Those looking for a respite from chilly January nights might enjoy spending 99 minutes surfing and drag racing with Frankie and Annette at Bikini Beach (1964), the third of eight "Beach Party" movies. It's hard to pin down (or even justify) the appeal of these pictures, but for those looking for escapist, drive-in fun, these emblematically AIP movies are the perfect tonic for the dog days of winter.
The Beach Party movies are virtually interchangeable. Bikini Beach is remembered as the one where Frankie Avalon plays both Frankie the irresponsible surfer-boyfriend of Annette Funicello and Potato Bug, in a would-be spoof of The Beatles. Bikini Beach finds the usual gang of "youngsters" (including bazooka-hipped Candy Johnson, Jody McCrea and John Ashley, the latter both pushing 30) threatened by community activist / landowner Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn). Using a super-smart chimpanzee (Outer Limits regular Janos Prohaska in a chimp skin), Honeywagon hopes to prove teenagers are as stupid as monkeys! Honeywagon finds an unwanted ally in Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lemback), the kids' usual nemesis, whose motorcycle gang of Rats and Mice invariably brawl with the fun-loving surfers during the Big Climax. Along for the ride are Martha Hyer, playing a pro-teen schoolteacher; Don Rickles, reprising his character from Muscle Beach Party (1964); and the wildly eccentric Timothy Carey, as South Dakota Slim, a pool-shooting friend of Zipper's. And, as usual, a movie star associated with AIP makes a surprise cameo at the end of the picture. (Don't ask me who it is; I ain't tellin'.)
Integral to the series was its music, a frequently incongruous mix of the hip and the hopeless. (Ski Party, for instance, features solos by both Annette Funicello and James Brown, the latter performing to a bemused all-white audience of adult teenagers.) Bikini Beach toplines "Little" Stevie Wonder and Donna Loren, who both had better songs in Muscle Beach Party. On the plus side, Bikini Beach does have a great title tune and features The Pyramids, a terrific surf band with shaved heads.
And then there's Potato Bug. Screenwriters William Asher, Robert Diller, and Leo Townsend lamely attempt to spoof personalities they clearly don't understand. The character isn't remotely working-class Liverpudlian and instead comes off as a rich twit, a cross between Austin Powers and Terry-Thomas (Potato even has an enormous gap between his front teeth), given lines like, "Bit of a sticky wicket, what?" Perhaps Avalon was aware how absurdly inaccurate the character was, and thus chose to play it so over the top at times he appears on the verge of apoplexy. (Funicello visibly begins to break up watching Avalon's maniacal performance.) Conversely, Jerry Styner and Guy Hemric's song parodies are dead-on, worthy of The Rutles. Also noteworthy is director William Asher's clever use of doubles. Generally forsaking split-screen effects, possibly because it was too expensive and time-consuming for a penny-pinching company like AIP, Asher seamlessly uses a lookalike double opposite Avalon for some shots, carefully cutting to the real Avalon for close-up inserts. This is done so well contemporary audiences were probably surprised to see the actor credited with both parts.
Bikini Beach was made just as the series was peaking in terms of popularity, and coasts on the affection drive-in audiences held for its by now familiar characters. Admittedly, none of the Beach Party movies are anything like great cinema, but they do have an enormous charm for those willing to forgive their overwhelming, unapologetic silliness.
Video & Audio
MGM's DVD of Bikini Beach is a flipper disc, with a full frame standard version on one side, and an unimpressive 4:3 letterboxed transfer on the other. (The disc itself is mislabeled, promising a 16:9 version, but it's not.) The film appears to be in good shape, overall, with few imperfections and generally good color. This reviewer recommends MGM give this title a new anamorphic transfer, and stick it on a double feature DVD with the as yet unreleased Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), the last of the AIP Beach Party movies. The mono sound is acceptable, and French and Spanish subtitles are included. The only Extra is a trailer, also in 4:3 letterboxed format.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.