Director Robert Mulligan: Two Summer Gems
By Alan Webber, BMFI Patron and Film Fan
Robert Mulligan (1925-2008), like his contemporary Sidney Lumet, was part of a new wave of filmmakers who learned their craft in the “golden age” of television. He is a neglected American film director who is due for a major reassessment if his consistent quality is recognized. He fully mastered what can be called a “classical” style, which was essentially unassuming and minimalist in technique.
|Robert Mulligan directed six films in the 1960s alone, including To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Up the Down Staircase (1967). He was well known for directing dramatic films that were tender, nostalgic, and filmed with very fluid camera motions.|
Mulligan’s most notable talent was, like Truffaut’s, a special sensitivity in the handling of young people. It was this enduring interest in youngsters on the cusp of self-discovery in an adult world that that occupied him from his first film to last and is most evident in two of his finest: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Summer of ’42 (1971). The films are set in summers ten years apart and make great vacation viewing.
To Kill a Mockingbird
Maycomb, Alabama, 1932
Mulligan’s greatest achievement “remains one of the most well-respected and emotionally engaging films in the American cinema,” as Charles Derry puts it. This alone should be enough to demand a reevaluation. It is a movie which continues to please audiences everywhere, whether they remember it from their past or whether they see it today for the first time. It is, like Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from which it was adapted, moving, passionate, and told with great humor and tenderness.
The film recounts the childhood experiences of six-year-old “Scout” Finch (played by Mary Badham) during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. When her widowed father Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a principled and respected attorney, defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) witness the horrors of racism. They also learn valuable lessons about courage, compassion, tolerance, and prejudice.
|Phillip Alford and Mary Badham as Jem and Scout, respectively, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Director Robert Mulligan was adept at working with young actors, a trait that carried through to the end of his career.|
But bringing Ms. Lee’s celebrated novel of the Deep South in 1932 to the big screen was not an easy task. Studios didn’t want to produce it, for it was “only” a story about a middle-aged Southern lawyer with two kids. There was no romance or onscreen violence and it was certainly devoid of action. Who would want to see this?
But, as Marc Lee has noted, and Mulligan skillfully demonstrates, "…the story is in their characters, their failings and fragility, their heroism and nobility of spirit. It’s in the depiction of heart-breaking cruelty and heart-warming humanity. It’s in the innocence of a child’s world overshadowed by the evil that adults do.” It is also a daughter’s loving evocation of her dad as seen through her childhood eyes.
In the film, Mulligan demonstrates his greatest skill: a keen attention to the inner lives and self-discovery of young people. He coaxed nuanced performances from Mary Badham (Scout) and Phillip Alford (Jem) and guided Gregory Peck to an Oscar.
The film is not without critics though, most notably Roger Ebert, who has castigated To Kill a Mockingbird for its misplaced liberalism and heroics. For most, however, the film remains an enduring classic.
The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. The film was ranked number 34 on AFI's original list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, but moved up to number 25 on the 10th Anniversary list in June 2008. I believe Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is among the finest ever written and was the first soundtrack album I ever purchased. I still listen to it today. It placed 17th on the AFI’s list of greatest film scores.
Summer of ‘42
Nantucket Island, 1942
Summer of ’42 is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoirs of screenwriter Herman Raucher. In his early teens, he and a bunch of friends would summer on Nantucket Island. In 1942, Raucher engaged in a one-sided romance with a married woman, Dorothy, who had come to the island while her husband had gone off to war. With some modifications, this is the tale Raucher brings to the screen, along with all the coming-of-age hijinks that you would expect from teenage boys and girls centered on their sexual self-education and experimentation. Warner Bros. liked the script so much that they asked Raucher to novelize the story. The resulting book was published prior to the film’s release and it became a runaway bestseller.
|The film's screenplay was so well-received that it was made into a novel before the movie was released. For that reason, many people mistakenly think the story was based on a novel.|
Summer of ‘42 opens with an adult Raucher recalling in narration (Mulligan provides the voiceover) his time as 15-year-old “Hermie” (Gary Grimes) on the island with his best friends, the sex-obsessed Oscy (Jerry Houser) and timid Benji (Oliver Conant). The teens in this film are archetypical and I knew a half-dozen “Oscy”s in my own high school years with the same obsessions. Early on, the boys encounter Dorothy, played by a radiant 22-year-old Jennifer O’Neill.
She is the bride of a naval officer who is shortly sent off to war. Hermie casually develops a relationship with her, which soon becomes a one-sided romance on his part while he carries home her groceries, puts boxes in her attic, and shares awkward talks over her “exquisite” coffee.
Hermie goes to visit her one night and discovers that her husband has been killed in the war. In Dorothy’s sorrow and grief she takes 15-year-old Hermie to her bed. The sequence was filmed by famed cinematographer Robert Surtees with the simplicity and sensitivity that is a signature of all Mulligan’s films, especially those involving young people. Dorothy leaves the island the next day having written Hermie a note trying to explain their carnal experience and what he should remember. The mark she leaves on Hermie’s psyche is positive, profound, and lasting. Hermie never sees her again, but Herman Raucher carried her with him the rest of his life and gained joy and strength from that knowledge.
Robert Mulligan made some other fine films with adolescents at their core, including Up the Down Staircase (1966). The film features an Oscar-nominated performance from Sandy Dennis and remains one of the finest depiction of “teaching” ever on screen. His final film and one of his best, The Man in the Moon (1991), features the debut of a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon, and is a subtle, beautifully realized coming-of-age story of young love. Ebert considered it to be a “masterpiece of language and mood.” Again, Mulligan’s sensitivity to performance and period detail is evident. It is a deeply poetic and moving film.
The film was a postscript to a fine career, for by 1991 Mulligan’s time in the limelight had passed as Hollywood had, as Richard Corliss remarked, “jettisoned sentiment and subtlety for sharks and light sabers” and Mulligan had “outlived the mood he so delicately captured.”
Can Mulligan regain some of his luster? It’s possible, but as Charles Derry has noted, “His taste may be too fine and his feelings too sentimental to attract contemporary regard in a culture which thrives on the sexy, profane conflicts…” common in films today.
Other notable Mulligan films are: Fear Strikes Out (1958), Love with the Proper Stranger (1964), Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1965), Inside Daisy Clover (1966), The Other (1972), and Same Time, Next Year (1978).
Alan Webber is a BMFI patron and film fan.