Summer Lovin’

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I already had this post in mind, and so when, in our previous dispatch on Tab Hunter, Italian comment-leaver and expert in midcentury Americana, Carmelo, invoked the name Troy Donahue, it was clearly time to do this one next.

Troy Donahue was a ’50s B-movie heart-throb satirized in the movie “Grease” along with Sandra Dee, his costar in the 1959 film “A Summer Place,” a movie whose instrumental theme song has enjoyed a greater legacy than the film itself. I discovered the tune — which was recorded by easy-listening maestro Percy Faith — when I first began listening to AM radio at the age of 18. Sometime in my twenties I must have seen the film, and I think I watched it again shortly after founding Ivy Style. So what it was doing at the top of my Netflix queue I have no idea, but recently the disc arrived in the mail, and with not entirely excruciating effort I sat through it a third time. The story takes place in a small New England town, and Donahue wears some Ivy gear — such as the striped sportcoat pictured above — along with his generic ’50s kit.

With this viewing, what I found most interesting was the sexual morality. Released in ’59, the movie came at a transition period in American history. Sexual mores were like an unraveling girdle on the verge of bursting forth into the Sexual Revolution. The tension between restraint and liberty is resolved in a kind of compromise. Donahue and Dee play young lovers who succumb to their natural instincts, and Dee’s character becomes pregnant. But because they love each other, they marry and give the movie its happily-ever-after ending. The message is that premarital sex is becoming unavoidable, but as long as the youngsters wed everything will turn out all right. It’s not ideal, but then what in life is? This important message of imperfection is driven home in the movie’s secondary plot, in which it’s revealed that the parents had also given in to premarital sex when they were young, and so are forced to face their hypocrisy.

The ending also forms an interesting contrast to “Grease,” the 1978 movie that satirizes Dee and Donahue. The B plot in “Grease” involves the character Rizzo believing she’s pregnant, but at the end finding out she’s not. Oddly enough, her love interest Kenickie offers “to make an honest woman of her” anyway.

Here are a few more shots of Donahue, who had a rough time when the teen heart-throb era ended. He declared bankruptcy in 1968 and later spent a summer homeless in New York’s Central Park. — CC

19 Comments on "Summer Lovin’"

  1. Donahue also had a small part in Godfather II as Michael Corleone’s sister’s love interest. Looked a bit rough by then.

  2. Saw the movie, age about 10 (1960), with my Dad at the drive-in: we had fled a houseful of Garden Club ladies. Living in flat, sandy Bright Leaf tobacco country, I was mainly fixated on the beautiful NE coast and the strange phenomenon of Connecticut Shade Grown tobacco, not the clothes or the mores. The plot, to me, was a convoluted mess.

    As discussed in the Tab Hunter post, this was toward the end of the Studio System era, and the stock “types” like Hunter, Donahue, and Dee cast in formulaic movies were on the way out. While few defend the way management treated the creative and the talent, these folks did get their golden moments on the silver screen, and a kind of immortality-lite.

  3. Original novel by Sloan Wilson, of Man In The Gray Flannel Suit fame.

    Worth noting that the novel and movie take place not simply in “New England,” but in Maine. However, the film was shot in and around Monterey, CA.

  4. Charlottesville | July 11, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Reply

    Also, along with Doug McClure, he was an inspiration for the character Troy McClure on The Simpsons. Sorry to read that he had a bad time. I never saw A Summer Place, but I remember him on reruns of a show called Surfside 6, and think he still appeared from time to time as a guest star on TV shows into the 1970s at least. I have a BB 3/2 sack sport coat that looks identical to the one in the 2nd and 3rd pix from the bottom, but mine dates back only to the late 80s so it is unlikely an exact match. Still one of my favorites.

  5. I’ve never seen Grease. Mentioning that fact gets me far more blowback from people than expressing any opinion on politics or religion can.

  6. I always laughed when Elly May Clampett was getting courted by the actors in Jeds studio, Dash Riprock, Biff Steele, Crunch Hardtack, Troy Apollo, and others.

    Even Jethro had a stage name, Beef Jerky.

  7. @ Eric

    Never saw Grease, either.

  8. An earlier parody of the Hollywood male heart- throb was
    the play and later the film, “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”
    by the “Seven Year Itch “author George Axelrod. I saw it on
    Broadway at the time. Rock Hudson,. who inspired the
    parody was arguably a better and more serious actor than
    either Tab Hunter or Troy Donhue.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Success_Spoil_Rock_Hunter%3F_(play)

  9. I believe that his first wife was Suzanne Pleashette & that they were married for about 5 minutes.

  10. Vern Trotter | July 11, 2018 at 10:14 pm | Reply

    Troy Donahue was a man who had it all going for him and lost it. Born in NYC as Merle Johnson Jr.,He attended Columbia after military school. He was once married to the stunner, Suzane Pleshette and was a lifelong Brooks Brothers customer. He was blackballed by Jack Warner at Warner Brothers in the late 60s and lived as a homeless drug addict/alcoholic in Central Park in the early 70s. Claimed his life was saved by Alcoholics Anoymous until he died of a heart attack in 2001 at age 65. One of the really handsome young men of his time. A classic example of “Don’t let this happen to you!”

  11. I don’t see how “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (either the play or the film, which are very different) is a parody of the 50s male heartthrob teen-idol type. Both do involve a parody of the 50s female sex symbol type – both on Broadway and in the film, Jayne Mansfield portrayed an exaggerated version of Marilyn Monroe. But there is no male character analogous to a Tab Hunter/Troy Donahue type anywhere to be seen.

    I’ve mentioned the “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” film (not the play) in the comments on this site before. The film is a parody of TV advertising, and there are several jokes at the expense of Brooks Brothers. The point of the gags is generally that Brooks Brothers lucked into their great success in the late 50s due to the rest of the clothing industry advertising the “Ive League” look, which, from Brooks Bros. perspective, basically amounted to all their competitors doing their advertising for them.

    Ironically, the film’s credits mention that Brooks Brothers provided the men’s wardrobes, so the whole film can be thought of as an extended Brooks Bros. commercial.

  12. Old School Tie | July 12, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    I would have thought that it was even more imperative in those days to have attended an Ivy League school in order to earn the cachet associated with that style. I imagine this chap did not, therefore his look was likely to have been manufactured by studio executives in about as cynical a move as your average manufactured star is today. Fake. Original fake, classic fake, but fake nonetheless.

  13. @ Old School Tie – Troy Donahue was born in New York City and attended Columbia.

  14. A classic example of someone who went with the times. His fame was within the Ivy League years, hence why so many pictures of him in tweeds and button downs. By the late 60s he was a hippie.

  15. “I don’t see how “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (either the play or the film, which are very different) is a parody of the 50s male heartthrob teen-idol type.

    The fact that its’ initial title was , “Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson”
    should be a clue, albeit a very subtle one.

  16. Carmelo Pugliatti | July 12, 2018 at 2:59 pm | Reply

    i wrong or the Americans are very sensitive to the fads,trends and spirit of the time?
    I mean, in USA many peoples were dressed in tweeds and button downs in early-mid 60s,but the late 60s he were hippies.

    In Italy the peoples that were dressed in ties an suits in early 60s were dressed in ties and suits in early 70s..at the most with a little of sideburns.
    Maybe we are a bit individualists,but is not an imperative follow trends.

  17. Trevor Jones | July 12, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Reply

    @Eric, I’m with you. I think it’s a millennial thing ?‍♂️

  18. @Carmelo P.

    The US was the same as Italy for the most part: men who wore suits every day looked surprisingly alike from the 50s until….well, now really. Some change in gorges and lapels, there were a (very) few belled trouser legs, but mainly the same.

  19. Old School Tie | July 13, 2018 at 9:56 am | Reply

    I humbly stand corrected……but you know what I mean.

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