Judge Bill Gibron knows exactly what kind of fool director Anthony Newley was.
Once there was a girl…and a guitar…and a summertree.
Jerry (Michael Douglas, Wall Street) is a disgruntled college student who's unsure of his path in life. All he knows is that he has to stay in school in order to earn his draft deferment. It's 1971 and Vietnam rages on. His dad (Jack Warden, Brian's Song) supports Jerry's current soldier status but wishes his son would make more of his life. His mom (Barbara Bel Geddes, Vertigo) just wants him to be happy. One day, while working with a kid in the Big Brother program, he runs into a student nurse named Vanetta (Brenda Vaccaro, I Love My Wife). It's love at first sight. Soon, they begin a passionate affair that has Jerry dreaming of a world outside of school. Indeed, he loves playing the guitar and wants to take up the instrument full time. If he does, however, he loses his restrictions and will probably end up in the Army. When Vanetta's past comes back to haunt her and Jerry's musical plans fall through, he has no choice but to head to Canada. Even then, however, fate will conspire to keep him from feeling the happiness he experienced in the sunny Summertree back home.
Summertree is a movie of massive contradictions. It's well intended but boring as Hell, delivering a decent message and then forgetting which side of the debate it's actually sitting on. It offers excellent performance from Brenda Vaccaro and Jack Warden, a blink and you'll miss it turn by Barbara Bel Geddes, and an unusually blank and vacant pre-Streets of San Francisco Michael Douglas. In actuality, it was our star's papa, the influential Hollywood icon Kirk, who bought the Ron Cowen stage play as a birthday present for his lad after the boy had been fired from the production. Spartacus should have saved his money. Whatever protest value this work once had, it's lost in a sea of bad symbolism and uneven social commentary. While the theatrical version was much more an experimental think piece, our hapless hero Jerry moving backward and forward in time to explain his complicated lot in life, the film adaptation (from Edward Hume and Stephen Yafa) goes for a straightforward storyline. Yet even then, director Anthony Newley—yes, you read that right, Mr. Stop the World I Want to Get Off and the composer of classic 60s sonic cheese like "What Kind of Fool Am I?"—can't help but screw things up with his uneven approach.
This is obvious from the first meeting Jerry has with his Big Brother charge, Marvis. Essayed by a complete amateur named Kirk Callaway, this god-awful ghetto stereotype would be better off in a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. Every time he opens his mouth, he has some jaundiced "jive ass" BS to spew. Newley also has a hard time with the Douglas/Vaccaro love story, especially the moments when they choose to express their affection physically. All casual nudity aside, the man responsible for the notorious flop Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? turns everything into a full blown flower power disaster. You keep waiting for the cast of Hair to show up and offer to let the sunshine in. But nothing is worse that the ending, a cheap shot rebuff of everything we've been told before. It's not an M. Night Shyamalan-like trick, or a twist in the perspective that suddenly shifts our allegiances or perspective. No, one of the main characters, someone who has made their newfound anti-Vietnam stance abundantly clear, turns tail and goes proto-jingoistic on us. It's an undeniable jaw-dropper, a moment only topped by Jack Warden and Barbara Bel Geddes getting "biz-ay" in the bedroom before the closing credits.
Either Newley was too sheepish to really drive home the "War Sucks" sentiments inherent in Summertree, producer Kirk was unsure of how the film would play in Peoria, or Cowen's original concept was just this crackers. For someone who is directly in the draft board's line of fire, Jerry makes a lot of boneheaded decisions. Similarly, his relationship with Vanetta is so formless in its free love designs that her midpoint reveal and last act mea culpa come across as phony. Even the material with Marvis pays off poorly. With an older sibling in Southeast Asia, we sense where his story is going. Once it arrives, it's antithetical and realized with all the compassion of a compound fracture. Again Summertree struggles for significance in moments that should ring out in moral or emotional truth. Clearly some of the fault lies in the flat acting and even less dimensional direction. Granted, all this plays as dated and dumb some thirty-eight years on, especially given our current battle weary state surrounding the Middle East. Even as a curiosity, Summertree barely warrants any attention.
Columbia Pictures, clearly flummoxed as to what to do with these and other aging artifacts from the vault, have released Summertree as part of its equally perplexing Martini Movie series (don't ask—the label's raison d'tre makes absolutely no sense). From a technical standpoint, the transfer itself looks very good. There are hardly any scratches or age blemishes in the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image. The colors are solid and the compositions are captured with a fair amount of professional polish. There are moments of softness, but those clearly come from Newley's oddball vision. On the sound side of things, there is not much that can be done with thin, tinny, old school Dolby Digital Mono. While clean and clear, there is not much range to this singular sonic design. And as for extras? Well, if you like trailers, you're in luck. Otherwise, there is no added content explanation for this film, it's maker, or the members of the cast and crew. The DVD package is one small step from being bare bones.
It hard to imagine anyone enjoying this creaky bit of strangled political
positioning—no matter what side of the philosophical fence you sit on.
Anthony Newley may be a lot of things, but a great director he is not. Toss in
some patchy performances and an unnervingly strained storyline, and you've got
enough to keep you baffled for weeks to come. This is one Summetree that
should have been felled. Its wood is rotten to the core.
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