April is almost over, and it wasn’t too bad. It rained a lot, but it always rains a lot in Bellingham in the spring. It even snowed once, making me think that my basement grow-light seedlings—lettuce, spinach, spring radishes, cabbage—just planted outside, would die. Most didn’t, and anyway, I’ve already got another round started in egg-carton cradles.
The other day April Love, in my Netflix Availability Unknown queue for a year, bounced to Instant Play, just in time to watch it in April. Made in 1957 when I was four years old, and starring Pat Boone (then 23), Shirley Jones (also 23), Arthur O’Connell and Jeanette Nolan, it’s the story of an anti-social kid from Chicago, Nick Conover (note the Dickensian name), sent to his uncle’s horse farm in Kentucky to clean up his act. The horse farm is barely in business since the death of Nick’s cousin, whom the uncle is still mourning, and who alone could handle the champion trotter Tugfire. Nick’s a car guy, in trouble because he stole a car in Chicago “just for a joy ride.” On his uncle’s horse farm he revives a jalopy in the barn and shows no interest in harness racing.
On a more prosperous farm down the road live two young single women, Fran and Liz Templeton (played by Shirley Jones). You could think of them as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood or Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, but blonde. (Nearly every young woman in this film is blonde, down to the extras at the dance and the harness races.) Liz is the good-hearted, capable sister. She can drive a trotter. Fran is the hot sister. She drives a red sports car. Of course our Nick is attracted to Fran, thinking of Liz as merely a “good sport.”
April Love is not a musical in the sense that Oklahoma is, but Boone and Jones occasionally burst into song. I think it's the songs that made such an impression on me when I watched this film on television over and over again, on Saturday afternoons during the sixties in Sacramento. Nick and Liz (Boone and Jones) each sing a version of a particular song that amounts to a concise summary of fifties gender politics. Nick’s version: “Give me a gentle girl, a sweet and sentimental girl, one whose smile will warm my heart when summer days have flown . . .Give me the wistful type, with eyes the soft and mistful [sic] type, one whose wish will always be to live for me alone. For her I’d move a mountain, to her I would kneel . . .” Jones later sings the same song, slightly reworded (“Am I that gentle girl, that sweet and sentimental girl . . ..”) while undressing at home for a shower, clever waist-level closet doors and towels showing her legs and shoulders but nothing in between. This modest strip-tease is part of the propaganda, too.
Watching this film after so many years, nearly forty of them sexually active, twenty-six happily married, I remember now how confusing it was. I was pretty sure in my teens and twenties that Fran was the girl I wasn’t supposed to be—beautiful but irresponsible, driving her car too fast, tempting Nick, who is trying to reform, into racing his uncle’s car against hers on a public road (as in Rebel Without a Cause, which came out two years earlier). Fran, who is actually very likeable, is the wrong kind of girl. Liz, on the other hand, an expert harness racer, has driving hands like a man. That can’t be good. She herself has to reform, fall so in love with Nick that she stays up all night with him (clothes on) when Tugfire gets sick. She roots for Nick when he races Tugfire at the fair, although her own horse is also competing. She must demonstrate that her loyalty to Nick and Nick alone is worth more than her sister’s beauty—although, let’s face it, Shirley Jones at 23, with the blonde ponytail that curled at the end, was no dog.
How can a girl be exactly attractive enough? Exactly invested enough in a man’s life that she doesn’t drive him away, doesn’t crowd him, doesn’t endanger his future? If she manages to strike the right note, will she ever have the courage to strike any others?
In the end—you’re not going to watch this movie, are you?—Nick wins the race, isn’t arrested for violating his no-driving probation, and heads home from the fair singing “April Love,” accompanied by the whole damn county. He gives up dangerous modernity in the form of fast cars for fast horses and a girl suited to a peaceful, rural life. Not too peaceful: the dances in Kentucky are doo-wop rowdy, and don’t forget Liz's lovely legs.
Boone, by the way, never quite kisses Jones in this film. A conservative Christian, he protested that because she was married in real life, kissing her, even on film, would not be okay.
Today is my sweet husband Warren’s birthday. He’s changing in midlife. He works for a living, but also makes short films and has become a great photographer. He’s a leader in Bellingham’s transition town movement. The kids call him with all the questions I can’t answer—a long list—and a couple of weeks ago he made a middle of the night visit to the city jail when a friend of one of our kids got a DUI. If there’s a better man out there than Warren, I’ve never met him.
I write. That’s about it. Oh, I’m teaching a little now, too, but after so many years of obsessive mothering, I take writing pretty seriously. It’s hard to rejoin the world (and Warren is my world) after hours in one that I’ve made up. Warren has to wait that process out.
I worry that we have less and less in common as our child-rearing years recede. He’s never expected me to “live for him alone,” thank Whomever, but sometimes movies like April Love come back to me, and I worry that I’m taking a big risk making such an issue, even at this late date, of claiming my own life. Is it not wrong, wrote W. G. Sebald, to squander one's chance of happiness in order to indulge a talent?*
Here's Warren. Don’t get any ideas.
*Thanks to Craig Morgan Teicher, who uses this Sebald quote in his essay, "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living," Colorado Review 38.1. Spring 2011.