Back in 2014 I wrote about the 1967 teens-in-trouble classic Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, in which author Ann Head (the penname for non-YA writer Anne Wales Christensen), tells the story of how two high school seniors cope with pregnancy by getting married first and dealing with their terrible families later. A few readers fondly remember the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week adaptation, which has since become available on YouTube.
I was surprised how closely the plot of the TV movie stuck to the novel, including the unsympathetic parents and a number of implied references to pre-Roe vs. Wade abortions.
For the most part, the changes are superficial: a few character names are different, the action is moved safely to the past-year of 1956 and from the non-specific south to what looks like southern California (EDIT: a sharp-eared reader caught that during the do-over wedding minister McLean Stevenson [!!!] identifies the state as Maryland). A key supporting player’s subplot is cut short, but it doesn’t impact the story too much.
Opening on a sunny beach with the Platters playing on the soundtrack (any Back to the Future fan can tell you this signifies HIGH FIFTIES), 16 year old Julie (conventionalized from the novel’s July) mopes on the beach while her friends screech away about baloney sandwiches, and she has soon confessed to Bo Jo, her casual boyfriend, that she’s had a doctor confirm that she is pregnant from JUST THAT ONE TIME. Before the credits have finished rolling, they’ve visited the Justice of the Peace in the next town and have had their first marital spat, after Julie points out that they’ve never even said “I love you” to one another.
Struggling with how to break the news to their parents, Julie allows herself to be set-up with the son of one of her mother’s friends, a Princeton freshman named Evan (Horace in the original novel); at the end of the evening Bo Jo calls from the local soda shop to inform her that his parents kicked him out, and Julie has to break the news to her family, delivering the immortal line
“He’s not a pinhead, he’s my husband!”
The wealthy Grehers initially figure they can buy their way out of the situation, with an annulment and a “medical solution” to the pregnancy; when she objects, they then suggest they can keep Julie hidden away until the baby is born and can be adopted out.
As in the book, the couple ends up living with the Joneses when Bo Jo’s parents relent- but his mother insists they sleep in separate rooms, passive-aggressively walking Julie down the hall to the guest room when she walks in on the couple sharing an exhausted embrace at the end of the day.
The Grehers insist on a do-over wedding in church, and the couple moves into a small apartment of their own, Mrs. Greher secretly paying part of their rent, while Bo Jo quits school to go to work in his father-in-law’s office.
And again, it is emphasized that the couple hadn’t dated long and don’t really know each other at all: Bo Jo is surprised when he learns that Julie has her own car.
The wealthy Grehers continuously clash with the working-class Joneses (Mr. Jones refuses to take off of work to attend the do-over wedding) and the couple can’t quite get the hang of being teenagers who now have to act like adults, growing increasingly alienated from their obnoxious, brainless high school friends.
Julie does find a friend and confidant in another young married that she meets at the supermarket: this would be the thoroughly wonderful Louella, who has been renamed Lee for the movie. Dressed in capri pants and a crop top, Lee is clearly not the domestic type, despite having been married for two years. She warns Julie that it’s not all its cracked up to be.
Julie confides in Lee that she has been carrying on a correspondence with Evan, who has no idea that she is married or pregnant. This relationship actually goes a little farther than it did in the book, with Julie panicking when Evan announces his intention to ask her to marry him at the end of the school year. Bo Jo thinks that Lee is a bad influence on his wife, especially after she gives Julie a makeover, complete with eyeliner.
Lee admits to Julie that she suspects that she is pregnant, and announces her intention to DO something about it, and while the word “abortion” is never uttered, she does go through with it. A sympathetic Julie visits her as she lays sick in bed in the aftermath, expressing ambivalent feelings about her decision, but surprisingly the scene doesn’t totally play out like an anti-abortion tract, which was really surprising, having aired a year before Maude’s legal-in-New York abortion and two years before Erica Kane had the first post-Roe abortion on daytime TV.
Eventually Julie’s mother finds out about the Evan situation and quarrels with her daughter, sending her into premature labor. The birth of the baby brings the families together as they joyously look into the nursery together, able to stop bickering about who ruined whose life for five minutes.
But, as in the book, while things seemed to have been going so well, the baby develops a respiratory infection and dies a few days later, and both sets of parents are completely insensitive about it, seeing only an opportunity to split up the couple and get them to return to their normal teenage lives. Returning to their separate family homes, Julie’s parents announce their intention to send her to boarding school, and Bo Jo is ambivalent about what he wants for his own future. Eventually the parents admit that they think if they allow the couple to reunite, Julie will just get pregnant again.
The very blonde Christopher Norris is cast as Julie and Bo Jo is played by the D in DD&B, Desi Arnaz Jr., and both acquit themselves adequately enough. There is more star power in the supporting cast, including Dan Dailey and Dina Merril as Julie’s parents; Jessie Royce Landis, best known for playing Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest as her grandmother; Susan Strasberg (good, but pushing credulity a bit at 32 as a teenaged bride) as Lee. Special mention to Tom Bosley as Bo Jo’s father, giving a very restrained and low-key performance as a man who is frustrated and depressed by his son ruining his whole life. He seems worlds away from his future on Happy Days.
While this was not an after-school special, it is certainly related in both theme (although it takes things a bit farther than the network series would) and style. Which is to say, there isn’t much: it’s mostly filmed close ups of people talking to each other. In a few places they manage to get a little arty with the editing, intercutting the do-over wedding with a fantasy sequence of Julie’s friends urging her on “it’s fun, everyone’s doing it” and later the tedium of Julie’s domestic drudgery intercut with Bo Jo losing patience with his friends dumb prop comedy routine (shout out to the actors Ruby Dake and Larry Wilcox as two of the most authentically obnoxious teens to be committed to celluloid).
Availability: There are two complete prints streaming on Youtube, and both are pretty rough looking, but watchable. One of them appears to be from a 16mm film print (was this supplied to high school health classes as cautionary tale?) and includes the countdown leaders and “China Girl” color calibration image between reels.
Thank you for this review! I’m watching it now at YouTube and it does look like sunny California (and she looks like a cross between Skipper and Barbie) but according to 28.46, it is definitely set in Maryland.
Oh, wow, I somehow totally missed that! Thank for commenting, it also resolves another plot point- for many years Maryland was one of the few states that didn’t require a blood test and waiting period to get a marriage license, explaining how Julie and Bo Jo were able to married before the end of the opening credits!
I remember your review of the book and didn’t realize there was a movie to go with it (although I should have!).
The changes made are interesting, but I can’t seem to get past the fact that a movie made in 1971 and set in 1956 would be the modern equivalent of a movie set in 2007. 😅 (Which is at least a little hilarious to imagine.)
The historical perspective of this involving abortion (and how that was depicted fictionally in the US) is fascinating and uh, as timely as ever?
Lastly, maybe it’s just that still, but Desi Arnaz jr manages to look like both of his famous parents at once!
RIGHT? Somehow it still seems like a bigger space between the 50s and the 70s.
ANd I am still surprised that abortion was even hinted at in a TV movie in the early 70s, especially since Lee was allowed to live.
Agreeing with the commenters who note what a different world it was back then regarding abortion. Same with teenage marriage. And to a lesser extent, cross-class mixing. I’m so used to a world where wealthy and poorer teenagers rarely interact, because of the composition of neighborhoods and schools.
BTW, I don’t think I can read or hear about somebody named “Bo Jo” with a straight face considering current events. Desi Arnaz at least combs his hair! (Of course when the book was written, the author never thought the name would be (in)famous.
Thanks for commenting! Defintely true about young marriage, I remember reading a statistic somewhere about how teenage pregancies peaked in the 1950s, not because high school sudents were having more premarital sex, but because the average age of marriage was so young!