April Love (Blu-ray Review)18 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Pat Boone, Shirley Jones, Dolores Michaels, Arthur O’Connell.
If late-1950s Hollywood just had to make Pat Boone vehicles — this was long before that brief (though not brief enough) period when Boone recorded his Heavy Metal album — April Love was probably the way to go about it. Not having seen this confection in years and fully expecting a camp fest, I was pleased to see that at very least, it’s as much of a Shirley Jones vehicle as one for its impossibly clean-shaven male lead — and this was when Jones was a hot property having just come off the potent Rodgers & Hammerstein screen piggyback of Oklahoma! and Carousel.
The movie is also a primer in how pleasing the 20th Century-Fox version of De Luxe Color could look in the early years of CinemaScope before the process began losing a lot of its sparkle and sheen (in addition to the ugly fact that any movie not in IB Technicolor was destined to began fading after a few years). Fox had even had decent success with Love’s basic premise a dozen-plus years earlier as Home in Indiana — a likeable Henry Hathaway outing that cast nondescript Lon McCallister opposite a comely pair on their way to becoming future studio franchises: Jeanne Crain and June Haver. Dealing as its predecessor did with harness racing, this version was shot around Lexington, Ky., and it’s so pretty that you forget that it’s Mitch McConnell’s home state.
As for Boone, and hard as it is to believe today, there was about a two-year period where he was considered to be a serious alternative to Elvis back when teenaged girls used to clutter the “Letters to the Editor” sections not just of fan magazines but the more respected TV Guide ballyhooing whichever of those dueling teen idols they preferred. I remember these back-and-forth exchanges quite well from my elementary school years, having earlier witnessed sobbing teenaged girls running up the aisle next to my end seat at the Grandview Theater on their way to the ladies room and cleaner sinuses. Why? Because Elvis had just gotten gut-shot (or wherever) at the end of Love Me Tender. Girls took this stuff seriously, and as for guys — well, Pat Boone was never going to be Elvis, but you had to admit that his movies were a viewing alternative to The Mole People.
Good or bad, as some say, publicity is publicity — and in Love’s case, there was all that icky re-release stuff about how, for religious reasons, the married Boone refused to kiss Jones on screen — a stand that widely earned him the designation of “numb-buts” from my fellow cronies in fifth grade, who were kind of American Midwest equivalents to those classroom cut-ups that Francois Truffaut would soon immortalize in The 400 Blows. This kind of moral stance was never going to endear you to pop-music youth — then or now — and Boone’s inevitable relegation to “grandma’s favorite singer” status before the passage of too much additional time probably began with his no-kissy gesture. This was, after all, his first outright romantic lead and thus something the studio suits couldn’t have taken lightly. The summer before Love’s November release, he’d made his nominal screen debut in Bernardine (the title refers to a car, despite the ever-hot Terry Moore’s appearance in the cast), and despite Boone’s top-billing, the movie’s central role was played by future “Bewitched” star Richard (Dick) Sargent.
In this follow-up, Boone plays a Chicago native who avoids jail time or at least reform school on a car theft/joyride rap by agreeing to live with, atop a driver’s license suspension, his rural-dwelling aunt and uncle down on the farm. Unc (Arthur O’Connell) is kind of cantankerous, but auntie Jeanette Nolan hauls out her best vittles on the welcome wagon — a characterization at odds with the fact that Nolan previously played (or tried to) Lady Macbeth opposite Orson Welles on Republic Pictures’ backlot. All in all it isn’t a bad deal: O’Connell offers his nephew a free reign to soup up a sick tractor and the same barn’s inevitably abandoned car as soon as he finishes his chores — which we almost never see him doing. Instead, Boone is always singing and going the poolside cookout route next door with a pair of dishy sister: Jones (who looks good in jeans — something I also noticed in John Ford’s Two Rode Together) and the more worldly Dolores Michaels, whose love for flashy convertibles fits more into Boone’s demographic, at least at first. It’s harness racing that plays Cupid for the movie’s leads, and the many close-ups in the track scenes convince us that both stars are really doing their own driving. I don’t think Elvis could have pulled this off (though I would have paid to see him try), but certainly he would have taken to the picture’s one drag-racing episode, which becomes a key plot point.
It’s all squeaky-clean, and when Jones takes a shower, director Henry Levin (who directed as many harmlessly mediocre movies as anyone I know) makes certain that a cabinet door or some other object is obscuring the good parts. By the time Love came out at Thanksgiving, its Boone title tune had already made it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but Elvis was not to be deterred. The King’s MGM release Jailhouse Rock, which wasn’t squeaky or clean, had come out a month earlier, and its own title tune hit No. 1 the very day it was released (I remember my local DJ expressing amazement on the air). In my hometown, Jailhouse got held over for a second week downtown as running solo, while Love just lasted a week even with a second feature (though it’s doubtful that Ride a Violent Mile with John Agar brought much to the party).
Even so, Boone (in a way) won this particular culture skirmish: Almost four years to the day of Love’s release, Elvis’s biggest screen hit ever, Blue Hawaii, opened in theaters — a movie every bit as pleasantly insipid as anything here. On the other hand, it didn’t take Jones very long to win a 1960 supporting Oscar for playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry. Or for Levin to progress from that year’s Where the Boys Are to directing two of the four Matt Helm spy comedies — in which Dean Martin had no religious qualms about kissing anybody in his bimbo-stocked indoor pool or looking wasted opposite a recurring character named Lovey Kravezit. That’s no April Love, but it may be That’s Amore, pally.