Summer Magic (1963)

Hayley Mills, Dorothy McGuire, Burl Ives, Deborah Walley,
A Bostonian widow moves with her kids to the country.
  • 6.9 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Sally Benson, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Writer:
  • James Neilson, Director:
  • Producer:

All subtitles:



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7 / 10

A Kinder, Gentler America

The decade that brought us the First World War may seem an odd subject for nostalgia, but "Summer Magic", like "On Moonlight Bay" from a few years earlier, is a film which tries to persuade us that, whatever may have been happening on the battlefields of Europe, the 1910s (or the "Ragtime Era" as many Americans called them) really were the time of a kinder, gentler America. (It is, apparently, a remake of a 1938 film called "Mother Carey's Chickens", which I have never seen). Margaret Carey, a recently widowed mother from Boston, is forced to move out of the family home when she discovers that her late husband was the victim of a fraudulent investment scheme. She and her three children, Nancy, Gilly and Peter, relocate to the small town of Beulah, Maine, where they rent a large yellow house. (Gilly- pronounced with a hard "G"- is a boy, not a girl. The name is presumably short for Gilbert, but this is never actually made clear).

There are two main plot lines. The first revolves around the family's friendship with Ossian ("Osh") Popham, the agent for their rather mysterious landlord Mr Hamilton. The kindly Osh is more than just a letting agent; he is also the town's storekeeper and general odd-job- man. The second plot line deals with the visit of the Careys' spoilt, snobbish cousin Julia and the mutual dislike which grows up between her and Nancy, especially when they fall for the same man.

This was the fourth of six films which Hayley Mills made for Walt Disney Productions. Hayley was, of course, originally from England, but during this period of her career was most often cast (as here) as an American, even though she had trouble managing a convincing American accent. (Here she attempts to sound more American by shortening the long "a" vowels, but this only makes her sound closer to Boston, Lincolnshire than to Boston, Massachusetts). This did not, however, affect her popularity, and she became possibly the most popular teenage star of the sixties. In Britain she tended to be cast in more serious roles ("Tiger Bay", "Whistle Down the Wind", "The Chalk Garden"), but most of her American films were comedies, of which this is a good example. It is also a good example of just what made Hayley so popular in her day- her wonderful liveliness and vivaciousness, combined with a gift for conveying sweetness and innocence. By 1963, when she would have been seventeen, she performed a sort of dual role for Disney. To the older generation she was the daughter they wished they had. To boys, she was the girlfriend they wished they had, a sex symbol in the nicest possible way.

Dorothy McGuire, looking much younger than her 47 years, is good as Margaret, as is Deborah Walley as the insufferable Julia. The other performance which stands out, however, is from Burl Ives as the warm- hearted, if occasionally devious, Osh. Ives had originally made his name as a folk-singer, but later became a successful actor, both on Broadway and in the cinema. I had previously associated him with serious dramas such as "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Big Country", but here he shows that he could do light comedy as well.

The film is also a musical with several songs, although none of them rally stand out apart from "The Ugly Bug Ball", which was a favourite of mine as a child. (I had no idea at the time that it was from a film). The plot at times becomes a bit hard to follow, especially the various machinations involving Osh and Mr Hamilton, and the ending seems a bit too abrupt. Overall, however, the film's cheerful atmosphere and the contributions of Mills and Ives make this a watchable example of warm- hearted Disney family entertainment. 7/10

8 / 10

Good-natured family film

Many films are criticized for what they are not, rather than what they are. "Summer Magic" is not a critical, gritty look at the turn-of-the-century life in rural Maine. It is a good-natured, fun film that you don't have to worry about letting your children watch. Hayley Mills is a delight as the ever-optimistic Nancy Carey who misrepresents her family's situation in order to win the sympathy of Mr. Popham, a rural Maine postmaster, general store owner, sheriff, etc. who allows them to rent a house he doesn't own. The plot is complicated by the unanticipated visit of Nancy's snobby cousin, Julia, the dour nagging of Mr. Popham's doom-and-gloom wife, Mariah, and the ultimate arrival of the house's true owner at a most inconvenient moment. Burl Ives as the laconically good-natured Mr. Popham is a absolute treat to watch. And the climax of the film (which I won't reveal here)makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I've seen it. Those looking for a good family film should look no further.

8 / 10

Magical

Good or bad, happy or sad, come what may this will always be the most magical of the movies I saw in a theater as a child. Already charmed by its Disney-Norman Rockwell-Hallmark look at the Ragtime Age; this 12 year old boy was simply bowled over 30 minutes into the film by his first glimpse of Deborah Walley. Walley was already a teen queen from her "Gidget" film but had escaped my too-young-to-notice teen actresses consciousness until that day at the theater.

In her period costume this vision was the original "Pretty in Pink" and the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And might explain my lifelong preference for redheads.

At its core "Summer Magic" is a Disney fairy tale cloaked in a "too-good-to-be-true" production design. If the term expressionist nostalgia ever applied to a film it is this one. Disney simply took basic plot elements form the novel and film "Mother Carey's Chickens" (1938), threw in a bunch of "Cinderella" elements, and had Dorothy McGuire softly reprise her performance in "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn".

If you can't find something here with which to connect, whether it is wistful identification or distanced examination of the film language elements, then you are probably already pretty much used up. Liking this film now is just having the willingness to exercise a little self-knowing whimsy.

Cinderella-wise you have a fairy prince, a glass slipper, a wicked step-sister, a wardrobe transformation scene, cute animals, a coach, songs, and a ball.

The songs are along the lines of those seen recently in "Enchanted" but without the elaborate special effects. A couple of these, "Pink of Perfection" and "Femininity", have been popping in and out of my head ever since 1963. Those two and "Ugly Bug Ball" have held up surprisingly well. "Flitterin" and "Beautiful Beulah" are decent if not especially memorable.

"On the Front Porch" was weak then and hasn't improved with age; it should have been trimmed from the film as that is the film's weakest (insert "boring" here) scene. The sequence should be of interest to film students as it is the only time the director has real difficulty keeping the cast focused; definitely a post-production challenge for the editor who did some damage control but could not salvage anything worth keeping.

Viewing the film today I found Wendy Turner (as Lallie Joy Popham-Virginia Weidler's role in the 1938 film) a revelation. Turner's is the most authentic performance; which is interesting because she was originally cast as the youngest of the three girls simply because she was slightly shorter than the 5' 2" Walley, not much was expected of this novice. Her ability to take acting for the camera direction must have been a pleasant surprise for James Neilson. She gets to do an ugly duckling wardrobe transformation sequence worthy of "Cinderella".

As often happened with Disney, elements were included to insure that it appealed to the widest demographic. So you have a shaggy sheep dog (where have I seen that before?), you have a couple of handsome young television actors (Peter Brown and James Stacy), you have a Moochie Corcoran hammy kid, you have the comedy relief of acting veterans Una Merkel and Burl Ives to appeal to parents, and you have liberal use of Disney's stock nature footage.

Although I was too dazzled by Walley to pay much attention to Hayley Mills this was probably her best performance for Disney, it was certainly the most difficult part she was given. Her acting was more polished than it had been in "Pollyanna" and the out-of-place English accent taught us young Disney viewers all about the concept of suspension of disbelief.

Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.

7 / 10

Better than today's So-Called family films

This and other films such as "The Three Lives of Thomasina" are shining examples of why Disney's classics are always ten times better than the mindless live-action kiddie dribble that even the Disney companies make today. "Summer Magic" is a fun and pleasant film about two teenaged cousin girls and their amusing rivalry after they both move to the country with their family. One is a care-free country girl and the other is a prompt and prissy city gal. It's fun to see these two ladies come-of-age in all aspects from having to share a room to throwing a party just to get to know the handsome new school teacher (the story is also a lot more interesting to watch than most of today's teen flicks). Hayley Mills is of course the highlight of the film stealing every scene that she's in, a talent she displays in several other Disney films. The rest of the cast is just as charming which makes the movie charming itself. If only Disney could go back to making movies like this instead of making more Mighty Ducks sequels.

7 / 10

Genteel Poverty In Maine

Summer Magic is one of the few films I can think of where the remake actually improved on the original. Maybe it's the cast here, maybe it's the musical score by Disney house composers the Sherman Brothers.

Whatever it is, Summer Magic is nice recreation of times at the turn of the last century when widow Carey, played by Dorothy McGuire moves in to this old house with her three children, Hayley Mills, Eddie Hodges, and Jimmy Mathers. They've had to get used to genteel poverty since Mrs. Carey's husband was killed in the Spanish American War.

This remake of Mother Carey's Chickens is so laid back in style and spirit it makes The Music Man which covers the same era look like its on steroids. The score by the Brothers Sherman doesn't contain anything as memorable as what comes out of Mary Poppins, but those two guys suffered their entire careers from the rest of their work being compared to Mary Poppins.

This was Hayley Mills's height as a Disney star and she certainly was lovely and winsome as the oldest of the Carey brood who gets a little romance from not one, but two sources in that first summer in Maine.

Presiding over the whole film avuncularly is Burl Ives, playing a role Walter Brennan originated in Mother Carey's Chickens. Ives and Una Merkel and their son Michael J. Pollard make a trio of wise down home rustics. Well with Pollard you can skip the wise part.

Summer Magic is one of the Magic Kingdom's best films and who knows, maybe it will get yet another remake. I can see Ashley Tisdale being the Hayley Mills of the 21st century.