Mondays with Hayley Mills: Summer Magic (1963)
Summer might be over but there’s still magic to be found in cinema. Summer Magic was originally planned as a vehicle for Disney darling Annette Funicello, but the success of starlet Hayley Mills made her too irresistible to pass up for this Meet Me in St. Louis throwback. A heartwarming tale of a small-town family making good, this is a great example of what Disney was crafting in the 1960s.
Margaret Carey (Dorothy McGuire) is a widow forced to move her children from Boston into the country. Margaret’s resourceful daughter, Nancy (Mills) ends up getting the family a deal on a large country fixer-upper, thanks to the home’s kindly caretaker (Burl Ives).
Summer Magic is the inverse of Meet Me in St. Louis, understandable considering the screenwriter is Sally Benson, the author of the stories that became that Judy Garland classic. Benson sticks to what she knows; where Judy Garland’s family was threatened with moving from St. Louis to the harsh world of New York, the Careys are content to move from Boston to the country. Both movies play out as vignettes, episodic moments from a quaint life, more pronounced here because we only ever see the Careys in the country. This does make the film feel a tad aimless. The Careys are embraced with open arms and quickly acclimate to their new surroundings.
Mills is at her most enthusiastic as Nancy Carey, a girl whose big ideas are as boundless as her imagination. Her English accent never entirely goes away, but her romantic yearnings and enjoyment are entertaining. Her relationship with Burl Ives’ Osh Popham is darling, especially in light of the Careys losing a father and husband, necessitating their move in the first place. Ives takes pity on the family, covering their expenses and letting them live in the house rent-free under the landlord’s nose. Popham is lonely and the beautiful rendition of the title song lets the adopted family, with Popham are replacement patriarch, come together.
This emphasis on adoption and familial creation drives the third act when a plot starts to take form. The Careys are tasked with caring for their cousin Julia (Gidget Goes Hawaiian’s Deborah Walley), a sentiment Nancy isn’t keen on, stating that in some cases adoption is an “unfortunate investment.” Cue the unfortunate investment herself, Cousin Julia. I wasn’t keen on Walley’s Gidget but she fares better as the snooty city cousin who requires baths and is a prim contrast to Nancy’s athleticism and intelligence. Their eventual reconciliation and undying love for each other plays false, conjured out of thin air, because there’s little impetus for it other than the presumed threat of Julia going home to her parents. After that, Nancy becomes a completely new character, competing with Julie over guys and singing a rousing song called “Femininity.”
Disney in-house songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman are legendary….but Summer Magic isn’t their best work. The title song is lovely, and the opening track, a jaunty jig called “Flitterin'” sets the appropriate tone. The latter tracks, “Ugly Bug Ball” and the aforementioned “Femininity,” end the film on a jarring tone. Walt Disney wasn’t a fan of the former song until Robert Sherman explained the point of it. No offense to Robert, but I’m siding with Disney. The whole experience, song, set-up and ensuing scenes, play as if htey belong in a zany 1960s comedy, complete with a sitar; the video footage of bugs spliced in shows insects I’m fairly certain aren’t indigenous to Maine. One can’t complain against “Ugly Bug Ball” when played against the insufferable “Femininity.” I’ve never heard such an overtly sexist song in a Disney movie, at least not one which wears its heart on its sleeve. You can say the time period plays into it, but there’s no other song that even sounds like it, another lyrical interlude out of its time period. With lyrics like “hide who you are” and “compliment his masculinity,” it’d be easy to say this is the misguided advice of children, but it gets the girls what they want.
Summer Magic is a warm throwback to simplicity and country living, themes repeated often during this decade. Hayley Mills’ average All-American sweetness enchants and Burl Ives is a cuddly father figure. The songs aren’t anything special, but if you enjoy Meet Me in St. Louis, you’ll enjoy this quasi-continuation/sequel.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
I haven’t watched Summer Magic in ages (loved it as a kid), but the song Femininity came up on the Disney Spotify a while back, and I was like “whoa, I don’t remember this being so…terrible.” Since I didn’t remember the movie very well, I was kind of hoping that it ended up subverting that message, but sounds like not so much. Too bad.
I do love the Ugly Bug Ball, though, whether it’s cohesive with the rest of the film or not.