A decade before Title IX went into effect, Patty Duke took a break from playing her own “Identical Cousin” on her eponymous TV, and attempted to launch a musical career in this oddball musical comedy about a high school sophomore competing with the boys on the high school track and field team.
The film opens with a big production number under the opening credits, as the entire town seems to be singing the slightly bewildered Billie Carol’s praises as she is hoisted upon the shoulders of her teammates and carried out of the stadium, complete with marching band and cheerleaders:
How has she won over the entire town? You know, beyond the fact that “She looks like a Billie should look/ She wears her hair like a Billie should wear…”
The film flashes back to Billie’s meeting with new dude in town Mike Benson, when she’s out for her morning run and sees him hopelessly fouling up his attempt to make the Varsity track team. Billie stops to give him a pep talk and some friendly advice, along with some mumbo-jumbo about “The Beat”, which is apparently the surf-guitar band that is constantly playing inside her brain and the secret to her speed. When the rest of the track team shows up and teases Billie, she challenges the smirky team captain to a foot race and leaves him eating her dust. At this point the track coach shows up and orders his assistants to “catch her, in relays if necessary!” Girl or no, Coach knows natural talent when he sees it.
Billie’s track career is complicated by her father’s (everyone’s favorite Doofus Dad, Jim Backus) campaign for mayor: he’s running on a platform of old-timey values, including a criticism of the Modern Woman’s insistence upon “competing” with men.
But Dad is kind of a lovable hypocrite: when the high school principal shows up and announces that Billie’s competing on the track team is a “gross indignity”, he is proud of his daughter standing up for her “pursuit of happiness” and defends her right to try out for the team.
At the qualification trials the next day, Billie easily makes the team, as her whole family cheers her on, although they are still dumb enough to worry that she might be changing in the boys locker room. Her father good naturedly complains that Billie has invented “a whole new sex: boys, girls and equals!”
Meanwhile, the smarmy mayoral incumbent (Billy DeWolfe, basically playing the live-action version of his Rankin-Bass character) approaches Mr. Carol, suggesting they hold a public debate, since he seems to be all into women’s rights now. Dad shrugs it off, stating his new platform is “everyone should be allowed to do what they want.”
The B-plot is concerned with Billie’s glamorous older sister, Jeannie, who has suddenly dropped out of college and returned home. Her parents approve of her leaving school, but are concerned that at the age of 20 she is too young to be “going steady” with her longtime boyfriend, Bob. Which is a problem, since Jeannie has come home to announce that she and Bob have been secretly married for almost a year and are now expecting a baby. Trying to stall for time, Jeannie gets involved in increasingly sillier schemes to both convince her parents she is a carefree single gal and work up the nerve to break the news to them.
Mike eventually confesses to Billie that he “likes” her, but the implications go over her head and she responds that he’s “like a sister to her”. However, feelings have been awakened, which cues an excruciating ballad about growing up, which Duke sings while clutching a bottle of perfume in one hand and a pair of cleats in the other.
It’s bad timing, as Life Magazine shows up to do a story on Billie, just as she starts losing races to Mike. Is it on purpose? Is it love? She has started awkwardly wearing a skirt-and-lumberjack shirt ensemble. Mike complains that the other boys on the team are making fun of him for liking her (Billie: “Do you want me to hit them?”) and asks her to quit the team. His request backfires, however, as Billie is now more motivated than ever to show that she’s the better athlete and starts winning again. Coach hopefully inquires if any of her girlfriends share her athletic gifts.
Billie wins the big track meet for the school and is carried out of the stadium victoriously, bringing us back to where the movie opened. Unfortunately, Doofus Dad spoils the celebration by accidentally addressing her as “son”. Oops.
Meanwhile, Bob has arrived in town to share the good news about the marriage and baby, only to find that Jeannie still hasn’t told her parents. Billie is disgusted, and spills the beans, only she tells the second part first, and Dad punches Bob before she can get to the fact they’re married. Luckily when Bob comes to, he finds the whole family is congratulating them.
Dad still has one more debate with Mr. Mayor, who has used nefarious and non-HIPAA approved means to find out about Jeannie’s pregnancy, which he uses to denounce the Carols as “un-Christian and un-American” (Nast-y! Nast-y! Nast-y!); Dad shows up his scheming, announces his daughter’s marriage and easily wins the election.
Billie is still moping about her inability to conform to gender roles on the night of her father’s victory party. Mike shows up to try and make up with her, and Dad offers a lot of paternalistic hoo-haw about how when it comes to women, one must “shun reason and logic”. Bob tries to take Mr. Carol’s advice about being “dominant” and orders Billie to attend the party with him, but that also backfires (duh), and Billie just yells at him for being a coward for not wanting to date a track star. Mike admits he is wrong. Dad admits he is wrong (although not what he was wrong about). Billie and Mike happily join her family in dancing around like idiots in mayoral victory. Mrs. Carol announces she is also pregnant, so maybe Dad will finally get that actual son he’s been hankering for.
And this is the point where I’d like to say “The End”, but the last two minutes are determined to un-do my best intentions, as Billie announces that “being a girl” is so much fun she’s quitting the track team. Mike announcing that he is also quitting doesn’t soften the blow much, since he wasn’t even all that great at it. What a cop-out.
Director Don Weis frequently directed episodes of Duke’s 1963-66 TV series.
Availability: DVD, streaming on Amazon.