Summer Films To See

At home, that is.

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I am a film aficionado. And, if you ask me, there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned classic film. You could say, that I am a self-proclaimed expert on the films of yesteryear. And because I’m feeling generous today–and because summer is just about halfway over, yikes!–I am sharing with you my must-see summer film list. Trust me, if you haven’t seen all of these by now, then, be sure to add them to your Netflix queue today! You’ll be glad you did.

Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. It doesn't get any better than this.

The Sandra Dee Trifecta:

Nothing says summer, like a good ol’ Sandra Dee flick, and she made these three in the same year! That’s one busy chick, if you ask me. In her day, Sandra Dee was the pretty girl next door. Spunky, perky and all-American. A real powerhouse, with wardrobe that would make any fashionista pea green with envy. Here are my Sandra Dee faves:

Gidget (1959): If you’ve never seen James Darren as Moondoggie, then you must see this! There were three Gidget films made, and each time Gidget was played by a different actress. While I personally like all three films, the one must-see is the original, which starred Sandra Dee. Light and frothy with a typically happy ending. Look for Cliff Robertson as the Big Kahuna!

Imitation of Life (1959): This tear-jerker isn’t really a summer movie but it starts in summer, under the boardwalk of a New York beach. It was one of my mother’s favorite movies, so that alone should make you want to see it. And it was a progressive one at that—dealing with race, class and generations at odds with each other. In fact, if you like The Help (either the book or soon-to-be-released film), you’ll want to see this tale of a rich woman and her maid–and their children. Sandra Dee plays a teenager with a deep crush on her mother’s boyfriend. Keep tissues handy!

A Summer’s Place (1959): This is one of those movies that you have to see for the theme song alone. It is memorable for starring Sandra Dee with the truly handsome Troy Donahue. Together they were America’s sweethearts. Two beautiful people in love, though in this one, Sandra Dee’s mom is a frigid woman, who makes her family’s lives miserable.  It’s a generational film about lust, heartache and some misunderstood kids. Did I mention the terrific, Grammy-winning theme song? The song alone will wrench at your heart.

Teens in Love:

American Graffiti (1973): This film was innovative, breaking new ground in cinema and doing the unthinkable: Using actual songs that were popular on the radio, to evoke the times, instead of creating an original score for the film. This was George Lucas’ first blockbuster hit. Great cast. See it for Harrison Ford, who had a small role and who was then an unknown. Ron Howard plays a character that is reminiscent of his role in Happy Days.

Dirty Dancing (1987): For anyone who has spent a summer in the Catskills, this is the movie to see and see again. The music, the ambience and Patrick Swayze’s dance moves. You know the rest.

Grease (1978): Who can forget the scene where Sandy becomes a bad girl, all decked in leather, and stomps out Danny’s cigarette with her shoe? This film doesn’t star Sandra Dee but Stockard Channing does sing about her. John Travolta still sets a lot of hearts on fire with this one.

Where the Boys Are (1960): More teen angst from the 60’s. This has nothing to do with summer. It’s about teens gathering in Ft. Lauderdale for spring break and passion running amok, but I love its summer feel. Connie Francis makes her debut in this flick with a torch-sounding song by the same name as the film. Where the boys are, indeed.

The Musicals:

State Fair (1945 and 1962): There are two versions of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I’m a fan of both–and they’re very different. The original stars Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews (FYI, Dana’s a man). The 1962 version doesn’t stay true to the classic story, even moves it from Iowa to Texas and adds some new songs. But I love it because it stars one of my favorite actresses of the day, Ann-Margret. She has gorgeous red hair, and shines when she’s singing and dancing. Watch her as she playfully belts out, “Isn’t it Kind of Fun?”

Summer in the City:

Rear Window(1954): Grace Kelly only made a handful of movies before marrying her prince, and leaving Hollywood forever. This is one of her finest. Alfred Hitchcock’s summer in New York story also stars Jimmy Stewart in a leg cast up to his hip. He cannot move, so he spends his time spying on his neighbors. You can feel the heat of summer, as much as you can feel Miss Lonelyheart’s pain. You don’t know Miss Lonelyhearts? Then see the movie. And see Thelma Ritter at her New York, acerbic best.

Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch (1955) Billy Wilder’s film starring Marilyn Monroe, set in the summer heat of New York. Not one of my greatest flicks of all time, if you ask me, but one you should see to understand the full breadth of the era. Famous for Marilyn storing her undies in the ice box and standing over a grate as a subway train passes.

Summer Action:

Jaws (1975): What’s a summer without a thrilling movie? I read the book but this was one case where the movie was hands-down better. I can still hear the first bars of the Jaws theme song, and it still gives me chills.

Homespun Summer:

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) Not the one starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunter. I’m talking the original with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. A fun, old-fashioned family movie, where dad is the patriarch and kids are respectful of their elders. And the teen daughters must wear bathing suits that cover their entire bodies. Based on a true story, and absolutely charming.

So, how about you? Any summer films you’d like to recommend?

Me and Mrs. Levine

When I was 15, I had nowhere to live.  My mother and sister were in Caracas, my father and oldest brother, Cesar, in New York City, and my brother, Rafael, attending college in the Boston area. My family was in a state of flux, torn between two countries—pulled by my parents’ dream of returning to live in Venezuela, versus the reality that we children were firmly entrenched in our American lives. So, my mother had taken my sister and me to Caracas, with the assumption that the others would soon join us.  After a few months, though, I became homesick and returned to New York. Only our house had been sold, and I no longer had a place to live, one that was near my high school.

Me at 15, in my "Mod" look.

Which is how I came to move into Mrs. Levine’s modest and orderly, split-level house, located on a less appealing side of town, near the Howard Johnson’s hotel. (The one where singer and actress Connie Francis had once been sexually assaulted at knifepoint. But that came later.)

Mrs. Levine was an elegant, middle-aged widow with two grown children. Both lived elsewhere, which left Mrs. Levine with an empty nest and a dachshund named Bruno. She had recently gone back to work to support herself. She had also decided to take in a boarder.

So I moved in, paying $50 a month for a furnished room, complete with a small black and white TV set.  Mrs. Levine and I had an arrangement. Which meant I was supposed to stay out of her hair. I had kitchen privileges as well as use of the washer/dryer, but most of the time I stayed in my room, especially if Mrs. Levine was around.

I took a bus to get to school, as it was now too far to ride my bike. I also would walk several blocks to do my own grocery shopping. Since I lived so far from my friends, and all my family was elsewhere, weekends tended to be lonely.  With no one to talk to, the house was pretty quiet.  To pass the time, I took long walks, and sometimes I took Bruno along. Mrs. Levine worked all day and came home late, so her dog rarely got out, unless I took him. But she didn’t know about this, on account I was afraid she’d get mad since it wasn’t part of our arrangement.

One Friday, while Mrs. Levine was still at work, her son, Richie, returned from college for a weekend visit.  Richie was lanky, smart and charming, with a broad smile beaming from ear to ear.  He arrived with a boisterous bang, filling his mother’s home with laughter, and scattering the contents of his duffel bag—textbooks and dirty laundry—all over the living room. In high school, Richie had been friends with my brother, Rafael, and he remembered me as Rafael’s kid sister. So he invited me to hang out with him in the kitchen while he prepared chocolate-chip pancakes for an afternoon snack.  He joked and teased me, which absolutely thrilled me and, for the first time since I’d moved in, I felt at home. I found myself becoming smitten with this college boy, who made me forget where I was and how I was supposed to stay out of his mother’s way.  I didn’t even notice when Mrs. Levine arrived.

She was thrilled to see Richie and surprised, no doubt, to see me in the kitchen with her son. And I was surprised when she invited me to join them for dinner.  Readily, I accepted, and all night long the three of us chatted happily.  I’d never seen Mrs. Levine so upbeat and relaxed.

From that day on, our arrangement changed. I confessed to Mrs. Levine that I was walking her dog. She seemed grateful.  Then, we started walking Bruno together. On Sundays, she would make dinner for the two of us, and let me watch TV on the color console in the den, instead of in my room.  One day, Mrs. Levine invited me to attend a party with her in the Hamptons.  After that, we had other outings together, to the museum and a few concerts and once, we even went to the racetrack.

Richie came back for a visit on two more occasions, which was amazing fun. My crush on him persisted. But even when he wasn’t there, it was ok. More than ok.  For Mrs. Levine and I had become good friends.

I stayed with Mrs. Levine for the rest of the school year and when I moved out, I promised to stay in touch, but never did. My parents decided to stay in the U.S. and bought a new home on the same street we had lived on, just a block from our old one. There we stayed for many years.

Gradually, the time I spent with Mrs. Levine became little more than a brief chapter in my life, neatly tucked away into the crevasses of my memory. Yet, I still think of her and the friendship we shared.  And when I do, my mind can’t help but drift to Richie, the cute college boy who brought us together and stole my heart.