Thursday, May 19, 2011
Pajama Party: “It’s the Latest Craze Having a Party in Your PJs”
Mars is planning an invasion of Earth, and what better way than to target its teenagers? Fearing that teens may cause “intergalactic trouble” in the future, Martians send Go Go (Tommy Kirk), fully confident that, should he be captured, his idiocy will only further confuse his captors. Go Go lands in Aunt Wendy’s (Elsa Lanchester) backyard, and the woman, accepting the fact that Go Go is a Martian, dubs him “George” and has him change into clothes more suitable to a teen. She then introduces George to Connie (Annette Funicello). Connie is being courted by Aunt Wendy’s nephew, Big Lunk (Jody McCrea), but Wendy believes that Connie can make Big Lunk jealous by expressing interest in someone else. Big Lunk, for his part, earns his nickname by neglecting the beautiful Connie, who drops none-too-subtle hints that he should kiss her.
Aunt Wendy’s neighbor is J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White), whose sole reason for living next door is to steal the fortune of Wendy’s deceased husband, presumably hidden inside the house. Hulk believes the best way to the money is through Big Lunk, who is also singled out by Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motorcycle gang of Ratz and Mice, their dimwitted leader blaming the teens for getting the beach “all footprinted up.” Big Lunk is identified by his red baseball cap, and when Connie goes out with George/Go Go donning said cap, it’s no surprise that Von Zipper and Hulk’s cronies, “Indian” Chief Rotten Eagle (Buster Keaton) and Swedish, non-English speaking blonde, Helga (Bobbi Shaw), mistake one for the other. It all comes to a head at a pajama party, part of Hulk’s nefarious plan, held to distract Aunt Wendy and leave her house vacant -- though the real pajama party was earlier, with Connie and the girls in tiny PJs.
Pajama Party (1964), directed by Don Weis, seems out of place among the Beach Party films, particularly since Annette Funicello has a lead role that isn’t Dee Dee. But the film secures its spot in the “official” series with familiar faces (Funicello, McCrea, Candy Johnson, and Lembeck reprising the winsome Von Zipper), familiar settings (though Aunt Wendy’s pool is a popular hangout, the teens spend just as much time at the beach), and familiar dilemmas (adults trying to spoil the youngsters’ fun and an offbeat chase sequence). Additionally, McCrea’s Big Lunk is a fusion of his own Deadhead/Bonehead and Frankie Avalon’s Frankie, most notably his disregard for Funicello’s character. Kirk, White (as the same character), and Susan Hart, who made their Beach Party debuts in Pajama Party, would later appear in the final series entry, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), also directed by Weis, while newcomer Bobbi Shaw would have roles in the remainder of the Beach Party series.
One slight difference in Pajama Party, however, is the decidedly more provocative innuendo. It isn’t the bikini babes leaving behind a line of bewildered boys, but the gyrating hips of Susan Hart’s Jilda making flowers swoon, setting marshmallows afire, and inciting a small display volcano to erupt. Perhaps more telling is Funicello, whose time as a Mouseketeer in Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club kept her in more discreet swimwear than her Beach Party co-stars. In Pajama Party, she’s told by Aunt Wendy to look “seductive” for George (he hardly notices, though I personally found it quite effective), and when Connie makes note of a “well rounded education,” George says she has “well rounded--” before stopping himself. The movie soundtrack is appropriately titled Annette’s Pajama Party and features PJ-clad Funicello on the cover. The film’s highlight, teased by its title, is Connie’s sleepover, with all the girls, including Hart and even Donna Loren, in babydoll pajamas. The camera crawls through the window and into Connie’s bedroom as she sings “Stuffed Animal”, with suggestive lyrics: “a stuffed animal is more than a toy/something cuddly and not like a boy.”
Unfortunately, the characters of Chief Rotten Eagle and Helga, at least in retrospect, threaten to squander tolerance, as he perpetuates Native American stereotypes and she seems to mock foreigners’ inability to speak English. However, Chief Rotten Eagle, as portrayed by Keaton, does have inspired moments, like when he’s sprayed in the face by the perfume lady, and he retaliates by dousing her in perfume as well. Similarly, Helga’s lack of comprehension is more generally employed to mock characters other than herself, such as Big Lunk declaring her a good listener and conversationalist simply because she smiles, nods her head and repeatedly says, “Yah, yah” (and Big Lunk doesn’t understand that Helga is obviously recording him). It’s also a humorous metaphor to accommodate the film equating teens with Martians from another planet.
Elsa Lanchester as Aunt Wendy brings an air of sophistication to the series. She takes the role seriously, yet it still seems tongue-in-cheek as she expertly delivers comedic lines. The actress, perhaps best known as the Bride in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), was married to famed actor Charles Laughton until his death in 1962. She and her husband were both nominated for Academy Awards for Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), for which Lanchester received a Golden Globe. She was also nominated for an Oscar for 1949’s Come to the Stable.
Donna Loren, as per usual, has one of the film’s best songs, “Among the Young”. She plays Vikki and even has a couple of speaking lines. Other memorable musical moments include a Funicello and Kirk duet, “There Has to be a Reason”, and “Where Did I Go Wrong” by Dorothy Lamour, who plays the saleslady at Aunt Wendy’s dress shop and sings her song when the girls dare to watusi in formal attire.
Beach Party alumni Frankie Avalon and Don Rickles have small roles as Martians, occasionally discussing the upcoming invasion (Avalon’s face isn’t shown until the end, but it’s clearly him). They are both credited in the closing with a “special thanks,” which also acts as a teaser for the subsequent film, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).
Actress Teri Garr (billed as Teri Hope) and singer/dance choreographer Toni Basil have small roles as “Pajama Girls.” Garr, whose breakout role was in Mel Brooks’ seminal comedy, Young Frankenstein (1974), appears in the dress shop scene, modeling a yellow dress. Basil, best known for her number one hit single, “Mickey” (the accompanying hit music video was directed by Basil), is in the same scene in a bikini, and also appears earlier, when her return serve in volleyball is sidetracked by beach choreography. The film’s dance sequences were handled by choreographer (as well as director and producer) David Winters. Also a dance teacher, Winters’ students included Garr and Basil.
Well known journalist, columnist and What’s My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen has a cameo in Pajama Party, while her young son, Kerry Kollmar, plays a recurring character who regards every intimate moment in the film as “mush.”
Pajama Party is a Beach Party film that spends time away from the sand -- its trailer promised “babydoll PJs instead of bikinis.” It’s a world that the fans know: the hilarious Eric Von Zipper and his gang that sometimes leaves him behind in a sidecar (and declares themselves “typical clean-cut American yoots”); Jody McCrea as the imbecile; a spotlight on Donna Loren; and a gorgeous Annette Funicello whose cinematic boyfriend is oblivious, making her somewhat available and all the more appealing to a male audience. But the film also offers growth in the character of Connie. She’s more mature than Dee Dee, more sure of herself and what she wants. Even her voice sounds more sultry in the songs she sings. In the other films, she’s a pretty girl on the beach. In Pajama Party, she’s a woman, as Funicello steps out from the shadow of Walt What’s-his-name. Sadly, this was the only film for Connie, but I like to think that, in her last two Beach Party films, Dee Dee took a little inspiration from her Pajama Party counterpart.