Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cult Movie Project #19 (of 200) :: Sexing Up the War on Higher Education in Henry Levin's Where the Boys Are (1960)

If someone drew a triangle using the bubble-gum pop of Gidget (1959) and the knee-deep cheese of the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (1963-1966) as the base angles, and the steamy melodrama of A Summer Place (1959) as the apex angle, and then after adding a little geometry to this triangulum I think we'd find another coming of age flick set against the backdrop of sand and surf right smack in the middle: Where the Boys Are (1960).

While writing novels about people going on a journey, author Glendon Swarthout had himself quite the career in both print and on the big screen. They Came to Cordura, which focused on a ragtag group splintered off from Pershing's expedition into Mexico to hunt down Poncho Villa, for one example. Another, The Shootist, focused on the end of the journey for aging gunslinger, J.B. Books. But his most famous stories usually added a coming of age factor, with the likes of Bless the Beasts and the Children and his wildly popular Where the Boys Are; a "zany satire on the holiday pursuits of the American teenage girl" which provided the first ever insider-look into the annual Spring Break invasion of Florida.

"Why do (college kids) come to Florida?” asks Merrit Andrews in Swathout’s novel. “Physically to get a tan. Also, they are pooped. Many have mono. Psychologically, to get away. And besides, what else is there to do except go home (for Spring Break) and further foul up the parent-child relationship? Biologically, they come to Florida to check the talent. You've seen those movie travelogues of the beaches on the Pribilof Islands where the seals tool in once a year to pair off and reproduce. The beach at Lauderdale has a similar function. Not that reproduction occurs, of course, but when you attract thousands of kids to one place there is apt to be a smattering of sexual activity."

First published in 1958, MGM quickly turned the novel around and made a tidy sum off their minimum budget. However, one should point out that George Wells' screenplay only covers the first half of the book, as the second gets even zanier with the radicalization of Merrit as she tries to help smuggle guns into Cuba to help Uncle Fidel and the Fuller Brush Beard Brigade's revolution that ends in disaster.

No, the film adaptation is more concerned with another revolution. And while Where the Boys Are definitely has the wholesome late 1950's sheen on the surface (-- beginning with Connie Francis' infectious theme song), down below it makes no bones about poking the taboo of premarital S-E-X right in the eye with a very sharp stick.

From the opening scene, Merritt (Hart) is already duking it out with her uptight college professor over the elder's archaic views on sex and the dating habits of the young American female. But as the film plays out, Merritt has some major issues over the practice of what she's preaching – a far cry from the character in the novel, who lost her virginity long before she headed south. Also of note, in the novel Merrit only travels with one companion who basically disappears, leaving our protagonist to sleep with every male character we’re destined to meet in the film, gets pregnant, refuses all overtures of marriage, drops out of school and moves home to regroup.

But Wells and director Henry Levin had something different in mind, basically splitting Merrit into four different characters, giving us quartet of anxious co-eds from a winter-socked mid-western college ready for their own pilgrimage south, to where the boys outnumber the girls 3 to 1. Good odds for these gals, each with their own goal: too tall Tuggle (Prentiss) is on the hunt for a husband, preferably one she can look in the eye without bending her knees both figuratively and literally; Melanie (Mimieux) also has her sights set high, wanting to notch a couple of Ivy Leaguers on her soon to be discarded chastity belt; and while the pugnacious Angie (Francis) will settle for just about anything, Merritt isn't really sure what she's looking for, if anything at all, really, romantically speaking. Kudos to the casting director for filling those roles out, too. These seemingly mismatched puzzle pieces shouldn't fit but they do and the sense of camaraderie found with these girls is one of the film's strongest points.

And the resulting chemistry with their respective beaus-to-come is just as wonderful as the film follows them through the entire week of Spring Break, where the girls move from one bizarre locale to the next, taking in the sun, the suds and the scenery. Along the way, Tuggle falls for the lanky TV Thompson (Hutton), and Angie finds romance with Basil, a myopic bass player (Gorshin), whose experimental combo-band pays the audience to listen to them, dig? The brainy Merrit also finds her match with Ryder Smith (an eerily untanned Hamilton), as they hurl intellectual barbs at one another over the "Stud / Slut Dichotomy" to keep him at arm’s length, allowing the reluctant Merritt to ease into the relationship.

And as TV's police-band radio constantly updates us on the collegiate shenanigans erupting around them (-- a favorite being a live shark reported in a hotel swimming pool), the couples schmooze, snog, bicker over commitments, fight, break-up, make-up, snog some more, culminating in climactic calamity at a fancy dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant, where the whole gang winds up in a giant aquarium with the showcase aqua-bat, leading to a mass arrest.

To make matters worse, the overly naive Melanie has taken her best friend's Kinsey-backed advice to heart. And while the film's overall tone is comedic, it can also be downright brutal at times, with poor Melanie usually taking the brunt of it, serving as an abject lesson for the others when she's suckered to a private motel party by a couple of no-goodniks posing as Yale students. When she finally susses out the ruse and tries to leave, it's too late. What happens next is only implied, but there is no mistaking the devastating final result once the motel door slams shut.

The other girl's relationship problems pale in comparison, but they are the bumps along the way just the same. TV wants to knock-boots with Tuggle but she's determined to wait until she's married. TV takes the hint, and the specter of a long term commitment frightens him off. And knowing that once Spring Break is over means the probable end of their relationship, a conflicted Merritt's hot and cold act is wearing awfully thin with Ryder, resulting in a similar nasty spat. And then things get really twisted when everyone's relationships are saved or cemented as a direct result of Melanie's sexual assault.

And this is why I'm just as conflicted about my feelings for Where the Boys Are. On the surface, it's beautifully shot, filled with adorable characters, who we openly root for to make it work, and so immersive in the chaos of one raucous week I could almost enjoy it unconditionally -- almost. Because underneath, it's mixed message of saying sex is OK but the only one who actively engages in it winds up raped, brutalized and in the hospital is a pretty twisted way to moralize away it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. And, well, I kinda have a problem making all of that compute while trying to laugh at an aquarium full of goofballs.
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“I don’t want to give the impression that Where the Boys Are should be taken all that seriously. After all, any picture about the students who migrate to Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale is bound to be somewhat stupid and junky, even if it cost a lofty $2 million, was made on location, and was filmed in CinemaScope … But I do think it is above being enjoyed only on a camp level. There is much to appreciate … George Wells’ script may be about sophomores but it never becomes sophomoric like most college sex comedies; it is surprisingly intelligent, contains unexpected insights into the coed condition, smoothly blends serious moments into the comedic framework, strives for the offbeat, and features a lot of clever dialogue.”

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The Fine Print: Where the Boys Are was watched via a digital rental through Amazon Prime's streaming package. What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 19 down, with 181 to go.

Where the Boys Are (1960) Euterpe :: MGM / P: Joe Pasternak / D: Henry Levin / W: George Wells, Glendon Swarthout (Novel) / C: Robert Bronner / E: Fredric Steinkamp / M: George Stoll / S: Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux, Connie Francis, George Hamilton, Jim Hutton, Frank Gorshin, Chill Wills

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