The early years of the 1960s conjure a very specific image in US popular culture. The classic teen film Where the Boys Are is a complicated one. The gorgeous and polished studio picture shows a more layered society as it relates to gender and sexuality than is commonly associated with the early 1960s.
The story follows midwestern college students Merritt (Delores Hart), Tuggle (Paula Prentiss), Melanie (Yvette Mimieux) and Angie (singer Connie Francis in her first film role). As the film opens, the girls plan their escape from the snowy confines of their university for Spring Break, and fun in the sun in Ft. Lauderdale.
When they arrive, they pair off with four boys. There’s Ryder (George Hamilton), TV (Jim Hutton), Basil (Frank Gorshin) and Franklin (Rory Harrity).
One of the most interesting elements in Where the Boys Are begins early in the first act. In one of the opening scenes, Merritt and Melanie sit through their “Courtship and Marriage” class. It’s cute, quaint and in gorgeous Metrocolor. The narrative morphs quickly as the elderly professor quizzes the class about “Random Dating”. Called out to answer the question, Merritt responds:
Frankly, I thought the text was a little old fashioned. It didn’t have much to do with modern college life as far as I can see…If a girl doesn’t make out with a man once in a while, she might as well leave campus. She’s considered practically anti-social.
The scene delves even further into the taboo topic. Merritt goes on, “…Should a girl, or should she not play house before marriage… my answer is yes!”. This film debuted in December 1960. Putting this in historical context, Betty Friedan’s landmark book “The Feminine Mystique” hit book stores in 1963, setting the jumping off point for second wave feminism in the post WWII period.
The girls are the main characters in the film. Viewers are introduced to the story through their perspective. The four boys are then introduced as potential love interests. Interestingly, the lists of male led films the years are prominent, but it’s harder to find female led stories. In fact, pop culture in 2016 was dominated by things like, “Where’s Rey?”, the question of wether four female ghostbusters could open a film, and the box-office surprise that accompanied Bad Moms. From Angie, the musically inclined captain of the girl’s hockey team, to the 5’10” Tuggle, who simply wants to date a man with feet bigger than hers, these are unique and interesting female characters who are able to stand on their own two feet.
Historians say that it’s impossible pull a work out of the time in which it was made. While the story features some noted progressiveness, the ending is a dated. It is 1960 after all. It features an almost tacked on trope, as the “fallen” Melanie is saved by the group after a likely rape. The innocent Melanie spent her time at the beach tumbling into a pit of alcohol and drugs. There has to be a lesson somewhere.
Where the Boys Are is a unique film, especially for its time period. Coming just before the release of “The Feminine Mystique,” there are elements of the movie which seem surprisingly progressive for its time. The film’s narrative shows a complicated (and not entirely negative) view of sex, as well as features four unique and individual female leads in starring roles. In a contemporary Hollywood climate which still has difficulty believing a woman can open a film, this makes Where the Boys Are a gem, and definitely a must see for any fan of classic cinema.