Monday, March 25, 2013

Beach Party Tonight!

Frankie front of a rear screen.
With one notable exception, 1963's Beach Party--the first entry in American-International's seven-film series--provided the blueprint for a new genre: the teen sand 'n' surf musical. It wasn't the first teen movie with surfing (see Gidget) and certainly not the first teen musical (see Rock Around the Clock and many others). However, Beach Party combined both elements into one sunny, sandy, frothy mix.

Annette--pretty in pink!
The aforementioned exception in Beach Party is the presence of adult leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone. Although integrated into the plot, I think they were added to draw an older audience that this genre ultimately didn't need. American-International apparently came to the same conclusion. Starting with Muscle Beach Party, the first stars listed above the title are Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Their popularity grew to the point where just one of the two stars was enough to attract an audience. (In contrast, the only film with neither one, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, was the least successful entry in the series...and a bad movie, too.)

Beach Party opens with Frankie and Annette singing the catchy "Beach Party (Tonight)" as they cruise down a seaside road in Frankie's yellow jalopy, with surfboards protruding from the back. Their destination is a beachfront cabin where they will spend the summer together--although with different expectations as highlighted in this dialogue exchange:

Frankie (motioning to the cabin): There it is, Honey. It's all ours.
Dolores: Just you and me. All alone.
Frankie: Exactly.
Dolores: It's just like we were married.
Frankie: Exactly!

Thus, in the film's first scene, we learn the source of friction in the relationship between Frankie and Dolores: She wants to get married; he wants the sexual benefits of marriage without the commitment. This theme carries throughout most of the films in the series and results in each character going to extremes to make the other jealous.

Bob Cummings watching "tribal" teens.
In Beach Party, these "tribal customs" of the American teenager attract the attention of middle-aged anthropologist Robert Sutwell, who is writing a book titled The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes. His attractive assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone) describes it more accurately as Teenage Sex. Sutwell’s plan is to observe the teenagers through his telescope and eavesdrop with his high-tech sound equipment.

Frankie gets cozy with Eva Six.
Meanwhile, Dolores confides to her friend Rhonda (Valora Noland) that she wants to be with Frankie, but take their relationship slowly. Frankie expresses his frustration to his friends, who advise him to dump Dolores. Frankie confesses that he can’t do that—because he loves her. They hatch a scheme to make Dolores jealous: When the gang goes to Big Daddy’s that night, Frankie will flirt with the voluptuous waitress Ava (Eva Six).

Everyone shows up at Big Daddy’s that evening, including Sutwell, who has decided he needs to get closer to his subjects. Unfortunately, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), an unpopular motorcycle gang leader, also makes an appearance. When Dolores decides to leave after watching Frankie flirt with several other girls (including Ava), Von Zipper approaches her. “Hey, baby, girls fall for Eric Von Zipper,” he tells her. “I like you and what Eric Von Zipper likes, he gets.”

Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper.
Hearing Von Zipper’s unwanted advances, Sutwell comes to Dolores’s rescue. When Von Zipper confronts him, Sutwell pushes his index finger against Von Zipper’s temple and the gang leader's body freezes immediately. Sutwell explains this is the “Himalayan time suspension technique” and that Von Zipper will be fine in a few hours. Sutwell then escorts Dolores back to her beach house, where she hatches her own scheme for making Frankie jealous.

Morey Amsterdam spouting
beatnik poetry.
It's a slight plot, but that doesn't matter, of course. If you're a fan of the Beach Party films--as I am--it's because of the casts and the music. Beach Party introduces many performers who would become regulars in the series:  the delightful Lembeck supported by Andy Romano as his crony J.D. (for Juvenile Delinquent); Jody McCrea as the dim-witted Deadhead (later renamed Bonehead); the shimmying Candy Johnson; and John Ashley as the other good-looking male in the gang. Morey Amsterdam became the first veteran comedian to appear in the series--and would be followed by Don Rickles (four films), Buster Keaton (three), Paul Lynde, and Jesse White. Likewise, Vincent Price became the first classic film star to make a cameo, paving the way for Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, Elsa Lanchester, and Basil Rathbone.

Dick Dale jamming on his guitar.
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).

While Beach Party isn't the series' best entry (that'd be Beach Blanket Bingo), it's a pleasant diversion and deserves kudos for establishing the prototype for all subsequent 1960s teen sand 'n'surf movies. That makes it historically significant! And if that's not enough to convince you to watch it, then you might have to deal with Eric Von Zipper and the Ratz....


  1. I suppose now is as good a time as any to confess my crush on JD.

    1. Andy Romano made J.D. a great sidekick. Romano appeared in a lot of films and TV series, including several episodes of HILL STREET BLUES.

  2. Oh, how you love your beach movies, Rick. As you know, I'm not a fan, but I still enjoy reading about your fascination. I have a friend (and fellow philosopher/historian)who plays instrumental beach music. Check out some of their music if you have time @ I think you'd like it!

    1. I like The Maladroits, Kim! Their song "Dark Eyes" reminds me a little bit of Dick Dale's "Miserlou" (which Quentin Tarantino borrowed for the PULP FICTION theme).

  3. What a cool review! I enjoy this series a lot, too, and especially the music. Beach Party tonight!

  4. I can't NOT watch "Beach Party". It is sublime cheese.

  5. Watch the Eva Six dancing scene, and tell me the boys aren't passing a reefer.