Welcome to the first in The Retro Set’s weekly summer series taking a look at beach party movies of yore from guest writer Danny Reid.
Where the Boys Are: And Where the Girls Want to Go
“What could be more interpersonal than backseat bingo?!”
Ah, summer. That magical time of the year when hormonal teenagers love to run to the sunny beaches, jump in the ocean, and feel that area between their legs get wet. The tradition is old enough now to be on social security, and the American cinema’s celebration of those activities is just as old.
Because of how times of changed and how motion pictures (and how they could legally be made) have evolved in the intervening decades, there’s a certain nostalgic cache in that first big wave of beach movies from this time period. They’re at once both simplistic and candy-coated in color, but still catchy, lengthy variety shows of bands on the verge of success, bygone actors getting another shot on the silver screen, and a bunch of fresh faced young ‘uns showing off their navels with glee.
The origins of the teen beach movie cycle of the early 1960s is usually traced to the popular 1959 film Gidget, based on a book about the author’s tomboy daughter’s attempts to fit into a southern California surfing community. The book was a hit, and it became a surfing movie that involved a bubbly Sandra Dee learning about the waves and the bees from James Darren, AKA Moondoggie. There was also Cliff Robertson as The Big Kahuna, a surf bum who kept a shack on the beach and stood as lord over the surfers who came to his cove.
Gidget was essentially about the need to grow up and become mature, even if by means of surfing and romantic hijinks. While it celebrated young romance and the carefree life of the surfers, like a stern parent, it demanded that everyone grow up and act their age by the time the curtains closed. This would be characteristic of most of the big studio surf and beach party movies of the 60s which eagerly put teenage flesh on the screen and then heavy handedly warned any teenager in the audience what would happen if those bodies did anything beyond being ogled.
It’s a tad sanctimonious, which is a good adjective to lead us into the second firing shot of the teen beach movie phenomena, Where the Boys Are. Here we get the first ‘spring break’ film– in fact, the film calls it ‘Easter weekend’ just to remind you what a square time it was. Four girls from a charming Chicago women’s college decide to make the trek to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and make as many men as they can once they get there.
The default leader is Merritt (Dolores Hart), a workaholic with a high IQ. She challenges her fussy sex ed teacher at the university, frustrated and angry when asked about her personal feelings on petting. “Should a girl or should she not under any circumstances play house before marriage?!” yells Merritt. The emphasis in her voice and an angry proclamation screams that she’s fine with premarital sex– words that doom her classmate and friend Melanie (Yvette Mimieux), but we’ll get there when we do.
Merritt needs a break from her schoolwork, and agrees to pack up the other girls and head south in a convertible. One the way down, they pick up a dopey Michigan student named TV (Jim Hutton) who seems like the perfect partner for tall Tuggle (Paula Prentiss). Tuggle is a much more traditional woman than Merritt, which the writer’s subtly suggest when she declares, “Girls like me weren’t built to be educated. We were made to have children. That’s my ambition. To be a walking, talking baby factory.” This is Prentiss’s first major role, and she subtly waltzes away with most of it– her tall girl charm and easy banter with Hutton keeps the film grounded when many of the sillier aspects threaten to burst the whole balloon in the third act.
TV, unfortunately, typifies the male in this movie: walking, talking sex monsters. The good guys stop when you say ‘no thanks’ and instead attempt to wear you down with persistence. The only man who doesn’t fit into this mold is Basil (Frank Gorshin), a hep cat jazz artist who is far more obsessed with grooving outside the norm than his girl.
His girl is Angie (Connie Francis), the supposed ‘homely’ one who is just man hungry enough to try and jump the jazzed up Riddler. The entirety of her character is pouting and singing, so there you go.
Francis has two numbers in the movie if you include the title track (which became such a popular hit for her that she later recorded a disco version of it). It’s probably worth noting that the moaning, pensive title song “Where the Boys Are” fits the film’s melancholy yearning, and it’s underpinned in many scenes of hijinks to remind you of the slow motion tragedy of the piece.
The fourth of the group, poor Melanie, is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the patriarchy. She starts by lying to her parents where she’s going for vacation. By the end of the first day she’s already put Merritt’s free love ideas into practice with a handsome college boy with greased back hair. She soon discovers that if you sleep with one guy, within 24 hours she’ll sleep with a second guy. 48 hours and she’s a slut. 72 hours and she gets raped– and, the movie assures us, she had it coming. It’s a slippery slope.
But Melanie’s rape isn’t just important as it sets up the climax– she, dazed, wanders onto a highway right out her motel room door, as the movie becomes a further indictment in the need for thoughtful zoning laws. It interrupts Merritt and her beau, the handsome and rich Ryder Smith (George Hamilton), just as their temperature has risen enough for them to run off to the crashing surf and spoil Merritt’s virginal glow. They’re interrupted by a panicky Tuggle and must run off to save the girl, making Melanie Merritt’s cross to bear for her sin of espousing free love philosophies.
Merritt learns that her uptight professor is right and all that Dr. Kinsey nonsense she was espousing was just that. Merritt in turn becomes her friend’s patron saint, matronly standing watch as she becomes acutely aware that going all the way without a wedding ring is really the biggest problem in any woman’s life. Now it’s just a matter of becoming a rich wife and putting that high IQ to no use at all.
It may be viewed as odd to start a beach party series with such a downer, but a great deal of these teenager flicks sought to sneak some simplistic morals in that even those teenagers could understand. Here, it wasn’t enough that Merritt learn her own lesson, she has to pay for her desires and feelings and become chaste until she’ll repay her karmic balance.
But Where the Boys Are is filmed on location in Fort Lauderdale, giving the production a unique flair and a vibrant atmosphere. Even if the most beach partying we see involves a limbo contest, the questions of sex and partner swapping among the sand dunes is clearly established. It also asks the question that all of these movies end up asking, intentionally or not: how far can a good girl go? Where the Boys Are summarizes the insane double standard, that men and their own libidos place on them rather succinctly:
“No girl enjoys being thought of as promiscuous, no matter how true it might be.”
The handiest reference guide for this movie and, in fact, for most of the movies described through this series is the comprehensive and quite fun Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959 – 1969 by Thomas Lisanti. The book talks about the origins of the movie (which was based on a scandalous novel of the same name where, unsurprisingly, Merritt is far less modest in her pursuits) and the actors involved, as well as the film’s impact.
Where the Boys Are was released during the Christmas holidays in 1960 and opened at Radio City Music hall in New York. It became an immediate sensation and according to Variety was the 27th highest grossing film of 1961. By the time spring break rolled around that April, over 300,000 college kids descended upon Fort Lauderdale due to the popularity of the movie.
Gidget and Where the Boys Are primed the early baby boomers for sun and fun and, of course, sex. Well, next time we’ll stray a bit away from the prim and proper MGM formula and move onto American International’s Beach Party series, movies that double down on the cartoonishness and leave reality at the door.
Best & Worst Attributes
- Best Song – With only three songs to choose from, I’ll have to pick Connie Francis’ “Turn On the Sunshine,” a peppy, fun tune that she belts along to a confused Frank Gorshin on base. It’s short, but shows the singer’s range and ability to dominate… when the camera lets her. Francis would briefly become a cottage industry for MGM as they tried to make her into a female Elvis with a string of movie and album collaborations that put her on the poster with the promise that “Connie sings!”. She appeared in three more films after Where the Boys Are before Francis, who was never satisfied with her own acting, decided to focus on the musical side of her career.
- Best Outfit – Someone in the costuming department clearly relished getting the chance to tackle Paula Prentiss’ lanky figure, and she usually comes off the best in the fashion department. I really liked this number she’s in on the right, a weird sort of three toned rainbow dress.
- Worst Outfit – Look, Hutton’s entire character’s dress ethic is to be ‘unbelievably unusual’, but this outfit rounds the bend from comedy into tragedy.
- Gratuitous Sexy Man Shot – While there are certainly hotter shots of George Hamilton with his shirt off, clearly nothing is as charming or erotic as seeing him tromp down the crowded beach in a polo shirt and shorts.
- And the moral of the story is… don’t have sex before marriage or your life will be ruined and/or you’ll be hit by a car.
Trivia & Links
- Followed by a pseudo sequel which reunited Francis and Prentiss called Follow the Boys (1963). I have apparently seen this but could not tell you a damn thing about it.
- Remade (kinda, sorta) as Where the Boys Are ’84 (1984), a train wreck of a film that we are definitely going to cover here. There’s no way you can stop me. I’d like to see you try.
- Dolores Hart, after a few more starring roles (a number of times with Elvis) left film in 1963 and became a nun. You can read an interview about her interesting life over at Comet Over Hollywood.
- FilmFanatic.Org rates this based on Daniel Peary’s Cult Movies books which labeled it as camp due to the ludicrous conclusion and the copious use of George Hamilton. They rate it as worth seeing to get a female perspective on the spring break ritual.
- One of my favorite critics, Glenn Erickson, rather handily sums up all of the problems that courtship as presented here works out:
In short, the boys are expected to sprint for third base immediately. The girls have to find some way of proving they’re not pushovers, but keeping the boy around long enough for their real personalities to soak in. Then True Love is supposed to take over. As a system, I imagine this worked fine for one couple in twenty.
The film is available on Amazon. Here’s the trailer:
Next week: Beach Party (1963)
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