Thursday, December 1, 2011

Movie and Book – Summer of ‘42 (1971)

Summer of ’42 played movie theaters during the spring and summer of 1971.  It is an autobiographical tale of a boy’s coming of age one summer on Nantucket Island.  Both it and the book that accompanied it were very popular with audiences.  The movie was nominated for four Oscars, winning for Best Score.  The book became one of the best selling novels of the 1970s.  As it happens, I read the book and saw the movie when I was just about the same age as the main character (15) and they rang very true for me.

Herman Raucher wrote a screenplay of this story early in his career, but then it sat on his shelf for a long time.  He brought it back out around 1970 and got some studio interest in it.  The studio had Raucher extend the story to full novel length and they published it before the movie came out.  It became an immediate hit, so by the time the movie was released it was advertised as being “based on the best selling novel”.  This has confused some folks over the years, since technically the book was a movie novelization, but it appeared to most people as if the movie was an adaptation of the book.

We meet Hermie, a 15 year old boy living on Nantucket in the summer of 1942.  He hangs around with his best friend Oscy and his next to best friend Benjie.  They call themselves “the terrible trio” and they get into various adventures with each other.  Hermie is infatuated with an “older woman” of 22 (the gorgeous Jennifer O'Neill) who is vacationing on the island with her husband before he has to go off to war.  The other two boys tease Hermie about it.

They dare him to go say hi to her at the beach, but when he tries they start yelling to warn the woman.  He is really awkward around her, but finds the courage to talk to her when he sees her struggling with some grocery bags.  He offers to carry them back to her place for her and she accepts.  He tries to be what he thinks of as manly by refusing milk and sugar for his coffee because he “takes it black”.  He also tries to talk like he thinks adults talk.  It all comes off as obviously artificial, but Dorothy is flattered by it and considers it harmless.

Meanwhile, like most teenage boys, the subject of sex is very important.  Oscy is the one who is most anxious for something, anything, to happen between him and a girl, even though none of them really know what that something is.  Benjie lets drop that his mother has a medical book in the house that explains all about it.  Seeing this book becomes the immediate top priority for Oscy and Hermie. 

There’s a fun scene where the boys sneak the book out to a shed and start looking though it.  Benjie insists that his mother and father never did anything like what the pictures in the book show and he’s freaked out about the whole sex thing.  Oscy says that he used to think that some of the things his older brother told him were just stories, too, but these are pictures of that stuff.  (You don’t see what’s in the book, which makes it even more fun because your imagination starts to create what it is the boys might be reading.)

From the book Oscy makes a list of the 12 key steps from meeting a girl to “doing the deed” and gives a copy to Hermie, so they can both refer to it when they date a girl.  Hermie asks Oscy what the words in a couple of the steps are.  Oscy tells him they are Latin.  Hermie says he doesn’t know where to find them.  Oscy tells him that “everything is in the same general area.  ‘Seek and ye shall find.’”

Oscy has a rubber that his brother “handed down” to him, but Hermie has nothing.  When Hermie asks Oscy to borrow it and he’ll return it afterwards, Oscy has to explain to him that “not even the best of friends can go halfsies on a rubber.”  What follows is probably one of the most awkwardly funny scenes as Hermie goes to the drug store to try to buy condoms.  Remember, this was 1942 and buying them was nothing like what it is today, with them right in the supermarket aisles and the checkout people not even blinking about anyone buying them.  They were something to be ashamed of and not spoken about back then.

Hermie and Oscy date two of the girls on the island and Oscy ends up with the one that has a reputation.  Hermie ends up with the “intellectual” one.  Things go a lot better for Oscy than Hermie while at the beach one night – Oscy: “I’m at step 6, but she’s already at step 9!” 

While all this is going on, Hermie finds a couple of excuses to be around Dorothy, whether it is lifting some heavy boxes for her, or just dropping by because he “was in the neighborhood.”

As the older Hermie says in the movie and book, “Nothing from that first day I saw her, and no one that has happened to me since, has ever been as frightening and as confusing. For no person I've ever known has ever done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant.”

Herman Raucher has admitted that the events in the movie and book, other than moving the order of some things around, are essentially true.  He didn’t even change the names of the people.  The main character of Hermie is the author.  Hermie’s best friend Oscy is Raucher’s real life friend Oscar.  Dorothy really is the name of the woman he was infatuated with.

After the book and movie became very popular several women wrote to Raucher claiming to be Dorothy (he never knew her last name.)  He could tell from one of the letters that it was the real woman because she mentioned some things that only she could have known.

I mentioned that I saw the movie and read the book when I was right around the same age.  Although it was nearly 40 years later the way that both presented a 15 year old boy experiencing his first crush on an older woman was very true to life.  I had an “older woman” (mid to late 20s) that I used to hang around for a little while when I was a teen.  I would ride my bike beside her while she jogged, and we would talk.  Looking back on it, I’m sure she knew exactly why I was tagging along with her, but at the time it was important to me that it was my little secret, even though I had no idea where I thought any of it would go.  I ended up getting over the crush, but I couldn’t help but think about The Summer of ’42 while it was happening.

Despite how much more can be learned now on the internet, I think the movie would still resonate with 15 year old boys today.  If you can remember what it was like to be a teenage boy with a crush, or if you were a woman who was the object of a crush, then I think this movie will bring a fond smile to your face.

The movie was directed by Robert Mulligan, who did To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) early in his career, and The Man in the Moon (1991) at the end of his career.  Combined with Summer of ’42, all three do excellent jobs of presenting stories about children/teens that learn a little something about growing up.

The fact that real teenagers played the roles in Summer of ’42 is important.  If the movie were made today, the actress playing the “older woman” (Jennifer O’Neil, who was 23) would actually be playing a teen.  Despite what Hollywood would like people to think, there’s still a big difference when you see actual teens, not twenty and thirty-somethings, in teenage roles.

Note:  This movie was followed by the sequel Class of ’44.  You can read my review of that film here.

Unless you have to have tons of action in a movie, then I highly recommend this film. If you like the film, then I highly recommend the book, which fleshes out the story more.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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