Movie Review: “Bernardine”

“Bernardine” (1957)

Starring Pat Boone, Terry Moore, Richard Sargent, Janet Gaynor, Dean Jagger, James Drury, Walter Abel, Natalie Schafer, Isabel Jewell and Jack Costanzo. Directed by Henry Levin. From Twentieth Century-Fox.

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“America’s New Boyfriend is on the Screen”

It’s spring in Wingate and Arthur “Beau” Beaumont (Boone) and his buds are cutting up in the locker room at Wingate High. Teacher Mr. Mason (Russ Conway) comes in and tells Sanford Wilson (Sargent) that if he doesn’t bear down and improve his grades over the last few weeks of school he’ll flunk out.

Beau, Sanford and the rest of the boys adjourn to their hang-out, the Shamrock Club, to discuss strategy. Their minds wander, as they often do, to thoughts of a make-believe dream girl whom they’ve christened “Bernardine Mudd”. Sanford, sick of striking out at school and with girls, goes to the payphone and pranks the phone company and later goes down to see the operator he talked to. He finds out she is Jean Cantrick (Moore), a gorgeous teenager who has just moved to town. Sanford is in love.

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Jean agrees to go with Sanford to see Jack Costanzo at the Black Cow. During their date, Sanford explains that he has to go underground for two solid weeks to study so that he will graduate. Sanford’s widowed mother (Gaynor) has been dating Fullerton Weldy (Jagger), a sharpie that Sanford can’t stand. If Sanford doesn’t buckle down and graduate, that will prove to Mrs. Wilson that there needs to be a man around the house and she will marry Weldy. Jean casually agrees to “wait” for Sanford, not fathoming how hard Sanford has fallen. During the two weeks, Beau’s brother (Drury) comes home on leave and things get complicated.

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Mary Coyle Chase

Bernardine is based on a play of the same name written by journalist and playwright Mary Coyle Chase. The play debuted on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and starred John Kerr who won an award for his performance. The play was only moderately successful and ran until February of the following year. Chase had written the play Harvey in 1944 and it became the sixth longest-running play in Broadway history at the time. As all of you know, Harvey became an Oscar-winning film starring James Stewart. She had a third play made into a film, 1939’s Sorority House, directed by John Farrow and scripted by Dalton Trumbo. In 1981, while working on a musical adaptation of Harvey, Mary Chase died of a heart attack. She was 75. She left behind three sons, one of whom was a professor at the University of Toronto.

20th Century-Fox bought the film rights to Bernardine as a vehicle for Robert Wagner. Henry Levin was tapped to direct. Levin had directed some two dozen films since 1944 and he would go on to direct Boone again in April Love and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Levin also helmed several films that appeal to mid-century swinger types like us: Where the Boys Are, If a Man Answers, Come Fly With Me, Murderer’s Row and The Ambushers.

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Beau and his sweater having a Coke at the Shamrock.

Pat Boone was one of the most popular singers in the land when he chose to begin his film career at 20th Century-Fox, the same studio where Elvis Presley had just made his film debut. While Pat made notable films including the not-yet-mentioned State Fair, Goodbye, Charlie and The Cross and the Switchblade, he is more well known for his many hit records and for his squeaky clean persona. More on what Pat brings to the role of Beau later.

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Pretty Jean Cantrick (Moore) proves even dishier than Sanford could have hoped.

Terry Moore I looked at in my review of The Great Rupert. By the time she made our film, Terry was an Oscar-nominated actress receiving plaudits for her work in Come Back, Little Sheba. However, she would go on to play mostly vixens in films like Peyton Place before transitioning to TV. She plays Jean as a very pleasant, down-to-earth girl. She married many times and was in a relationship with Howard Hughes for over 25 years although that has been disputed. She is still alive and turned 90 in January of 2019.

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Sanford (Sargent) and Jean (Moore) dig Mr. Bongo.

Richard Sargent was by no means a prolific feature film actor but he managed to show up in some notable titles including two Elvis Presley pictures, Love Me Tender and Live a Little, Love a Little. Sargent and Boone both made their next film appearances in Mardi Gras and Sargent went on to appear in films starring heavyweights like Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Gregory Peck and Bobby Darin: Operation Petticoat, The Great Impostor, That Touch of Mink and Captain Newman, M.D. He is best known for playing the second Darrin on the Bewitched television series.

Janet Gaynor got her start in silent films before winning the first Oscar for Best Actress and becoming one of the biggest stars of the early sound era. She received notice for her role as “Mrs. Norman Maine” in the 1937 version of A Star is Born before retiring from acting when she married costume designer Adrian. Notably, Gaynor was lured out of retirement to appear in Bernardine; she would not make another film. She died in 1984, aged 77, due to complications from a car accident she had been in two years earlier. September 5, 1982, Gaynor, her husband, her best friend, actress Mary Martin and Martin’s manager were traveling in a taxicab when they were hit by a drunk driver. Mary Martin suffered two broken ribs and a broken pelvis, Gaynor’s husband two broken legs and Martin’s manager was killed. Gaynor herself sustained serious injuries; 11 broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, a punctured lung, and injuries to her bladder and kidneys. At the time of Gaynor’s death it was said that she never really recovered from her injuries. The drunk driver? After being arrested for felony drunk driving, reckless driving, speeding, running a red and vehicular homicide, he got three years in prison.

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Mrs. Wilson (Gaynor) and Fullerton Weldy (Jagger) listen to the sounds of Sanford cramming.

Dean Jagger does not appear in Bernardine until two-thirds of the way through the picture. As Fullerton Weldy he exudes a regal bearing and takes on the small role well, although Weldy proves wieldy; Mrs. Wilson holds him like a club over her son’s head. Jagger began in films in 1929 and had made scores of them when he appeared in Twelve O’Clock High in 1949 for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He continued working steadily appearing in The Robe, White Christmas and Bad Day at Black Rock before appearing in our film. Afterwards, he notably played Elvis Presley’s beaten down father in Presley’s best film, King Creole. Later, he showed up in Elmer Gantry, Vanishing Point and Game of Death while also finding success on television.

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James Drury as “The Virginian”.

James Drury plays Beau’s brother, “Lee”. Drury had played one of King’s brothers a year earlier in Love Me Tender and had also appeared in Blackboard Jungle, Love Me or Leave MeThe Tender Trap and Forbidden Planet. He would later make his name in westerns, mostly on television but also on the big screen (Ride the High Country). He starred for nine years on the 90-minute series The Virginian. Drury also had a band that performed in USO shows in the mid-60s. Later in life, he was a major player in the oil business. His son is a musician that has played with the Eagles and Whitesnake.

 

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Schafer and Abel as the Beaumont’s.

Walter Abel and Natalie Schafer play Beau’s parents. Abel was a steady and prolific actor who by this point had made scores of films, The Three Musketeers (1935) and Dance Girl Dance among them. He’ll forever be known to me as Danny Reed from Holiday Inn. After Bernardine, he made only half a dozen films including Raintree County. Ms. Schafer is of course best known for portraying Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. She also appeared in films like Reunion in France and The Snake Pit. In her personal life she was extremely private, so much so that she never revealed her actual age even to her husband; she always claimed to have been born in 1912 but after her death her actual birth year of 1900 was discovered. She also never disclosed to family or friends that she had survived a bout with breast cancer.

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“What’s all this ruckus?!” Isabel Jewell as Mrs. McDuff.
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Jack Costanzo in full flight at the Black Cow.

Isabel Jewell shows up as the enigmatic Mrs. McDuff, the boys’ den mother at the Shamrock. Every time I see Isabel I immediately identify her as Gloria Stone, the young woman who went bonkers on the hi-jacked plane in Lost Horizon. Bernardine was basically her last film after appearing – somewhat invisibly – in many notable films: Manhattan Melodrama, Evelyn Prentice, A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Gone With the Wind, High Sierra, The Falcon and the Co-Eds, The Bishop’s Wife and The Snake Pit. Jewell committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates in 1972. Legendary bongo man Jack Costanzo and his band perform in Bernardine. Costanzo performed and made records on his own and alongside basically every notable name of mid-century including Stan Kenton, Nat Cole, Desi Arnaz, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher. He appeared in a handful of films, not always as himself, as when he played Julna in Harum Scarum with Elvis Presley. Many Hollywood stars studied bongos with Costanzo such as Marlon Brando, Carolyn Jones (makes her even cooler), Tony Curtis, Vic Damone and James Dean.

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The gang – including Ronnie Burns as Griner, far right – are surprised when Beau’s brother Lee appears to reclaim his T-Bird.

Ronnie Burns plays lover boy Griner. Ronnie is the son of George Burns and Gracie Allen and was a regular on their TV show. Teacher Mr. Mason is played by Canadian Russ Conway who made scores of films from Buck Privates Come Home to Our Man Flint with Love Me Tender along the way. And I have to mention Hooper Dunbar who plays “slob” Vernon Kinswood. You look this guy up and his minor acting career is only a footnote. He is identified as a sculptor and painter whose work has been exhibited all over the world. He is also an adherent of the Bahà’i Faith and was a member of the Universal House of Justice, which is the supreme governing institution of the Faith. He is still alive and lives in California and Spain.

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At first, the guys are miffed when Kinswood trespasses on their turf. But then Beau goes to work on him.

Mary Chase wrote Bernardine as basically a teen exploitation play/movie before that was really a thing. The script has similarities with films like the ‘Beach Party’ movies. There is a lot of language and bits of business created for the boys and you wonder if teenagers ever really talked like this. The film is loaded with contrived lingo that is sometimes cringe-worthy. However, at the same time, I remember my own youth when my friends and I made up a lot of goofy nicknames and talked some stupid stuff.

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The boys pay homage to the mythical “Bernardine” in the back room of the Shamrock.

Arthur Beaumont gets “Beau”, OK, but Sanford gets called “Vice Commodore Fofo Bidnut” and the gang often talk like they are together on a fighter jet. Beau even answers the phone in his garage like a jet pilot would even when it’s only his German maid (played by Edit Angold, who was in G.I. Blues) on the other end. The ultimate term of derision amongst the boys is “slob”, something I’ve never heard in any other story. A car is referred to as a “goat”; nope, never heard that either. A guy can be “OTL” with girls – “out to lunch”. Missed that one, too.

The whole idea of the dream girl, “Bernardine Mudd from Sneaky Falls, Idaho” hasn’t aged well but I guess teenagers could have gotten up to such silliness back in the day. There is a choreographed number performed for the title song that takes place in the Shamrock. Behind a curtain, the boys have a cardboard effigy of a dream girl that they bow down to. “Bernardine”, though, is a delightful song written – words and music – by the great Johnny Mercer. Boone took it to #1 as he did another song he sings in the film, “Love Letters in the Sand”. The other catchy tune offered is “Technique” with some comical – if sexist – lyrics.

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It must be that Mrs. McDuff allows the boys to hang out in the back room. They wouldn’t be allowed to hang out in a bar – nor would they be depicted as such.

And the Shamrock Club itself is a mystery; it’s doesn’t seem to be a functioning bar or even a restaurant although the sign out front says it is. And then there’s Mrs. McDuff. She “runs” the place, tells the boys to keep it down and delights when Beau sings. She poignantly bids the boys farewell when school is over. Maybe she allows these boys to hang out by the Coke machine in the back room of her bar. Actually, I first heard about this film through my stepfather who would always talk about the old movie in which Pat Boone and his buds hang out in their “garage” and drink Cokes.

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At the boat races.

Beau does keep his speedboat – also christened “Bernardine Mudd” – in his garage but the guys don’t really hang out there. Sanford is the big boat racer but gets disqualified after he wins a race because he doesn’t come in for inspection after his victory – instead he does figure eights in oblivious delight thinking about Jean who’s watching from the beach.

Which brings me to Dick Sargent’s portrayal of Sanford Wilson. This is, by miles, the absolute worst performance by a supposed actor I have ever seen. When non-actors like Joe Namath or Tony Bennett get thrown into a movie, you suspend your expectations a bit and their lack of presence or chops is acceptable. But Sargent was an actor and worse than that, people were seeing his work in dailies and carried on making the film! Every gesture, every look and almost every line he delivers is presented in such an amateurish manner that your reaction becomes one of anger. The way he hangs his head, closes his eyes and says “technique”, throws himself against a tree, sips his coffee while his mom reads a letter from school; it’s all terrible. I’m enraged just writing about it.

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The Beaumont’s must be well off. They have an exquisite home.

Pat Boone plays Beau as a real sharpie who is regularly on the make. He rudely dismisses Kinswood, calling him “slob”. He lies to the bartender at the Black Cow to get served then takes the drinks to Sanford and Jean who are sitting in the area where alcohol is not allowed. He tricks Kinswood into buying Sanford’s boat and pranks his brother, Lee. He also steals his brother’s car and draft card to give to Sanford. All the while dressed in great shoes and sweaters, so it’s OK. This from squeaky clean Pat Boone who’s general presentation in his music career was very straight arrow. Actually, come to think of it, a few years later, in State Fair, things get a little steamy when Pat finds himself shirtless with gorgeous Ann-Margret. Interesting.

There’s a couple of great exterior location shots in Bernardine. My favourite is the “General Telephone Company” where Jean works. Outside the building, you can plainly see the street signs that proclaim this is “16th and Arizona”. I looked it up and found it to be a bit of a mystery. The intersection is in Santa Monica and the headquarters of GTE was located in Santa Monica up until 1985 when they moved to Ventura County but that building overlooked the Pacific at 100 Wilshire Blvd. While I’m not sure of the history here one thing is for sure; on that corner today you will find the UCLA Health Center.

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I watch Bernardine every spring and it is a delight. I highly recommend it. It is goofy, sure, but goofy in a good way. If you want to own it on DVD, good luck. If you want to watch it over and over again for free, I can help. Just keep it under your hat.

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