As Max Steiner’s ‘Theme from A Summer Place’ was one of the biggest popular hits to come out of the movies in the 1950s it’s rather amazing that there was never an original soundtrack recording issued from this popular melodrama. However, Brigham Young University’s Max Steiner series has recently remedied this oversight with a complete CD of music from the film’s original soundtrack. Indeed Steiner’s theme, written when the composer was 71 years old, was so popular (in the classic Percy Faith instrumental version) that when Elmer Bernstein released excerpts from A Summer Place in his 1974 Film Music Collection stereo recording it came as something of a shock that the hit single tune was actually not the score’s major melody. The ‘Main Title’ theme is actually the melody associated with the more mature (and married, but not to each other) lovers around which the first half of the film revolves. The Richard Egan/Dorothy McGuire theme is a lush romantic melody, which, however, bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Here Comes the Night,’ a song from Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song.
The operetta reference also gives a key to the retro nature of the score as a whole, for though Summer Place appeared at the end of the studio era and was among the first mainstream Hollywood films to deal frankly with issues of adult marital infidelity and teenage sex, Steiner’s music is a real throw-back to the classic Warner Brothers scores of the 1940s. His score clocks in at nearly eighty minutes, meaning much of the lengthy film is profusely underscored in the classic WB symphonic mode in which (here) every breaking wave in the credits and even the toss of a mail bag in one of the opening scenes is mickey-moused in the music. Steiner’s score is composed primarily of lovely, if not always dramatically appropriate melodies, and with so much rampant and rather quaint lyricism you’d never suspect Alex North and Elmer Bernstein had been introducing a more sophisticated, ‘less is more’ mode of Hollywood scoring for nearly a decade before Summer Place was released (in 1959).
The best-known theme from the score is actually the motif for the young lovers, Johnny (Troy Donahue) and Molly (the ever pouty Sandra Dee). It is first heard as the couple stroll in the nocturnal garden of the New England island resort referred to in the film’s title (‘Bright Dreams’), and is attached to them, almost ad-nauseum, throughout the rest of the film. (It’s even heard once in an odd pop variation for Hawaiian guitar: ‘Reunion at the Beach’). The theme combines Steiner’s lyrical melody with an accompaniment derived from the triplet piano figures heard in many rock-and-roll ballads of the ‘50s. Period rock, the only really contemporary element in the score, is also briefly suggested in the ‘naughty’ Molly theme, a separate melody that suggests Molly’s sexual awakening and sex in general via a sleazy sax solo with an actual rock ballad piano accompaniment (‘There’s A Boy Watching Me,’ ‘The Garden’).
Actually there are more motifs than a Wagnerian opera in Summer Place, for just about everyone in the plot, including a rather incongruous skipping theme for Johnny, which (probably inadvertently) suggests that the character in Sloan Wilson’s original novel was actually only 13 years old. There is also a recurring motif for the Pine Island setting, a folk-like, nautical, and at times, almost mystical theme that suggests Delius. Most of the score is derived from these and an assortment of other motifs. It’s mostly melodic, and there are few set pieces or moments of pure atmosphere (other than melodramatic), and at times the Mickey-Mousing, especially in the passages meant to evoke humour (‘Flotsam And Jetsam’) and sexuality (the latter though the use of a luridly squealing sax), are almost cartoonish. The BYU recording is complete, right down to the source organ cues heard as Johnny and Molly secretly meet outside a church (‘Liebestraum’, ‘Lohengrin’), and a 12-second stinger (‘Passion Discovered’). A Summer Place should please die-hard Steiner buffs and those who like their film music as retro as the ‘should we/shouldn’t we?’ white bread young lovers around which so much of the plot laboriously revolves. But hey, that theme is still pure dreamy magic even after all these years.