The Complete Beach Party, Part Four: Pajama Party

So it’s come to this: the Tommy Kirk one.

Pajama Party

Pajama Party is the odd duck of the franchise, officially considered a Beach Party entry (unlike tangentially related features like Sergeant Deadhead or Fireball 500) yet not featuring Frankie (save for a brief cameo) and giving new character names to most of the remaining cast. There’s also much less music – indeed, aside from one Donna Loren track, the film is treated not as a variety showcase but as a straight musical, with less anarchy. Annette’s songs, including one duet with Kirk, are built more fully into the story, and while Dorothy Lamour pops in and out for one plotless tune, the script does its best to incorporate it. (The movie, bless its heart, tries to set some chaos to the tune of the Nooney Rickett 4, who appear as a house band of sorts, but it just doesn’t have the same kick as the previous film’s use of Dick Dale or the Pyramids.)

Our screenwriter this time around is Louis M. “Deke” Heyward, a former television writer making his AIP debut; he’d later gain success with the company as both an executive and, later, producer of several Vincent Price features, including both Dr. Phibes films.

Replacing William Asher as director was another TV veteran, Don Weis, making a rare venture into feature films. Weis has an impressive resumé in terms of the small screen, but here he seems lost in trying to recapture Asher’s sense of lunacy. Everything plays cheaper, smaller, lesser. There’s a frantic mid-film chase sequence that obviously aims to copy the finale of Bikini Beach, and comes off flat, dull, and, more importantly, unfunny. Sure, there are a handful of visually impressive and entertaining moments that do manage to work (most notably a gleefully unnecessary dance sequence that goes for broke in terms of Broadway-meets-go-go; it swings with a fierce energy that wakes up the movie), but the bulk of the film plays like filler, something thrown together to get one more flick into the drive-ins before they closed for the season.

I’d gripe about the lack of continuity that separates the film from the main franchise, but, c’mon, since when did the franchise care about continuity? The Frankie-less story finds Connie (Funicello) – who’s like a low-rent Dee Dee, with the spunk deflated – dating Big Lunk (Jody McCrea) – who’s like a low-rent Deadhead, with the gleeful dopiness toned down and a heavy dose of jerkiness dialed up. Nobody, not the cast, not the crew, cares about this relationship, which is why neither we nor they care a stitch when the two fall for others.

And oh, how the movie tries to make the charisma-deficient Tommy Kirk a viable romantic interest. He plays Go Go, a naïve Martian sent to Earth ahead of a pending invasion, only to run across Connie, who doesn’t believe his story until the third act. Not that it matters much; there’s zero chemistry between the two former Disney stars. The script doesn’t give them much to do, either. They’re just there, eventually in love because the plot says they are. Whatever Frankie and Annette had, whether they were serenading to or bickering with each other, it’s completely absent here, and the movie is all the worse off for it.

The secondary plot involves Big Lunk’s dizzy Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester, adding some life to the proceedings), a widower with millions hidden in the California house where Lunk’s friends have come to party. A con man (Jesse White) is scheming to relieve Aunt Wendy from her cash, and his scheme requires the use of an aging Indian (Buster Keaton, whose tribal wear includes a porkpie hat, natch) and a buxom Swede (Bobbi Shaw) who speaks little English. She seduces Lunk as part of an act, but the two eventually fall for each other, because, again, the plot requires it.

Of course the previous Beach Party movies didn’t delve too deeply into their relationships, so it’s probably not fair of me to single out Pajama Party for being to shallow and flimsy in how it arranges its characters. But while the plots may have been sitcommy, we still felt Frankie and Dee Dee deserved to reunite by the closing credits. Those were stories driven by jokes, yes, but also by character; Pajama Party is driven by… frankly, I’m not sure who’s at the wheel, but the GPS is broken. This movie is directionless.

Even Eric Von Zipper (whose appearance is really the only argument to be had in calling this an official entry) doesn’t have much to do, and how to you fumble with a character this good? He and his Rats are hired to crash the titular pajama party, and, well, that’s about it. Heyward and Weis don’t seem to know what to do with him or his dopey pomposity, so he just stumbles around for a while.

The big joke of the picture is that the Martian invasion is being led by Don Rickles and, in a twist on the franchise’s “surprise cameo” gimmick, Avalon himself. It’d be cute if the whole thing didn’t seem so cheap. Rickles and Avalon don’t seem all that interested in their scenes, which look like they were shot in an afternoon in a closet.

If Pajama Party has an upside, it’s probably the addition of Susan Hart, the wife of AIP honcho James H. Nicholson. Hart takes over va-va-voom duties from Candy Johnson (who’s still here, but who rarely jiggles this time); unlike Johnson’s high octane dancing, Hart goes for the slow burn, her slo-mo grinding melting flowers and igniting marshmallows. Hotchie and motchie!

But that’s little consolation for a movie that wastes the comedy potential of Keaton, Lembeck, and Rickles, a movie whose songs fail to resonate and whose jokes fail to earn so much as crickets, a movie that screeches to a halt whenever Kirk takes over. It’s cheaper, it’s dumber, it’s obnoxious, it’s boring. It’s the Tommy Kirk one.

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