Thursday, December 19, 2013

BILLIE 1965

A favorite little-known Patty Duke film (perhaps, deservedly so) sandwiched innocuously between her Oscar-winning turn in The Miracle Worker (1962) and the near career-killing ignominy of Valley of the Dolls (1967) – which has become, most assuredly, THE film she’ll be most remembered for – is Billie: a sprightly, featherweight, teen musical about a tomboyish track and field dynamo suffering with gender-identity issues. 
Patty Duke as Billie Carol
Jim Backus as Howard G. Carol
Jane Greer as Agnes Carol
Warren Berlinger as Mike Benson
I won't kid you, the above description, as brief as it is, makes Billie sound considerably more substantial than it is. Point in fact: clocking in at brisk 87 minutes, Billie is so lightweight it’s barely there...which, in my book, makes it the perfect vehicle for when you want to see a movie, but aren't looking for much in the way of substance. Kind of like the cinematic equivalent of a schnecken. This bit of pop-culture fluff was churned out in just 15 days (!) in order to capitalize on the popularity of teen sensation, Patty Duke, her weekly TV series, The Patty Duke Show (Billie was filmed before the start of the show’s third and final season), and her recently launched recording career. It's not a motion picture so much as a bigscreen TV sitcom padded out to feature length with a few lively musical numbers and what easily has to be 15-minutes worth of reaction shot cutaways to the family sheepdog. 
Such a Face!
The degree to which Billie relies on reaction shots of this adorable Old English Sheepdog (Clown) to provide the visual equivalent of a television laugh track, borders on animal cruelty.
The Patty Duke Show featured a sheepdog named Tiger who mysteriously disappeared after the first season 
As is the case with so many 60s sitcoms, the plot of Billie hinges on a single, silly gimmick. In this instance, in lieu of talking horses, identical twin cousins, or mothers reincarnated as automobiles; we have an average teenager who, thanks to a bit of a mind flip called “the beat” – the ability to hear a rhythm in her head and transfer that percussive beat into athletic prowess – is able to outrun, out jump, and outperform every male member of her high-school track team.
Billie's got the Beat!
(more accurately, Patty Duke's got a running platform attached to the back of a camera truck) 
If you're scratching your head wondering how, unless the story is set in Downton Abbey, a feature film’s worth of comic/dramatic conflict can be wrung from a non-issue like a female athlete in 1965; it helps to know that Billie is adapted from a wheezy 1952 stage play by Ronald Alexander titled, Time Out for Ginger, and, save for the substituting of track & field for the play’s intergender football premise, makes it to the screen with its outmoded sexual politics intact. (Although, when compared to the princess-fixated, Pepto-Bismol pink vision of femininity marketed to young girls today, Billie’s fairly toothless challenge to the male/female status quo of 1965 is practically a feminist manifesto.) In addition, research for this post revealed to me that until federal sex discrimination laws were passed in 1972, athletic programs for girls were a very low priority in many high schools. So perhaps some aspects of Billie's plot aren't as far-fetched as I once thought. 

Mayoral candidate Howard Carol (Backus) resides in a house full of women, yet runs his campaign on a “return to gentility,” anti-women’s rights platform. Agnes (Greer), his long-suffering wife, is one of those wisely sardonic housewives typical of 60s sitcoms: she's genuinely smarter than her husband, but regularly defers to his oafishness out of love and an understanding of the fragility of the male ego. Eldest daughter, Jean (Susan Seaforth), is the ultra-femme apple of Howard’s eye and the veritable poster girl for non-threatening, 60s womanhood. Not only does she look like a younger model of her mother, but at age 20 she wants nothing more from life than to quit college, marry, and get down to the business of making babies. Goals her character has already achieved by the time she’s first introduced.
That Girl's Ted Bessell and Days of Our Lives' Susan Seaforth-Hayes contribute to Billie's cast of recognizable TV faces
This leaves 15-year-old Billie (Duke), a self-professed “lonely little in-between” wrestling with puberty and grappling with anxiety over her gender-identification. And small wonder. She has a father who clearly favors her pretty and feminine older sister, and in this painful exchange, accidentally lets slip how he really feels about his youngest offspring:

Father- “From now on, try to remember that you’re a girl!”
Billie- “I wish I was a boy…”
Father- “So do I, but you’re not!”

Ouch! I understand the title for the sequel is: Time Out for Therapy

When Billie is later recruited by the high school track coach (“…to shame the boys into trying harder”), her newfound notoriety as the team’s most valuable player not only threatens to alienate potential suitor, Mike Benson (the doughy Warren Berlinger), but derail her reluctantly supportive father’s run for mayor. What's a girl/boy to do?
"I should have been a boy, but here I am a girl!"
Singing the song, "Lonely Little In-Between," Billie decides to throw herself a Pity Party

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Unless, like me, you're a nostalgia-prone boomer who grew up on white-bread, middle-class, suburban family comedies of the 60s, and nursed a prepubescent crush on cute-as-a-button Patty Duke; Billie is a movie so dated and obviously aimed at kids, you're apt to find it more trying than entertaining. (Although, I ask you, who can resist that infectious soundtrack?) 
Given what must have been a pretty tight shooting schedule, Billie is pretty straightforward stuff as far as filmmaking goes. There's no art to the cinematography beyond making sure everyone remains within the frame and everything is in focus. The editing is of the ping-pong variety: alternating medium shots of whomever is talking in a particular scene. There's not even much to say about the performances, as everyone does a professional, workmanlike job with their sketchily written parts. So what, beyond the overall competence of the endeavor, do I enjoy about Billie
The fact that each time I revisit it, its surface simplicity begins to look more complex.

Like a great many family-oriented films that haven’t aged particularly well, Billie has evolved over the years into one of those cult-worthy, meta-movies that, when viewed through the prism of contemporary mores, can't help but operate on several different levels simultaneously. Most of them inadvertent. All of them more interesting than the film as originally conceived.
The gender politics of Billie are either/or. You're either a track star or a girl...you can't be both
There’s Billie the high-school musical and puberty allegory about a confused tomboy teetering on the brink of womanhood; Billie the insincere social-conflict farce that pays lip service to women's equality, yet in its heart really believes that men and women are just happier occupying traditional gender roles; Billie the "very special episode" of the ABC Afterschool Special about a transgender teen struggling with being a boy trapped in a girl's body (the most persuasive layer, if you ask me); and, finally, Billie the "be yourself" Glee episode about the growing pains of a latent lesbian high-school track star (Duke's resemblance to Ellen Degeneres adding yet another layer).
An uncomfortable layer, but one the good-natured actress is more than willing to attest to these days, is the curious fact that, given her real-life battle with bipolarism, she was so often cast in roles that required her to play dueling sides of her own personality. 
Even after a feminizing makeover, Billie proves she still has plenty of butch to spare!

PERFORMANCES
Thanks to reruns of The Patty Duke Show airing currently on Antenna TV, I've had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with what a charming and natural comedienne Patty Duke can be. Her Patty Lane may not have been as glamorous as the teens Elinor Donahue and Shelley Fabares played on Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show, respectively, but she was far more likable, relatable, and a real dynamo of energy (Patty Lane was quite the scrappy little toughie. Episodes highlighting her character’s selfish, bossy side show signs of a budding Neely O’Hara).
With his man-boobs, Michelin Man ripples, and thorough lack of muscle tone, boyish Warren Berlinger (27-years-old to Duke's 18) makes for an unlikely athletic candidate. The athletic field featured in Billie is John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Ca. Recognizable to fans of Grease as Rydell High. 

The talented Patty Duke is undeniably the glue holding Billie together (the film is credited to Chrislaw / Patty Duke Productions. Chrislaw being the Peter Lawford-headed production company responsible for The Patty Duke Show), but her trademark vitality feels strangely subdued, and the film doesn't really make the most of her talents. Saddled with a character who spends the majority of the film feeling wounded, confused or bewildered, Duke is left shouldering all of the film’s dramatic weight (which she handles capably), a lot of its singing (Duke's real voice gets a healthy assist from Lesley Gore-style overdubbing, but she's no Neely O'Hara), some of its dancing (as with her track scenes, doubles are occasionally used), but very little of its comedy. 

Regrettably, that's left to the supporting cast of stock characters populated by familiar TV faces. Each relying on the same schticky, sure-fire comedy takes and delivery we've all seen from them a million times before.
Clockwise from top left: Richard Deacon, Dick Sargent, Charles Lane, and Billy De Wolfe
If you've ever seen any of these actors before, you already know what you're getting in Billie
I must admit that the pleasure of having the great Jane Greer appear in Billie (she's one of my all-time favorite noir femme fatales. Out of the Past and The Big Steal are absolute must-sees) is mitigated significantly by seeing her lethal brand of smoldering insouciance reduced to playing sweetly supportive back-up to a blowhard character like Jim Backus. Just the kind of male chauvinist sap one of her earlier film noir personas would have tossed into the trunk of an automobile and sent hurtling off a cliff without batting an eyelash.
Strong female characters of the sort Jane Greer built her career on in the 40s were almost nowhere to be found by the 60s, when Hollywood (showing the same open-mindedness of the male characters in Billie) had a hard time envisioning women outside of the role of housewife or girlfriend.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Should Billie's retro riffs on gender roles grow tiresome, I can always console myself with its dancing. Choreographed by Elvis/ Beach Party movie stalwart David Winters (Shindig, Hullabaloo) in that curiously self-mocking, frenetic style that looks like a hybrid of 60s go-go and traditional musical comedy jazz (popularized in Broadway shows like Promises, Promises and Applause), these numbers are lively, silly, and a great deal of fun. 
Making her film debut (and serving as the film's co-choreographer) is A Chorus Line's Donna McKechnie showing impeccable form in the red-and-white rugby stripes. She, along with director/mentor Michael Bennett, were dancers on the teen variety show, Hullabaloo. Several of the dancers in Billie are recognizable from 60s-era films like,West Side Story and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. A triple-bill of Bye Bye BirdieBillie, and The Cool Ones would serve as a terrific primer on the effect of pop music on movie musical choreography.
The over-emphatic, "The Girl is a Girl is a Girl" is a musical number that really stuck with me when I was a kid. I wonder why? Wittily staged in a high-school locker room, the amusing and rousing number features lots of chorus boys dancing with each other while trying to act all macho (clenching their hands into fists while singing out of the sides of their mouths) in skimpy 60s gym shorts.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
While it's hard to imagine that Billie did Patty Duke's reputation as an Oscar-winning actress any good, I think it's fair to say it didn't do it much harm, either. In fact, I was surprised to learn that Billie was a hit when it came out. A fact no doubt helped by Duke's popularity on the record charts (her two debut singles, "Don't Just Stand There" and "Say Something Funny" were each Top 40 hits), and propelled by the cross-promotion provided by Duke singing the film's single, "Funny Little Butterflies," on the variety program, Shindig, as well as on an episode of her own TV show.
The dress...
Patty Duke's managers (about whom much has been written) obviously had a vested interest in milking Duke's teenage appeal for as long as they could, and putting her in a disposable pop confection like this must have appeared, if perhaps a bit short-sighted (Duke was fast approaching adulthood), from a professional standpoint, both expedient and profitable. Personally, I would love to have seen her take on Inside Daisy Clover (coincidentally, released the same year as Billie), a film not only better suited to her talents, but one that might have eased her into adult roles a little more gracefully than Valley of the Dolls. (For the record, what with Natalie Wood being a friend of the author and a much bigger star, it's doubtful that Duke would ever have been in the running for Inside Daisy Clover.)
Billie was directed by Don Weis, who had an extensive career in television, but directed one of my favorite old MGM musicals, I Love Melvin.

BONUS MATERIAL
As much as I enjoy this movie, the enduring popularity of Ronald Alexander's play, Time Out for Ginger, truly baffles me. At various times in its revival history, the play attracted the talents of Liza Minnelli and Steve McQueen. Go figure. As far as I'm concerned, it's Patty Duke, the 60s music, the dancing, and the time-acquired abstract levels of camp and multiple interpretation that make Billie's thoroughly run-of-the-mill plot even remotely bearable.
By the way, for the benefit of any Rosemary's Baby fans out there, playwright Ronald Alexander is also the author of Nobody Loves an Albatross.

Watch Jack Benny in a 60-minute TV adaptation of Time Out for Ginger from 1955 HERE 

Watch the unsold pilot for a 1960 TV series based on Time Out for Ginger  HERE 

If you're unfamiliar with actress Jane Greer, you owe it to yourself to check out this brief TCM clip on Out of the Past (1947) HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

16 comments:

  1. In the dance scene at the Youtube link below, it's kind of hilarious and charming how they barely try and trick you into thinking Patty Duke is actually participating in the number. After some rudimentary hand clapping, Duke jogs offstage. Then someone with the same clothes and wig (but more energy and coordination) bounds onstage and leads the crowd. Then they have Duke wander into and out of the frame doing some snapping and toe touches. At the end of the dance number everybody freezes in a stylized pose, with Duke popping up out of nowhere and striking the same pose as if she had just danced her butt off alongside them.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCxK8ye1HYI

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  2. And did you notice that the guy next to her left is dressed in exactly the same slacks and sweater outfit Warren Berlinger wore before he scuttled offstage? He's so obviously thinner and taller than Berlinger I can't believe they could try to pass him off as the same guy. It amuses me that they went to the trouble and gave both Duke and Berlinger dance doubles, but shot it in a way so that it fools absolutely no one. They pull the same tricks on the track field for Berlinger and Duke in long shots, but you can still easily see it's not them.
    I guess that's what you get with a 15 day shooting schedule!
    What with her double on The Patty Duke Show and the dance and sports stunt doubles here, Patty Duke was definitely the Milli Vanilli of the movies.

    Thanks for including the link in your post for the uninitiated!

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  3. This was quite possibly one of the LAST movies I thought I'd ever see you profile here until we got to the dancing and Ms. McKechnie and then it finally started to click and make sense. I so agree about Jane Greer. It was great to see her and all, but she was capable of more. I have this on DVD somewhere, but I think it's in a box in the basement! I'll have to dig it out and give the musical numbers another gander. I do recall that locker room one... I remember thinking the first time I saw this that it would make a hooty double-bill with "The Christine Jorgensen Story." (And again, I must note our weird symbiosis as I just referenced Patty Duke in my own blog with some photos!)

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  4. Ha! Yes, the through-line of "Billie" being a 60s go-go musical sort of pulls it all together for me. Plus, who can resist a film that has Patty Duke as a butch blond?
    It's funny you should mention "The Christine Jorgensen Story," because I was going to match that screencap of Patty Duke in her pink party dress and pouffy hair, with a pic of that thick-necked actor (John Hansen) who starred in it. Neither really looks like a convincing female.
    I have to go now and read your post. I took a quick look after reading your comment and once again I'm amazed how much we've been channeling one another of late. Love those photos of an inebriated Patty Duke (I'd never heard of that TV movie)!

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  5. Okay, I've consulted my dictionary, and it's turned up blank, so I must ask you, Ken:

    What IS a "schnecken"?

    Also, Jim Backus seems to have inherited his financial wealth from his time as Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island"--note Billie's very own television set in her room--in the year 1965! Seriously, how many American homes in 1965 had more than one TV set? "Howard G. Carol" must have been loaded--after all, how many regular working Joes do you know who make a point of using their middle initial?



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  6. Hi Mark
    Your amusing (and spot on) observation about the wealth of Howard G Carol / Thurston Howell III made me laugh. Imagine taking note of that TV set and the rare teen lucky enough to have one in their own room! Like a lot of political hopefuls, Howard G Carol runs his own law firm. So while he's nowhere near as rich as Thurston and Lovey, he must be pretty comfortable.
    Oh, and a schnecken is just a snail shaped honey bun. Schnecke being the German word for snail. I love that you sought to look it up! Thanks, Mark!

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    1. Well, given that Howard G. Carol runs his own law firm, and considering his opulent two-storey home, and my research telling me that at the outset of the 1960s, approximately eight percent(!) of US homes had more than one TV set, Billie's own TV set in her bedroom seems all the more likely.

      The one that still befuddles me is "The Wonder Years"--a suburban family in the late 1960s with THREE television sets (one in the lounge, one in the kitchen, one in the den). Of course, it leads to the episode where the kids complain about not having a colour TV set, and Jack Arnold points out how much they cost (oblivious to the fact he already has three TVs--and as recall, at leats one of them WAS a colour set). But Jack, you've got THREE TV sets, it's the 1960s, and you don't even run your own law firm or use your middle initial--how DO you do it?

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  7. This one looks so cute, I can't believe I missed it, being a lover of those innocuous brightly-lit technicolor coming of age comedies starring a tomboyish gamine, among my favorites being Hayley Mills in Parent Trap and Trouble with Angels, and Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday...I have to check this one out.

    Ken, I must ask if you have more specific information on a mystery that I have been pondering for years...did Patty Duke do her own singing in her films or not? And isn't that her own voice on the records she sold? Duke says that in her pictures, she did her own singing, and I believe her...BUT so many historians claim that her singing is either dubbed or "augmented" or "enhanced" (the word you used). Did they have auto-tune back in those days? I WANT to believe that the pleasant singing voice I hear on her records and in Valley of the Dolls and the Patty Duke Show is REALLY Patty. But the truth is shrouded in controversy.

    At any rate, I must see this movie...looks like a perfect Saturday afternoon, folding-the-laundry type of divertissement. Patty looks adorable as Billie!

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    1. Well, Chris, this movie should be right up your alley. It really looks like any number of those suburban family comedies made by Disney during the 60s (and into the 70s), and any of that roster of tomboyish types you listed would have made a perfect fit for the character of Billie.
      From everything I've ever read (and from my own vast collection of Patty Duke records...now on my ipod...just how much am a geek am I?) patty Duke DID do her own singing in this film, on her TV shows, and on records. She was merely "assisted" by a technical process I'm not wholly familiar with called overdubbing, which either has a singer sing along to an earlier recorded track of themselves adding body to a weak voice, or merely double vocals laid on top of one another. The process was used and can be heard on records like Shelley Fabares' "Johnny Angel", almost any song released by Annette Funicello, and most of Lelsey Gore's stuff. It's really them, only multiple them.
      Patty Duke, however, didn't do her own singing in Valley of the Dolls, a fact made obvious should you give a listen to the album she released titled, "Patty Duke sings songs from Valley of the Dolls" - a sample of which is up on YouTube: http://youtu.be/C4ztjAfT_6w
      Personally, the voice match they make for her in the movie is one of the best I've ever heard, it literally sounds as if it COULD be her voice (unless that awful, but revered Marni Nixon, who, to me, doesn't even sound human).
      By the way, your description: " Saturday afternoon, folding-the-laundry type of divertissement" should appear on the DVD case. it's the absolute ideal way to watch this movie! Thanks, Chris...hope you get around to seeing it. It's available in widescreen streaming version on Amazon's instant watch, the DVD is pan and scan unfortunately.

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  8. Patty certainly does convince as a butch young baby dyke in your above screen grabs. Never seen this one, but I did love re-runs of The Patty Duke Show on Nickelodeon network when I was a teenager (so kitsch!). Have you ever seen a later film of hers called Me Natalie? I remember glimpsing it many years ago. Strange and intriguing, and your kind of thing!

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    1. "Butch young baby dyke..." Ha! That about sums it up. I'm surprised this movie hasn't been adopted on the LGBT film festival circuit, it's so perfectly a 60s version of a coming-out story masked as a coming of age tale.
      I have seen "Me, Natalie" (although not in several years), it was a favorite of one of my elder sisters. As I recall liking it a great deal, I'm going to do a Netflix search and see if it's available, it would be nice to see it again.

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  9. I've seen this movie, I wouldn't call it a film, at least twice and have to admit I remember very little of it except how lightweight it is and how unbecoming that blonde wig was on poor Patty.

    The cinematic equivalent of a wisp of smoke in garish colors its was still a fun view because of the cast. As you said the character actors are all doing their patented bits but what other recourse do they have in piffle like this. I've always liked Warren Berlinger as an easy going, somewhat brash supporting actor but his casting in this is ridiculous, but that's the old time Hollywood contract system for you. Often it resulted in a good match of actor and role but sometimes they would shove people into a part simply because they were available and they wanted to keep them active.

    The picture is innocuous in and of itself but it is a criminal waste of a great actress like Jane Greer. Surely her peak was Out of the Past as the utterly venal Kathie, but she was equally adept at making sympathic characters work like those in Run for the Sun or the terrific They Won't Believe Me which had that great trio of actresses Jane, Rita Johnson and Susan Hayward. It a shame to see her stuck in a part any competent actress of the right age could have played but even in her heyday the studios didn't really utilize her as fully as they should have.

    I'm jealous that you've managed to see the obscure Me, Natalie which I've read contains some of Patty's best work and has been a holy grail title of mine for many, many years.

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    1. Hi Joel!
      I'm not sure where I read it, but I think that terribly unflattering blond bob Patty Duke sports is her own hair... butchered and bleached. I don't know if it's true, but the really weird, bouffant wig she sports in the early episodes of the third season of "The Patty Duke Show" leads me to think she's hiding something under there (the Lindbergh baby, perhaps?). Anybody out there know?

      "Billie" is indeed a lightweight entertainment, rivaling even the wholly inconsequential beach Party movies popular at the time. But Patty Duke has always been a charmer for me, and it's her (and the musical score and dancing) that puts "Billie" a head or so above.
      I too think Warren Berlinger is a likeable actor, although I can't think of a single role where I thought he was used particularly well. And you're right about the Hollywood contract system, it looks like the entire cast was made up of actors on the studio roster for the network's sitcoms. I think the big appeal of the movie now is to play "Spot your favorite classic sitcom star"

      I have to look for those Jane Greer roles you mentioned, none of which I've seen or heard of. The Susan Hayward film sounds especially interesting, based on the cast.
      And as for "Me, Natalie," I see that there's a Japanese DVD copy available on iOffer (English soundtrack, Japanese subtitles) but that's the only evidence I ever run across of the film being available ANYWHERE.
      Thanks (again) for stopping by and commenting!

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    2. Thanks for the tip on Me, Natalie, I'll check it out.

      They Won't Believe Me is well worth checking out, they show it from time to time on TCM. Aside from the three stellar actresses it provides Robert Young with a good change of pace part.

      Another terrific Susan Hayward movie, but like Me, Natalie devilishly hard to find, is The Saxon Charm with the recently departed Audrey Totter, the dreamy John Payne and Robert Montgomery.

      Happy Holidays!

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  10. So interesting to read your article post-Caitlin Jenner and in light of what you point out about how today's young women are being fed a "princess-fixated, Pepto-Bismol pink vision of femininity" (great phrase!), which just makes me gag - whatever happened to feminism? I recall seeing this movie way back when, on on of those Saturday-Night-At-The-Movies shows and I still remember the one bit when Jim Backus, excited that his daughter has accomplished some athletic feat, unthinkingly calls her 'Son," and Duke reacting in dismay. In spite of the film's fluff, there really was something uncomfortable going on below the surface. We always think back to the 1960s as a time of liberation, but looking back at its films, it's astonishing how conservative and tightly wound the era still was.

    When it comes to how Hollywood reacts to athletic girls, you might want to check out a 1953 film called Trouble Along The Way. It stars John Wayne as a high-school football coach who's divorced and trying to get custody of his young tomboy daughter. What makes the film interesting is Donna Reed, very good playing a repressed social worker, who gives a bitter speech on what tomboyish girls are made to undergo in a society with narrow standards of femininity, basically saying conform or suffer. It's a film of interesting, confused messages.

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    1. Hi
      I am, of course, in accord with your observation that the 60s had a lot of weird 50s repression to work through before the sexual revolution and liberation of the 70s. And after Marlo Thomas' "Free to be You & Me", I never thought I'd see a day where every little girl on Halloween only wants to be a princess, and every single toy item in stores for girls is pink, pink, pink!

      That difficult scene you describe in "Billie" is indeed painful (and never really addressed) but similar to many I recall from TV during my childhood. Episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, Family Affair, and father Knows Best all had episodes in which girls who excelled in anything (sports or academics) were always ostracized by boys and "redeemed" in the end when they were encouraged to let boys win, played dumb, or in some way suppressed their gifts. All this in lighthearted family fare.
      Billie has the same unpleasant undercurrent - uncomfortable principally because it doesn't think its father-wishes-his-tomboy-daughter-were-really-a-boy plot is uncomfortable at all!

      I love your description for the Donna Reed film. I've never heard of it, ut you make it sound so interesting I'm willing to ignore the John Wayne factor (not a fave). Thanks for the tip and for contributing your thoughtful perspective.

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