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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