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Bernardine

Bernardine(1957)

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teaser Bernardine (1957)

In 1956, Twentieth Century-Fox was looking for a wholesome alternative to Elvis Presley, the then "bad boy" of Rock-n-Roll, and twenty-two-year-old sweater and white buck shoe-wearing pop star Pat Boone fit the bill nicely. When Fox beat out the competition to sign Boone to a contract at $75,000 for his first film, he was already a millionaire from his album and concert dates, but his acting ability was untested. The studio decided it would be best to avoid putting him in a heavy drama, and so they went with a light, fluffy comedy in which they could insert a few songs for the fans. They decided on Bernardine (1957), based on the 1952 Broadway play of the same name by Mary Chase, who had also written Harvey. Despite Bernardine being Boone's first film, his popularity was so great that the studio allowed his name to appear in the credits with equal or greater billing than any of his veteran costars, who included Academy Award-winning actress Janet Gaynor, who was making her first film in over fifteen years, Dean Jagger, and Natalie Schafer.

The plot of Bernardine was fairly simple - a group of seniors from Wingate High, Beau Beaumont (Boone), Griner (Ronnie Burns, son of George Burns and Gracie Allen), and Sanford Wilson (future Bewitched star, Richard "Dick" Sargent), hang out in a clubhouse and invent the girl of their dreams. They call her Miss Bernardine Mudd, and pretend that she lives in the mythical town of Sneaky Falls, by the Itchy River. For fun, they prank call telephone operators to ask for her number. One of the operators, Jean Cantrick (Terry Moore) answers their call and falls for the gag, but Wilson falls for her, and his attention towards Jean puts him in danger of failing out of school. Wilson has to get his grades up, so Beau "solves" the problem by hooking up Jean with his older brother (James Drury), much to Wilson's dismay.

As early as December 1955, producer Buddy Adler was said to be attached to the film, with Fox star Robert Wagner considered for a leading role. A few months later, Hope Lange was also rumored to be signed to Bernardine, which continued to languish in development. Neither actor appeared in the final film, nor did Ed Byrnes, who made a screen test in January 1957. Boone made his screen test for Dick Sargent's role in December 1956, opposite John Barrymore, Jr., but producer Samuel G. Engel was impressed with the power of Boone's performance and gave him the stronger character of Beau, instead. Although a star, Boone was living in New Jersey, enrolled at Columbia University, and - to what must have been the horror of the Fox publicity team - a married man with three small daughters. When he was signed to make Bernardine , Boone took a leave of absence from school and moved his wife and family to California in late January.

Shot in color and in CinemaScope on the Fox lot from February 4 until March 27, 1957, Bernardine was directed by Henry Levin from a screenplay adaptation by Theodore Reeves. On the first day of filming, Levin could see that Boone was nervous, so Levin allowed a week for rehearsals and to acquaint Boone with how films were made. When not rehearsing, Boone recorded songs for the film at Fox, under famed composer/music director Alfred Newman, who called Boone "the nicest singer I've worked with." Three songs, the title track, Bernardine and Technique, written by Johnny Mercer, would become respectable hits for Boone, but a last minute addition, Love Letters in the Sand (which had already been recorded by Bing Crosby) would become Boone's biggest hit, going gold, with four to five million record sales according to Boone.

Bernardine was, by all accounts, a happy shoot, with the cast working well together and enjoying each other's company. Sargent later remembered that he and Boone "worked together all day, and then they'd invite me over for dinner. [...] I hate to use the word 'normal' when I refer to Pat, because it makes him sound so unimaginative and colorless. Believe me, he's anything but! He's just naturally a fellow who takes each thing as it comes, refuses to involve himself and make himself miserable. It's such a healthy attitude and it reflects on everyone around him." Pat couldn't miss being a hit in Bernardine. Fox was so pleased with Boone's performance in the daily rushes that they picked up the option in his contract for a second film after only six weeks.

Boone was a hit when the film opened in New York on July 24, 1957, after a premiere in Denver, and the film ended up in the top twenty box office draws for 1957. The critics found it lightweight but enjoyable, even The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who wrote, "Move over, Elvis Presley. And welcome, Pat Boone, his exact antithesis [...] a sunny, clean-cut youth of manly mien and fine voice--with a real screen future, in a wholesome, pleasant comedy about adolescence. As much as we hate to say so however, Mary Chase's stage play was better. [...] The play was funny, tough-minded and tender all at once. The Hollywood refurbishment is attractive but superficial. [...] [T]he trumped-up plot by scenarist Theodore Reeves (Miss Chase just didn't bother) has most of the cast coddling the gang's least winning member, a selfish numskull with a case of the sulks. [...] The original cutting edge of Bernardine is gone, but on the whole, you still couldn't find a nicer bunch of people."

SOURCES:

The AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Kibbey, Richard Pat Boone: The Hollywood Years
Crowther, Bosley "'Bernardine' Introduces Pat Boone Here" The New York Times 25 Jul 57
Rowan, Terry Bikini, Surfing, & Beach Party Movies

By Lorraine LoBianco

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