Times Staff Writer

A month before D-day, a war-weary America--and Southern California in particular--was diverted by the story of a 14-year-old Willowbrook youth, Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver, who eloped with a 21-year-old mother of two. Sonny competed with Hitler for front-page headlines, and when a year later he ran off with the glamorous 24-year-old wife of a much-decorated soldier, Sonny became part of local folklore, the stuff of Bob Hope jokes.

The press dubbed Sonny the "Woo-Woo Boy," the "Compton Casanova," the "Love Bandit" and the "L.A. Lothario."

It's amazing that it's taken Sonny's story more than 40 years to reach the screen, but actually the delay has worked to its advantage. To watch the amusing and lively "In the Mood" (selected theaters) is to realize that today Sonny's exploits probably would go unreported, except by the tabloids.

Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson has brought a light, comic touch to Sonny's misadventures, which makes the puritanical punishments handed down to him, and especially to his women, seem all the more absurd. The public may have been titillated by accounts of Sonny's romantic prowess, but the authorities were not amused.

The film makers have stuck to the factual outline of his escapades fairly closely, but even so "In the Mood" is more romantic myth than docudrama. Sonny's story did not end with his eventual success in marrying a girl his own age and living happily ever after. And don't look for an examination of the dark side of the prolonged effects of notoriety in this upbeat movie.

Patrick Dempsey is smart casting as Sonny. Although better-looking than the real Sonny, Dempsey comes across as a typical teen-ager rather than a stud type looking older than his years.

The way the movie tells it, Sonny is a sweet, innocent working-class kid with a strict father (Michael Constantine) and a dippy mother (Betty Jinnette). He's drawn to a pretty, flighty neighbor (Talia Balsam), who's called Judy in the film. Stuck with a brutish common-law husband (Douglas Rowe), she sees in Sonny both a rare tenderness and a chance to be a carefree kid again.

Sonny's second older woman (Beverly D'Angelo), called Francine, is an assured, sexy type with an outrageous sense of humor. (Her children were eliminated by the film makers.) She's not at all like the demure Judy except in her loneliness--her husband is still overseas--and in her response to Sonny's sweetness.

You could wish that the film makers had taken greater chances--had gone for a darker shade of humor, played against a sad seaminess and tawdriness that old stills (rather than sensational headlines) suggest was an essential part of Sonny's saga. On the other hand, "In the Mood" glows in its three central performances, and in countless fine supporting turns (Kathleen Freeman's prissy landlady is a special joy).

Robinson, a screenwriter ("All of Me") making his directing debut, deftly maneuvers through material that is a potential mine field. "In the Mood" admirably never invites the sniggers that Sonny's plight drew from the media at the time.

As a period piece, "In the Mood" is a bit ragged around the edges, lacking the flawless '40s look and feel of the more generously budgeted "Swing Shift."

"In the Mood" (rated an appropriate PG-13) is fun but it could have been sharper. If you see it, be sure to watch out for a newsreel in which a mailman is asked for his opinion of Sonny. "I think he's a pervert and quite possibly a communist, too," says the mailman, who's played by a 57-year-old non-actor from Mentone, near San Bernardino. Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver. The Woo Woo Boy himself.

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