Welcome to the third in The Retro Set’s weekly summer series taking a look at beach party movies of yore from guest writer Danny Reid.
Muscle Beach Party: Beach Blanket Blockheads
“Good heavens, where are the mothers of America?!”
It’s difficult to make smart dumb movies. I don’t have to tell you that– 90% of the movies being churned out by Hollywood this year are dumb, and the other 10% are just lucky.
The Beach Party films, of which this is the second, were puppy-eyed in their dumbness. The only thing they challenge is a discerning audience’s patience, while giving everyone else exactly what was advertised: surfing, dumb gags, some good surf rock acts, and a few bits of surrealism just to keep things interesting.
Muscle Beach Party isn’t really aiming for clever, so for anyone enchanted with ‘dumb’ will find it in high supply here. Lacking the emotional thoroughfares of Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party is a collection of gags and songs that flaunt their artificiality and mostly play the ‘second verse, same as the first’ sequel routine. If you spliced three random Hanna-Barbera cartoons together with some boppy tunes in the middle, you’d get the same results.
Annette is now Dee Dee while Frankie remains Frankie and their desires to canoodle are still unmet. Dee Dee thinks Frankie doesn’t think of the future in practical terms and risks their happiness, while Frankie is just on the lookout for the next big wave. He wants the easy life, which is well and good when Contessa Julie (Luciana Paluzzi) pops up to offer him a record contract and a nice life as a kept man.
There are complications, mostly in the form of muscular Mr. Galaxy, Flex Martian (Peter Lupus), and his trainer, Jack Fanny (Don Rickles). Flex has developed a thing for Julie, ensuring a showdown at the bar owned by Cappy (Morey Amsterdam). The place will get wrecked (again) while Dick Dale and the Deltones keep the beats mellow and moving (again).
The rest of the cast of Beach Party, sans Robert Cummings, has reappeared, though their personalities have been drained down to a few helpful lines of encouragement or joshing. Even the late night beach canoodling has been eliminated, as it’s reinforced that the teenagers have all seen It Happened One Night and thus perfectly understand the laws of the walls of Jericho.
Frankie is given a good amount of the heavy lifting in terms of the acting this round, and the film suffers, giving Annette not much to do but pout. Her major highlight comes in a verbal jousting match after she catches the Contessa kissing Frankie and the two women take turns hurling innuendo at each other. The rest of the time she’s merely grumpy or passive-aggressive, concerned with Frankie’s inability to shake his dreamer status but unwilling to offer him much in terms of an alternative besides a couple of discreet euphemisms.
Despite that, Funicello is still the more winning personality. Avalon’s Frankie is a petulant dreamer, but he never really seems to have his heart set on anything but surfing and Dee Dee. It’s finally an appeal to his masculine vanity that shakes him free of the fantasy of being a kept man, but it’s difficult to believe that he’s made any serious change besides just realizing that Dee Dee is, once again, worth all the trouble she causes.
The rest of the actors are okay, save for Rickles who seems to be terrified of not being the center of attention. He also pays more of an idiot than his usual insult-heavy demeanor, which doesn’t really suit him. Hackett is alright, even getting to lay down some truth bombs, but it’s still a little creepy that he has his eyes set on a character so much younger than him. And the musclemen are just gorgeous. If you want to see some 60s beefcake as it lives and breathes, you can’t go wrong here.
But if you’re looking for a smooth ride, Muscle Beach Party is the same as the first, but a tiny bit worse.
Best & Worst Attributes
- Best Song – Whereas it was a close call in the first Beach Party, it’s no contest here– “Little” Stevie Wonder steals the show easily in his first big screen appearance with “Happy Street”. It even gets an encore during the credits, deservedly so. Too bad no one saw fit to give Wonder threads as cool as the main characters’, but I think he ended up doing alright for himself.
- Best Woman’s Outfit – Gotta give this one to Funnicello’s bikini, which looks light years ahead of the doughty number she wore in Beach Party.
- Best Man’s Outfit – Mr. Galaxy touts a tight pair of tiny purple swim trunks trimmed in gold and a gold cape. I mean, come on!
- Worst Outfit – The muscleheads all get their turns in wearing tiny tank tops with their names on it, though nothing matches the sweatshirt/pants combo that Rickles wears throughout the film.
- Gratuitous Sexy Man Shot – The entire first half of this movie fits into this category.
- Most Improbable Thing – A woman would fall in love with Buddy Hackett’s character. Followed closely by Flex Martian’s physique. But definitely the first one for sure.
- And the moral of the story is… don’t fuck with Peter Lorre. Oh, and grow up and stuff, I guess.
Trivia & Links
- Jeffrey Kauffman reviews the recently released blu-ray of the film, and rightfully points out one of the movie’s biggest flaws:
The beach party series always relied more on sight gags than verbal humor to whip up its farcically comedic stance, and in that regard, Muscle Beach Party’s offerings can be kind of on the slim side. A lot of the schtick has to do with Rickles’ Jack Fanny character and the big lugs who tool about the beach. Rickles’ hyperbolic mugging doesn’t help some of the lamer jokes, and from a pure humor standpoint, a lot of Muscle Beach Party is either flat or forced. (It’s an unusual situation where someone like Buddy Hackett, playing a kind of fat cat involved with the Countess, can seem downright subdued when compared to Rickles’ over the top performance.)
- New York Times grump Bosley Crowther devotes less than a paragraph to the movie, implying you have to be mentally deficient to make it through Muscle Beach Party.
- Glenn Erickson, the DVD Savant, has a lot of nostalgia tied up in this one (and Annette) but still can’t bring himself to being enthusiastic about it. He explains:
A.I.P. films of this period weren’t seen much in the ’70s and early ’80s, and came as something of a shock when we caught up with them later. The Corman-Poe pictures looked better than ever but the beach party romps suddenly seemed grotesquely un-cool, as in, embarrassing. Now I think we can better rationalize or interest in them. For a couple of years they seemed legit, and now they’re almost as remote as the college movies of the ’20s and ’30s, where rich kids on campus barely attended classes, helped the dummy jock pass French and held spectacular pep rallies choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
It’s just a different fantasy — Muscle Beach Party isn’t as desperate as some of the later beach installments stuffed with drag racing, skydiving or wild bikinis, and is thus more charming.
The film is available on Amazon. Here’s the trailer:
Next week: Bikini Beach (1964)