Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WHERE THE BOYS ARE: Blu-ray (MGM 1960) Warner Archive

Singing sensation Connie Francis made her auspicious movie debut in Where the Boys Are (1960), a Joseph Pasternak production that cast her as Angie, just one of the girls out to take advantage of the annual Fort Lauderdale pilgrimage for college-age men seeking…well.  Arguably, the real star of the picture is Dolores Hart, playing forthright and intellectual, Merritt Andrews, one of the poorest academics at this undisclosed Midwestern University, chiefly because she clashes with her cultural studies professors about their outdated and archaic curriculum. Right off the bat, George Wells’ screenplay jettisoned a vignette from Glendon Swarthout’s novel where the students are seen raising money for arms to support Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. Replacing political activism with a light smattering of burgeoning sixties feminism, our Merritt confronts her fairly prudish and decidedly buttoned-down professor, Dr. Rausch (Amy Douglass) on the rights of young women in contemporary society; in full support of exploring their own sexuality on their own terms rather than suppressing it, ‘playing house’ with the right – even the wrong – boy before marriage to get a little ‘experience’. Naturally, this incurs Dr. Rausch’s displeasure. Dean Caldwell (Mary Patton) is none too thrilled by Merritt’s outspokenness either, suggesting it may threaten her future at the college. Nevertheless, Merritt is admired by introverted fellow student, Melanie Tolman (Yvette Mimieux) who, in allowing her inhibitions to slip while on spring break, will come to bear the scarlet letter of rape, presumably a very unjust penitence for her naiveté. In retrospect, this incident ominously foreshadows a similar fate to befall Connie Francis on November 8, 1974; raped and nearly suffocated to death under the weight of a heavy mattress at the Jericho Turnpike Howard Johnson’s Lodge where she was performing.
Where the Boys Are does, in fact, have a lot to say about the foibles of human sexuality, albeit from the still largely homespun and antiseptic perspective of the ultra-conservative 1950’s; splashy in Metrocolor and Cinemascope (a hallmark of virtually every Joe Pasternak picture since his discovery of Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell); its ‘message’ interpolated with light comedy, more than a tinge of idiotic slapstick, and a popular singer of her day – in this case, Connie Francis – warbling the title tune under the main titles and hitting another out of the park by taking over a jazz jam session conducted by her soon-to-be boyfriend, near-sighted Basil; belting the sassy ‘Turn On the Sunshine’. Both songs were written by Francis’ long-time collaborators, Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka. Interestingly, Francis had absolutely no ambitions as a movie star. Indeed, Pasternak’s invitation to partake of Where the Boys Are was almost immediately shot down by Francis until she had had the opportunity to do a little bit of research on the producer’s track record for turning relatively unknown singers into international super stars. Where the Boys Are may not have given Francis much to do, but it nevertheless served as the springboard for the lucrative film career that followed it; the plot of this movie far more intricately focused on Merritt’s burgeoning love affair with wealthy playboy, Ryder Smith (George Hamilton – who thought he was making a ‘little nothing’ and did not enjoy it) and cohort, Tuggle Carpenter’s (Paula Prentiss) awkward romance with TV Thompson (Jim Hutton); a lanky booze hound with big feet and a roving eye for buxom aqua-star, Lola Fandango (Barbara Nichols doing an utterly cruel – if hauntingly spot on lampoon of Esther Williams).    
Billed as a coming-of-age comedy, Where the Boys Are is loosely based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel of the same name with Pasternak, then in the twilight of his illustrious Hollywood tenure, proving he still had what it took to create a mega-hit, targeting the bull’s eye of the teen market. Where the Boys Are is shameless pop-u-tainment; featuring exotic locales, fresh-faced and mostly good-looking youth, and typical ‘fun in the sun’ escapism. Fort Lauderdale, already the ‘destination paradise’ for more than 20,000 affluent college-bound kids, received an influx of nomadic citizenship to its sun-kissed shores when Pasternak elected to hold the picture’s world premiere there. Curiously, Paula Prentiss won a Laurel Award as Best Comedy Actress. Both she and Jim Hutton were immediately signed to long-term contracts. But the real appeal for Pasternak making the picture derived from the novel’s relatively clean subject matter. “There isn't a gat, knife, or marijuana cigarette in the whole thing. These are good students.” During the preliminary stages, Natalie Wood, successfully graduated from child star to teenage pin-up, was seriously considered for the starring role. Wood, however, thought the premise quite juvenile and a decided step back from the trajectory her career had taken as a ‘serious actress’. Besides, Wood had already appeared in such heavy-hitting dramas as 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar. The cotton floss and fluff of four girls out to snag future husbands in Where the Boys Are therefore must have seemed simplistic and silly by comparison. To direct the film Pasternak turned to stalwart warhorse, Henry Levin who, by 1960 had illustrated nearly two decades of on-time and under budget competency in the picture biz, making mostly forgettable movies that nevertheless made money.
Pasternak, always keenly attuned to the vanguard of pop culture, with an uncanny knack for tapping into its trends and fads, sometimes even before they had evolved as such, herein tapped into the college-craze for ‘dialectic jazz’; original compositions written and performed by Pete Rugolo, if transparently owing their inspiration to such iconic west coast jazz musicians as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Chico Hamilton. Given the picture’s success, rather inexplicably MGM elected not to release a soundtrack album to coincide, although Connie Francis did release a single of the chart-topping title song. Even more incredibly, this song was not the one Francis and her song-writing cohorts preferred. Having recorded two completely different versions to pitch to Pasternak, the trio never dreamed the producer would choose the silken smooth ballad, much to Francis’ dismay. Nevertheless, in years yet to follow, the song ‘Where the Boys Are’ would become an anthem and signature tune for Francis, recorded several times thereafter.
Where the Boys Are is essentially a ‘coming of age’ comedy charting the exploits of four Midwestern university students on Spring Break. Merritt, Melanie, Tuggle and Angie all come from privileged, but isolated upbringings, amplified by their cloistered ‘all girls college studies’ that Merritt in particular finds woefully outdated. Indeed, what more is there to be said about a university whose professor of Cultural Studies uses such artificially constructed jargon as ‘interpersonal relations’ to describe the sexual impulses bouncing between college-aged boys and girls, and whose Dean references sex as ‘a problem’ to which the highly literate and more forthright Merritt swats back, “What could be more interpersonal than backseat bingo?”, and, to the latter query, “I’d say there were probably a half a million co-eds…with 98% of them…overly concerned with that ‘problem’. So, in that respect, I guess I’m fairly normal!”
Merritt’s declaration, apart from causing a few suppressed giggles to permeate the otherwise austere atmosphere, also serves to inspire Melanie to lose her virginity soon after the young women have arrived in Ft. Lauderdale. But Where the Boys Are takes its time getting to these sunny shores with a preamble in some snowy Midwestern campus (actually shot on MGM’s ‘girl’s college dormitory’, seen in countless movies: from everyone’s favorite varsity musical, 1947’s Good News to 1955’s intense melodrama, The Cobweb).  We segue to Florida (or a reasonable facsimile of it, again on the MGM backlot); as kindly police captain (Chill Wills) instructs his officers to be on the lookout for trouble-makers among the revelers about to descend on their quiet beach community, but also to exercise restraint and treat everyone with the dignity and respect of a visiting guest. And so, the girls head to Ft. Lauderdale, along the roadside picking up TV Thompson; a hitchhiker desperate to partake of the advantages of a spring fling. Tuggles is immediately attracted to TV and why not? They are the same height and have the same shoe size! Oh yeah…it’s love!
Ft. Lauderdale is decidedly not without its temptations; then, as now, boozin’, ballin’ and brawling – young hot-headed blood and testosterone chasing after bikinis and skirts, hoping to lose both inside a seedy un-air-conditioned motel room. While Tuggles follows TV into one bar after another (he gets sloshed and attempts repeatedly to reintroduce ‘sex’ into the conversation), Merritt catches the eye of Ryder Smith (George Hamilton), a bronzed and wealthy Ivy Leaguer who wastes no time whisking her off to his parents’ moneyed summer estate, and then onto their yacht. Attended by the family’s butler, Wesley (Owen McGiveney), Merritt is impressed: just not enough to toss her knickers into the air for this smooth-operating Lothario. As is often the case in life – and particularly, in movies – her forthright clarity translates to charm and proves the magic elixir for Ryder. He wants the one he seemingly cannot have. Meanwhile, in another part of this perpetual party zone, Melanie has landed herself a Yallie, Franklin (Rory Harrity) who is none too serious about practically everything. Actually, the guy is a cad. Naïvely, Melanie mistakes Frank’s passionate advances for true love. The two indulge in some heavy make out sessions before Melanie confides in him that one of her girlfriends came to Ft. Lauderdale the previous year a virgin, but went home with a new husband. Frank’s not into this level of commitment; nor clingy relationships with doe-eyed females for that matter. So after Melanie agrees to meet him in an out of the way motel, Frank sends his hot and bothered wingman, Dill (John Brennan) in his stead. As the word ‘no’ is not in this stud’s vocabulary, Dill takes advantage of Melanie against her will.
Sometime thereafter, Tuggles, TV, Ryder, Merritt, Angie and her new beau, jazz musician Basil, all partake of a fashionable nightclub where the star attraction is Lola Fandango – an Esther Williams knock-off, cavorting acrobatically in a gigantic glass tank. Alas, TV, already three sheets to the wind, slinks backstage, diving into the tank after Lola, accompanied by Merritt, Angie, Basil, Tuggles and Ryder. It’s the campiest sequence in the picture; goofy to a fault, hardly amusing, and frankly, too silly to be taken seriously, even as a counterbalance to the aforementioned rape. Fishing everyone out, the waterlogged entourage is arrested and brought before the Police Captain. Quickly dismissed, but ordered with some disgust to behave thereafter, everyone retreats for a moonlit rendezvous at the beach. TV makes a play for the simple-minded Lola who performs a raunchy dance, much to Tuggles’ chagrin. She weeps genuine tears, is admonished by TV for her faith in him and runs away to weep some more. In the meantime, Merritt returns to her motel room, taking a cryptic phone call from a half-shell shocked Melanie.
Ryder has his suspicions as to where Mel’ might be and takes the girls in his convertible to the motel where she was raped. The inference he has been there before sickens Merritt. But they find Melanie wandering in the middle of the highway, sideswiped by an oncoming vehicle that drives off without even acknowledging the incident. Rushing Mel’ to hospital, later, in the corridor, Merritt becomes enraged and lashes out against Ryder; applying the typical broad brushed accusation to all men for their ‘healthy’ sexual proclivities; presuming women do not endeavor to explore their sexuality in the same way (and this, despite Tuggles’ earlier declaration she plans to be a ‘baby maker’ for the right guy!). As Melanie awakens in her hospital room, tearfully aware of both her actions and their consequences, Merritt vows to remain at her side until she is fully recovered. Tuggles, Angie, Basil and a reformed and apologetic TV prepare for the long drive back to reality and the cold harsh Midwestern winter that awaits them. Alone and left to contemplate her fractured romance, Merritt takes a quiet stroll along the vacated beach. Suddenly, a shadow appears from behind. Ryder has returned, confessing his love – not just as a spring fling. It’s a little too simplistic a resolution to what was always a very superficial romance with barely a chaste kiss to recommend it. But the couple’s reconciliation serves as the proverbial ‘happy’, if somewhat sober, ending amidst all the chaos and otherwise ‘party hard’ ridiculousness preceding it.
Where the Boys Are’s sexual politics time capsule has dated over time. Even its wholesome frankness harks back to a simpler time in American culture when sex and love seemed more clearly divisible as two-halves comprising the perfect union. Yet remarkably, not all that much regarding the wants, desires and basic needs of the sexes has changed in the interim. Man/girl-chasing remains the popularized pastime of youth everywhere – if distinctly, in Ft. Lauderdale; everyone desperately in pursuit of their first real introduction to that mature and ever-lasting relationship. Despite its naïve impressions, Where the Boys Are remains contemporary in its treatment of young women; canny, dynamic, and mostly capable at distinguishing and intercepting those game-changing strategies and sex-traps designed to get them into bed. The picture also does not shy away from depicting rape as a humiliating and soul-stealing act. Despite its light and fluffy trappings, Where the Boys Are is mostly straightforward about the potential payments and perils courtship presents as college-bound women prepare to take control of their futures, while juggling the wolves.  
The picture was so successful Pasternak announced plans for a follow-up rather than a sequel, Where the Girls Are – to star George Hamilton. It was, in fact, Pasternak’s goal to reunite Hamilton with Prentiss, Hutton and Mimieux for the romantic comedy, Only a Paper Moon. The movie was, in fact, eventually made as A Ticklish Affair, although without any of these actors. In addition to spawning a whole slew of ‘beach blanket’ youth in love and in crisis knock-offs (with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon), MGM, already in the throes of a steep financial and artistic decline, did its level best to launch a new screen team in Paula Prentiss and Jim Hutton who went on to costar in Bachelor in Paradise, The Honeymoon Machine (both made and released in 1961) and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962).  In 1984, TriStar Pictures remade Where the Boys Are, costarring Lisa Hartman, Russell Todd, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson. Alas, with the focus of Stu Krieger and Jeff Burkhart’s screenplay squarely resting on the appeal of hot bodies pressed tightly together, the picture’s emotional core was lost and the movie tanked at the box office. And although the original movie is hardly as ‘progressively’ minded as it once seemed, Pasternak’s Where the Boys Are remains a lithe and lovely pastiche to the way we used to be. In some ways, I would have these more innocent times again.
Where the Boys Are arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). The picture was shot in Cinemascope by Robert J. Bronner and, in remastered MetroColor herein, looks about as good as to be expected. In fact, for this new to Blu release, WAC commissioned a brand new 2K scan with considerable color-correction and cleanup applied for good measure.  As director, Henry Levin was only allowed to shoot part of his movie on location, we get to see the transgressions of ‘rear projection’ in Cinemascope; virtually all of the interiors photographed on sound stages at Culver City. Look closely and you will be able to recognize a lot of these backlot facades from a multitude of other fondly recalled MGM productions from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Under these varying lighting conditions, colors are mostly bold and fully saturated; though darker scenes tend to suffer from a muddier palette, amplified by a loss of fine detail. Sharpness is also variable, but in keeping within the limitations of early Cinemascope lenses. Aside: the main titles give credit to Panavision for supplying the lenses rather than Bausch & Lomb.
Also, while virtually all of the music was recorded in full stereo, MGM went for a cheaply engineered mono mix, faithfully reproduced on the Blu-ray in 2.0 DTS. It’s a pity not to hear all that great jazz and Connie Francis in remastered 5.1. But at least this restored mono remains faithful to the original intentions of the studio; albeit, as short-sighted as they were. We get all of the extras that came with Warner’s defunct DVD, ported over on the Blu – none of them properly remastered. There is a brief ‘look back’ featurette with Paula Prentiss and Connie Francis; a newsreel outtake from the Ft. Lauderdale premiere, the original theatrical trailer, and a commentary track – rather meandering – with Paula Prentiss. Bottom line: Where the Boys Are will not win any awards for Blu-ray of the year. But most of its limitations are inherent in the original film stocks, lovingly preserved with marginal clean-up to boot. Recommended for fans.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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