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What's a major studio to do? The U.S.A.is being overrun by juvenile delinquency, rock 'n' roll, sin and perdition. For every James Dean that dies, ten sulking and muttering punks in blue jeans rise to take his place. 20th Fox blew their shot with Elvis Presley -- they put him in a &%#*@ western -- and now he's raking in the dough for MGM. A.I.P. has just put out a picture about a kid selling drugs, The Cool and the Crazy. Something must be done, and fast.
Enter handsome Pat Boone, the Great White Hope of the silent majority with the squeaky-clean 'nice' manners of a choirboy and a smile made of pure apple pie. Taking advantage of monster hits like Love Letters in the Sand, Fox cast the pop singer in limp personality vehicles, mostly starring older character actors for him to be polite to. For a couple of years the formula paid off well. 1957's Thanksgiving release April Love -- most of us saw it in Spring of '58 -- was given a boost by its hit title tune by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, a catchy love ballad. Boone's thin voice sounds as if it is marinated in a bath of newly invented electronic enhancements, primarily an echo chamber that won't quit. Fox recorded the songs in 4-track stereo. 1
Just five minutes into April Love, we suspect that it has to be a remake of an older Fox film. Yes, it's a retread of a bucolic story filmed before as Home in Indiana (1944) with Lon McAllister and Jeanne Crain. In this case, Boone gets top billing over Rodgers & Hammerstein star Shirley Jones. The incredibly under-populated screenplay has them coming in contact with just a handful of supporting characters. The costly Lexington, Kentucky location gives the picture a good look -- Raintree County had filmed there not long before.
Branded a juvenile delinquent for joyriding in a stolen car, Chicago teenager Nick Conover (Pat Boone) reluctantly hitches a ride to the farm of his uncle, Jed Bruce (Arthur O'Connell) a malcontent who has let his property go to seed. Jed still has a prize sulky (harness) racer named Tugfire, but the animal is too temperamental to even approach. Jed treats Nick badly, but sweet wife Aunt Henrietta (Jeanette Nolan) helps make peace. Nick isn't keen on horses so he takes the initiative of fixing Jed's old tractor and whipping a broken-down jalopy into shape. Uncle begins to respect him. Things are a little rockier with rich neighbor girl Liz Templeton (Shirley Jones), whose wealthy family owns a showcase bluegrass spread and a stable of sulky horses. Despite Liz's amorous green light to Nick, he's initially attracted to her older sister Fran (dreamy Dolores Michaels), as she owns a flashy red sports car. Fran talks Nick into drag racing on a country lane. Although he's trying to play things straight, he's too ashamed to admit that he has no license, and that if he's caught driving he'll go back to juvenile prison. But there are hopeful signs as well. Nick tames and befriends the 'dangerous' black horse Tugfire -- which inspires Jed to train Nick to race the animal in the big county fair.
April Love is wholesome, uplifting entertainment to suit Pat Boone, who was very concerned about the moral example he set in films. There would be nothing wrong with that if the story or situation weren't quite so vapid. Turn back the clock twenty-five years, and one can imagine Boone's role being played and crooned more or less the same by Bing Crosby, with an even more casual approach to the drama. The show is filmed in a stretch of Kentucky beauty unblemished by as much as a mud puddle or a scrap of roadside litter, where nobody has any connection to anything but immediate concerns like racing horses. Jed talks about Nick's chores, but we don't see him doing any. We don't know if this is summer vacation or what -- is Nick supposed to become a permanent unpaid farm laborer for his uncle? Fran's putative boyfriend is a Joe College type, but does anybody else have plans for their lives?
Lexington is a picture postcard with wide plank fences. Nobody would think Nick Conover a juvenile delinquent type; he's so polite and respectful that he could be Mr. Rogers as a young man. No judge would give such a clean-cut kid as much as a tongue-lashing; you can practically see the halo over his nicely trimmed haircut. With no conflict in Nick's character, some painfully bald exposition establishes Old Jed's cranky deportment as a result of losing his beloved son in the Korean War. Jed and Nick fight a bit but neither Arthur O'Connell nor Pat Boone has a bitter bone in his body. Not only that, the kid's a regular Mr. Fixit. He miraculously makes two inoperative hunks of junk fully operative in record time. What's missing next is a scene where Nick asks what that lump of metal is, out in Jed's field is. Jed can say, 'Oh it's that old Yankee atomic reactor buried out there. It hasn't worked in years.' Then a look of inspiration comes over Nick's face...
Boone and Shirley Jones are inoffensive and sweet, but also sincere. They carry on a 'madly chaste' love affair that amounts to two or three almost-smooches aborted by luck, or a carnival employee who seems trained to intervene when spotting such behavior. Both stars look 23 but behave like they're fourteen. Anybody who was a kid in the 1950s can easily imagine just about any adult over forty seeing these perfect white kids in April Love and remarking, "now why can't all movies set this kind of example for our children?" When director Levin made an impromptu suggestion that a kiss be added in one scene, Boone asked to consult with his wife first. According to biographer Richard D. Kibbey, her response was, "Just try not to enjoy it too much." In the commentary Shirley Jones says Boone never kisses her in the movie. But she does kiss him, once.
Boone's fine. He's a perfectly able actor within his range and a charming screen presence. It was a lucky thing that such a popular teen idol (2500 fan clubs) was also so publicity-friendly. Shirley Jones is of course a blonde dreamboat. Although she later made a big career move by playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry, she must have known she was suited for 'nice' roles. The intelligent beauty Dolores Michaels put in some respectable film appearances (Warlock) but didn't stay in the business long. Dependable Arthur O'Connell was in just about everything filmed these years, while the talented Jeanette Nolan kept equally busy playing various older women, agreeable and disagreeable. A highly respected stage actress, Nolan had been Orson Welles' choice to play Lady Macbeth.
I almost forgot -- April Love is a musical, with a score of forgettable songs popping up at regular intervals. The story and locale reminds us of State Fair but the songs are not in the same league. Liz sings in her bedroom and they both sing in the car. Two more innocuous tunes become group sing-alongs, at the Templeton barbecue (next to their enormous swimming pool) and on a Ferris wheel ride at the carnival. The show demonstrates some class by using an instrumental of "April Love" over the main titles. It is formally introduced when Nick wins a raffle. Nick croons a cute-as-kittens rendition for the awestruck crowd, accompanied by his invisible but highly effective echo chamber.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of April Love looks great -- in the last 57 years I've only seen it once chopped up on TV, and pan-scanned to boot. The negative must be in good shape because the pretty image is sharp, unmarked, and graced with rich stereophonic audio. The handsomely orchestrated music can be heard on a separate Isolated Score Track.
Shirley Jones gives the disc an extra cachet by appearing on a commentary track, interviewed by the experienced Nick Redman. At first she doesn't seem to remembers much about the picture, and merely remarks how nice the people were, etc. But as the interview progresses Jones opens up more about her career and personal life, especially about her beloved husbands. That's when the warmth of her personality kicks in, and she wins our hearts all over again. Jones did her own stunts for the movie, including falling off a horse with Boone -- which would seem an invitation for a major accident.
Julie Kirgo's Twilight Time liner notes provide needed context for this non-challenging teen picture, which pushes the sanitized image of America that dominated movies and TV of the time. She explains Pat Boone's special status as the 'clean Elvis Presley.' The movie's popularity was pre-spiked by the song, which was already a monster hit when it opened. For some things, the old-school studio press agents knew exactly which buttons to push.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I don't know beans about song production methods, so my 'echo chamber' blather may be hollow ignorance. But something has been applied to the Pat Boone voice... he seems to be barely whispering the song. For the record, when I saw April Love at age five or six I thought it was terrific, the best movie I'd ever seen. At that time I'd seen at least three or four whole movies, so it was right up there in the pantheon with Perri, The Flying Squirrel.
The "April Love" song seemed to be in solid radio rotation for years; I have read that Pat Boone sang it at every concert he gave. He'd pace his performance to allow time to choose a lucky girl in the audience to bring on stage and present with a bouquet of flowers, just as the lyrics say. Just like in Bye Bye Birdie!
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T'was Ever Thus.