As the sexual revolution of the 1960s got into full swing, movies could be a bit more obvious in their subject matter. One popular topic was teenage sex, whether glorifying it or, most often, examining the perils contained within it. A gentle (very gentle!) entry into this arena was the 1969 flick The First Time, focusing on three teenage boys who settle on a certain afternoon in which to initiate themselves into the world of sexuality (though not one of them is willing to admit that the experience will be their very first one of that kind.) The little-known movie contains some captivating elements for those willing to give it a try.
Things get off to a kicky, very late-'60s start as the credits begin to roll to the strains of a song called “Sweet Love in the Beginning” performed by a group called MC2 (MC Squared, like the formula e=mc2.) The film's composer (and the creator of the song's music) Kenyon Hopkins went on to do music for The Odd Couple, Mannix and The Brady Bunch, so there's an unmistakable, groovy vibe to the number. (Sort of like The Partridge Family meets Spanky and Our Gang.)
Over the course of the credits, we meet the three young men, who are shown riding their bicycles around town and taking visual advantage of the local female scenery. A variety of curvy gals with fun hair and skimpy, leg-baring skirts are shown fending off the ogling advances of the bike-riding trio.
Wes Stern is a bookish, somewhat awkward guy who is dealing with the loss of his mother and a father whose job takes him all over the place.
Rick Kelman is a freckled redhead with a very confident air about him and who shares a mildly combative friendship with Stern.
Wink Roberts (what a name!) is the diminutive, friendly and considerate type who tries to help the other two get along with one another better.
After Kelman snarkily runs Stern off the road, they seem to hit a speed bump in their relationship, but that is swiftly forgotten after a swim in the local watering hole.
God knows I was hoping that this was going to be a skinny-dipping scene, but there's no such luck as the lads each has a swimsuit with him.
Stern is faced with some bad news at home when his father Gerard Parkes informs him that he is going to have to move to Buffalo, New York to live with his grandparents as yet another lengthy business scenario is about to take him away again.
Parkes, at the airport to put Stern on a plane, tentatively attempts to explain that he is gearing up to marry his secretary, the pretty and pert Sharon Acker, but Stern hasn't yet forgotten about his departed mother (though he isn't aghast at the idea of having Acker around all the time either.) In any event, Parkes isn't able to get the words out.
His two buddies Kelman and Roberts come to see him off. They promise to write to each other about their respective lives (this is in the days long before e-mail or even affordable long-distance phone calling.)
Stern, ensconced in his grandparents' home, can't seem to keep his mind off of girls (rather ludicrously mowing down some flowers in the front yard when he spies a pair of sexy neighbor girls bending over!), though they barely know he's alive.
He also, being hopelessly out of sync in his new surroundings, starts to embellish his current lifestyle, referring in his letters to the other boys about new friends, places and events which aren't even real. One of those places is a brothel called “Rosie's” that is on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where he claims to have headed for several nights of ecstasy with a couple of his older pals.
One day, he gets a call from Kelman and Roberts, who had always planned to come up for a visit, only to discover that they are in town at that very moment and all hyped up to go across the U.S. border into Canada and get lucky at the legendary Rosie's! They've rented a hotel room nearby and want him to join them asap.
Stern is now placed in the uncomfortable position of having to lose face by admitting that there is no Rosie's. Instead (naturally!), he decides to drag them up to Niagara Falls and distract them with all the tourist traps that are on site, believing that they will eventually forget about the place (even though that is one of the key reasons they made the trek there.)
They catch a bus to the falls where they (and we!) are treated to wondrously detailed shots of the iconic falls and much of the surrounding area as it existed in 1969. If Where It's At (1969) is a priceless record of what Las Vegas of that period looked like, then The First Time is an indispensable account of what visitors to Niagara Falls saw in that same era.
Not only are there great shots of the falls themselves, but there are continuous glimpses of the other attractions that built up around the falls such as various museums, gift shops and so on.
The boys pose for a souvenir photograph (as countless others have) going over the falls in a wooden barrel. They attend tourist attractions, eat, see the sights... At one point, they traipse down to an observation deck where, dressed in a rain-slicker, Roberts is momentarily mistaken for an older man's wife! (This along with other little tidbits – such as his increasingly faint interest in going to the brothel - seems to be suggesting that perhaps he isn't 100% straight.)
During their day at the falls, Roberts keeps all the while exclaiming that he wishes they could ride the Maid of the Mist, the famous boat (a small series of boats, actually) that takes passengers right up to the area where the water is careening down, causing a heavy mist all around. Kelman wants none of that, however, and demands that Stern finally take them to Rosie's. Thus begins a wild goose chase with Stern (who isn't even very familiar with the area!) taking them on foot through town to reach this acclaimed brothel.
After going around in circles with no luck, he finally comes upon an abandoned building, one that is boarded up, and declares that this WAS Rosie's, but it must have been raided. Still not content, Kelman decides that they simply need to locate another whorehouse then! The young guys proceed to ask gentlemen they see where a nearby house of ill repute is located.
They eventually find themselves outside a place called Goldie's A Go Go. (Dig the dance-action mannequin above the entrance!) While it is clearly just a nightclub (complete with shagadelic girls dancing on platforms), the boys are so naïve they believe they have actually entered a brothel and can obtain any of the girls they want.
The bartender can easily tell that they are underage and when they attempt to order some beer, they are tossed out. This is not, however, before they spy the radiantly beautiful Jacqueline Bisset talking on a pay phone inside. Assuming she must be a prostitute if she is inside such premises, they conspire to talk her into working for the three of them that afternoon!
As it turns out, she's trying to get to Buffalo and asks if she can tag along with them as they cross the border back into New York. She wants to group herself with them in order to slip into the United States. (This whole aspect is a bit wonky. She's British and is worried about not having her passport, yet the borders of the U.S. And Canada do not require a passport in order to proceed back and forth!)
They instruct her to remain quiet at all costs, just coaching her on how to say the word “Boston” if the guard should ask where she's from. Once back in the U.S., they find that the bus to Buffalo is still an hour from departing, so Roberts finally gets his wish and the foursome takes a ride on the Maid of the Mist!
Here, Stern helps to wipe off some of Bisset's decimated eye makeup and they begin to establish a hint of a connection. This is fostered further when, after the boat ride, they sit and enjoy conversation and drinks together while the other two boys are off cavorting someplace else.
Finally back on the bus to Buffalo, they arrive in town and discover that Bisset still has no real place to go. She keeps making phone calls to a man who is never available to answer her. Still eager to get her into bed, they invite her to the hotel room that Kelman and Roberts are renting and, exhausted by now, Bisset agrees to go (with no idea whatsoever that these kids think she's a good-time gal!)
Once in the room, she tries the man on the phone again to no avail, but eventually he calls her back with some very disappointing news. Now practically spent, physically and emotionally, she decides to take a nap and, at the boys' urging, slips out of her clothes. The trio of young men now must determine who gets to go in and take his turn first with her.
One by one, the boys enter the room as they brace themselves for their first time. Since the movie's very poster shows an undressed Bisset snuggled up to Stern, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that he at least gets that close to her! The others' fates I will not divulge.
If all this sounds rather sordid (and it does!), please note that everything about the film is handled gingerly and delicately. There's a soupcon of innocence ladled over the entire film. As someone who was raised on '80s fare like Spring Break (1983), Hardbodies (1984), Private Resort (1985), Valet Girls (1987) and the like, in which plentiful nudity, sex, drinking, drugs and so on were heavily featured (and I liked it! - except for the drugs), I find this simpler, tamer approach surprisingly appealing.
There is scarcely a mean bone in this movie's body (some have referred to it as a Disney-level sex comedy!) The director James Neilson had, in fact, directed scads of 1950s television before turning to a string of Disney movies like Moon Pilot (1962), Summer Magic (1963) and The Moon-Spinners (1964) prior to this. For those in the right frame of mind, though, it's more than a little captivating. The performances are amiable and mostly down to earth and the whole movie is a charming time capsule of a time gone forever.
Stern was making his film debut here at age twenty-one. Some folks feel he is too old for his part. These people must have never seen mid-twenties Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello passing around a beach ball in their string of movies or the mid-twenties (and in Gabrielle Carteris' case, THIRTY) people playing high schoolers in Beverly Hills 90210 (1990 – 2000!) He demonstrates enough undercooked awkwardness to pull the part of pretty well. He reportedly had been a contender for The Graduate (1967) and opted to do this film instead, but then the long development period of The First Time meant that it was actually filmed quite a while later.
He took a whole different tack in his second film, Up in the Cellar (1970), in which he played a college student who seduces three different women, all of them connected to the school's president. (Of interest, too, is the fact that the school president and his wife are played by Larry Hagman of Dallas and Joan Collins of Dynasty!) Stern later worked as a guest on such sitcoms as The Partridge Family, Love, American Style and Rhoda before fading from view in the late-'70s. He is currently sixty-six years of age.
Kelman was eighteen at the time of filming and had been a child star since he was five (billed then as Ricky Kelman.) He worked steadily from 1955 up to 1974, working in movies like A Man Called Peter (1955), Step Down to Terror (1958), Critic's Choice (1963) and Follow Me, Boys! (1966) as well as in such shows as Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Lassie and Hawaii 5-O. He is sixty-three today.
Roberts, my favorite of the three actors and nineteen at the time of filming, was also making his cinematic debut here. He conveyed so much appealing tenderness and good-natured sweetness in his part and had great expressions, but his acting career went nowhere fast. A few TV appearances like Dragnet 1967, Adam-12 and Shazam! practically sum it up. He ended up doing stunt work, primarily for the Police Academy series of movies and is currently sixty-four.
All throughout the movie I kept waiting for his character to be revealed as gay. I don't know if it was ever considered, but in light of the fact that one of the producers was Allan Carr (the force behind Can't Stop the Music, 1980), I have to assume that it was at least discussed! The way it was presented, it just seemed like it was going to be a sure thing and then it wasn't (or was it? See what you think of his denouement if you watch it.)
Though the film is halfway over before she appears, the top-billed star - and rightly so! - is Jacqueline Bisset. At close to the peak of her beauty, she's the one person who can cause eyes to turn away from Niagra Falls. Despite being given almost a non-character to play, she is attractive, captivating and a chief highlight of the picture. (Every time I happen upon Bisset, I wonder how I have never done a tribute to her here... Some day!)
At the time of this film, she was just about to become a more considerable movie star, having been primarily decoration in notable films like Cul-de-sac (1966), Casino Royale (1967), Two for the Road (1967), The Detective (1968) and Bullitt (1968.) After the blockbuster success Airport (1970), she proceeded to gain popularity and acclaim through the '70s and early-'80s. She still works quite a bit now, emerging into a valuable character actress, albeit a still very-lovely looking one. She is sixty-nine (only a few years older than her male costars in The First Time.)
Irish-born Parkes moved to Canada when he was twenty and found much work there. In 1983, he was the one human being in the Jim Henson TV series Fraggle Rock, which lasted until 1987. He continued to be seen in small roles through the 2000s. Now seventy-seven, his last film was in 2009.
Canadian-born Acker, whose part is only a featured cameo, is a touchstone among cult film fans for her part as Lee Marvin's ex-wife in the tough Point Blank (1967), though most of her work – and there was a ton of it -- was on TV (she was also a guest on Star Trek, which leads to a sort of club membership in itself.) There was a little-known remake of Perry Mason in the 1973-1974 season in which Monte Markham played the venerable defense attorney and Acker played Della Street, but it failed to catch on. Now seventy-eight, she has been retired since the late-1980s.
The aforementioned band MC Squared had a really great sound, not unlike The Mamas and the Papas, but with assorted other folk and rock influences. Their success was in no small way due to their excellent female vocalist Linda Carey who not only could sing wonderfully, but who rocked a killer Vidal Sassoon-esque haircut.
They claim that the song “Sweet Love in the Beginning” (which is heard twice to great effect in the movie) was an edited-down, devolved rendition of the arrangement that they'd come up with when first handed the music, but I can only imagine how the funky, groovy song could be made better and have played it over and over since watching this movie. Sadly, the rights to the number are all tied up and so the song (sought after by MC2's fans) could not be included on a 2012 compilation album of their 1960s tunes.
The First Time was co-written by former actor Roger Smith and one has to wonder if he was either inspired by his famously curvaceous wife Ann-Margret or perhaps even hoped that she would star in it, but it was not to be. In 1970, she did star in C.C. and Company, which he penned.
No matter the case, the film certainly was done no harm in featuring the luminous Bisset as the object of desire.
The location filming, as I said, adds so much to the movie. Some scenes, like this one at right, take place right on the bridge overlooking the world-famous falls. No blue-screen (or CGI, for that matter) is going to equal that type of authenticity. The movie was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer (for Ship of Fools, 1965, and a nominee seven other times) Ernest Laszlo and I must say I love the way it looks throughout.
Of course, one of the pitfalls of location filming is crowd control. In the sequence shown here, Bisset and her boys are attempting to navigate their way down a sidewalk when allofasudden this hefty woman with her own entourage just bursts into frame and trundles her way in without so much as a nod, sending the stars of the movie into a single file line just to avoid her! But this is the same way life is, so it's great!
It was also quite startling to see in the diner scene an old-fashioned Coca-Cola dispenser. At this time there was Coke. It's the only thing that comes out of the machine (which has a huge lever on it!) No Diet Coke, Sprite, etc... just a big ol' Coke machine.
The First Time was renamed in some areas as "You Don't Need Pyjamas at Rosie's," a take on one of the lines in the film. Roberts has $10 on him in order to buy a pair of pajamas (we yanks prefer that spelling!), but Kelman tells him he won't need them at the brothel Rosies...
The music, the scenery and the lovely Bisset are things to recommend, but I also adore the clean, simple, but flattering and attractive, clothes that the boys wear. These types of looks come back every now and again, but never as pure as they were in the late-1960s. Love them.
And as I indicated above, cute li'l Wink Roberts is my favorite performer, one that there is scant chance of seeing ever again since his acting career was so brief. If one has an aversion to the sort of voice Tim Matheson used when performing the animated Jonny Quest TV series, Roberts may be annoying, but I think he's darling.
He also gives us a revealing glimpse of his package when the boys are waiting for their bus in the terminal and discussing what type of woman they want for themselves. Wink indeed!
If anything about this movie sounds appealing to you, you should check it out when you get the chance. I'd never even heard of it before giving it a shot and immediately fell for its light charms. Now I'm off for a five-day trip to Florida, so it will be a while before I'm back in the swim of things again. Best wishes to you all in the meantime!