Troy Donahue as Johnny Hunter, college student and “silly sentimentalist”
New England, Spring 1959
Film: A Summer Place
Release Date: November 18, 1959
Director: Delmer Daves
Costume Designer: Howard Shoup
Sixty years after shaking up more genteel audiences with its frank but ultimately tame depictions of adultery and sexuality, A Summer Place may be most widely remembered for its serene theme song. Originally written by Max Steiner, it was Percy Faith’s arrangement of “Theme from A Summer Place” that transformed the instrumental ballad into a #1 hit that took the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking nine consecutive weeks in early 1960.
(Faith later tried to replicate his success with a questionable disco version that I’m sure no one had been asking for, “Summer Place ’76”.)
Adapted from Sloane Wilson’s novel published the previous year, A Summer Place tells the story of two generations of lovers brought together on an island inn off the coast of Maine. Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) and Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), reunited after 20 years, are forced to face their own reignited feelings for each other as well as the passionate romance growing between his daughter Molly (Sandra Dee) and her son Johnny (Troy Donahue). Somehow, the scandalous affairs manage to garner front-page stories in all the region’s major newspapers from Boston to Buffalo, alienating the children from their parents and bringing them closer together until the good-natured Ken and Sylvia—now married to each other—invite Molly and Johnny to spend spring break at their new beach house.
“Frank Lloyd Wright designed our house,” the typically modest Sylvia proudly shares when Molly arrives. Indeed, the exteriors were filmed at the picturesque Clinton Walker House that Wright designed in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, though the film places it within reasonable driving distance of Maine, so it’s likely meant to be somewhere in New England.
Johnny and Molly are reunited on the beach, and Steiner’s familiar theme kicks in as the two declare their love for each other in a secluded cove she had already scouted, though the guilt she feels after a trio of boys tease them has her questioning his motives.
Molly: Are you bad, Johnny? Have you been bad with girls?
Johnny: No… I just don’t know exactly what that word “good” means.
What’d He Wear?
The scenes of Johnny and Molly on the beach take up only a few minutes of screen time, though they seem to make up the bulk of imagery used to promote the film as the sight of Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee in their swimsuits and respective cover-ups neatly align with the title A Summer Place… despite the scene in question actually being set during the two teens’ spring break.
To borrow the parlance of the era, it may sound square of Johnny to be wearing a cardigan for his date on the beach, though a glance at the once and future Merle Johnson in his open tennis sweater and short-inseam trunks assures the viewer that this won’t be Fred MacMurray settling in for cookies with his three sons.
With its navy, white, and crimson red striping around the neck and down the placket on each side of the opening, Johnny’s soft ivory cable-knit cashmere cardigan echoes the traditional tennis sweater (or cricket sweater, as it would be known if Johnny had opted to spend his spring holiday across the pond.) The traditional tennis or cricket sweaters are long-sleeved V-neck pullover jumpers, but cardigans like Johnny’s aren’t uncommon and continue to be made today such as these reimaginings by Brooks Brothers and Todd Snyder.
I’ve put some thought into why Johnny was dressed in this manner so far from the tennis courts and landed on two theories:
- Johnny’s parents, specifically his more socially conscious father, purchased the garment in the hopes of projecting his ambitions of upward mobility onto his son and present him as the kind of young man who spends his leisure time playing tennis… despite Johnny barely having enough money for a long-distance phone call.
- The film sides with the younger, more progressive generation but likely recognized that Johnny and Molly may not be instantly sympathetic to older or more conservative audiences, so they coded the young couple as “wholesome” or “all-American” by draping Johnny in a patriotic red, white, and blue for what might be an otherwise scandalous afternoon in the sand. (Though Molly’s terry cloth cover-up is yellow, her red and white-striped bathing suit under it adds credence to this theory.)
The cardigan’s loose cable knitting and softness of what appears to be a cashmere wool construction would have made it quite comfortable on what appears to be a sunny yet breezy day on the beach. The cardigan has six flat mother-of-pearl buttons up the front, initially worn open to showcase the round gold pendant Donahue wears on a thin necklace, though he buttons it up as the day gets later and chillier. The only pocket is a set-in pocket over the left breast, and the waist hem is widely ribbed.
Johnny wears white swim trunks with a short inseam, likely no more than two or three inches, as well as a higher rise up to Donahue’s natural waist, where it closes through an extended waistband with a stacked two-button closure on the right side of the waist. Though a brighter, stark white in color, the trunks echo the sweater with its red, white, and blue stripe tape down the outside of each leg, always with the crimson red stripe toward the front and navy toward the back.
Consistent with prevailing styles during the era (as modeled by Sean Connery on the set of Woman of Straw), the sole pocket on these short trunks is a set-in pocket just below the right side of the waistband, closing through a small, rounded single-button flap. Embroidered on the left thigh is the circular logo of an aquatic flamingo, though I can’t identify the brand solely from this; all I can ascertain is that it’s clearly not the famous Jantzen diving girl.
Several modern swimwear outfitters specialize in retro-minded trunks, such as Dandy Del Mar, Retromarine, and Orlebar Brown whose 4.5″-inseam Setter (white with “Bahama blue” side striping) and 6″-inseam Bulldog (white with “rescue red” side striping) are fine updates to Donahue’s look. If OB’s $275 price tag is a little steep, you could sacrifice color-correctness and pick up these double-digit priced A|X Armani Exchange or Hugo Boss trunks, though both are arguably more modern in their approach and execution. Tori Richard also offers red, white, and blue ’60s-inspired trunks with side striping, albeit only in red and navy blue as of July 2020 (via Amazon or Tori Richard.)
Johnny had also worn this cardigan much earlier in A Summer Place, sported open with the tennis-friendly outfit of a lightweight cotton two-button polo shirt and beige flat front slacks when the Jorgensen family first arrived at Pine Island together the previous summer.
How to Get the Look
Clad in his red, white, and blue, Troy Donahue looked like the ’50s archetype of the “all-American boy” when reuniting with Sandra Dee on the beach in A Summer Place.
- Ivory cable-knit cashmere tennis/cricket cardigan with navy, white, and crimson-striped placket, six pearl sew-through buttons, and set-in breast pocket
- White short-inseam swim trunks with navy, white, and crimson side striping, double-button waistband closure, and right-side pocket (with button-down flap)
- Gold thin necklace with gold pendant
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I’m just angry at myself for wanting you so much.