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The Surprisingly Interesting Cinema of Pat Boone

Pat Boone had a decent career as a movie star, but he was no Elvis Presley. However, he starred in over a dozen films, had a couple of huge hits and for a few years was one of the biggest box office draws in the United States. He was famous for being a “clean” teen idol on screen: a non-smoking, non-drinking church goer. Boone was married with three kids by the age of 22. Boone insisted on finishing college even while being a huge star; few of his movies are well-remembered today. But a closer look at Boone’s filmography reveals a series of works that are, in fact, surprisingly complex. Here is a look at 15 of his most notable movies.

1. Bernardine (1957)

Boone’s first film was based on a play that 20th Century Fox had optioned intending to turn into a Robert Wagner vehicle. When Elvis Presley hit big in Love Me Tender (1956) — also at Fox — Wagner was out and Boone was in. He was signed to a multi-picture deal at the studio by Buddy Adler, who had recently taken over as head of production from Darryl F. Zanuck, and was keen to turn Boone — one of the biggest singing acts in the country — into a movie star.

Bernardine is a coming-of-age piece about a small town teenager, Sanford, who falls for a pretty telephone operator, hangs out with his friends, hoons around in jalopies and boats, struggles to pass his high school exams and cock blocks his mother’s relationship with a man he doesn’t like. A good role for Pat Boone, right? Only, get this, he doesn’t play Sanford. That job is done by Dick Sergeant, aka the second Darrin on Bewitched, while Boone appears as his buddy, Beau. Boone isn’t great, but he doesn’t have much of a character to play. At least Boone has looks, charm and can sing. Sergeant is awful. The role really required a young Mickey Rooney, but it could have been tailored for Boone who is wasted in his part.

This weird casting decision was presumably made so as not to burden Pat too much on his first time out. After all, in Love Me Tender, Elvis plays a supporting role to Richard Egan. Later, in Hound Dog Man (1959), Fabian would support Stuart Whitman. But those were good parts. Pat Boone’s role is lousy. The main thing he does in the movie is sing (including “Love Letters in the Sand” which became a huge hit) and introduce an elder brother (James Drury) who runs off with Terry Moore. Boone’s presence even throws the movie off a little. He gets screen time his character doesn’t deserve, and when he sings love songs — despite not having an on-screen love interest — it feels weird.

Fox gave Bernardine all the trimmings: color, CinemaScope, a supporting cast that included Janet Gaynor (in her last movie), Dean Jagger and old pro Henry Levin behind the camera. But it’s the sort of story that needed love and care (and perfect casting) to really work. It didn’t get it. The end result is awkward, unfocused and not a little creepy, especially in the relationship between Sergeant and his mother. However, the public was keen to see Boone on the big screen, and his popularity turned this into a box office success.

2. April Love (1957)

Boone’s second film is much more satisfactory, in part because it puts him front and center, but also because the material is more fool proof. It’s a remake of an earlier Fox hit, Home in Indiana (1944), with Pat stepping into a part originally played by Lon McAllister. McAllister had a brief heyday in the ’40s playing all-american types like Pat.

This is a sweet, wholesome tale where Pat is a “juvenile delinquent” i.e. he stole a car, though we never see the theft. He is sent out to a country town where he has to take lifts from people (which is actually a jolt to see, such is our conditioning that movie heroes should drive) and falls for Shirley Jones. He also gets lectured by Arthur O’Connell, who played an on-screen paterfamilias for most of the screen teen idols during this era from Elvis and Fabian to George Hamilton and Sandra Dee.

This was the film where Boone refused to kiss Jones on the lips for fear of upsetting his wife. He was about to do the kiss then realized he hadn’t checked with Mrs. Boone. He asked to postpone the scene, and got his wife’s approval overnight, but by the next day the story had leaked. Buddy Adler was furious; Adler and Boone fought. Boone arced up and refused to do any kissing. So, Jones goes in for a kiss, but he pushes her away (this is motivated by story at the time). At the end he goes to kiss her, but they are interrupted. It feels odd, and these sorts of movies are so wholesome you need a kiss as a form of release. You don’t get it.

But it has nice color and charm. Boone sings a few pleasing tunes, and he teams marvelously with Jones who had a similar all-american image (though she was a lot raunchier in her private life than her co-star). Boone loved the movie and later said he wish he could have made 20 more of them: “a musical, appealing characters, some drama, a good storyline, a happy ending.”

Why didn’t he? The film was a hit. It helped Boone be voted the No. 3 box office star in the country at the end of 1957. And it wasn’t as if Fox lacked Americana stories in their back catalog that they could remake: Kentucky (1938), Maryland (1940), Margie (1946), Smoky (1946), Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), etc. The only other remake he’d wind up doing was State Fair and that wasn’t even a star vehicle. Why didn’t someone put him together with Jones again?

3. Mardi Gras (1958)

Pat Boone became a famous homophobe, so it’s ironic to see him in a movie based on a story by gay Curtis Harrington and directed by bisexual Edmund Goulding who was notorious for hosting orgies. Mind you, gays were hard to avoid in Hollywood. Boone’s first co-star, Dick Sergeant, was one as was Lon McAllister and Shirley Jones’ husband. During the making of April Love, Jack Cassidy was bisexual. And Boone has always denied accusations of homophobia, saying some of his best friends were gay. Boone and his wife did Bible readings at Rock Hudson’s house when the latter was dying of AIDS while co-writing two books about gays who gave up the “lifestyle” —Joy: A Homosexual’s Fulfillment, and Coming Out: True Stories of the Gay Exodus. So, that’s settled then. 

Mardi Gras is a three-servicemen-on-leave musical, a subgenre that prospered in the ’50s after On the Town (1949). The plot also borrows liberally from The Fleet’s In (1942) and Roman Holiday (1953). Producer Jerry Wald liked the chance to showcase Fox’s contract talent. Tommy Sands and Gary Crosby play Boone’s fellow West Point grads while Christine Carere, Sheree North and Barrie Chase are the girls.

The film is bright enough, but is hampered by its casting. Boone is fine, but Carrere looks like a stunned mullet for most of the running time. Boone kisses her on the cheek, incidentally, but still no mouth! Goulding shoots a scene where Boone, Sands and Crosby have an extended shower together. Presumably, this was a fun day at the office for the director whose last film this was. It was a minor hit at the box office, but not as successful as Boone’s first two movies. His box office ranking dropped to No. 11 in 1958 which was still pretty good.

4. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Boone was reluctant to be part of this fantasy adventure because he was well aware he would be a supporting player. The film was originally conceived as a vehicle for Clifton Webb before he became too ill, and James Mason stepped in. He was persuaded to sign by a healthy fee and was rewarded with the biggest hit of his career.

And it’s no surprise. This is an utterly magical, charming adventure that works on every level. It is restrained, intelligent and enchanting. It’s easily the best film for both director Henry Levin and Boone (and, come to think of it, co-star Arlene Dahl).

As in Mardi Gras, Boone’s physical beauty is exploited. He walks around shirtless a lot and takes a shower that’s as gratuitous as any that had to be performed by a starlet in the ’50s. He originally performed several songs in the film, but they were cut when it was seen how they slowed up the action. And his role brushes up uneasily with that of Peter Ronson. It’s like these two parts should have been combined in one.

But that’s griping. This is the one Boone film I can recommend unreservedly, and it remains a mystery why Boone never appeared in another fantasy/sci-fi adventure in his entire career. Boone was believable in them, and he could easily sing a song over the credits if he wanted. He wouldn’t have to worry about kissing any of his co-stars or “morality” issues. And it wasn’t as though Fox weren’t making them. When he was under contract they turned out The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). The last two even featured pop stars Frankie Avalon and Fabian respectively, but no Boone. Was he too expensive? Did the dates not work out? Did he insist on playing the lead? Whatever the reason it was a great shame. For me, this is the biggest misstep Boone made in his film career.

The second biggest was he never again supported a star like James Mason, at least not during his prime. Boone could have benefited from being teamed with an older “name” like say John Wayne in The Comancheros (1961) — Boone could’ve played the Stuart Whitman part — or Frank Sinatra in Can Can (1960). In this case, he could’ve played the Louis Jourdan part. But he didn’t, at least not until Goodbye Charlie. However, at that stage, he really wasn’t a movie star anymore. Was it cost? Ego? Dates not working out? Anyway, it was silly of him.

Incidentally, in Journey, Boone kisses Diane Baker on the forehead then is about to kiss her on the lips when they’re interrupted. But, at the end, he kisses her briefly on the lips. His first lip kiss. Aww. 

Despite the film’s success, his box office ranking dropped to No. 22 in 1959. He kept that the following year despite appearing in no movies that year, and thereafter did not make any of the lists.

5. All Hands on Deck (1961)

Boone took a break away from movies for a few months, studying acting with Sanford Meisner, before returning to the screen in this service comedy. He plays a naval officer who has to babysit a madcap Native American sailor (Buddy Hackett in brownface) whose family is rich on oil money. The racism against native Americans here is both casual and formal, but it’s a rare Hollywood film at the time where they are shown to have some status in the modern world. 

Toward the end of the movie the writers got bored with that plot and make the story about a turkey, which tends to make for a patchy storyline, but it is all done with high spirits. Boone is quite animated, and it is a relaxed performance: his best to date. The Meisner training did pay off. Director Norman Taurog worked several times with Elvis Presley, and this feels like it could have been a Presley vehicle. Barbara Eden plays Boone’s love interest, and again he struggles to kiss her on camera. He comes close a few times, but they pull away, which is distracting.

6. State Fair (1962)

Fox blew the dust off another old property for Pat Boone, in this case the 1945 musical State Fair, which had originally been filmed in 1935. Boone (who receives top billing) plays the son of a family who has various adventures at a state fair. Boone gets to romance singer Ann Margret, and it’s heavily implied they sleep together. The film goes from them embracing then cuts to a shirtless Boone lying in her lap. He also gets drunk on screen for the first time. Way to go, Pat!

This movie has its fans, but was a financial disappointment. I think that’s because it just doesn’t work. It’s not the material. Sure, it’s cheesy, but The Sound of Music (1965) was cheesy and that came along three years later. I feel the main problem is too many key people were miscast. Jose Ferrer was not the right director and most of the cast fall short of their 1945 counterparts. Tom Ewell seems too urban to play “paw” compared to Charles Winninger. Pamela Tiffin looks like an urban ditz rather than a sweet naive country girl like Jeanne Crain. Bobby Darin (another pop star turned actor) comes across as sleazy rather than sharp like Dana Andrews. Ann-Margret was always better as good girls who looked as though they wanted to be naughty (Viva Las Vegas, Bye Bye Birdie) rather than straight-out naughty girls. Alice Faye looks like Alice Faye coming out of retirement (it was her last film) whereas Fay Bainter felt like a character. The one exception is Pat Boone who is far better than Dick Haymes, but he can’t save things.

Everyone assumed this would be a big hit, but it wasn’t. Still, Fox signed Boone to a new three-picture contract, although his next movie would be made for MGM-Seven Arts.

7. The Main Attraction (1962)

Pat Boone would later talk how he turned down a chance to star with Marilyn Monroe in an adaptation of William Inge’s play Celebration because he felt the material was immoral (it later became The Stripper (1963) with Joanne Woodward and Richard Beymer). However, two box office disappointments meant Boone was susceptible to overtures from producer Ray Stark, suggesting the actor change his image.

The Main Attraction was a tale of an amoral drifter (Boone) who lives out of wedlock with an elder circus performer (Mai Zetterling) and then falls in love with a bareback horse rider (Nancy Kwan). This was racy stuff for Boone who says he was attracted by the moral of the picture where his no-good character is redeemed by “the love of a good woman.”

Boone says in the original script his character resisted having sex with Kwan which he liked because he felt it showed his character was growing emotionally. He claims when it came to filming the scene it had been changed so that they slept together. Miscegenation and sex! There was a standoff, Boone complained to the press and Stark agreed to re-shoot the scene. So, it’s implied Boone and Kwan sleep together instead of showing it. They did this in order to get Boone’s cooperation publicizing the movie.

It’s a weird film, not quite successful, but interesting which benefits from being shot in Europe. And there is a catchy theme tune. The public didn’t particularly like it. Pat Boone said it was because it was too sexy for something starring him, and he’s probably right. It was a role that needed an Elvis.

8. The Yellow Canary (1963)

While Elvis Presley was turning out three films a year, which were all basically the same, Boone was continually changing genres. In The Yellow Canary, he agreed to play another anti-hero: an egotistical singer whose son is kidnapped. A script was prepared by Rod Serling, and Boone was going to make it under his new three-picture contract with Fox at $200,000 a film. But then the studio changed management. Daryl F. Zanuck returned to take over and did an audit of all projects. He disliked The Yellow Canary, and would have shut it down completely, but since Boone had a pay-or-play contract (as did Serling and co-stars Barbara Eden and Steve Forrest). Zanuck flicked it over to Fox’s “B” unit. The B unit was run by Robert L. Lippert whose regular director, Maury Dexter, shot it in 10 days on a below-the-line budget of $100,000. This was less than Boone’s fee. Boone whined about Fox’s cheapness, but Zanuck was right. Serling’s script isn’t very good with too much flowery dialogue. Because it’s a thriller, the low budget didn’t necessarily have to hurt in the hands of an imaginative director. But Dexter was a second-rater. It is interesting to see Boone play someone unpleasant who proves his manhood by shooting someone dead. This was a rare film where the actor used a gun. The movie flopped at the box office.

9. The Horror of It All (1964)

Zanuck doesn’t seem to have been a fan of Boone’s. The next film he put the actor in was another cheapie for the Lippert unit, this time filmed in England. It was a “comedy chiller” set in an old dark house and directed by Terence Fisher. The movie is populated by a fine supporting cast of English character actors playing various eccentrics (doddery inventor, sexy dame, et cetera). Boone is a solid straight man, and the film is lively. It’s not up to something like The Cat and the Canary (1939) which it was clearly aping, but those films are harder to do than they look. It’s not bad. It could have done with color and songs.

10. Never Put It in Writing (1964)

Boone’s next film was his third cheapie in a row and this time was a screwball comedy for Seven Arts. It was written and directed by Andrew L. Stone who is best known for his realistic thrillers, but who actually started his career with comedies. Based on the results here, he had gotten rusty at making them. This is a sluggish, underwritten effort about a man who writes an abusive letter to his boss in pique then tries to retrieve it.

The most interesting thing about this is part of the action was shot in Ireland. There was an accident involving planes while filming at Shannon Airport that led to questions being asked in the Irish parliament. This is the sort of movie that needed songs and color to compensate for the script. It has neither. Boone’s performance is fine, by the way.

By 1963, Boone’s albums weren’t selling as strongly as they used to (his last Top-10 hit was in 1962). However, it’s a mystery why he allowed himself to appear in the three low budget films in a row.  It was this run more than anything that ended his reign as a film star. He did have one more studio picture to go, but it would be as a supporting actor.

11. Goodbye Charlie (1964)

This was gender-bending comedy based on a play by George Axelrod that really needed to star Marilyn Monroe and be directed by Billy Wilder. Instead, it got Debbie Reynolds and Vincent Minnelli. The plot is about a womanizing man who is shot dead, reincarnated in the body of woman (Reynolds) and has to fend off advances from Tony Curtis and Pat Boone. It’s not that shocking to see the star of Spartacus (1960) and Some Like It Hot (1959) make moves on a woman not knowing she’s a man, but it is a surprise to see Boone to do it. He later admitted to having a drinking problem around this time and shot some scenes for the movie while drunk. You can’t tell.

This film remains resolutely undiscovered by queer/feminist film analysts, despite its subject matter and bisexual director (Boone’s second!). I think this is in part because Reynolds’ performance is so utterly sexless. It holds any feeling of kinkiness at bay. However, there’s no denying it because Boone plays a guy who effectively tries to make out with a dude.

The film does have another point of distinction. The opening scene involves a long tracking shot at a party that results in a middle-aged man getting annoyed at his wife having sex with a younger hunk. He takes out his gun and shoots the guy just like in Boogie Nights (1997). The movie was a financial disappointment, but not a flop, and Boone made no further films for Fox.

12. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

After all the sexual confusion in Goodbye Charlie, it must have been a relief for Boone to do his first religious film.  Boone is one of many stars who cameo in this George Stevens epic, playing an Angel at the Tomb.

Boone (who is perfectly fine in the role, by the way) was proud of his association with the movie. This makes you wonder why he didn’t appear in more Biblical stories. After all, Fox made a bunch in the early ’60s: The Story of Ruth (1960) with Stuart Whitman, Esther and the King (1960) with Richard Egan and Francis of Assisi (1961) with Bradford Dillman. It might be because shortly after Mardi Gras Boone turned down a role in a film Buddy Adler wanted him to make: The St Bernard Story. Boone would have played a monk who falls in love with a woman. After much soul searching, Boone turned the part down because he felt he couldn’t play a Catholic. The film was never made, but if he wouldn’t play a Catholic. Would he play a Jew? There weren’t many Protestants around in Jesus’ day. Maybe an angel was the only sort of part he was interested in.

13. The Perils of Pauline (1967)

One of the mysteries of Boone’s career was why he didn’t support major stars more like say John Wayne or James Stewart. I’m assuming this was due to ego and/or cost. By the late ’60s, Boone was willing to play the leading man alongside the little-known Pamela Austin, who is really the protagonist of this silly, lighthearted adventure. It was a pilot for a TV series that didn’t sell, so was released as a theatrical feature by Universal. It was Boone’s fifth comedy of the ’60s. He just kept trying to make them.

The basic story has Austin and Boone as childhood sweethearts at an orphanage. He goes off to make his fortune in order to marry her and spends the rest of the running time of the movie trying to be reunited with her. They are constantly thwarted by the fact men keep falling in love with Pauline.

There’s a surprisingly strong emotional undercurrent to the story. Austin and Boone are soulmates, and just want to get married, but others stop them: lecherous sheiks, pukka sahibs (Terry Thomas!), Russian secret agents, Italian film directors, cosmonauts, gorillas, et cetera. It’s a repetitive storyline, though. Boone and Austin are about to get together, but something stops them. And it has the cheerful racism of films of this era (horny Arabs, midgets in Africa).

It is full of energy and never lets up. The movies it most reminded me of were the ’60s AIP beach party comedies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Boone throws himself into his silly role with much enthusiasm. Little kids will like it especially girls who might identify with Pauline. Incidentally, Boone was starting to lose his hair by now and, the hair pieces would soon kick in. For all this later talk about the importance of being honest, Boone — like many a star — was cagey about the reality of his hair.

14. The Pigeon (1969)

Boone played a supporting role in this TV movie starring Sammy Davis Jr. The billing says he made a “special appearance.” Boone did it for the chance to do a dramatic role and says he was surprised to be offered. Was this true? Had he really become so unfashionable that the only role going was supporting Sammy Davis Jr. in a TV movie? Boone did seem out of step in the swinging ’60s. It’s still surprising he wasn’t signed up to make, say, a family sitcom. This was The Brady Bunch era after all.

15. The Cross and the Switchblade (1970)

This was Boone’s last role as a leading man in a feature until the 2010s. It was a religious-themed biopic about a pastor who goes to the streets and teaches gang members about Jesus. It was done very cheaply, and looks it, but was widely seen among its target audience. I actually think a major studio would’ve make money out of this had they picked it up.

The film ended Boone’s career as a leading man, but he has remained active as an actor guest starring on TV series like Owen Marshall and Moonlighting. He returned to films in the 2010s in Christian-themed tales like Boonville Redemption (2016) and A Cowgirl’s Story (2017). He continues to sing and regularly commentates on cultural matters such as promoting the theory that Barak Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim. 

His film career remains a fascinating grab bag of genres and missed opportunities with one unadulterated classic (Journey to the Center of the Earth), one sweet romance (April Love) and two films which spoke very much to his personal beliefs: The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Cross and the Switchblade.

It’s completely bizarre that Boone never tried to repeat these movies. It’s also weird there are no war films in his oeuvre (he must have been one of the few Fox contract players to not appear in The Longest Day). Boone didn’t appear in any Westerns or adaptations of Broadway musicals which were genres that might have given him an extra lease of life as a movie actor. He could have taken roles played by Stuart Whitman, Tom Tryon and Al Hedison, but didn’t. He wondered why Hollywood no longer made family films, but never appeared in any. Fox made some like Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation with James Stewart, but also Disney and filmmakers like Joe Cap, yet Boone was MIA.

But to be fair, movie making was just one chapter of Boone’s life. He has devoted more time and attention to his efforts as a singer, TV presenter, writer, real estate developer and cultural commentator. But he was the most successful ’50s pop star turned movie star after Elvis and that deserves some respect.

About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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