Friday, April 08, 2011

Coming of Age

"In everyone's life," the tag line went, "there's a 'summer of '42.' "

It was a "coming of age" story, audiences were told — and (to the adolescent mind, anyway) that was code language for sex. The movie premiered on April 9, 1971.

That code, by the way, didn't always hold up — neither, for that matter, did the prevailing belief that, if a move was rated R, that had to mean that some bare part of the female anatomy was exposed for at least a few seconds. (More often than not, that probably was true, but an R rating could also mean excessive violence or objectionable language — and I knew very few adolescent boys of my generation would prefer to see violence or hear bad words instead of seeing naked women if they could somehow be allowed into an R–rated movie.)

Whether that nudity was seen as the result of an obvious fantasy or a believable story really made no difference to the adolescent mind. As it turned out, though, the nudity in "Summer of '42" wasn't blatant — mostly suggested and implied.

In fact, "Summer of '42" was based on screenwriter Herman Raucher's memoir of a summer vacation on Nantucket Island when he was 14 — and most of his memories were decidedly PG. He became friends with a young woman (played by Jennifer O'Neill in the movie) whose husband was serving in the military during World War II. They slept together after she received word that he had been killed.

Supposedly, it was a true story. I've heard that, after the movie came out, the woman about whom Raucher had written contacted him and told him that she hoped he hadn't been traumatized by their one–night stand nearly 30 years earlier.

Years after that, Raucher lamented that he hadn't heard from her again and didn't know what had become of her.

I was much too young to be permitted into an R–rated movie in 1971, but I saw it years later and had mixed feelings about it when I did.

"Summer of '42," which was directed by Robert Mulligan, was a surprise hit 40 years ago. At times, it was a little heavy on the nostalgia for my taste — particularly since it wasn't my nostalgia (any more than the nostalgia in "American Graffiti," which was set 20 years later, was my nostalgia) — but the emotions of the story were timeless, really, which kept it plausible. I suppose it could have been about any young widow on any side in any conflict.

I mean, it could have been about a young widow (British or American) in the Revolutionary War, I guess. Or a young widow (North or South) in the Civil War.

But it was about a young American widow in World War II, the war that was fought when Raucher was a teenager. Since Raucher is an American, it would follow naturally that the widow was an American as well, although the story could have been about a young boy and a young widow in any of the countries that participated in that war — and they wouldn't necessarily have to be from the same country.

The knowledge that they were from the same country made the story easier to accept, I guess. I mean, if it had been a German widow and a young Jewish boy in a concentration camp or something, it would have introduced all sorts of other issues.

I have often wondered, in fact, if the story might have been more effective in the hands of a German writer set against the backdrop of Nazism, perhaps even at the end of the war, when German soldiers and civilians alike were dying in massive bombing raids.

It was pretty effective as it was, though. And one of the great ironies of the story is a line delivered by Raucher's friend, Oscar — the original inspiration for the story (and who was killed during the Korean conflict) — who observes that "sometimes life is just one big pain in the ass."

Yes, it is — but in everyone's life, I guess, there must be a pain in the ass.

At least one.