The anything-goes vibe continues in Muscle Beach Party, which kicks off with a comic strip featuring Michael Dormer’s “Hot Curl,” then tosses its opening titles against a mural of Dormer’s surf culture art. Right from the beginning, even before we get to Frankie and Annette, we get an acknowledgment from the filmmakers to its young audience: we’re in on the subculture, too, kids, and we dig it.
For their second outing, Frankie and Dolores – now called Dee Dee, a name she’ll keep for (most of) the remainder of the series – have returned to the beach for “Easter vacation” (perhaps spring break was too obvious a setting?), once again sharing a beach house with the usual gang of friends. There’s no Eric Von Zipper this time; instead, we get Jack Fanny (Don Rickles!), loudmouth trainer to a local band of bodybuilders. His lunkhead crew, led by “Mr. Galaxy” champion Felx Martian (a pre-Mission: Impossible Peter Lupus, credited as “Rock Stevens”), threaten to take over prime beach real estate from the surfers, although that plotline gets backburnered for most of the film, the focus instead turning to Italian countess Julie (a pre-Thunderball Luciana Paluzzi), who’s come to California to find Flex, whom she has longed to meet in person, only to fall for Frankie instead. Don’t worry, it makes even less sense than it sounds.
Curiously, Robert Dillon’s screenplay amps up Frankie’s jerkiness and Dee Dee’s whininess – we never fully root for either of them here, nor do we perk up when they arrive on screen. The movie makes up for this, however, by increasing screen time for the rest of the gang. Johnny (John Ashley), Animal (Valora Noland, in her last of two franchise appearances), and Deadhead (Jody McCrea) are all fleshed out as characters, with Johnny turning out to be the nice guy of the group and, as such, about as close a romantic rival Frankie gets this time out. (Flex is too lame-brained to truly offer any competition.) Also promoted with more screen time are Morey Amsterdam, returning as coffehouse manager Cappy, and Candy Johnson, the star of Beach Party’s closing credits, who now shimmy shakes throughout the whole movie.
But mainly it’s Julie’s story. She’s an outsider stumbling first upon Flex, then Frankie; her efforts to turn Frankie into a superstar by pressing a record of him singing at the coffeehouse is what drives most of the plot, and despite how she winds up interfering with Frankie and Dee Dee as a couple (a shaky couple, the first act establishes, but we’re asked to hope things work out anyway because, you know, they’re the stars and all), she’s presented as enough of an innocent to never become an antagonist. (It helps, of course, that Paluzzi is a knockout.)
Muscle Beach Party is in many ways a lesser film than its predecessor – the story (such as it is) is weaker, the gags lamer, the songs less memorable, and, as mentioned, Frankie and Dee Dee just aren’t as likeable this time around – but it’s also an improvement in key areas. Director William Asher (who also contributed to the story) gets more daring and inventive with tone, pacing, and camerawork. The editing is looser, more eager to bounce from scene to scene, with many of the jarring cuts leading to an introduction of sorts – say, Cappy in full Chinese dragon regalia announcing the next act, or a montage of teens yelling “surf’s up!” in cockeyed close-ups – that announce each set piece as its own event. His framing is more playful here, the camera toying with layouts in fun and often visually thrilling ways. (Check out Fanny’s gym, where Rickles is framed between one woman’s twirling legs, another’s yoga pose, and a muscleman’s weights.) As the opening credits suggest, Asher is treating this like a comic strip.
He also tinkers with the fourth wall, which gets broken here repeatedly by Frankie, who just can’t believe how Dee Dee is treating him and asks us to gripe with him. It’s such a successful gimmick, he’ll repeat it in later films.
Then there’s “Little” Stevie Wonder, whose lightning in a bottle performance is so spectacular (outshining the mediocre efforts from Frankie, Annette, and a still-stoned Dick Dale by miles), the movie repeats it over the closing credits.
And, finally, there’s Peter Lorre, who one-ups his occasional AIP costar Vincent Price with a cameo that’s very funny by way of its utter bizarreness – you haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen Peter Lupus weep “Don’t spank me!” at the former star of M.
These are all terrific moments, but they don’t add up in quite the same way Beach Party does. Muscle Beach Party is a good film stuck between a couple great entries in the series, a serviceable sequel that’s not quite there.
Still, Don Rickles!