We Californians have to deal with some funny stereotypes, none of them true. Most of the time, anyway. We all live next door to movie stars, we’re all uber-liberal, we’re all hippies. And we all surf. I had a friend in high school who moved to California from Ohio, and she told me her friends from back there asked her if she surfed to school. We had a good belly laugh over that idea, since our part of Placer County is approximately two hours from the coast. My hometown is close to the American River, but it’s a wee bit hard to surf on.
I hold beach movies responsible for such wild and crazy notions about Californians and surfing. To be fair, though, it’s hard to find movies featuring the parts of California that aren’t the coast. Even The Jane Austen Book Club, which was set in Sacramento, was filmed in Encino, but don’t get me started on that. Hollywood rarely gets California right. Still, sometimes it’s nice to indulge in some crazy, fun surfer movies, especially ones as iconic as the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello series. I bought a set of them from Amazon on a lark, and I don’t regret it…much. 😉 The collection isn’t exclusively beach stuff, and gives a pretty good variety of the types of movies these two made.
Beach Party (1963): Ah yes, the film that launched it all. Frankie and Delores get away to the beach for what Frankie hopes is a quiet summer for two, except that Delores has invited their entire gaggle of friends. Down the beach a (relatively) elderly anthropology professor adjusts his listening device, trying to make sense of the seemingly tribal world of the American teenager, while his lovely assistant tries to make sense of him. Beach Party is also chock-full of jealousy, intrigue, crazy poetry from a guy in a Chinese dragon mask, and music. Lots of music. Lots of dancing, including light-speed fringe-shaking by Candy Johnson, Ms. Perpetual Motion. Add in plenty of surfing (of course) a klutzy biker gang called the Mice and Rats, and the result is a fun romp in the sand. Among the highlights are Robert Cummings’s wardrobe (the hat, the hat!), Dick Dale’s razor-sharp guitar riffs, and a Hungarian Marilyn Monroe lookalike named Eva Six. Oh, and there’s a pie-throwing scene.
Muscle Beach Party (1964): The gang is back, along with Dick Dale and Candy Johnson. This time they caravan to Santa Monica for another romp. It seems pretty typical–surfing, eating hot dogs, and doin’ the twist, except nothing is ever typical in Frankie and Annette’s world. Two blondes show up, blowing trumpets. Enter seven Adonises in pink and gold capes, followed by the chief Adonis in gold and purple and their trainer, Jack Fanny (Don Rickles). From that point on, things just get, um, strange, in an almost David Lynch kind of way. There’s a man-eating Italian heiress named Julie, someone dressed as Frankenstein, the guy in the Chinese dragon mask again, and a mysterious fellow in a black suit. Who likes tearing candlestick phones apart, might I add. Whew. On a side note, what is it with bodybuilders looking oily? Must be a definition thing. Anyway, look for Buddy Hackett as Julie’s publicist, and a young Stevie Wonder singing “Happy Street.”
Bikini Beach (1964): Same crew. Different beach. Again. No Dick Dale, but the film vigorously smirks at the British Invasion with The Potato Bug, a singer who looks suspiciously like Austin Powers with a mustache and pith helmet (Spoiler alert: It’s really Frankie Avalon.). This movie is silly, zany, and it kinda has a story…if you insist. There’s not a lot of surfing, but there is a bit of drag racing. There’s also Don Rickles (as Big Drag this time) with a falcon, Keenan Wynn with a fella in a gorilla suit and a bunch of bald guys called the Pyramids who provide some of the music. Like Beach Party, there’s an older person out to prove that teens are tribal, except this guy thinks they’re more degenerate than primal. Also like Beach Party, there’s a crazy brawl, only with paint instead of pies. Eric von Zipper shows up with his gang of Mice and Rats. Stevie Wonder is back too, singing “Happy Feeling (Dance and Shout)”.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965): The gang decides to mix things up in this go-round. Instead of drag racing and watching oily bodybuilders, they go sky diving. Instead of the Potato Bug, there’s a singer called Sugar Kane. Her agent is one Paul Lynde, whose Uncle Arthur schtick comes over for the occasion. Instead of a disapproving old guy, there’s Buster Keaton fishing and chasing a woman in a fur bikini. Don Rickles returns, only this time he’s called Big Drop instead of Big Drag. And just in case the movie isn’t campy enough, Bonehead has a romance with a mermaid and Eric von Zipper sings. Also, if the beach looks familiar in this movie, it’s the Leo Carrillo State Beach, which was one of the shooting locations for The Karate Kid, among other films. My only question is, how did Annette fit her hair under that skydiver’s helmet?
How To Stuff A Wild Bikini (1965): There’s a floating bikini. And Buster Keaton playing a witch doctor. Then Mickey Rooney rolls in. Frankie is in the Naval Reserve. Annette was pregnant during production, so she’s strategically presented at all times, even hiding her belly behind a bucket of KFC in one scene. The plot, is, of course, thin as a skimboard. Frankie is on a South Sea island for six weeks, and wants to make sure DeeDee is faithful to him, so he hires a witch doctor to run surveillance. For a pint of torpedo juice a day. Meanwhile, Mickey Rooney as Peachy Keene is casting around for the All-American Girl, and for some strange reason his advertising company wants to clean up biker culture. Yeah, I don’t get it either. It’s wall-to-wall weirdness, but if you can stand it, Bikini is not without its charms.
Ski Party (1965): As evidenced by the lobby card, new mommy Annette isn’t in the rather generically titled Ski Party at all. Well, except for a brief bit part. This time, Frankie plays Todd Armstrong, who, along with his buddy, Craig (Dwayne Hickman) dress up as two English girls, Jane and Nora, on a ski trip. Why? Because they’re tired of striking out with the ladies and want to learn their secrets. Logical? Heck, no. Watchable? Heck, no. I’m not even going to go into the yodeling polar bear who shows up now and then. The only parts of this film that aren’t cringeworthy are when Leslie Gore sings “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” on the bus up the mountain, or when James Brown sings “I Feel Good” in the ski lodge. Anyone who has to sit through this movie might want to pop M&Ms every time something makes them wince–it’s that bad. Even camp has its limits. On the bright side, though, Yvonne Craig has a pretty big role, and it’s fun seeing her in her pre-Batgirl days.
Fireball 500 (1966): Frankie and Annette are reunited, and it feels so good. Only she’s Jane this time instead of DeeDee, and Frankie meets her at a county fair diner counter. Frankie is Dave Owens, a stock car driver, who gets snookered by moonshiners into running their liquor for them. Dave’s not too happy about this development, and he’s even less thrilled to find out that the racing world has a seedy underbelly. Not surprisingly, the Internal Revenue (!) guys aren’t far behind, and they tell Dave he’s got to either help them break up the racket or spend six months in jail. Dave has no choice but to go along with it. On the side, Dave is a corner in a love triangle of he, Jane, and a rival driver named Leander (Fabian). As far as the movie goes, it seems that between Ski Party and Fireball 500, the pendulum swung from too much camp to none at all. Still, it’s got touches of the classic Frankie and Annette elements–playful banter and music, although the ending is different than in previous outings.
Thunder Alley (1967): The first time I watched Thunder Alley, I couldn’t handle it. Turned it off after ten minutes. I don’t know if I hit saturation point with this movie or what, but it didn’t take much until I was reaching for the stop button. The second time, I got through it, albeit with lots of clock-watching. Fabian replaces Frankie as Annette’s foil in Thunder Alley. It’s about a race car driver, Tommy Callahan, who gets suspended from racing for inadvertently running another driver off the road to his death. No one will hire him, so he gets a job with a motor circus. Annette as Francie puts in a mature performance, which is nice to see, but she’s not as hard-boiled as she could have been in the role. Thunder Alley is also…ahem…racier (pardon the pun) than the other films in this set, so parents may want to take evasive action. It’s boring and mishmash-y anyway, so the kids won’t be missing much.
So. Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo are probably the two best of this series, with Muscle Beach and Fireball 500 trailing close behind. No one was trying to change the world with these movies, and descriptors like “stupid” often get tossed their way. On the other hand, sometimes a less-than-great movie, or even a bad one, can be a nice escape. If you can get through them. Since I did enjoy myself now and then while watching these, I found myself a little bit willing to excuse the nutty California stereotypes. Maybe. Possibly. We’ll have to see. 🙂
All righty, here’s a little sneak peek of what’s coming up in June. There’s another installment in our new “Page To Screen” series ahead, and then there’s this on the horizon…
Just in time for Judy’s 95th birthday, too. If anyone wants to contribute, check with Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. See you in June, all, and have a great Memorial Day weekend…