, maybe not altogether happily, but held together by Julie’s spirited tenacity.
The most important section of the film concerns the death of a character we never meet – Hermie’s father, who succumbs to a heart attack at the age of only 45, thereby putting his son’s trivial concerns into perspective. All we ever see of this man are his eyeglasses (an image that curiously rhymes with the film’s closing shot) and a few other personal effects on his desk; nevertheless, a powerful sense of the man and his loss is conveyed, not least of all by the mutual abandon shown by Hermie and a homecoming Oscy as they throw themselves into a Husbands-like revel, keeping the cold touch of Death at bay with beer and misadventure.
© 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.