Fort Lauderdale, Florida used to be a sleepy seaside town. When they filmed the opening of the movie, Where the Boys Are, they had no trouble getting shots of empty beaches and quiet streets in the off-season, to contrast with the annual invasion that began with modest numbers in the 1920s and was starting to swell in the 1950s: Spring Break.

The Novel

So if sex is what you happen to be interested in you may turn to those pages and save your money but if you are deeply concerned about such crucial topics as The Influence of Walt Disney on Religion, Large Families, Education, Virginity, The High IQ, Faith, The Luck of Henry Thoreau, Stimulation, How Society Makes it Tough for Kids, Love, etc., and a slew more... buy the book.

I want serious readers, not a bunch of BB-stackers (12)

Glendon Swarthout, college professor and author, is best remembered for two of his novels that Hollywood discovered. True Grit, a highly unusual western, birthed two successful film adaptations and one spin-off movie. Where the Boys Are, (1960) his first significant commercial success, explored spring break. He learned about the trend from his students at Michigan State University, and went down to Fort Lauderdale in 1959 to see it first hand and research the novel-in-progress. He took his title from the answer to an actual question. The girls, according to one female student, head to the beach because "that's where the boys are."

His style sounds like a man channeling his students through imitation Kerouac. I don't know how accurate the novel might be, but it's highly readable and it sounds credible, if stylized. The faux pop-beat approach also fits the tone, which can be darkly satiric but also quite frivolous.

The book focuses on young Merritt, an outspoken co-ed who believes in a freer and more open approach to sexuality, one that does not immediately penalize women for wanting to, in her words, "play house." To that end, she becomes intimately involved while in Florida with three different men.

One of them, the eccentric TV Thompson has a date rape in his past-- he even recognizes that his actions amounted to rape. While he faced consequences from his peers, the law never touched him, and Merritt entirely blows it off. He's charming and goofy, so why not date him? As potential boyfriend material, however, he's tainted. She also becomes involved with a wealthy boy, Ryder, and a dubious frat boy. Scandalously, for the time, she gets to explore sexual promiscuity without being labelled a slut. She will face consequences for her behaviour, but she accepts these at the book's conclusion. Swarthout walks a fine and shaky line here, and the ending will not sit well with all readers.

Merritt's traveling companion, "Tuggle," takes a more traditional approach. She wants to do things "the chaste way" (30) and her plot holds out the possibility of her finding the boy of her dreams, having children, and living a conventional mid-twentieth-century life. Both young women express some discomfort with the limitations placed on females, but neither really questions many of the core assumptions their society makes about sex and gender.

The book had barely hit the stands when MGM bought the movie rights. The film came out later the same year.

The Movie

"Where the boys are," sings Connie Francis in the title track, "someone waits for me." The wildly successful 1960 Cinemascope adaptation plays as a comedy, complete with cartoony credit fonts. However, it doesn't ignore some of the book's darker elements, and amplifies one of them. "Someone waits for me" features in the film as both a promise and a threat.

The movie multiplies the novel's two girls into four. Book-Merritt's relationships with Ryder and TV get doled out to Movie-Merritt (Delores Hart) and Tuggle (Paula Prentiss) respectively, minus any of the actual sex that might mark them, in a 1960 film, as fallen women. TV (Jim Hutton) retains his charming, goofy personality and his lesser character flaws, but his date rapist past gets excised. Merritt becomes involved with Ryder (George Hamilton), a nobler figure here than in the book. Her involvement with the predatory frat boy types gets shifted onto Melanie (Yvette Mimieux), a clueless blonde character whose plot frequently seems disconnected from the rest of the film. It takes a nasty turn, resulting in a rape and a stay in the hospital. We're told that the perpetrator should face consequences but we know he probably won't.

Connie Francis makes her acting debut as the supposedly plain girl Angie. Francis may not have been a classic Hollywood beauty, but she was not plain, and the joking reminders that we're supposed to find her unattractive and naturally assume that should impede her love-life rankle now and likely did with many viewers then. She can, of course, sing. The movie inserts a jazz combo led by the coke-bottle-bespectacled Basil, (Frank Gorshwin) in a suitably absurd performance. The movie consequently gets to add some musical numbers. Both Francis and Barbara Nichols (as club performer "Lola Fandango") sing with the band.

The movie shifts briefly into a dark morality tale at the end, with Merritt abandoning her earlier interest in sexual freedom, one girl finding true love and two others at least passable boyfriends, and the indiscreet girl facing horrible consequences. To the film's small credit, it mitigates, somewhat, the implications that Melanie was asking for it. "I kept thinking," says Merritt at the film's conclusion, "it could have been me."

Director Henry Levin, who had a prolific and varied career but few lasting hits, does a good job with the actors. The filming itself seems uneven, at least to a present-day audience. They shot several scenes in Fort Lauderdale, and these invest the sometimes-campy film with a sense of realism: crowded streets, waves, and the postcard-perfect final scene of two of the principals on the post-Spring Break Florida beach. I wish they had filmed the entire thing there. Much of the action takes place on obvious, studio-lit soundstage sets and the contrast can be jarring.

Some of the book's best lines remain, though often recontextualized or reattributed.

Where the Boys Are remains a solid if very dated movie, a piece of history. Its popularity buoyed the book, and then eclipsed it. Now it sometimes hurts it, as many reviewers expect it to be the film. Swarthout's novel is most decidedly not the film.

The Culture

The movie generally receives credit for helping launch the Beach Party genre, which would take the comedic elements and leave the serious ones at the theatre door. Beach Party, the entry from which the genre takes its name, draws from Swarthout's real-life story, giving us a point-of-view professor who follows his students to Florida on a kind of anthropological exploration. The studio considered a sequel to Where the Boys Are, but the tentatively-titled Where the Girls Are never materialized. An updated re-envisioning, Where the Boys Are '84, hit theatres twenty-four years later. It bombed. A series of pornographic movies riffed on the title as Where the Boys Aren't. I've seen none of the nineteen or so films in the series; I'm certain they boast tremendous production values.

After the release of the movie, spring break, which had been growing steadily throughout the 1950s, exploded. Fort Lauderdale soon became so crowded that Spring Breakers had to find other places to invade.

Several of the actors went on to greater success in the entertainment industry. Prentiss became a major star of the era. Hart cut short her film career a few years later to join a convent. As of this writing, she serves there still, as prioress.

Connie Francis would receive a boost for both her singing and her new-found acting career. While she would find success, her life would be marked by tragedy.

The Song

Connie Francis (Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero) entered the music industry in her teens. Her initial recordings failed to click with an audience, though she found work as the singing voice of other teen actresses in some low-budget rock 'n' roll exploitation films. She finally broke through with a "Who's Sorry Now?" (1957), a 1923 pop song reinterpreted with contemporary arrangements. It was followed by other hits that brought her international attention and landed her a role in the film.

"Where the Boys Are" became Connie Francis's signature song. She remained popular throughout the 1960s, focusing on an adult contemporary style that was at odds with the popular music now associated with that decade. She also became one of the first American singers to regularly record in various languages for the foreign market.

Her life took a grim turn when those darker undertones of her signature song became horrifically real. On November 8, 1974, Francis was attacked, sexually assaulted, and nearly killed in her motel room by a perpetrator who has never been identified. The subsequent years were marked by depression, self-isolation, drug addiction, and tragic turns. She attempted to record again in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her brother, with whom she was close, had involvements with the American Mafia. Some boys waited for him, too; he was murdered in 1981. Francis experienced further emotional upset and would later attempt suicide.

She nevertheless regained something of a career in the 1980s, even making a cameo in the '84 re-envisioning of Where the Boys Are. Her career would never regain its past heights, but she's had a number of successes, including some sold-out performances in the current century.

The Conclusion

Should you read the book? See the movie? They both have merit, though certain elements may try both your patience and your tolerance. At this point, they may appeal more to cultural historians and those curious about the recent past than to the casual reader or viewer.