Absolutely necessary for A.I.P. fans...but the end results are only fair-to-middling. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service of providing hard-to-find library and cult titles, the Limited Edition Collection, has released Sergeant Deadhead, the 1965 comedy from American International Pictures starring Frankie Avalon and Deborah Walley, with a socko supporting cast: Cesar Romero, Fred Clark, Gale Gordon, Reginald Gardiner, Harvey Lembeck, Pat Buttram, Buster Keaton, and Eve Arden. Another unsuccessful attempt to launch Avalon into his own series-within-the-Beach Party-series, Sergeant Deadhead has its moments whenever that expert supporting cast gets off a good throwaway line or reaction shot, or when Avalon hams it up a bit...but truth be told for this dedicated "Beach Party" series fan, it needed better jokes and songs. No extras for this nice widescreen transfer.
United States Air Force General Rufus Fogg (Fred Clark) has a problem: he has to keep his base security air-tight for the upcoming launch of "Project Moon Monkey." Apparently, the U.S. space program sent up a pair of mice into outer space, only to have them come back and chase cats. Now, the Air Force is going to blast a monkey into orbit and see if his personality changes, as well. If only that could happen to goof-ball Sergeant O.K. Deadhead (Frankie Avalon), a doofus Airman who's the bane of Fogg's existence. What pretty, stacked Airman Lucy Turner (Deborah Walley) sees in O.K. is anybody's guess, but they're engaged and Turner is determined to marry him (after two previous aborted missions), even if she has to snag Deadhead in the guard house...where General Fogg is keeping O.K. until "Project Moon Monkey" is completed. What nobody knows is that O.K. is sharing a cell with meek Airman Filroy (John Ashley) and incredibly strong bully Airman McEvoy (Harvey Lembeck), and McEvoy demands that his cellmates escape with him via an explosive ballpoint pen―which Deadhead does, eventually scrambling into the nosecone of the "Project Moon Monkey" rocket headed for space. What happens next is a big switcheroo in Deadhead's outlook on life, and an increasingly chaotic series of bedroom door slammings as the brass try and cover up this snafu with a Deadhead look-alike: patriotic squaresville Sergeant Donavan (Avalon).
I've written before about A.I.P. and specifically the so-called Beach Party phase of A.I.P.'s production schedule during the mid-sixties, so I'll try not to cover the same ground in this review (you can read my review of the fun Frankie and Annette boxed set of A.I.P. flicks here). But I will reiterate that I have a deep, nostalgic affection for this group of movies; they were TV staples when I was a kid, and I found them just as silly and fun then as my kids continue to experience them today nearly fifty years later. I still catch several of them quite regularly―the unsung Ski Party is a Christmas tradition at my house, while summer vacation just wouldn't be the same without Beach Party or Bikini Beach or Beach Blanket Bingo―so I went into Sergeant Deadhead (I haven't seen it in years and years) psyched for the experience.
Unfortunately, it just wasn't as funny as A.I.P.'s best efforts. Having successfully built on Columbia's 1959 surprise hit Gidget with the release of Beach Party in 1963, A.I.P. was deep in mining that box office whopper by 1965. With the best of their highly regarded Corman/Poe series of horror films close to playing out (1964's The Masque of the Red Death would be seen as the series' highlight), the "Beach Party" series and its various permutations were seen as the next "big thing" for A.I.P. to fully exploit...into the ground. So more "official" Beach Party movies were quickly produced, while leads Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were branched out into additional sideline projects that A.I.P.'s James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff hoped would further squeeze dollars out of the franchise. Certainly 1965 was the apex of this whole cycle of "Beach Party"-inspired outings, with Frankie Avalon appearing in five releases that year alone: Beach Blanket Bingo, Ski Party, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Sergeant Deadhead, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (with time left over, somehow, to appear in his sixth film for 1965: Bob Hope's I'll Take Sweden).
So...maybe exhaustion as much as a dearth of more good jokes and songs dampened Sergeant Deadhead after this exploitation explosion of the "Beach Party" franchise. After all, it isn't like the behind-the-scenes talents were subpar slouches in the laughs department. Veteran producer/writer Louis M. Heyward wrote for Ernie Kovacs and Gary Moore, and knocked out scripts for fun outings like Pajama Party as well as doctoring quite a few A.I.P. releases, while 66-year-old Norman Taurog had directed everything from classics like Skippy and Boys Town, to superior Martin and Lewis films like Jumping Jacks and You're Never Too Young, to innocuous, entertaining Elvis piffles like Blue Hawaii and Tickle Me. However, Sergeant Deadhead's opening gag―a toy rocket exploding in Frankie's face―wouldn't have passed muster on a below-average Gilligan's Island episode, and that bad omen is not the way to start off a comedy.
Indeed, there's a noticeable shortage of good, solid slapstick and physical gags here―a hallmark of the "Beach Party" franchise―not compensated by some frankly subpar songs from A.I.P. vets Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner (you're telling me nobody thought of penning a jazzy, silly same-titled theme song for Frankie to knock out?). Sergeant Deadhead's central premise is strong, trading on the country's then-craze for the space race with the hackneyed-but-always-effective "evil twin" gimmick fashioned onto a bedroom farce framework. It should be foolproof to have Frankie goofballing around the base before he's blasted into space, then returning to Earth like some junior-grade Buddy Love ready to plow all the attractive female Airmen and bully the nervous brass who are afraid to reveal their screw-up. However, the sexual titillation is weak at best (that women's shower stall set promises a lot...that isn't delivered), and the jokes shoehorned into this promising set-up are fairly thin and tired, with the uncredited monkey, frankly, getting Sergeant Deadhead's biggest laughs―never a good sign. All the elements are in place for a silly, fluffy farce, with headliner Avalon a proven light comedian (he was hilarious in the previous year's Bikini Beach, satirizing The Beatles with his own The Potato Bug), a charming co-star in the lovely Walley, and back-up support from a group of old pros expert in getting laughs. It's just that those elements don't seem to jell into a completely satisfying whole.
A.I.P. alums Harvey Lembeck and John Ashley are barely here and get no laughs (understandable for the stiff Ashley but almost impossible for the talented Lembeck), while relative newcomer to the A.I.P. stable Dwayne Hickman darts in and out quickly as a favor, scoring a mild chuckle as he states that the rocket crews don't accept tips...when the monkey holds out a banana to him (special billed Pat Buttram doesn't even allow his face to be shown: he's photographed from behind for his bit as the President...if indeed it's really him and not a double). Quite a few other familiar (and pretty) faces from the "Beach Party" franchise are in the background, including Patti Chandler and Bobbie Shaw (and unfortunately, Donna Loren, who gets a laughable torch song), but Sergeant Deadhead resists turning itself into another "teen gang" picture, focusing itself more like a three-way Doris Day sex comedy watered down even further for television (apparently, an actual pilot was shot for a proposed Sergeant Deadhead TV series. It didn't sell). Avalon has his moments as the post-orbit Deadhead, acting like a hipster smartass with the brass and laughing maniacally when he plans on blowing himself out of the brig, but his pre-orbit Deadhead is merely stupid, not funny, and look-alike Donovan is nothing: not interesting, not memorable, not funny. I've always had a soft spot for sweet, sexy Deborah Walley, a talented performer who wasn't given the quality material she deserved in her career, and true to form, she does the best she can with what's given to her here, including a sweet little musical number, How Can You Tell?, that Taurog blocks out quite nicely via the girls in their bunks, clicking flashlights on their faces as they solo. And of course the old pros here are able to mine laughs and chuckles out of material that really doesn't warrant them. Fred Clark and Eve Arden are amusing together in their fumbling romantic trysts, while Arden gets a nice solo number in You Should Have Seen the One That Got Away. Gale Gordon has the role Paul Lynde might have turned down; he gets off some funny one-liners ("Oh this is a very sick place!"). Cesar Romero plays it fairly straight...and is all the more amusing doing so, while Buster Keaton, typical of Sergeant Deadhead's paucity of good gags, gets a weak bit or two in there before disappearing entirely―a shame.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.