Life's a Beach, Then You Die
The wiggy, wiggy world of Sixties surfer celluloid
Not long into American International Pictures' (AIP) 1965 Beach Blanket Bingo, aging silent-film comedian Buster Keaton and an ultrabuxom, bikini-clad beach babe take turns chasing each other back and forth over the sand, Keystone Kops-style, prompting a tanned, blandly handsome surfer boy to turn to the camera and say with a shrug, "It's a wiggy beach."
Well, yep, back in those days it sure was, especially at American International, the Zen master of Hollywood exploitation movies from the mid-Fifties through 1980. True, filmmaker Bruce Brown successfully depicted the surfing lifestyle in his popular 1966 documentary The Endless Summer (and its recent unpopular sequel, The Endless Summer II), and surfers have been portrayed more accurately in a handful of fictional Seventies and Eighties films made here and in Australia (1978's Big Wednesday, 1981's Puberty Blues, 1988's Aloha Summer). But it was AIP that forever cemented the image of the toothsome, carefree surfer boy and the coltishly pretty surfer girl into the public consciousness, with its series of wonderfully vapid, eminently profitable, and utterly "wiggy" beach-party movies, beginning with 1963's Beach Party and concluding with 1965's How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.
In all AIP made five "pure" beach-party movies, all directed and co-written by William Asher. Four of the five starred the dynamic duo of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (Avalon declined a lead in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and was replaced, as if that were possible, by Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman, although Frankie put in a cameo). Simultaneously the studio veered off into beachy non-Asher spinoffs such as Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, Pajama Party, Ski Party, and the fiendishly zany Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, a beach-party-meets-James Bond hybrid starring Vincent Price as a mad scientist bent on world domination through marrying off his dishy but deadly bikinied female robots to millionaires A cowabunga!).
In his fine 1984 history of AIP, Fast and Furious, writer Mark Thomas McGee deftly encapsulates the beach-party series this way: "[They] combined the Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedies with Mack Sennett slapstick and pop music." Precisely. Boyfriend Frankie and girlfriend Annette, plus a gaggle of equally wholesome twentysomething white kids, existed in a timeless, endless-summer universe, frolicking on sunny beaches by day and dancing in well-lighted clubs at night. No jobs. No parents. No responsibilities. As director-screenwriter Asher told McGee, "I was a surfer. I wondered why we couldn't do a picture about kids not in trouble. There was no real fruition of sex. There was no booze. No cigarettes."
Just relentless fun, fun, fun, with the contrived action dashing madly across the screen as the beach kids surfed, skydived, shimmied their butts to instrumental surf music, and swayed in their seats listening to the cavalcade of pop stars who passed through the series: Linda Evans (yes, her), "Little" Stevie Wonder, the Animals, the Gentrys, and, in Ski Party, both Lesley Gore and James Brown. For the purpose of introducing a smidgen of dramatic confrontation -- and filling in the gaps between songs -- Asher and his cohorts concocted a harmless cartoon motorcycle gang, the Rats (modeled after Marlon Brando's posse in The Wild One, and led by Harvey Lembeck's loopily likable Eric von Zipper), to annoy the kids. Not one to live in filmic denial, Asher readily admitted to McGee that "the pictures were very thin as far as the stories went."
Ditto for AIP vice president Sam Arkoff, who along with president Jim Nicholson oversaw the company's fortunes. Arkoff cuts to the chase in his highly readable 1992 autobiography Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants: "The story lines of our beach movies weren't particularly memorable, and the dialogue and the songs wouldn't have made Shakespeare and Cole Porter nervous about the competition. But the combination of bikinis, rock music, and surfboards, and the sights of kids letting their inhibitions down at the beach struck a chord.
"One after another, these pictures were fast-paced, with almost no fades or dissolves to interfere with the rapid tempo. They were short on plot but long on provocative beach scenes brimming with girls with endless body English, into which we tossed outdoor barbecues, pie-throwing fights, Zen Buddhism, pajama parties, karate, rock and roll, skydiving, uninhibited dancing, and just about anything else with which we thought adolescent moviegoers might identify."
The critics sneered. "[Beach Party] makes Gidget's Roman Misadventures look like a scene from Tosca," jived Time magazine, while the New York Times sniffed, "We suspect that the youngsters in the audience may find it all pretty laughable." But the series made tons of dough, sending the other Hollywood studios scampering in a hasty effort to create their own beach-party knockoffs: Columbia's Ride the Wild Surf with Fabian and Shelley Fabares; Fox's Surf Party with Bobby Vinton and Jackie DeShannon; Warner's Palm Springs Weekend with Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens; and Paramount's Beach Ball with Edd "Kookie" Byrnes and Chris Noel.
But as both Asher and Arkoff point out, the other studios just didn't get it. "They put in parents," Asher wailed to author McGee. "The reality of parents. What would really happen if kids spent the summer at the beach. Parents would be concerned about the whereabouts of their kids, their behavior, what they were involved in, and so on. Our pictures were fantasies." Arkoff: "Their teenage characters had to deal with serious crises in their lives (like parental problems) that detracted from their fun."
Between 1963 and 1967, Hollywood cranked out more than 100 beach movies, including 1964's sensationally wretched The Horror of Party Beach, which not-so-seamlessly welded the genre to the existing sci-fi, nuke-disaster flick A with pop songs! By 1967, however, teens had crash-landed on an entirely new planet, smoking pot, demonstrating against the Vietnam War, and, in general, rebelling hither and yon. Beach movies wiped out. After 1967's lame It's a Bikini World, AIP abandoned the beach for good, roaring off into the wide exploitable expanse of the burgeoning counterculture in films such as The Wild Angels, The Trip, Psych-Out, Riot on Sunset Strip, and Wild in the Streets.
Avalon and Funicello reunited for 1987's inevitable Back to the Beach A they played parents, for crying out loud A and there've been periodic contemporary attempts to parody the Zeitgeist of the original beach movie, notably 1984's Surf II (duh, there wasn't a Surf I) and 1987's Surf Nazis Must Die. But the gang that mattered rode out its last wave in 1965 with Asher's swan song, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Of course, they're still hanging ten on video. As one of the nameless beach guys earnestly tells Avalon near the end of Beach Blanket Bingo, "You know something, Frankie -- skydiving's groovy, but let's stick to surfing."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.