The Complete Beach Party, Part Three: Bikini Beach

Anarchy rules in Bikini Beach, which gives us more of everything. More jokes, more songs, more musical guests, more Eric Von Zipper, and more storylines. There’s even more ending, a mammoth finale that explodes into a crosstown chase and barroom brawl that pays tribute to, then fully eclipses, the chaos of Keystone Kops-style silent comedy.

Bikini Beach

This third chapter finds the gang arriving at Bikini Beach for unspecified summer fun, their usual beach house now replaced with a camper for the girls and a flatbed truck for the boys, who apparently don’t mind sleeping in a giant pile. (Side note, for those keeping score: The film also starts a short-lived tradition of recasting bikini babe Animal, with Valora Noland replaced with Meredith MacRae.) Surfing and singing are interrupted when snooty newspaper magnate Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn) arrives to decry the depravity of youth and declare the kids a nuisance to the residents of the neighborhood nursing home – but not before showcasing his pet chimp Clyde’s dynamite surfing skills, which he believes proves teenagers are no smarter than apes.

Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that last sentence, shall we? In case the sheer lunacy of it isn’t clear, let me add that Clyde is a guy in an ape suit. Clyde is also shows up throughout the picture, where he dances, paints, chauffeurs, and (spoiler alert!) breaks a drag race world record. The filmmakers (which include, once again, director/co-writer William Asher) don’t seem to mind how obviously fakey he is, probably because the entire concept is so downright silly, and silly is given priority over such inessentials as realism or logic.

(Speaking of silly, there’s also a wolfman in a leather jacket who hangs out in Eric Von Zipper’s pool hall, because why not?)

Honeywagon’s anti-youth crusade is an excuse for the script to toss in some “the kids are alright” championing from local teacher Vivian (Martha Hyer). The script mostly abandons most of this somewhere midway through, though, turning its focus instead to plot number two: the arrival of British pop sensation Potato Bug, played by Avalon himself under heavy makeup and with a beautifully bizarre Terry-Thomas-inspired caricature accent. Potato Bug is an obvious send-up of the Fab Four, complete with two rather biting (and rather good) songs that parody the style of their early hits, especially all those high notes. (Asher once said the Beatles were to appear in the film, only to renege after the success of their first American visit; while the tale sounds too tall to be true, I’d love to imagine it actually happened.)

Potato Bug’s presence is well received by most – he turns out to be an all-around nice guy – but Frankie chafes, certain the chap is after Dee Dee. Threatened by Potato Bug’s success, Frankie challenges him to a drag race, which allows for plenty of footage taken at Pomona Raceway, and for the inclusion of Don Rickles as drag strip manager/local hangout owner/deranged artist Big Drag. (The script takes a moment to reveal Big Drag is indeed Jack Fanny from Muscle Beach Party but has changed his ways, as if continuity might matter in this series.) And here, we get subplots galore: Frankie needs to buy a car to race; a mysterious art dealer keeps trying to buy Big Drag’s paintings (which he won’t sell, because he’s an artist); Eric Von Zipper and his Rats attempt to sabotage the big race. Oh, and Big Drag spends most of the time with a live hawk on his head, which provides one of the series’ best weird moments: Don Rickles attempting to maintain his cool while walking around with a live hawk on his head. Naturally, the hawk often talks like a parrot. Naturally.

The best moments, though, come from Avalon himself as Potato Bug. It’s a genuinely great performance, which is something we never truly get from him when he’s playing the leading man (especially when the series makes the occasional effort to get serious, as it does here with an ill-fitting brief scene where Dee Dee expresses her worry over Frankie competing in such a dangerous sport). Avalon is having a ball going bat-shit bonkers in the role, with eyes bugged, head shaking, and mouth spouting the dopiest English slang.

The dual role also allows Asher to toy with the audience, who aren’t told Avalon is playing both parts until the closing credits. That alone makes for a nice gotcha!, but it’s on repeat viewings, where we know he’s both, when things get really interesting. Avalon has several scenes where, as Frankie, he doesn’t just talk to Potato Bug, he fully interacts with him. It’s enough to baffle viewers looking closely for split screen trickery, knowing AIP didn’t have the money to make the special effects that good. I was thoroughly fooled by the whole process… until I learned Asher’s ingenious solution was (spoiler alert, if you worry about magician’s secrets remaining secret) to put a double in Potato Bug makeup, then dub the scene with Avalon’s Potato Bug voice later. So simple, so perfect. Take that, James Cameron.

Non-Potato Bug musical moments include appearances from Donna Loren, The Pyramids, and “Little” Stevie Wonder, plus a closing credits Candy Johnson go-go number from Johnson’s own group, The Exciters. (Alas, no more Dick Dale.) They’re all top notch, and while Avalon and Funicello get a few songs of their own (not counting the Potato Bug numbers), the series is starting to push for a wider variety in its music, and the film’s frantic structure makes more room for these performances.

It makes more room for just about everything else, too. If the first two Beach Party movies were anything goes, Bikini Beach is everything goes. It builds and builds in its chaos, throwing everything it can at us, including a go-kart, a busload of rock music-loving seniors, and, yes, even the obligatory mystery cameo, this time filled by Boris Karloff. That’s on top of the surfing, the dragging, the dancing, the Potato Bugging, the chimpanzeeing, and the Don Ricklesing. Anarchy!

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