The Complete Beach Party, Part One: Beach Party

Beginning a new series on American International’s entire Beach Party series and related films. Surf’s up, Big Daddy!

It’s about as specific as a subgenre can get: teenage surf musicals from American International Pictures starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Beach Party was intended to be AIP’s rip-off of big studio titles Gidget and Where the Boys Are, but it quickly became its own beast thanks to a heavy serving of anything-goes comedy and near-plotless freewheeling. The film was a table-turning hit that left the big studios imitating AIP with titles like Ride the Wild Surf. The studio, always eager to capitalize on a trend, served up six sequels and a string of related titles over the next three years.

Beach Party

The opening shot of Beach Party, with credits rolling over a scenic bird’s eye view of sunny beaches and summer fun, reminds me of the opening shot of Where the Boys Are. But for all AIP’s efforts to copycat other, more popular fare, it’s the only thing in Beach Party that’s anything like anything else. Friendly musical numbers and jokes about teenage sexual shenanigans quickly step aside for a barrage of live-action cartoon madness aimed at the in-the-moment entertainment atmosphere of, well, a party. It’s a slapstick farce with plenty of room for dancing bikini girls, goofy biker boys, and a fairly stoned-looking Dick Dale, roaring away on his guitar.

The plot, at least, is relatively straightforward. Bookish anthropologist Robert Sutwell (Bob Cummings) sets out to study the sex habits of the American teen, particularly the surfers and swingers of southern California. His investigations land him in the middle of some bickering between Frankie (Avalon, of course) and Dolores (Funicello, obviously), who’ve recently set out to make the other jealous by hooking up with someone else. Dolores sets her sights on the professor (himself unaware of advances from his own assistant, played by Dorothy Malone), while Frankie targets busty waitress Ava (Eva Six). Don’t worry, kids, it all works out in the end.

The “sex study” angle sounds steamier than it ever truly gets. The opening sequence, in which Frankie discovers Dolores has invited a dozen or so close friends to share the beach house they’ve rented (a preemptive cock block, if you will), is the only time we really get a notion of sexual activity beyond necking. Even the professor’s observations deal almost entirely with the wind-up, not the pitch. (Many jokes are made about primitive rituals, but they’re mainly contained to “the kids these days and the dancing like they’re in wild Africa, I tell ya” variety.) It’s a far cry from the sexual discussions of Where the Boys Are, with screenwriters Lou Rusoff, William Asher (who also directed), and Robert Dillon opting instead to take a lukewarm approach to a hot subject.

Beach Party isn’t all that interested in the hot stuff anyway. Ogling jiggly girls and hunky guys, sure, but that’s about as far as it gets. (Or, as Asher is quoted as saying, “Lots of flesh but no sex. It’s all good clean fun.”) The bulk of the picture is preoccupied with the moment, that moment usually being a party, or a sing-along, or a sing-along at a party, which Asher felt was more relatable to younger viewers and less threatening to their parents. Most of the screen time is given to just hangin’ out, often at Big Daddy’s the local coffeehouse/bar/cafĂ©, where Dick Dale and the Del-Tones crank out “Swingin’ and Surfin’,” or at the beach, where Dick Dale cranks out “Secret Surfin’ Spot.” Asher is credited for steering the film away from any actual kind of conflict and toward a breezier tone where teens drift from one diversion to the next, and us with them. He didn’t want issues. He wanted fun.

The closest thing to conflict we get (because, c’mon, the Frankie/Dolores tiff is hardly conflict) is the arrival of Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper, the dimwitted leader of the neighborhood biker gang. Von Zipper, who would return in five of the six sequels, is the franchise’s greatest invention, a send-up of Marlon Brando’s Wild One greaser that signals, essentially, that the tough guy 50s are, like, out, man. Beach Party doesn’t bother mocking the previous generation (Sutwell may be square, but he’s shown as a good egg); instead, it mocks the trends of its own generation’s older brothers.

Lembeck is priceless in the role. By choosing to be less Brando and more Buddy Hackett, he makes the character entirely his own, whose skittishness, temper, idiocy, and frequency in succumbing to The Finger (a martial art move practiced by Sutwell, in which the touch of a finger at just the right pressure point leaves the victim in a state of “time suspension”) allows him to be a walking cartoon – exactly what this series needs. He’s a villain whose interference is all for laughs and who poses no real threat to anyone but himself. Anyone more dangerous would only get in the way of the surfing.

It all ends – how else? – with a pie fight, and a Vincent Price cameo, and Candy Johnson jiggle-dancing over the closing credits, because, hey, why not? There’s also a promo for The Haunted Palace, coming soon from AIP, because, again, hey, why not? Between that and an earlier line name checking American International, Beach Party invites the kids in the audience to be in on the joke. Such an attitude, most noticeable in those moments but present throughout, is the movie’s smartest weapon. Asher and company ask us to join their party and be one of the gang. Who could resist?

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