SUMMER OF ‘42– Michel Legrand
Original Review by Craig Lysy
Screenwriter Herman Raucher wrote his autobiographical script in 10 days as a tribute to his fallen comrade Oscy who lost his life in the Korean War. He was initially unable to sell the script to any studio, so it languished for many years until producer Robert Roth found a dusty copy lying in an agent’s office. He fell in love with it and resolved to bring this story to the big screen. He hired director Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided to cast the parts of the boys with unknowns. Also, following in the steps of Love Story (1970) Raucher expanded the story into a book that was published as a prelude to the film. Well it became an instant hit and the film’s promotion had “Based on the national best seller” added to its advertisement. For the cast, Jennifer O’Neil was cast as Dorothy with the three boys Gary Grimes (Hermie), Jerry Houser (Oscy) and Oliver Conant (Benjie).
The story is a classic coming of age tale; indeed the advertisement stated, “In everyone’s life there’s a summer of ’42.” Our story opens in 1942 with a trio of 15-year-old boys Hermie, Oscy (the Jock) and Benjie (the nerd) spending their summer vacation on the island of Nantucket. Well like most boys this age they are obsessed with having sex with the girls, except for Hermie who becomes romantically attracted to a new bride. When he sees her husband deploy he strikes up a friendship that begins innocently enough helping her with chores. It comes to pass that one evening he visits Dorothy and upon entering finds a bottle of whiskey and a letter from the air force stating that her husband was dead, shot down over France. When he tells her I am sorry, she responds to his empathy and invites him to dance with her. They eventually hug kiss and then are drawn into the bedroom, where she solicits him to her bed. They make love, yet shortly thereafter Dorothy retires to the porch and gazes at the vast starlight firmament. When he joins her she says quietly, good night Hermie before he could speak. The next day he returns to find a note tacked to the front door. It reads that she has to return home, that she will always remember him, and that he may be spared the senseless tragedies of life. Years later Hermie returns to the island and gazes on the cottage and sadly recounts that he never saw Dorothy again. The film was a blockbuster and a critical success as well, earning four Academy Award nominations including Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Film Score, winning the latter.
Michel Legrand understood that this was a passion project for Herman Raucher and that he needed to find that special and elusive melody to capture that first love moment. He also wanted the music focused and attuned to the couple, therefore the music opens and closes the film, and then is spotted only in scenes with Hermie and Dorothy. Well, Legrand in a masterstroke found the illusive melody that perfectly captured the film’s emotional core. It is at once nostalgic, wistful, longing and bittersweet, a melody that in my judgment is one of the finest love themes ever written, a melody that gains Legrand, immortality. The score as such is monothematic and the theme based upon repeating four-note phrases in both major and minor keys, graced with a soaring bridge. Beauty in simplicity!
“Summer of ’42 – Part 1” is a wondrous score highlight, which graces us with a full rendering of Legrand’s titular theme. It begins the film while the opening credits roll as a montage of still shot photos. A mood of nostalgia is created and Legrand introduces us to his wistful and timeless melody, which he offers with repeating phrases born by different instruments pairings as the credits unfold; piano with flute counter, harmonica with piano counter, oboe with piano counter, full strings and harp glissandi, strings with flute counter, French horns . . . the manner that Legrand transfers the lyrical flow of his melody through his orchestra is masterful. At 2:42 narration begins as Hermie recounts his summer of ’42 and the eloquence of his words and Legrand’s melody achieve a sublime communion: “Nothing from the first day I saw her, and nothing that has happened to me since, has ever been as frightening and as confusing, for no person I’ve ever known has ever done more to make me feel more sure, more insecure, more important and less significant.” What a poignant and powerful way to open a film.
“Summer of ’42 – Part 2” the theme is tentative, questioning as a piano plays against first a string sustain and then a woodwind sustain. It supports the dock scene where Hermie sees Dorothy see her husband off to deployment. We see he is clearly taken by her. In “Summer of ’42 – Parts 3 & 4” Hermie has been helping Dorothy with chores at her cottage and he quivers and his heart stirs when she kisses him on the forehead. The music opens with piano delicato carrying the love theme, which blossoms on strings and woodwinds with xylophone twinkling. The melody meanders like a stream, ending in a soft flourish. In “Summer of ’42 – Parts 5 & 6” Hermie is walking along the beach and sees Dorothy sitting in front of her cottage writing a letter. He goes to her and we see him trying to connect with her. The music twinkles on piano with counter phrasing by piano, followed by a wondrous transfer to flute and oboe phrasing that softly fade. At 1:19 he departs and the melody sparkles and is more animated as he is happy.
“Theme from Summer of ’42” reveals Hermie discovering a grieving Dorothy. When he tells her I am sorry, she responds to his empathy and invites him to dance with her. Legrand supports the tender scene with his theme embellished, more expressive and dance like in its sensibility. He also provides a percussive beat and an array of new instruments such as the saxophone carrying the melody. When taken up by full strings and twinkling piano it sparkles, and we wish it would never end. The music ends, they eventually hug kiss and then are drawn into the bedroom, where she solicits him to her bed. They make love, yet shortly thereafter Dorothy retires to the porch and gazes at the vast starlight firmament.
In “The Summer Knows (End Title) Theme From Summer of ’42” it is the following day and Hermie returns to find a note tacked to her cottage’s front door. As he reads the love theme returns and supports her words that she has to return home, that she will always remember him, and that he may be spared the senseless tragedies of life. The melody abounds with nostalgia, of speaks of that magic moment in time so precious, yet fleeting. . . “Summer of ’42” closes the score and offers the love theme on piano, a last and tender reprise for which we are thankful.
I have embedded a YouTube link for the theme rendered as a song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5KLOu9V7Y4
Buy the Summer of ’42 soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Summer of ’42 – Part 1 (5:17)
- Summer of ’42 – Part 2 (0:52)
- Summer of ’42 – Parts 3 & 4 (1:39)
- Summer of ’42 – Parts 5 & 6 (2:10)
- Theme From Summer of ’42 (3:57)
- The Summer Knows (End Title) Theme From Summer of ’42 (1:49)
- Summer of ’42 (0:56)
Running Time: 16 minutes 55 seconds
Intrada Special Collection Vol. 286 (1971/2014)
Music composed and conducted by Michel Legrand. Score produced by Michel Legrand . Album produced by Douglass Fake.