Where the Boys Are &
Beach Party, Reviewed
April 21, 2020
n 1960’s Where the Boys Are, a quartet of college girlfriends — pragmatic Merritt (Dolores Hart), love-obsessed Melanie (Yvette Mimieux), baby-crazy Tuggle
(Paula Prentiss), and inexperienced Angie (Connie Francis) — are going to Fort Lauderale, Fla. for spring break. They're not looking for a worry-free, sun-dappled breather from their studies. Instead, each, with almost professional determination, is looking for love and/or taboo-for-1960 no-strings-attached sex. Fort Lauderdale is their target because that, allegedly, is where all the boys are. (The ones at or near their midwestern university will not do.) The film’s designed-to-be-controversial modern edge is made clear at the outset of the movie, when
Merritt challenges a course reading’s old-hat, conservative views on dating in class. Merritt's professor sends her to the dean’s office when she says she thinks there isn’t anything wrong with believing sex is a major deciding factor in whether or not to marry someone — or to continue to be with someone at all. (A few years later, Hart would quit acting and become a nun.)
Where the Boys Are is an adaptation of a Glendon Swarthout novel that came out earlier in the year; rights were bought by MGM before it was even published. The film is often talked about in the same breath as the beach movies that proliferated in the 1960s. It’s considered, alongside the surfer comedy Gidget (1959), something of an urtext, with its prioritization of fun in the sun and narrative dependence on the melodramatic love lives of beautiful youths. In Where the Boys Are, though, those characteristics are the only things really in line with the Annette Funicello-slash-Frankie Avalon partnerships that more popularly came in its wake. Those movies were cutesy, carefully formulaic musicals — adjacent to the Elvis vehicles of the late-1950s and early 1960s and all the rock movies which mimicked them. Where the Boys Are is in contrast a rather solemn dramatization of the 1960s dating scene. It just happens to spend a lot of time by the sea.
In the Beach Party movies, romantic complications dependably abounded; they were in fact little more than those, their music, and their sitcom-esque comic exhalations. Such complications were usually pretty silly. They were built on misunderstandings that could be solved if a party would call for the other person’s attention long enough so that they could explain themselves. All would predictably be tidily resolved by the finale. But in Where the Boys Are, the inevitable romances of the main foursome are bracingly like tightrope walks. None are in that satisfactory a state by the end of the movie. One character even hurtles toward tragedy.
Merritt begins a flirtation with deeply tanned, yacht-owning Ivy Leaguer Ryder (George Hamilton). They initially seem headed for a one-night stand. But then Merritt realizes a little into the movie that although she believes that premarital sex should not be demonized, she isn't quite yet ready to experience it for herself. Tuggle says early on that she would happily drop out of college to immediately play house if given the opportunity. “Girls like me weren't built to be educated — we were made to have children,” she concludes. “That's my ambition: to be a walking, talking baby factory. Legal, of course. And with union labor.” She quickly winds up with a kook who calls himself TV (Jim Hutton), whose try-hard quirkiness she takes to. But then it becomes clear that TV is not only interested in Tuggle pretty purely for sex but also that his claims that he’s been forever unlucky in love because of his eccentricities are both hyperbolic and used frequently to mask his deep-rooted misogyny. (And win over women.)
Melanie is so one-track minded in her pursuit of love that she seems to almost willfully ignore the intentions of her prospective paramours. She declares her love to two different men, and means it, in the course of a few days, as if the declaration might automatically change what they have in mind. When Angie finally links up with a jazz musician (Frank Gorshin), it is not a question, like in the case of her friends, of intentions above all else and more so a long-lasting acquisition. They're on the same page.
Only the relationships had by Merritt and Tuggle are really invested in. Still, every one seen in Where the Boys Are
is ridden with tangible, convincing anxiety — you acutely feel everyone’s self-consciousness. There's a good deal of usually harmless tension in the movie; but then it erupts, pretty brutally, when Melanie is raped during the last act, drastically changing the feature's tone. Unexpectedly for 1960, the film doesn't promote a rape-culture ethos — an idea that Melanie should in part be blamed. Instead, Where the Boys Are tacitly defends her while subtly acknowledging
that the society under which she lives will nonetheless unsolicitedly share with her what it thinks she shouldn’t have done, and that what has happened is a natural recourse to her behavior. When she's recovering at the hospital, someone asks how Melanie is; the doctor replies, emotionlessly, “She’ll get by.”
Where the Boys Are strains during its last moments to give itself a final optimistic lift. But the film is on the more pessimistic side of the spectrum where the coming-of-age subgenre is concerned. It's a feature-length collection of pretty terrible experiences that get a group of naifs to develop blunter edges. At the beginning of the movie these characters are beacons of hopefulness. By its end, they know that you can be optimistic while also knowing that it’s unfortunately practical to additionally be prepared for the worst.
Dolores Hart, Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux, and Paula Prentiss in 1960's Where the Boys Are.
here the Boys Are did not get any sequels. But Beach Party, which was released in 1963 and is said often to have been inspired by it, got several direct follow-ups and spin-offs. One can see why
(and is relieved that) this is how history progressed. Where the Boys Are is as sharp as it is surprisingly dour; it’s great, but its greatness need not be, and shouldn't be, directly
copied and pasted again and again. Beach Party, devised as a youth-baiting cash cow by its studio, American International Pictures (AIP), is strictly amusing and feel-good. It immediately seems ripe for duplication, like $1, yellow-paged pulp series.
It’s founded on a very clear-cut formula. All one needs, really, is a beach town inside which to set the action; a bunch of surfing and sunbathing teens who have nothing to do except hang out; pretty 20-somethings Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon playing lovebirds who eventually have a romantic conflict that will drive most of the movie; a musical guest(s); a trop-rock score by the inimitable Les Baxter; and an outsider antagonist(s) coming in the form, usually, of an older person trying to infiltrate the milieu or someone from an adjacent and inevitably to-be-detested, vaguely developed motorcycle scene. Naturally there are exceptions. For the sake of differentiation, AIP also birthed fraternal twins like 1964’s Pajama Party and 1965’s Ski Party.
In the original Beach Party, every facet of the formula is satisfied. Funicello and Avalon play the in-love Frankie and Dee Dee, though spend most of the movie trying to make the other jealous after a romantic misunderstanding. There are not only biker villains but an innocuous “bad” guy in the form of an anthropologist named Sutwell (an unusually good Robert Cummings), accompanied by his ever-patient assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone). They’re studying beach-loving teens for a book Sutwell is planning on writing in which he contrasts Frankie and company’s scene with primates. (Early in the movie Dee Dee catches on to what Sutwell is doing, develops an innocent crush on him, and happily offers to assist him with his work; no one else knows that Sutwell is conducting research, stoking the
romantic drama.) The musical guest in Beach Party is Dick Dale & His Del Tones; the former appears resplendent in a tight-fitting, Tweety-yellow polo with the collar popped. His bandmates are always neatly lined up next to him in complementary colors. Every quick-tempoed musical piece in the movie is redundant of “Secret Surfin’ Spot”; every ballad, like the melancholy, Funicello-sung “Treat Him Nicely," is reductive, I think, of Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.”
Beach Party, also visually flat, reminds us of a feature-length fish-out-of-water sitcom (our main focus is Sutwell). But that isn’t to say that being like a feature-length fish-out-of-water sitcom is always that bad a thing. It isn’t for Beach Party, which is easily digestible and nice to escape into. It needs not be innovative. That it unimaginatively ends with a pie fight at the favorite hangout spot of its young ensemble doesn’t even seem like a copout. It's a last hurrah — a resetting of the cycle.
Where the Boys Are: A-
Beach Party: B-