Not really sure what was going through my mind when I puffed out my chest, slapped it in a hearty manly fashion, and proclaimed to the world that I was going to review not one, not two, but all of the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach party movies from the 1960s. Maybe I was tired and delirious. Maybe it’s the heady days of summer, with their swinging hammocks and nubile women wearing bikinis and running down white sand beaches with surf boards, with the sweet smell of honeysuckle wafting on balmy breezes as I lean back in my bamboo chair on my beachfront veranda and raise a tumbler of rum on the rocks to a passing surfer girl, who stops long enough to smile at me as she pushes a wave of sandy blonde hair from her face and motions with a subtle jerk of her head that I should join her in the water. Maybe I was one too many into my bottle of rum, which would explain why I was seeing surfer girls and beachfront verandas in the middle of Brooklyn — and which would also explain why I thought sitting through all the beach party movies would be a keen idea.
I have a remarkably high tolerance for bubblegum sixties fare, especially if it involves car racing or surfing or go-go dancing. And the beach party movies include all of the above, and usually top it off with a couple musical numbers by surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale, plus a cameo from Vincent Price or someone else who was under contract to AIP. These movies are full of fake beatniks, “hep” lingo that is just a year or two out of date, and motorcycle gangs that wield all the imposing toughness of Paul Lynde. And the sad thing is, they were still hipper, sexier, and more daring than any of the movies starring Elvis. I mean, here he was, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, looking like a grade-A square while teenie boppers like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello got to shake their bums and smoke cigarettes and hang with beatniks. Who would have thought that former Mouseketeers Frankie and Annette would be more daring and more cutting edge than Elvis?
The frolicking begins with Beach Party. Summer’s here, and the kids are out of college with only one thing on their minds: the beach, and more specifically, surfing and sex. So, three things I guess. Yes, that’s right. Though these films are very much in the “good clean American fun” vein, surfing and sex are two of the best forms of good clean American fun. Other forms of good clean American fun include skateboarding, drinkin’, hollerin’, freakin’ out the squares, and blowin’ shit up. If you can work that all into one weekend, well then you truly do deserve that precious American citizenship. And if you also manage to jump a speedboat over a train or a muscle car through the open boxcar door, well then you got my vote for President.
Frankie’s into all of the above, but Annette? Well, she’s kind of…you know. A drag. So while Frankie is looking forward to a nice holiday at the beach house with his sweetie, she invites along “the whole gang,” which irritates Frankie to no end, at least until the surfing starts. Even then, while all the guys and gals are out having a blast, Annette sort of pouts around on the beach. How did these two end up together? While this little drama plays itself out — interspersed with some great vintage footage (watch the film grain change!) of real California longboarders — a perverted old scientist is hidden away in his bungalow watching the sexy young things cavort down on the beach. This ostensibly his anthropological research, working as he is on a thesis that popular youth culture is no different than the primitive pagan sex rites of old. Hey man, do you get grant money for researching that kind of thesis? I bet all those people who write their dissertations on the “Microstructural and Electronic Transport Properties of PtxSi/p-Si(100) Metal-Semiconductor Composite Films and Their Potential as IR Detection Devices in the 3-5 Micron Range” feel like world class suckers when they learn they could have written a thesis that required them to hide out in a beach bungalow with a gorgeous assistant and spend all day watching chicks in bikinis through a telescope.
So Annette won’t surf. She won’t imbibe in the devil’s brew. She doesn’t smoke the reefer. She won’t go-go dance or hang with the freaks at Big Daddy’s. Who can blame Frankie when his eyes start to wander to other girls who will shake and shimmy and have a good time? He wanted a romantic vacation with just her. She invited everyone else along, and when Frankie makes due and twists the night away, she’s upset at that too. I mean, if she came to the beach to sit in the corner and huff at everything, what can you do? Even the professor eventually learns to stop analyzing the kids and just cut loose and have some fun. And then there’s Eric Von Zipper’s madcap slapstick biker gang. And Candy Johnson go-go dancing so furiously that you will actually fear for her well-being and marvel at the fact that her arms and head don’t just go flying right off her body. Of course, no beach party movie is complete unless it ends in a big rumble with the bikers that turns into a pie fight.
There’s no defending Beach Party. It’s corny. It’s a crass cash-in on the popularity of surfing. It’s full of ripe dialogue. And I love it. Truly, and not on an ironic level. It’s got surfing, real and fake. It’s got Dick Dale and his big, weird pirate’s earring. It’s got lots of girls go-go dancing in bikinis and Capri pants and dudes in proper-length little swim trunks. It’s got fightin’. And for a family film, it’s surprisingly sexual. Folks were loosening up after the Eisenhower years drove everyone batty, and by the 1960s, films like the Doris Day bedroom comedies had turned innuendo and double entendre into an art form. The Beach Party leads drink and smoke and think about sex, and there’s even one scene (cut from the broadcast version but present on the DVD release) where Frankie and his buddies are partaking of what the kids at the time referred to as the reefer.
Annette is a drag, but Frankie puts a lot of energy into his role, even when he crosses the line into just being sort of a prick. The supporting cast is really just there to yell, “Well shoot, let’s go surfing!” or “Cuckoo, man, real cuckoo!” And then at the very end of the film we get to meet Big Daddy himself, which begins a long tradition in these films of AIP forcing their otherwise respectable old guard to appear in teenie bopper fare.
The supporting cast is composed mainly of dependable character actors and AIP workhorses, which helps a lot in making the movie tolerable, since you’re not really going to have much to say about Jody McCrae’s turn as Deadhead, the big guy with one of those weird crown-style hillbilly hats I think were only ever worn by characters in Archie and Li’l Abner. I don’t know if any actual hillbillies ever wore them, just like I’m not sure any sexy hillbilly women ever wore those ratty dresses where the bottom was cut into a bunch of triangles. But I hope they did. Robert Cummings plays the creepy voyeuristic Professor Sutwell. As sleazy as his character tends to come off now that the veneer of “innocent curiosity and research” has been worn off forty-year-old men watching teenage girls on the beach through a telescope, his performance is fine, though this movie is a long, long way from his roles in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or The Saboteur.
Harvey Lembeck plays foppish leather-clad motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper, predating Judas Priest’s “Head out on the Highway” by a couple of decades. I don’t know why a teen motorcycle gang is being lead by a guy in his forties, but I guess that does mean he’s the only rebellious young man actually old enough to have been a beatnik. His performance is ludicrous and over the top, which is about all he can do with the material, and he does it pretty well, though I wouldn’t pretend that his shenanigans (Oh, he crashed his bike again! Eric Von Zipper, will you ever learn?) had me in stitches. The final elder statesman of the cast is Morey Amsterdam as Cappy, the beatnik-is manager for Big Daddy’s. Morey was a former vaudeville performer and a recognizable face to anyone who watched comedy in the early half of the 20th century.
Director William Asher’s career up until this movie had been confined primarily to television, with his most notable accomplishment being a stint as a director of I Love Lucy. After this movie and its multitudinous sequels, his career would, not surprisingly, still be confined primarily to television, and teenie bopper television at that, including episodes of Gidget and The Patty Duke Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Harper Valley PTA. He seemed to really be into directing spin-offs or television series adaptations of popular movies (back when it was done that way, instead of how it is now, where every television series gets a movie). Among his smattering of feature film work beyond the beach party movies is another Frankie and Annette movie, Fireball 500.
Beach Party was a hit, needless to say, though Walt Disney was supremely pissed that his little Annette was cavorting about in such scandalous garb — even though she spends the film in the most modest of swimwear. Walt felt that having his prize Mouseketeer in such filth reflected bad on the title of Mouseketeer and the Disney brand in general. Good thing he didn’t live to see what 21st century Mousketeers would get up to. A sequel was a foregone conclusion. So AIP rounded everyone up again for Muscle Beach Party. This follow-up follows pretty much the same format, with our intrepid band of sex-crazed surfers led by Frankie Avalon discovering that they are being muscled off the beach.
Don Rickels, the man everyone thinks of when they think fitness trainer, arrives with his traveling band of bodybuilders, who hog the beach all day long as the flex and preen and oil up their biceps. Peter Lupus, a familiar face to anyone who follows Italian Hercules movies or Mission: Impossible, is the top star of the traveling muscle show. Meanwhile, a beautiful European heiress (Lucianno Paluuzi, Thunderball) is moored just off shore with her sidekick, Buddy Hackett. She takes a liking to Frankie, much to Annette’s annoyance, since it is Annette’s job to be forever annoyed in these films. Sadly, she doesn’t hook up with either Rickels or Hackett to make Frankie jealous. Somehow, they got those two in a film and prevented them from making lots of dick jokes.
Once again, the film is pretty enjoyable for what it is, and sadly, a couple jokes got me to laugh out loud, specifically Lupus becoming overjoyed about protein; and Lupus, upon discovering there is not enough room for a massive he-man like him in the heiress’ private helicopter, grabbing onto the landing runners so he can just dangle off the copter as it flies out to the boat — and then topping that by doing pull-ups for the duration of the ride. The rest of the film is the usual mash-up: Frankie and Annette snipe at each other, Candy Johnson go-go dances uncontrollably, and real-life surfers stand in for the cast in some nice old-school surfing footage.
That same year, Frankie, Annette, and the whole gang returned in Bikini Beach, a film which features the truly genius tagline “Where every torso is more so.” Frankie really gets to flex his acting muscle this time around as he stars not only as Frankie, the ever-impish boyfriend of straight-laced but cute-as-a-button Annette, but also as Potato Bug, the mop-topped sensation from England that has all the beach bunnies’ hearts a-flutter. Avalon’s characterization of a British guy consists mostly of saying things like, “Smashing, old chap! I say, I could use a spot of tea!” in a really bad fake accent. The Brit-speak sounds like whoever wrote this knew as much about writing dialogue for British rockers as they knew about writing dialogue for hep teens and beatniks. At the same time, they do have the foresight to give Potato Bug crooked teeth, predating the popular Austin Powers joke by a good thirty-plus years. And he does wear safari gear much of the time, and he’s named Potato Bug, so as stupid as it is, some of the Potato Bug jokes are at least a little funny. Maybe he could tour with The Mosquitoes from Gilligan’s Island.
Eric Von Zipper is, naturally, on hand again to muck things up, as is another stuffy professor, this one trying to prove that the youth of today are no smarter than a trained monkey. So he has a monkey (the usual guy in a cheap monkey suit, which always makes a movie better) following him around, going surfing, go-go dancing, stuff like that. The doctor should think less about proving kids are dumb and more about the fact that he has a hyper-intelligent chimp who can surf, perfectly understand English, and is smart enough to know he should jump up and go-go dance with Candy Johnson.
For the most part, any of the first three beach party movies are all right on their own, though I’m beginning to seriously question the wisdom of watching them all in a block, especially in light of the fact that there are two more to go. You can really only take so much of Jody McCray wearing his Jughead hillbilly hat and shouting, “Shucks!” But three wasn’t enough for the sun, surf, and sex crazed teens of the 1960s, so therefore it wasn’t enough for AIP. While they were busy making their truly classic Edgar Allen Poe films with Vincent Price and Roger Corman on one end of the lot, they had the beach party machine cranking furiously on the other.
Beach Blanket Bingo hit screens in 1965, and if you can believe that a series like this can actually start to decline in quality, this is where it happens. Or maybe not. I guess it’s no stupider than the others, but things really start to fray around the edges when you’ve watched so many in a row. They are, sadly, still more cutting edge (for the time and audience) than the Elvis movies, and more daring with the amount of bare flesh, wiggle, and jiggle they’re willing to put on screen. Once again Frankie and Annette head to the beach to act catty and petulant toward one another. You’d think that by now they’d either give up on each other, or all their friends would give up on them. I mean, for the most part, everyone is doing nothing but having fun and watching Candy Johnson flail about like a possessed woman at a voodoo ceremony, but then Frankie and Annette always have to start arguing and trying to make each other jealous, and well — you’d think the rest of the bunch would start entertaining the thought of maybe going to the beach without the two endlessly bickering sweethearts.
For this go-round, Frankie’s ever wandering eye is caught by a skydiving bombshell, and the only way Annette can retain proper ownership of Frankie’s heart is by finally doing something other than sitting on the beach and pouting. So it’s into the air for Annette, as she skydives her way back into Frankie’s love. The jokes were really starting to wear thin by this point, and the formula had been pretty much flogged to death. Having nothing better to do, director William Asher throws a decrepit Buster Keaton into the mix for no discernible reason. It’s not like the kids were going to go, “Well, I’m pretty tired of beach party movies, but this one has 1920s superstar Buster Keaton in it! Cuckoo!” and it’s not like any senior citizen was sitting around reading the papers and suddenly yelled, “Martha! There’s a new Buster Keaton movie playing down at the bijou! Why, this is one of those movies that also stars Morrey Amsterdam. I loved his vaudeville act. 23 skidoo!”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one growing tired of the retread antics in Beach Blanket Bingo. The next film, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, was the final film in the series, and rightfully so. By this point, even Frankie Avalon had lost interest, and while he and Annette rehash their never-ending lovers’ quarrel in exactly the same fashion, the main story here, horrifyingly enough, focuses on Jody McRae’s Deadhead character, who falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful woman who turns out to be a mermaid. Yep, that’s right. A mermaid. Not that it’s all that weird when you consider one of the previous films featured a hyper-intelligent go-go dancing ape. I have very little to say with regards to How to Stuff a Wild Bikini except that there’s not much to say about it. The laughs are few and far between, if indeed there are any laughs at all.
But don’t mourn for the death of the beach party movies. AIP managed to sustain the series for several films, plus they managed to crank out a number of spin-offs. Annette returns to her beach party role in the film Pajama Party, which Frankie Avalon opted out of (his character is said to have joined the Army, leaving Annette free to receive the advances of teen heartthrob Tommy Kirk, who here is a Martian. Look man, I didn’t write it). Frankie shows up in Ski Party, which is basically just a beach party movie on the ski slopes. He also pops up in another goofball AIP bikini film, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, starring Vincent Price at his absolute hammiest. And “the whole gang” returns years later for the 1980s film Back to the Beach, in which Frankie and Annette, now married, must content with being old squares while their kids discover punk rock. And yes, in case you’re worried, the punk dialogue is every bit as on-target as the previously displayed beatnik and biker dialogue.
Truth be told, any one beach party movie by itself can be fun. They’re ridiculously campy, occasionally funny, and surprisingly freewheeling about the drinking, smoking, and sex. As a group, they’re a little much to bite off all at once, but only an idiot like me would do that anyway. And they have much hipper music than you might think — once again, much hipper than the Elvis movies, which is sad given Elvis’ history. You know, as the king of rock and roll and all. The songs by Frankie and Annette are cornball bubblegum pop fare, but you can’t beat appearances by Donna Loren, Dick Dale and the Del Tones, and even a young Stevie Wonder. Plus the score for the films was created by AIP house composer Les Baxter, who always does good work.
At the very least, you should see at least one beach party movie just to behold the phenomenon that is Candy Johnson’s go-go dancing.