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Summer of '42: Nostalgia-Driven Coming Of Age Movie From 1971 That Made Millions

Entertainment | April 18, 2021

Actress Jennifer O'Neill and actor Gary Grimes in a scene from the Warner Bros. movie 'Summer of '42.' (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the 1971 film Summer Of ‘42, a teenage boy played by Gary Grimes has an interlude with an older woman played by Jennifer O'Neill during a summer on Nantucket Island. It's based directly on the life experience of its writer, Herman “Hermie” Raucher, and no -- it's not the most earth-shattering plot you've ever heard of. But something about this modest, inexpensively made coming-of-age story struck a chord with audiences in 1971 like few other movies in the genre, and the public flocked to see it. 

The movie was a throwback to a different time for a country that had recently been through the wringer with the Vietnam War, unrest on college campuses, changing social norms, reckonings with racial inequality -- you name it, Americans had been forced to confront it in the streets or at least on the nightly news. For a nation reeling from the turbulent end of the '60s, a jaunt back to the summer of 1942 was the best kind of escapism. Yes, there was teenage lust and a little bit of sex, but it was all so innocent, and innocence was appealing.

Summer Of '42 tapped into a feeling that would be further explored by The Last Picture Show later in 1971, and American Graffiti in 1973. We could never go back to how it used to be -- and how it used to be was never as idyllic as it seems -- but in 1971, moviegoers were all too happy to sit in a darkened movie theater for a couple hours and wish it were so.

'Summer Of '42' Was A Little Movie That Became A Big Hit

The "Summer of '42" became an all time classic. (moviesanywhere)

Director Robert Mulligan was a veteran who'd been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Jennifer O'Neill was a model who'd just made her first real movie (Rio Lobo with John Wayne, released in 1970), and Gary Grimes was a nobody. The movie called for no special effects. Warner Bros. was lukewarm on the film, but Mulligan sold them on price -- he could make the movie, he said, for a million bucks. To everyone's delight -- Raucher's most of all -- Summer of '42 made a healthy $32 million at the box office.

Unlike with most motion pictures that come from books, Raucher had originally written Summer of '42 as a movie, over a decade earlier. Luckily for Raucher, the studio stipulated that he novelize the screenplay to help generate buzz for the movie. Ironically, the book, released weeks before the movie's opening, became a bestseller, which was priceless advertising for the film. It also led many to wrongfully assume that the movie was based on the book and not the other way around.

The Conceit

A summer fling doomed to failure, something everyone can relate to. (haphazardstuff)

Raucher began writing the script as a tribute to his friend Oscy, who died during the Korean War. However, as he delved into his own life’s story, he realized that his illicit relationship with a mysterious young married woman, Dorothy, held more intrigue. Therefore, Oscy (played in the film by Jerry Houser) became a secondary character which allowed Jennifer O’Neill's Dorothy to steal the show. According to Raucher, all the events in the story actually took place. In fact, he didn’t even change the real life names of the characters -- Hermie is Hermie, Oscy is Oscy, and Dorothy is Dorothy.

A Heaping Portion Of Nostalgia

Three friends making the most of summer. (vudu)

For many viewers, Summer Of '42, harkened back to a much simpler time. The antics and issues faced by a precocious Hermie offered universal troubles that teens of that time and those even now can easily relate to, including the embarrassment of trying to buy condoms for the first time, attempting to woo a woman far out of one’s own league, and mischievous childhood hijinks with a close friend. Whether you were a teen in ‘42 or even a youth today, you can relate to many of those experiences in one form or another.

In fact, the film was banned in Ireland until 1980 because of the scene where Hermie buys condoms, which were illegal in Ireland at the time. And though the action was set on Nantucket Island, that location was too built-up by 1970. In order to get the look of 1942, the film was shot in Mendocino, California.

Critic Response

No one complained about Jennifer O’Neill (youtube)

Despite following the events of Raucher’s youth, the events are seen from an adult perspective. Viewing his memories this way creates both nostalgia and also some distance from the painful events like losing Dorothy the day after their only sexual encounter. Curiously, this distance was famed film critic Roger Ebert’s main issue with the film:

Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 is constructed to suggest that during that summer an event happened after which the boy was never the same. But we have to be content with an adult narrator who tells us this about himself; we never do learn how the boy, as a boy, put it together for himself. The fault may lie in the movie's obsession with nostalgia. The movie isn't set up to tell a story about a boy who was young in the summer of 1942; it insists on presenting itself, instead, as an adult memory of that long-ago summer.

The usually spot-on Ebert failed to realize that his critique, in many ways, was precisely why the movie did so well. People enjoyed going back to a childhood not dissimilar to their own. Seeing, as Ebert put it, “a world of meat rationing and old Unguentine ads and black Hudsons with running boards and theories about the care and use of rubbers” became a time warp for many. It was also a blast from the blast that kept “us safely insulated from the boy's immediate grief, love, and passion.” Rather than problems, many saw those as positives.

The Hastily Written Novel Was A Best Seller

The screenplay that became a book was marketed as a book that became a movie. Source:

The studio was so lukewarm on the script that they gave Raucher 10% of the gross profits in lieu of payment. When the movie grossed over $32 million, which adjusted for inflation falls just shy of $210 million, Raucher obviously laughed all the way to the bank. The book, which he never planned on writing, did so well that the movie was marketed as an adaptation, even though the screenplay came first.

Jennifer O'Neill Made The Most Of Her 12 Minutes

O'Neill became a star off just 12 minutes of screen time. (youtube)

In a tactic intended to result in more natural portrayals, Director Robert Mulligan shot the film in chronological order, which is unusual, so the actors could grow into the characters. He also kept his teenage boys separate from the object of their on-screen obsession.

Mulligan never intended to audition actresses younger than 30 for Dorothy. Jennifer O'Neill was only 22 but her agent begged on her behalf. Despite being in over 30 other movies and countless commercials, people most often recognize O’Neill as Dorothy. She was only on screen for 12 minutes.

Jennifer O'Neill was purposely kept apart from the other boys in the movie so they would have a natural awkwardness. As O’Neill remembered,

[Mulligan] didn’t want us to be hanging out like friends after filming. He wanted that magic of when I walked into the room. So I was isolated, put away from everyone, which was a little hard. But other than that… it was awesome. It was called a little film in those days… But it really was just a magical time. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. You know when you got something special when everyone shows up and everyone is crying.

Tags: Movies In The 1970s | Summer Of 42

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!