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Summer of '42, or What the Boy Scouts Want You To Believe

by Gabe Klinger


Gabe Klinger is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


Herman Raucher's novel Summer of '42 was published in 1971 very near the same time Robert Mulligan's film was released in theaters. Raucher already had a career in the movies adapting his own material, from Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) to the Watermelon Man (1970), a big success that earned him cred to work with Robert Mulligan. The way Summer of '42 is written and the end result of the film suggest very little divergence except for the narration, which has been adapted from third into first person. Most of the memorable lines are word for word, such as the sensitive adult voice that's meant to send us into nostalgic trance (Mulligan's voice, no less).

"That house? That was her house. And nothing, from the first moment I saw her, and no one who had happened to me since had ever been as frightening, and as confusing or could have done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important, and less significant."

This bit of narration is used in the Summer of '42 trailer, and compellingly so. With each adjective ("frightening", "confusing", "insecure", etc.), a rapid pattern of single-second shots of Jennifer O'Neil (playing Dorothy, the one from that house) unfurl, freezing on her in mid-glance. In just one minute, the trailer makes us into horny 15 year-olds again. O'Neil, and the shreds of her character that are visible, is seen, pure and true and purely sexual, from the perspective of Raucher's autobiographical Hermie, who might have accepted a hand-job from Dorothy had he any interest in her beyond what the film makes us believe. That is, O'Neil is merely functional in the film as the Vogue beauty come to life come next door, and her character, with all the niceties, the cluelessness about Hermie's horniness, is just as stilted. That's not to suggest Hermie is uninteresting or hopelessly crude, since he's the one observing all of this.

So what is appealing about Hermie? Like in the film, which is commanded by Mulligan, and in Raucher's book, Hermie's feelings are articulated as if July 1942 happened yesterday. We can congratulate Raucher on his wisdom as an adult to bring us closer to understanding Hermie as a child – and likewise, in the film, Mulligan is good at enveloping us in his subjective camera. Take for instance a scene when Hermie looks around the room of Dorothy's house and sees a phonograph needle caught in a groove, a cigarette burning in an ashtray, a crumpled paper.... Moments later, Dorothy is drawn to the phonograph, resets the record, and takes the ashtray to the sink to be scrubbed. And a few more moments later, when Hermie has engaged her in a slow dance, Mulligan's camera reveals Dorothy still holding the ashtray.

These are the details that hold the film: Hermie, nervous, can only focus on a banal object such as an ashtray. These are the moments that reveal the characters – as adults or children. For some reason I remember Oscy, Hermie's best friend, picking his feet after a make-out session at the movies more than any other scene with that character. Hermie's paranoia in drawing the shades after him and Oscy smuggle a sex book into his room also stuck out for me. In these scenes the film is imaginative in a way that the book falls short. My favorite scene, when Oscy is discovering the big-breasted Miriam over the dune where Hermie entertains the boring Aggie, is filmed a lot like a scene in Artists and Models (1955) with Jerry Lewis jumping over his and Dean Martin's beds several times until he is so exhausted he can barely stand. In Summer of '42, it's hilarious the way Oscy, chanelling Lewis, disappears over the dune and then reappears, each time more fatigued and with less clothes.

Mulligan's mise-en-scène is that of a sophisticated artist, and the scene with Oscy on the dune is an example of where he escapes Raucher's drippy and implausible story. The lead up to Hermie's sexual realization (he gets laid, if you didn't already know) is slower and more tense in the book – and perhaps more realistic –, but the film is obviously not interested in realism. So when Hermie does finally sleep with Dorothy, why does realism suddenly become bothersome? Summer of '42, along with To Kill a Mocking Bird, is the most oft-cited and remembered Mulligan film. Do audiences remember the film because Hermie scores? Is it the tasteful precursor to the Porkys series? I hate to be simplistic, but yes, it is, and the act of sex is what ruins it.

Raucher's text is one side the grown up remembrance of a soul-seeking journey, and the other, a staking out of the ultimate – I mean mecca – fantasy of all young boys. The book constructs an elegant deception, in which Hermie is counter-balanced by the infinitely more straightforward, seemingly less confused Oscy, who is voracious, totally braggy, and willing to get his hands in the mud for whichever girl comes his way. "It's not going to be that kind of an evening!" Hermie says defensively to Oscy as he walks away from his sex-obsessed friend to be with Dorothy. We know Hermie is full of shit, yet his noble intent to be "mature" is somehow endearing.

And yet, he accomplishes the same feat as Oscy, as if his being a gentleman earned him the thrill. Hermie is less naïve after sex – he has "lost Hermie" –, but that doesn't alleviate the audience's confusion about the plausibility of whether an older woman would just jump into bed with a 15 year-old after learning of her husband's death. Or if Hermie figured the whole thing to be dumb luck, in which case all of the profound life lessons he has gained from Dorothy can be attributed to that obstinate and (come on, let's face it) pretty superficial goal of scoring. In its lighthearted moments, Summer of '42 has Oscy and Hermie just being kids; Hermie's aim of beating his own record of breast fondling for more than 8 minutes is charming. But can you imagine in Amarcord (1973) if Fellini set the film's climax – Nino Rota score and all – to Titta going back to the store to finally lay the woman with the big tits?

Summer of '42 aches in its quest for sincerity, for sensitivity, and it becomes the slave to a turgid ending. In the book a whole chapter is devoted to Hermie's restless day before his evening encounter with Dorothy, in which he takes a ferry to the mainland and lunches with fisherman and systematically avoids his "immature" friends. He takes the time to reflect on the image of Dorothy – her beauty – rather than on her presence as something to be savored like the strawberry ice-cream cone that makes its appearance earlier in the film. There is a challenge wasted, logic obstructing our enjoyment as sex enters into Hermie's relationship. But do we deserve anything more for being in awe of Jennifer O'Neil's beauty? Of putting ourselves in Hermie's shoes? Dorothy deserves more, but Raucher – Hermie – could care less.


Summer of '42

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