Saturday, May 9, 2015

APRIL LOVE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1957) Twilight Time

In retrospect, and purely from an outsider’s view, it is interesting to think of America as that great gleaming repository for all our collected fantasies and daydreams; a wonderful fairyland of milk and honey and the all-important opportunity to live up to most any wish fulfillment with just a little dedication and a lot of hard work. The ‘American dream’ is interesting, indeed, and so naively untrue. America’s imaginary self, chiefly presented to the world via the even more fanciful medium of motion pictures, was to have no finer proponent than 1950’s Hollywood. At a time when the industry itself was experiencing something of a seismic shift and complete meltdown, the merchants of old Tinsel Town threw their collective backs into galvanizing that already Teflon-coated image of wholesome cleanliness, sold as an artful substitute for reality. From sea to shining sea, America remained surreally beautiful and pristine. This is, of course, before the 1960’s; an era toppled by rank cynicism and more probative cinematic excursions destined to crush these idyllic moving tableaus that would have made even the likes of Currier and Ives blush. 
Pat Boone was two for two with Henry Levin’s April Love (1957), an ersatz fifties pastiche to those scrubbed and tubbed virtues dedicated to ‘clean living’. Boone, who crooned with a silken effortlessness, in stark contrast to the hip-swiveling hysteria that was Elvis Presley, would even surpass Presley in popularity at the box office for a brief and shiny moment. 2oth Century-Fox could not resist Boone and neither could the ladies; just the sort of young buck to make teenage girls fawn and grow dreamy-eyed while their mothers (in a pre-Mrs. Robinson era) wished for such a congenial and handsome young fellow as their son-in-law.  Viewed from our present day dysfunctional and distasteful fifty shades of dreck movie-land culture, April Love is even more desirably a tonic; its uber-lush and lovely Kentuckian bluegrass stud farms and county fairs glistening like a mirage in the desert.  
There isn’t much to the story, a badly worn hand-me-down of 1944’s non-musical Home in Indiana, tricked out in Fox’s expansive Cinemascope, with color by DeLuxe and six tracks of enveloping stereophonic sound. It’s the story of a supposed ne’er do well, Nick Conover (Boone), pinched by the cops back in Chicago for joyriding in a stolen car, but given probation instead of jail time and sent to his crotchety Uncle Jed’s (Arthur O’Connell) farm. As no one could ever mistake Pat Boone as anything but a thoroughly nice guy – nee, victim of circumstance – the edge, or rather, the onus is taken off Boone to play tough guy to the likes of Shirley Jones and Dolores Michaels; respectively cast as Liz and Fran Templeton; a pair of rich and pampered sisters, living in a sort of pastoral seclusion on their father’s adjacent stud farm.
Liz is into horses; Fran, all about her flashy red roadster. Both women appeal to Nick for different reasons. Besides, Fran isn’t all that interested in Nick, using him to make her steady, milquetoast, Al Turner (Bradford Jackson) mildly jealous. As this is a musical and one no less about the simple-folk and their benevolence towards all, even Fran’s ploy isn’t malicious; Al, no more envious of Nick or vice versa; neither girl in any sort of genuine competition for Nick’s affections, although Liz is frequently, if modestly perturbed by his lack of interest in her – except as a ‘good sport’.  Is there a point to any of this? Not really, except that April Love is about as ginger-peachy a preserve from that bucolic escapist fantasia as one might hope to find – if not in nature, then certainly at the movies. Wilfred M. Cline’s cinematography catches the effervescent breeze of life on a farm, minus that faint whiff of horse manure; the cheese spread thick; nostalgia for people and places like this troweled on so heavy the saccharine comes dangerously close to damaging its surface appeal.
What saves the picture from becoming just too-too baroque is Pat Boone; a singing sensation of the first magnitude with a fairly likable screen presence to boot and decidedly apart from his more obvious physical attributes. Intriguingly, director Levin, conspiring with a screenplay cobbled together by Winston Miller, from George Agnew Chamberlain’s novel, The Phantom Filly, and, the aforementioned Fox film, denies female fans even a glimpse of Boone’s bare chest, later to be objectified in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1952) and 1962’s slightly more adult (and decidedly much less enchanting) remake of State Fair. Rolled up shirt sleeves, an unbuttoned shirt collar and a snug-fitting white undershirt are about all we get. Contrast this with Shirley Jones, appearing implicitly in the raw, artfully hidden from just below the neck to just above mid-thigh by an open bureau, and later, the frosted glass pane of a very hot shower. No chance for equal opportunity sexism here. 
The romance between Jones’ tomboy and Boone’s congenial boy next door is about as antiseptic as they come; the first two acts filled with missed opportunities for even a chaste peck on the cheek; a spirited ride in a Ferris Wheel at the county fair helping to jump start their grand amore. One could almost believe in such sanitized nonsense because the people working both in front of and behind the camera on April Love are seasoned professionals who know their way around such featherweight material. Here is a world as unreal as it remains completely satisfying. 
April Love greatly benefits from the studio’s decision to export cast and crew to Lexington, Kentucky; the emerald fields and robin egg blue skies looking positively gorgeous in vintage DeLuxe color. It is a very hard-pressed cynic who cannot find this sort of diverting landscape invigorating, even at a glance. Fair enough, good locations do not a great picture make. But April Love also has the Oscar-nominated Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster title tune to recommend it; a million-seller even before the picture premiered. The rest of the score is, frankly, not up to snuff; even the frothy Bentonville Fair – a blatant rip-off of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘This Was A Real Nice Clambake’ from Carousel. Most pictures fall apart if this many of its pieces don’t succinctly fit. But April Love miraculously clings together with exuberance; unapologetic in its sheer joy for the art of being young, alive and pretty darn attractive, without even a hint of carnal lust entering the equation. Here is a picture meant to celebrate the little intangibles in life that come to mean a great deal – friendship, family, finding romance in the unlikeliest of settings and circumstances; all of it capped off by the resurrection of a bitter old man’s soul, hardened for having lost his only son in the Korean War, but given a second – and unlikely – opportunity to appreciate and, more importantly, mold another young man’s life as his surrogate.
Our story begins with the arrival of Nick Conover to his uncle, Jed Bruce’s farm in Kentucky. Nick is hardly welcome, at least, not by Jed who resents being forced to play nursemaid to a delinquent on probation for stealing a car in Chicago. Nick’s Aunt Henrietta (Jeanette Nolan) is tenderhearted, however. Moreover, she recognizes what having a young man around the farm might do for Jed’s morale. Jed begrudgingly shows Nick the lay of his land; acreage in a delicate state of decay. Jed has seemingly given up on raising horses; all except for Tug Fire, his late son’s favorite stallion, an untamed beast left to his own accord in the paddock and yard. Suggesting to Nick he step into the yard with Tug Fire, Jed watches with a sort of sadistic glee as the horse damn near tramples his nephew, chasing him to the outskirts. “Showin’ is better than tellin’” Jed suggests; Nick later reciprocating the favor by sprucing up the farm’s seemingly nonoperational tractor and allowing Jed to ride it uncontrollably into a nearby haystack.
Nick is introduced to Liz Templeton, come to pay a friendly call on the farm astride her decidedly tamer mount. Alas, horses are not Nick’s speed and he proves it by awkwardly getting behind Liz, only to be thrown when her pony begins to gallop. Jed is mildly amused and so is Liz; that is, until she introduced Nick, whom she has instantly taken a shine to, to her sister, Fran; a flashier socialite with a killer red Austin-Healy convertible. Nick’s interests shift, first to Fran, then predictably, to her roadster. What can I tell you? Nick’s a bit of a gear-head. Fran encourages him to take the wheel. But Nick reluctantly declines, electing instead to supe up his uncle’s retired jalopy, rusting away in the barn. So long as Nick drives the vehicle on his own property the local police can’t touch him. But before long Nick cannot resist the urge to take the car for a spin along the backroads. His zooming around the paddock terrorizes Tug Fire. The horse bolts over the fence, forcing Nick to make chase. When he finally catches up, he finds the stallion pinned beneath some heavy twine. Gingerly, Nick approaches the frightened animal, calming it with his gentle touch and using a pocket knife to cut Tug Fire loose. The grateful stud and Nick bond and upon returning to the farm, Nick incurs Jed’s admiration for taming the horse.  Perhaps, Tug Fire could be hitched to a sulkie. Such was Jed’s wish all along.
Meanwhile, Liz and Nick grow closer…well, sort of. Nick wins a raffle at the local dance but, predictably, must perform in some way to ‘earn’ the fifteen dollar prize. He elects, with the aid of a live orchestra, to croon ‘April Love’. Sometime later, Nick confesses to Liz the reason he is unwilling to drive; his probation. Alas, Fran is intrigued by Nick’s description of drag racing and opts, along with Liz and Al, to indulge in a bit of backroads competition. Fran loses control and drives her Austin-Healy through a wooden fence. She is unharmed, but the car’s rear fender is badly mangled.  In filling out the accident report, Fran inadvertently explains to the insurance company how Nick was driving the other vehicle, thereby altering authorities to his parole violation.
Things reach a pretty mess after Nick forgets to bring Tug Fire to the barn during a violent thunderstorm. The horse becomes chilled and falls ill; Nick resolved to nurse the stallion back to health. Predictably, Tug Fire recovers and Jed, together with Liz’s coaching, help Nick acquire the skills necessary to enter a local equine-driven sulkie race. After convincing Liz he is her kind of man (it really doesn’t take all that much) Nick and Liz share a spirited whirl on the Ferris Wheel at the Bentonville Fair. Nick qualifies in his first meet but narrowly escapes being seriously injured during the second race when the Templeton’s own jockey (Earl Teater Jr.) chooses to pull a Ben-Hur styled gridlock that tears one of wheels off Nick’s sulkie.  The local authorities arrive to arrest Nick for the joyriding excursion that helped total Fran’s roadster. But by now Nick has won the admiration of even his curmudgeonly Uncle Jed. In tandem, Fran, Liz, Al and even Aunt Henrietta lie to the police that Nick was not driving the other car; their willingness to perjure themselves bringing out Nick’s humility. He contritely confesses he is guilty of the charges as expressed. Mercifully, the cop – a close personal friend of the Templeton’s – takes pity, calling Nick a liar and effectively tearing up his arrest warrant. The family returns home, Nick having redeemed his family honor by winning the final race.
April Love is an innocuous little bauble. There really is no depth, either to the story or its characters; the plug n’ play manner with which screenwriter, Winston Miller inoffensively inserts archetypes into this tried and true ‘boy meets girl’ musical mélange is woefully transparent and entirely lacking in any sort of originality. Miraculously, the picture works as basic ‘movie 1-0-1 comfort food; a diverting fable in which the motives of these principle players is never brought into question and a good ‘benign’ time is had by all. And who can really resist it; the glistening fields of pastoral Kentucky, the epitome of small town Americana, trimmed in uber-country chic. Even the farmers are smartly dressed. Mr. Templeton (Matt Crowley), as example, is never seen in anything but a suit and tie. Top it off with Pat Boone and Shirley Jones, who have exquisite on-screen chemistry as Eisenhower America’s poster children: clean-cut Prince Charming in his dungarees meets Suzy Cream Cheese of Sunnybrook Farm.  
What is somewhat disappointing is the film’s musical repertoire; apart from the chart-topping title tune there is not a single standout amongst these placid and virginal songs. After her back-to-back magnetic performances in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955) and Carousel (1956) it’s fairly disheartening to see Shirley Jones deprived of the opportunity to render even a ballad; her accompaniment to Boone’s reprise of April Love and The Bentonville Fair never challenging her formidable range. But April Love is not meant to be big and splashy, or even tune-filled to the point of distraction. After all, this isn’t an Elvis Presley travelogue a la plot sandwiched between songs; rather, the other way around. However, just like a Presley pic, the songs are incidental to the plot. You could have inserted practically any tune at the appropriate junctures and still achieved the very same effect, as long as Boone was the singer and the setting remained the same. Yet, April Love remains a pleasantly wholesome Hollywood-homegrown musical, fondly recalled today and even more ravenously desired by fans.           
April Love comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time, after a disastrous DVD debut as part of the Fox MOD Cinema Archive. Why Fox persists in releasing its Cinemascope catalog to this archive, either in window-boxed non-anamorphic, or worse, cropped pan and scan transfers is a mystery best left to more perfunctory executive logic. Mercifully, a litany of fan protest all over the internet, and the proactive acquisitioning of vintage Fox titles by TT’s Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson has yielded a gorgeous new image harvest in true 1080p. The Blu-ray is not perfect, but it does effectively rectify Fox’s unmitigated sin, also managing to capture much of the film’s opening night splendor; the DeLuxe color looking luscious and vibrant, revealing Wilfred M. Cline’s beautiful cinematography. Liz’s fire engine red Austin-Healy is a zinger, shimmering in the bright Kentucky sunlight; the golden/green bowers and open fields lazily blowing in noonday sunlight about as visually intoxicating as they can be.
There are issues to note; particularly flesh tones that occasionally adopt a rather unhealthy brownish hue. There are also a few brief instances where Pat Boone looks as though he were hosed down in tan pancake makeup. Not to worry. It’s a minor quibble on an otherwise noteworthy release, in ‘scope’ (thank heaven!). Better still, fine detail in trees, blades of grass, hair and clothing, even Tug Fire’s jet black shiny mane, pop as they should, and, without Fox’s predilection of late for adding an uncharacteristic ‘teal’ tint to everything, while claiming it is simply the look of vintage DeLuxe color. Wrong! But hey, there’s none of that here. April Love’s 5.1 DTS soundtrack is a winner, revealing uncharacteristic robustness that fills the surround channels. Keener ears will notice slight changes in ambience and reverb, likely the result of some of the dialogue being post-looped in the editing process. TT sweetens the deal with another fascinating audio commentary, this one between Nick Redman and Shirley Jones, plus their usual isolated score sounding lush and vibrant as expected. Bottom line: April Love is no Gone With The Wind, but it has charm that easily wins out over its standardized plot. You’ll love what’s here and have a very pleasant afternoon basking in the afterglow of this bygone era. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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