Thursday, September 10, 2020

Coming Of Age In World War II-Torn America- With The Film “Summer Of 1942” (1971) In Mind

Coming Of Age In World War II-Torn America- With The Film “Summer Of 1942” (1971) In Mind

By Fritz Taylor

Seth Garth, the once well-known free-lance music critic for many of the big music and specialty publications that have come and gone over the years since he first put pen to paper some forty years ago, including the long gone alternative press where he got his start and first breaks (literally put pen to paper, forget beauties of the world processors then), had been thinking about the old days a lot recently. Had been, having the luxury of semi-retired status, also doing a run through of films via the good graces of Netflix that he had first seen when he was a youngster sitting in the dark every week for the double feature at the old Strand Theater in his hometown of Riverdale, a town a few dozen miles from Boston. Or else films that due to publication commitments that he had not run through when they came out in the 1970s in the days when he was determined to catch the wave of being a music critic and missed many of those films, left them by the wayside.

One night at Jack’s, his watering hole hang-out over in Riverdale that he increasingly frequented on his forays back to his old hometown to see if he could “channel” the past by being physically present on the old sacred soil (although not the Strand long ago turned into a condominium complex), Seth had mentioned to Brad Fox, an old friend from high school days who went through many of the experiences with him, that he had just reviewed a film, Summer of 1942, for Sal Davis the editor of Cinema Now who was looking for copy to fill a space quickly. The film which had been released in 1971 and was about coming of age, coming of sexual age during the early years of World War II. The big point he made to Brad, who had told Seth that he had seen the film when it came out but did not remember the details except that this foxy older woman played by Jennifer O’Neil had “robbed the cradle” and bedded a teenage boy, swore the film could have been about their generation, the generation of 1968 as easily as of 1942.      

Seth had mentioned, before giving Brad the details that he had missed about the film, he had started his review speculating on the fact that each generation goes through its coming of age period somewhat differently. “Coming of age’ in this context meaning after Brad had been unclear about what aspect of the term Seth meant, meaning the beginning the treacherous process of understanding all the sexual changes and commotions once you got to puberty. He said he had taken the one he, and Brad, had known about personally of coming of age in the early 1960s in the age of the “Pill,” of technology-driven space exploration and of some new as yet unspoken and undiscovered social breeze coming to shake up a lot of the old values, to turn the world upside down, from their parents’ generation. He said he tried to contrast that with the one before theirs, the one represented in the film about the coming of age of their parents’ generation. The generation that on one edge, the older edge went through the whole trauma of the Great Depression that brought barren days to the land and of slogging through World War II and at the other edge, the younger edge, missing the trauma of war and its particular stamp on those who survived went on to form the alienated youth who turned “beat,” rode homespun hot rods to perdition, grabbed a La Jolla perfect wave surf board, revved up hellish motorcycles to scare all the squares and come under the immediate spell of jailbreak rock and roll.

The funny thing at least on the basis of a viewing of the film on the question of dealing with sex, sexual knowledge and experiences there was a very familiar (and funny) sense that our parents who, at least in their case and the case of their growing up friends, went through the same hoops-with about the same sense of forlorn misunderstanding. (Of course in talking about parents and their sexual desire both Seth and Brad admitted they would have had a hard time linking up their own respective parents with sexual desire but their own kids if asked would probably say the same thing about them.)                  

Brad mentioned that his memory wasn’t so good of late and that although while they were talking he had been trying to dredge up some more facts about the movie other than the one he had mentioned earlier in the conversation about that sexy older woman cradle robber making Seth laugh that whatever the taboos were about intergenerational sex they both would have given their eye-teeth if some world-wise fox had come across their paths. Seth then went on to give Brad a rough outline of how the film had played out.

He told Brad that his habit of late was after viewing a film, particularly a film that he was being paid good dollars to produce a review on, was to go on-line and look up what somebody had to say about the film on Wikipedia.  Wistfully stated that service was something he wished had been around earlier in his career which would have saved him a lot of time in the library or looking at the archives of various publications of the time and allow him under the constant press of deadlines to be able to write better thought out copy. The story line of the film had been based on the essentially true-to-life experiences of a Hollywood screen-writer Hermie Raucher (played by Gary Grimes), coming of age 15, and his two companions, gregarious Oscy and studious Benji, known as “the Three Terrors,” three virginal teenage boys, who were slumming in the year 1942 at the beautiful but desolate end of an island retreat in the first summer of the American direct involvement in the Pacific and European wars after the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor. (The island had been Nantucket Island in the book published after the movie but had been filmed off desolate Mendocino in California). They like a million other virginal boys of that age during war or peacetime were driven each in their own way by the notion of sexual experimentation and conquest and so the chase was on.     

That chase had been on at two levels. The rather pedestrian one of seeking out young girls of their own age to see what shook out of the sexual tree and Hermie’s almost mystical search for “meaningful” love in the person of an older foxy woman, Dorothy, played by Jennifer O’Neil, who had been a young war bride staying on the island after her husband headed off to war. The “own age” part, funny in parts, driven mostly by pal Oscy’s overweening desire to “get laid” with a blonde temptress whom he finally got his wish with one night at the secluded end of the beach with his most experienced partner. On that occasion Hermie was shut out of any desire he had to do the same with her friend who was as bewildered by sex as he was. 

The “older woman” (in our circles she would have been a “cradle-robbing” older woman although she was only 22) notion of love is what drove him the moment he has set eyes on her when the trio was spying on her and her husband in their cozy cottage so he was “saving” himself for her. And after a series of innocent (and some goofy) encounters with Dorothy one night, after she has just found out that her husband had been killed in the war, she bedded him (there is no other honest way to put the matter). That was that though, for when Hermie subsequently went back to the cottage she had left the island and left him a more solemn young man.              

Having given Brad those details Seth mentioned that those were the main lines that got played out but what had made this film more than of ordinary interest to him was the whole lead-up, the whole “foreplay” if you will of the desire of the trio to be doing something about getting out of that dreaded virgin status. Said all the guys were fearful of being tagged with the “homo” tag and didn’t Brad remember how vicious teenage guys could be about the “manhood” question. Before he could go further Brad mentioned how when they were fourteen or fifteen he could not remember when how all the guys from around the corner that they hung on, including Seth used to “fag” bait him because he had refused to kiss Sarah Langley at a “petting” party and had actually run out of the house where the party was being held he had been so embarrassed. At the time he had been sweet on Jenny Price who had been at the party although nobody was aware of that situation. Nothing ever came of that desire and so he had spent some time living down the “fag” tag until he found Sandy Lee in junior year and she took him out of that status since she was something of a fox herself. Although nobody thought anything of calling another guy a “fag” as masculine craziness about sex and sexual identity erupted nobody seriously thought that the guys were gay or anything like that it was just a separation expression. Who knows who at the time really wasn’t interested in girls, wasn’t into “getting in their pants” although Seth speculated that some guys around the block must have since not a few guys lived at home with their mothers and were not seen with women companions.

Nowadays nobody would think twice about it although the usual baiting in school and among the jocks would still go on given the unchanged nature of certain heterosexual young males. Seth mentioned that he could not believe the pressure to “lose your virginity” that all the guys suffered through, although he admitted that it also took him a long time, long after the Christopher Street riots in the Village that began the serious modern gay rights movement to stop his calling gays “fags.” Not until his eyes were opened up when gay musicians and actors whom he interviewed and assumed were straight came out of the “closet.”  

Seth had laughed at the very realistic scenes when Hermie and Oscy picked up a couple of girls at the movie theater (playing Bette Davis and Paul Henried in Dark Voyage, a film that he actually had reviewed when it came out in a film retrospective at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square for the old Avatar alternative newspaper). The scene which showed the guys “feeling up,” or trying to, had been amazing with Oscy grabbing his just met girl almost from minute one and Hermie, missing the mark thinking his girl’s shoulder was her breast. Jesus. Brad laughed but reminded Seth that no way would that kind of thing have happened in their days since everybody, or almost everybody knew the drill at the Strand Theater Saturday matinee double-header or Saturday night date it did not matter. Some ancient tradition, hell, maybe going back to 1942 for all anybody knew about the original of the practice made it clear that those who sat in the orchestra were not going to “make out.” If they were in the balcony then whatever went on, went on from “feeling up” to blow jobs. It was solely a question of asking your date where she wanted to sit. That sealed the deal, and in many cases meant a last date.

Brad’s reminder of the old “policy” reminded Seth of the time that he was cray for Rosalind Green in junior high, they had gotten along well, had been a couple of chatterboxes in English class about books by a bunch of foreign guys to show they were “hip.” One day after a few weeks after all this “foreplay” Seth had finally asked her to a Saturday matinee (the usual strategy for dealing with a girl you were not sure would accept your date by making in the daytime to soften the blow) and she accepted. When after paying for their tickets and hitting the refreshment stand for popcorn and sodas he asked her where she wanted to sit she had answered “silly, of course the balcony why else would I have come with you.” Bingo. Of such events decent youthful memories are made. Brad on the other hand spent many hours in the orchestra section once he latched onto Betsy Binstock (whom he eventually married and was still married to) who was “saving” whatever she was saving for marriage. Okay, too-now if it did have Brad pulling his hair out then.       

Seth quickly mentioned the scene, the awkward scene, where Hermie was helping Dorothy with storing some packages and he got sexually excited, okay, okay, had an erection, by her off-hand helping hand touch since neither man wanted to talk about those nighttime wandering hands that came down when they got an erection.  Nor did he spent much time on the scene where the three friends “discover” what sexual intercourse is all about through the good graces of Benji’s mother’s medical books since that scene rang false in their old neighborhood where sexual information was passed from older brother or sister to younger, a lot of it wrong, very wrong when the girl had to go out of town to see “Aunt Emily” (a street expression that she was pregnant and had to leave town during her term usually not coming back) in other works right out on the streets. Nobody back in 1942, or 1962 expected uptight parents who were assumed to probably not have had sex to give any serious information except some twaddle about the birds and the bees.  And of course the fumbling by the numbers (off-screen) when Oscy has his first sexual experience with the girl he had picked up at the movies. That scene had little over the top and as reticent about talking about sex as parents were guys and gals might give an inkling about what they were doing behind the bushes but a “free show” was off the charts.

The best scene of all though and it really showed the difference between then and now when the younger generations can grab condoms off the shelf at any drugstore or in some places right in schoolhouse restrooms (formerly “lav’s”) and who might not quite appreciate enough the scene where Hermie tried to buy “rubbers” at the local village drugstore from the jaded disbelieving druggist. Brad automatically remembered that scene once Seth recalled it. Remembered too, as he told a disbelieving Seth that night, his own confusion when he was in junior high and had found some condoms in a bottom bathroom drawer in his family house when he was looking for some band-aids. Had asked a kid at school, actually had shown a kid at school one and the kid had said they were like balloons you fill them with water and throw them at somebody. It was not until high school and he had begun his own sexual explorations (obviously not with his ever-loving Betsy) that he found out their real purpose and blushed silently about his parents’ sexual practices. Hence another example of the very general understanding about the young that their own parents never had sex. Whatever else being a youth today may be about in terms of trauma at least there is a hell of a lot of good information hanging out there on the Internet for the young to inquire into without embarrassment. 

Yeah, Seth gave Brad the word as they finished up that last round of drinks and began to head to their respective homes -watch this film and remember your own, either sex, torturous rumbling around coming to terms with sex.     

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