Warning: the following discusses the 1960 film Where the Boys Are in detail and contains spoilers.
Has there ever been a movie with greater tonal shifts than Where the Boys Are? Here’s a film packed with lightweight romance, broad physical comedy, and a Connie Francis musical interlude, only to end with a teen rape victim getting hit by a car. It’s as if Beach Party ended with Annette finding Frankie’s suicide note.
It’s tough to imagine the film remaining perpetually upbeat, however, considering its goals in dealing with sex in a more realistic manner than a Hollywood comedy had previously dared. So much is given to discussions, debates, and complaints about the matter, you could almost retitle the film Let’s Talk About Sex. George Wells’ screenplay (adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout) pokes fun at the sexual attitudes of the 1950s; when a college professor insists on euphemisms like “premature emotional involvement” and “interpersonal relationships,” freshman Merritt (Dolores Hart) brings up Alfred Kinsey and asks her openly, “What could be more interpersonal than backseat bingo?” This is the dawn of liberation, and Merritt and her classmates wish to think of sex in a view less restrictive than their parents’. Indeed, they’re off to Fort Lauderdale for one reason: to find boys.
The movie’s notoriety comes from the outcome of this quest, for the girls balk at the opportunity for something more than “making out” (a phrase Merritt’s elderly professor tsk-tsks), except for Melanie (Yvette Mimieux), who is eventually raped. This turn of events is often viewed as a cautionary tale, the film punishing Melanie for not being as clearheaded as Merritt and Tuggle (Paula Prentiss), who rebuff their suitors’ advances. Add in plenty of talk about how girls want nothing more than a wedding ring, and you’ve got a story which, on the surface, seems to underline the notion that the old fashioned American values of abstinence and marriage are the only way to go.
But it’s actually much more complex than that. Consider the scene where Merritt chides Melanie for getting too friendly with a group of male Ivy Leaguers; Melanie reminds Merritt that she spent the semester championing sexual liberation, and Merritt realizes she was actually speaking in generalities about “other people.” Confronted with the chance to see her ideals in action, she discovers the complications of real life.
Does this make Merritt a hypocrite? Not entirely. Her complaints toward Melanie mainly come from a sense of personal protection – it’s not just that she’s against Melanie having sex, it’s that she’s also against Melanie losing control over the situation, falling in with a bad crowd in the hopes of finding a good time. As for her own ethical dilemma, her Spring Break adventure ultimately improves her understanding of the idea of “I can have sex if I want to” as she discovers the real emphasis belongs not on that phrase’s first four words, but its last four. Complaining that Merritt leaves Florida with virginity intact misses the point, as she’s now more fully aware of what she wants out of a relationship.
Perhaps the script plays it safe by keeping Merritt and Tuggle (and, one assumes, Angie, although her pairing with “dialectic jazz” bassist Frank Gorshin is played almost entirely for laughs, with no emotional effect on the plot) virginal. It certainly would’ve been interesting to see how sex changes their relationships with, respectively, rich heartthrob Ryder (George Hamilton) and lanky goofball T.V. (Jim Hutton). But it’s just as interesting to keep them out of the bedroom, as those decisions and realizations create enough inner conflict to make the characters something more than the sort of airheaded heroines you’d normally find in this brand of sunny beach romrom.
Why, though, get so dark with the ending? Couldn’t Where the Boys Are be just as effective in its commentary without resorting to punishing Melanie? Sadly, yes. Swarthout and/or Wells could’ve easily avoided sacrificing the character, although I wonder how much of this plot point was fueled by the mores of the day and how much was an attempt to inject some Peyton Place-esque melodrama. My fondness for the movie keeps me hoping it’s the latter. It allows a bad thing to happen to a good person for the sake of a richer story, and rather than blame her for the assault (because, obviously, no), the film empathizes with her. Melanie’s tale is a heavy tragedy, a dark counterpoint to Merritt and Tuggle’s own self-discoveries.
By the end of the film, the characters’ sensibilities are fully shaken, but Merritt and Tuggle remain with Ryder and T.V., and we hope the four are returning to college as better couples, and as better people. I’d like to think they leave Florida eager to keep talking, and arguing, and complaining about sex, only more loudly than ever, and with a greater awareness of and appreciation for it.