Welcome to the second in The Retro Set’s weekly summer series taking a look at the beach party movies of yore from guest writer Danny Reid.
Beach Party: Surf Before Marriage
“Anything you want to know about these kids, I can tell you in two words – they’re nuts.”
What makes a teenager tick? Is it the urge to mature, or just the sudden and immediate need for sex?
While Where the Boys Are last week was a rather messy mix of carefree teenage sexual exploration and heavy moralizing, Beach Party plays with the same desires but with a decidedly different tone. Boys setup the battlefield in front of the women, asking them whether they wanted premarital sex and punishing them for even contemplating the thought. Beach Party sees Annette having the thought plenty, but she constantly and carefully keeps herself in check. She has to wait, if not for the ring, than for some level of commitment above ‘waggling eyebrows.’
The plot would set the stage for many of the ensuing beach party pictures as it played on a common teenage trouble: Frankie (Avalon) wants to go all the way, but Dolores (Funicello) wants to wait until marriage. So when they plan to adjourn for the summer at a beach house built for two, Dolores counters by inviting all of their friends over to keep Frankie in line. She crafts her own fail safes, knowing not to trust herself, and while it temporarily pushes her and Frankie apart, its necessary to prod him towards the level of maturity that physical intimacy requires.
This begins the jealousy game, as both Frankie and Dolores attempt to force the other into action either to give in on love or sex. Frankie goes after busty waitress named Ava (Eva Six), while Dolores chases after a square old man named Sutwell (Bob Cummings). Ava will do what Dolores won’t– be freely and overtly physical– while Sutwell is exactly what Dolores is looking for– a man who isn’t pushing her to put out.
Sutwell further impresses Dolores after he handily defeats a doofy biker gang lead by Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck). As you can imagine, Frankie starts freaking out when Annette starts sneaking around with an older man nicknamed “The Finger” and conflict ensues.
Sutwell has a secret though– he’s actually an anthropologist, fascinated with exploring teenage surfing mating rites. He’s assisted by a faithful but undersexed assistant named Marianne (Dorothy Malone) who reluctantly agrees to Sutwell’s latest plot, which includes a rather skeezy bit of undercover work.
The best way to understand Beach Party is to have to admit that the minds at AIP pretty much decided to take the tepid The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and update its lingo. It’s a Howard Hawks movie gone rogue. Cummings plays the Cary Grant role to a ‘T’ as he’s clearly riffing on Bringing Up Baby, only with the leopard replaced by beach bunnies.
Almost immediately, it’s easy to see why Frankie and Annette became representative of the quintessential early 1960s American teenagers. Dark hair, big smiles, and peppy songs abound, keeping them both cheekily relateable while undeniably idealized. They’re billboards of teenage vulnerability while remaining vitally sexy, clean cut kids with sympathetic yearnings, all presented in an easily digestible package.
It doesn’t hurt that the music that they take turns chortling and rocking out to is a load of fun. Mostly helmed by surf rock progenitors Dick Dale and the Deltones, there’s a rampaging, wild beat underlining the score, giving the candy color visuals an added sense of manic cartoonishness. The stars get a couple of numbers as well, with the only miss being Annette’s ballad “Treat Him Nicely”, which sounds hilariously similar to Connie Francis’ theme to Where the Boys Are.
The entire picture breathes with a sense of youthful naivete put to a smart, clever script that isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. What I think endures about the movie and its follow-ups is that it is undeniably postmodern in tone, replicating, for its finale, a big pie fight and comedic brawl that would have felt at home being waged with the Three Stooges at the helm.
But there’s absolutely no cynicism about it. While the characters clearly know they’re stuck in a formula, they’re not above it, but invested in it. The movie was a hit and encouraged a lengthy series of sequels that would ramp up the insanity, but its ability to modulate between the silly and the sexy is what makes the movie hold up so well today.
Best & Worst Attributes
- Best Song – There’s a great number of peppy surfing songs, most headlined by “My Secret Surfing Spot” that pretty much knocks the rest of the songs out of the park. Dick Dale and the Deltones are one of the premier surf groups of the era and add a great beat to the proceedings.
- Best Outfit – Jody McCrea (the far right below) wears a tiny speedo, goofy ranger hat, and a letter sweater. (He may also be smuggling a can of beans on his person.) That’s probably the best thing to wear to a beach party I’ve ever seen, and will be soon terrorizing beach goers by myself donning the same outfit as soon as possible.
- Worst Outfit – Maybe I should just make this ‘Worst Hat’, because jeez louise…
- Weirdest Moment – During the surfing stock footage, we get an odd moment of two women sharing a surfboard. Oh, wait, that’s not odd, it’s the fact that, in the process of standing up, the woman in the back sticks her face directly into the other woman’s butt.
- Gratuitous Sexy Man Shot – This nameless beach wanderer who Annette begins the jealousy shell game with gets his hiney out there.
- Gratuitous Sexy Lady Shot – Dolores’ friend, Rhonda, enjoys wrecking the surfer’s take on the sport with her morning stretch exercises. That yellow polka dot bikini is pretty sweet to boot.
- And the moral of the story is… you can’t hurry sex. No, you just have to wait.
Trivia & Links
- DVD Drive-In talks about the movie’s appeal and briefly about the shared AIP cinematic universe:
The beauty of the series also lies in both its continuity and paradoxically lack of continuity. Characters change names from movie to movie yet are basically the same characters in similar situations. Cameo appearances by famous old film stars add to the surreal nature of the films. Also, lots of AIP inside jokes abound. In BEACH PARTY, Vincent Price as Big Daddy hangs out, sleeping at the coffeehouse (unrecognizable because of a large sombrero) until almost the last scene. The gang is awaiting “the word” from Big Daddy, which is assumed to be delivered after he awakens. When he finally does… well, you need to watch the flick!
- The Classic Film & TV Cafe talks about the music:
As for the music, Dick Dale and the Del Tones perform the beach classic “Swingin’ and a-Surfin'” while Frankie and Annette (as a duo and separately) croon the rest of the tunes. It’s one of the best scores in the series with songs written by Bob Marcucci, Gary Usher and Roger Christian (who sometimes collaborated with the Beach Boys), and Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner (who wrote songs for several Beach Party pictures).
- HappyOtter has a bunch of more screen shots.
- One of the most persistent rumors about the movie is how Annette Funicello was contractually forbidden from showing her navel. And it’s true– she wears a two-piece swimsuit but keeps it snug above her belly button. Thomas Lisanti talks about the two stories behind this in his book, Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies:
By this time Funicello had blossomed into a voluptuous young woman, leaving her Mickey Mouse Club days far behind. But Walt Disney was still misusing her in films aimed at ten-year-olds. Funicello’s contract with Disney contained a clause that she needed approval by the studio’s attorneys before she could do a movie for another company. According to Arkoff, they would give their consent to let her appear in Beach Party as long as she did not don a bikini. It was agreed to by AIP (though it did not stop them from putting Annette in two-piece swimsuits) and the contract signed. Arkoff went on to write that Walt Disney hit the roof when he learned of the deal. He called AIP and pleaded to have her dropped from the proj-ect. He was over-protective of her image and labeled the 20-year-old Funicello his “little girl.” Asher backs this up and states the only time he was ever on the Disney lot was to meet with Walt, who said that if Annette donned a bikini or revealed her navel he’d pull her off the picture.
Funicello in her autobiography claims that Disney approved of Beach Party, calling it “good clean fun” and only proposed that she not wear a bikini in order to be different and to stand out from the other girls in the movie. If this is true, it proves what a shrewd and astute businessman Disney was, as he wanted to protect his investment in Annette’s “pure” image and used some reverse psychology on the young starlet (though there is no doubt that he had paternal feelings for her as well). Annette agreed to Disney’s “suggestion”; however this caused problems down the road as she was constantly pressured into wearing skimpier swimsuits. “I stood my ground, politely but firmly answering, ‘No, I do not have to follow “boss’s orders.’” This is something I chose to do and will do.”
- DVD Talk does a great job in breaking down the appeal of the films:
But when William Asher (producer and director of TV’s Bewitched) was approached to direct, he wanted Beach Party to represent all the kids out there who weren’t having a particularly hard time adjusting to adolescence, all the suburban kids who played by the rules, who enjoyed their carefree summer vacations away from school, and who engaged in the same kinds of age-old, yet essentially innocent, sexual give-and-take games that “teenagers” Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello acted out on the screens. With their teasing suggestions of having sex (but never actually going through with the act), and their farcical attempts to make each other jealous with other temporary partners, Frankie and Annette were the teenaged equivalent of cinema superstars Rock Hudson and Doris Day, providing ever-so-slightly naughty thrills in a decidedly innocent package, aimed directly at the teen fans who may have thought older Doris and Rock fun, but definitely “squares” like their parents.
The film is available on Amazon. Here’s the trailer:
Next week: Muscle Beach (1964)
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