SUMMER OF ’42 (ONLINE)
Jennifer O’Neill and Gary Grimes, 1971
For years I’ve owned a cheap-o, bargain basement cassette by vocal group The Lettermen that concerns itself with summer songs. Instead of celebrating those lazy-hazy-crazy days, the compilation is more wistful, contemplative, even sad. One of the tracks the boys offer is “The Summer Knows”, a vocal version of Michel Legrand’s Academy Award-winning theme from the 1971 film Summer of ’42. The lyric version is incredibly poignant. In the past – assuming the film would be just as poignant, or more so – I’ve looked up the movie and the plot seemed interesting to me but I never got around to watching it. Since 2019, I’ve made lists of films released fifty years prior; simply out of curiosity but also to get a sense of the cinema of that year. Summer of ’42 went on my Cinema 71 list. On the last night of my last week of summer holidays in 2021, I thought it would be the perfect time to watch what seemed like a gentle, sensitive, wistful film. I was right.
On the surface, Summer of ’42 may seem like one of those teenagers-losing-their-virginity romps popular in the 1980’s but, while there are goofy moments, its not like that. In a nutshell, the movie presents the remembrances of a middle-aged man looking back on a summer his family spent on Nantucket Island. He was 15 and beginning to feel the first blushes of the things 15-year-old boys feel. With his two buddies, Hermie (Grimes) explores medical books, makes up lists of the steps involved in attempting seduction and comically attempts to purchase “rubbers” from the local drug store.
The three friends take girls to the movies (Now, Voyager) but a young bride that lives on a cliff overlooking the ocean has caught Hermie’s eye. Hermie watches her frolic gaily with her soldier husband until the day she tearfully sees him off at the dock as he is deployed overseas. Soon after, Hermie stumbles on her attempting to carry groceries home and helps her, slowly ingratiating himself into her life. While his friends crassly contemplate the young girls in town, Hermie begins to feel something different, something more. Dorothy, after all, is a woman and the most beautiful thing Hermie has ever seen. The dynamic between the two is what I think bears discussion; it’s what you should “check out”.
Keep in mind that I’m watching this film as a male also approaching middle age and I’m remembering experiences in my own life. Experiences, mind you, maybe not as significant as these but notable to me. I’m watching Summer of ’42 with thoughts of “what would I have done in this clown’s shoes?”. Hermie acts mature, wanting to appear more worldly to Dorothy who simply seems to be appreciating Hermie’s help around the house and happy to have someone to talk to. Hermie meets her one day sitting on the cliff writing to her husband. He’s yammering on but she is obviously consumed by her letter, her only means of communication with her husband. So, while Hermie is beginning to sense something grander in life than sex, he is still a bit clueless as to this woman, her situation and the way things are between a husband and wife, even though apart. Finally, Hermie gets up the nerve to suggest he visit Dorothy one evening as opposed to his daytime visits. And we come to the meat of the film. If you are hoping to experience this film for the first time without knowing the outcome, you may want to step aside now – but just as far as another article here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure – as there are SPOILERS to follow.
Hermie goes to Dorothy’s house one evening. He knocks but there’s no answer. He opens the door and calls to her. When he lets himself him, I thought it was a mistake but I genuinely did not know what he would find. He sees signs in the living room of recent occupancy. Her record player is on, the needle has come to the end of the 78. There’s a bottle on the coffee table and a cigarette is burning in the ashtray. What has likely happened begins to dawn on me as Hermie spies a telegram amongst the debris; Dorothy’s husband has been killed in action. The whole movie has pivoted.
I said out loud at this point “Well, the sex thing is gone now”. I couldn’t see how these two could be intimate considering what has happened to Dorothy. Hermie – with his limited life experience – cannot fathom what she is going through but he is sensitive enough to perceive the enormity. He calls to her. She gradually drifts around the corner into the living room brushing her hair, not in hysterics but obviously in shock. Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) handles things deftly the rest of the way. First and foremost is the silence, silence that now envelopes Dorothy’s life. Silence as Hermie watches her, totally at a loss as to what to say. I was proud of him when he finally says “I’m sorry”.
Dorothy moves to her record player and puts the record back on. What drifts out is a nice touch; a 1940’s-sounding version of Legrand’s haunting theme. Stone-faced, Dorothy moves towards Hermie and the two come together lightly as they begin to slowly dance to the music. What is happening?, I had to ask myself. It seems clear that Dorothy is terribly alone now and hurting. Hermie is her only friend. As she closes her eyes and gently lays her head on his shoulder, it may occur to the viewer that Dorothy is avoiding the terrible truth of the present by visiting her past, her past that included a young man like Hermie. She’s revisiting a youthful time free from horror and heartache.
The direction and the choreography of the scene are bang on as Dorothy slowly drops her hand to Hermie’s and leads him to her bedroom. Her face – her very being – is bereft of emotion, of feeling. She longs only for succor, for escape, for comfort. During all this, once the record has finished, there returns the silence. Only the sounds of the surf outside. String-laden romantic music would really have had no place here. Silence. Later, as the two lie next to each other, Hermie turns to look at her and she looks back. But with nothing. She gets up, as in a trance, puts her robe on and steps out onto the porch. Hermie dresses and joins her there. She says simply “Good night, Hermie” and he walks away. The epilogue of the movie is incredibly significant. The next day, Hermie goes to her home to find Dorothy gone and a goodbye letter waiting for him. In voiceover, Hermie says he never saw her again and never learned what became of her.
“Life is made up of small comings and goings. And for everything we take with us, there is something that we leave behind. In the summer of ’42…in a very special way I lost Hermie forever.”– In voiceover, Hermie tries to make sense of what happened to him that summer.
What I learned after watching the film added much to the experience – as it usually does. Summer of ’42 is based on a true story. Herman Raucher (born 1928) wrote the script as a memoir recounting his experiences during the summer of 1942 when he and his family were vacationing on Nantucket Island. He did indeed befriend a young woman who’s name was Dorothy and who’s husband went off to war. He did indeed visit her one night without knowing that only minutes before she had received a telegram informing her of her husband’s death. Knowing the events of this night in real life can help the viewer understand Dorothy’s state of mind and motivations. In the film, Dorothy is simply in a daze, understandably so. Despite the bottle, she doesn’t seem drunk nor does she seem confused as to Hermie’s identity. However, in reality, that night Dorothy was drunk and disoriented by grief. She repeatedly called Hermie – the name Herman Raucher went by as a youth – “Pete”, the name of her dead husband. This depiction of trauma makes the intimacy between the two make more sense. With the film’s depiction, you are left to come up with this yourself. And something else to consider; Raucher has said that he and Dorothy disrobed that night but did not consummate their relationship. Something to keep in mind when watching the film.
Raucher’s script and the novelization he published just before the film’s release were homages to the memory of his life-changing relationship with Dorothy but they were also intended to honour the memory of his friend, Oscar, portrayed in the film by Jerry Houser. Oscar was an Army Medic who was later killed in the Korean War while tending to a wounded soldier. This happened on Raucher’s birthday and he hasn’t been able to celebrate the date since. Hermie is portrayed in the film by Gary Grimes. Both these actors reprised their roles in a sequel to Summer of ’42 called Class of ’44 (1973). Neither seemed devoted to acting though and both retired from the screen soon after. Warner Bros. had zero faith in Summer of ’42, even with Mulligan guaranteeing he could bring the film in for $1 million. The studio didn’t even want to pay Raucher outright for his script and opted to instead give him a percentage of the gross. Summer of ’42 would go on to be one of the top-grossing films of the Seventies bringing in over $32 million. I don’t think the movie works, though, with anyone other than Jennifer O’Neill in the role of Dorothy.
O’Neill was born in Rio de Janeiro to an English mother and Brazilian father. She and her brother were raised in New Rochelle. At 14, Jen attempted suicide with her mother’s sleeping pills. At 15, a horse she was riding fell on her, breaking her neck and back but she recovered and started modeling. That same year – at age 15 – she lost her virginity to her 20-year-old college boyfriend. She dropped out of acting school at 17 to get married, a union that produced a daughter. She then appeared in Rio Lobo (1970) with John Wayne before her agent fought for her to get the role of Dorothy as the studio wanted an older actress. At 25, in 1973, she began a 30-year Cover Girl campaign, stunning longevity that has been recognized by the Smithsonian.
During her first marriage, she checked herself in to a mental hospital and underwent shock therapy. Her first divorce and an abortion came before she married her second husband; her third marriage came a year later. Followed by a divorce within months. Husband Number Four – also known as 1978’s Husband – was songwriter Jeff Barry. She had a son with Number 5/1979 Husband, who was a convicted felon; he spent all her money and ended up in jail for abusing O’Neill’s daughter. Husband Number 6 was her limo driver; he used prostitutes and she divorced him – and then they got remarried and he divorced her. Husband Number 7 was 11 years her junior; that one was annulled after 5 months. Her ninth marriage to her eighth husband seems to have been the charm and the two are still together. As of this writing.
A lot of marital discord and trauma in her life, but at least Jennifer O’Neill never shot herself in the stomach. Actually, that’s not true. On October 23, 1982, Jen was trying to ascertain if her husband’s gun was loaded and the gun went off, shooting her in the navel. Jennifer would eventually find peace in Christianity. She and her husband own and operate Hope and Healing at Hillenglade, “an equine-assisted program that offers time away in the country for our Active Armed Forces, Veterans, First Responders and their families to enjoy the therapeutic wonder of horses”. Jennifer O’Neill also speaks publicly sharing her life experiences from acting and modelling to abortion and mental illness and she has authored half-a-dozen books. Good for her; not only gorgeous, but giving back to others.
I can highly recommend Summer of ’42. You can perhaps watch it here.
Check These Out: Further Studies
Jennifer O’Neill – Official Website // It’s actually quite satisfying to learn that a former actress who lead a challenging life is putting her twilight years to good use. At Jen’s site – Everything You Need to Know About Jennifer O’Neill – you can read about her film work and modelling, find info about booking her for a speaking engagement, buy her books and, perhaps most importantly, learn about her current work helping those with PTSD. Click here to visit.
TCPalm.com Interview with Herman Raucher // Most of the info you will read on the internet about the real life events that inspired Summer of ’42, including the changes that were made to the screen story, originate from this interview with the author from May of 2002. You can read it here.
Summer of ’42 50th Anniversary Cast Reunion // Hosted in May of 2021 by Adam Long of Movie Geeks United!, this video available on YouTube here brings together O’Neill with Jerry Houser and Oliver Conant to share memories of making the film. A shame that Grimes was not involved.
Beverly Cinema // Always lucid analysis from this site and here is a fine article from Tim Lucas on Summer of ’42 and it’s sequel, Class of ’44.