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Beach Party movies couldn't have been truly in vogue for more than twenty minutes back in 1963, back when the Beatles were just on the horizon and teen culture hadn't quite yet rejected all things not 100% 'cool'. The most calculated creation of the Nicholson-Arkoff team at American-International Pictures, William Asher's adventures of beach playmates Frankie and Dee Dee complimented the company's Edgar Allan Poe pictures, promising 'good clean' fun instead of horror. Intended as a wild 'n' crazy -- but nice -- amalgam of Gidget and Where the Boys Are, the relatively inexpensive beach movies were filmed in color and Panavision to better attract the exhibitors. The first outing Beach Party was aimed directly at the new beach culture, where Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys were kings. From '62 to '66, seeing these movies was the closest that kids in Oklahoma and Ohio could get to the Mecca of American youth, the beaches of Southern California. It didn't matter that the movies were the exact opposite of real youth culture -- prepackaged, irrelevant, harmless. When a decent pop song showed up, it was usually an accident.
Frankie Avalon was always a place holder for the generic boyfriend: cute, a little vain and just stupid enough to create a romantic tiff big enough to motivate a boy-strays-from-girl, boy-comes-back-to-girl storyline. The series' heart was with Annette Funicello, who to '60s kids represented our own childhood watching TV stars wearing mouse ears. The cute Annette was the definition of the 'good girl', the one next door that grew up when you weren't looking and now looked so attractive that she inspired impure thoughts. But we knew that Annette was the genuine article, a family member. No PR campaign was necessary. Even with the silly dialogue in these movies, to hear Annette talk was to know she was virtuous and sincere.
Olive Pictures has released a couple of A.I.P.'s Beach Party movies, so I'm reviewing Muscle Beach Party in sort of a generic way. The only series element not yet in place in this second installment is Harvey Lembeck's Eric von Zipper, an anemic spoof of The Wild One's Marlon Brando. A.I.P.'s writers (Lou Rusoff, Robert Dillon, Leo Townsend) may have used Mad magazine as their model for comedy -- just throw ideas at the screen and see what happens. But the middle-aged filmmakers mostly hired older talent -- second rank TV personalities (Morey Amsterdam) and stand-up comedians (Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett) looking for film exposure. Eric von Zipper contributed a sanitized juvenile delinquency aspect, a pale reminder of the fairly rough JD films A.I.P. once made in the late 1950s. The original Beach Party actually starred oldsters Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone, indicating that Arkoff and Nicholson were initially courting a more generalized audience.
TV director William Asher instead settled on a fantasy-comedy format in which 'anything could happen', as long it didn't cost money. The formula worked for the better part of three years. Remember how Arkoff and Nicholson's B&W opus How to Make a Monster pretended that A.I.P. was a propertied studio with sound stages and a real history of accomplishment? They almost made that work in the beach party movies, when the horror stars from the Poe series wandered in for a guest appearances. Vincent Price and Peter Lorre were heroes to this crowd -- we applauded when they came on screen. This picture's walk-on is Lorre, in a toothless bit as 'Mr. Strangedour', the strongest man in the world. It's one of Lorre's last film appearances.
Muscle Beach Party has no story to speak of. "The kids" frolic and play in the sand, eat and dance at Cappy's Club and crash at their beachside shack. The girls all sleep in baby-doll pajamas, although the sexes are kept separate. What happens is like ... a parody of beach party movie. A couple of collector hot rod cars deliver some singing kids to the beach, where we see montages of surfers (some of it repurposed stock footage) doing their thing. Some of the kids must be nearing thirty. They dance in place until the resident goofball Deadhead (Jody McCrea) shouts "Surf's up!" or "Cowabunga!" Most of the boys and girls have few lines and behave like a uniform mass, either dancing or eating. The only characters separate from the chorus are Frankie Avalon's Frankie, and Annette's Dee Dee. The other 'name' actor John Ashley has maybe three lines. His Johnny offers Dee Dee a Dr. Pepper (that's all anyone drinks) so that Dee Dee can complain about Frankie's lack of manners. Johnny also tells Frankie once or twice that he's behaving like a jerk, in a friendly way.
Invading the beach is a group of oiled musclemen led by their comic coach Jack Fanny (Don Rickles), who makes extreme faces as he bosses his boys around. The future Grizzly Adams star Dan Haggerty is one of the musclemen, but the leader is Flex Martian (Peter Lupus of Mission: Impossible), here billed under the career-killing name Rock Stevens. The muscleman vs. beach boys non-conflict eventually culminates in a silly fight scene. More crucial to the romantic crisis is the arrival of the yacht of Italian zillionairess Julie (Luciana Paluzzi, soon to become the class-A Bond girl Fiona Volpe). Ignoring the advice of her sympathetic servant S.Z. Matts (Buddy Hackett), Julie first romances Flex, then dumps him when she finds Frankie singing a song after a moonlit surf. Incensed that Frankie plans to travel the world with Julie instead of settle down domestically with her, Dee Dee pouts, withdraws, and threatens to sock her rival. The beach crowd ostracizes Frankie, even though Julie is going to put out a record of his singing. Someone has to make Frankie realize that Julie is just looking for a plaything-consort of the moment.
The girls in the audience watched the film's beach babes with envy -- they wore bikini swimsuits, and moved around in said bikini swimsuits, like Sunset Strip specialty dancers (which some of them surely were). Out in Peoria, this was just a dream -- most American girls not yet independent had parents that insisted on one-piece bathing suits -- you know, like the suit worn by the more chaste Dee Dee. Of course, Annette's figure was such that a bikini would be just too distracting... and according to rumor, Annette's personal advisor Walt Disney had ruled out that sort of inappropriate swimwear. Little did Walt know that we boys fantasized as much about good girls as we did bad ones.
The chorus of beach girls were given names, but we knew them because the script gave each a quality. Candy Johnson appears at least three times in fringed leotards to shimmy/go-go dance. When she bumps her hips left or right (actually a burlesque move) guys are knocked off their feet. "It only works on boys", says Julie. It appears to be a gag substitute for sex. Candy Johnson shows up again in the end titles as a dancing graphic element, as Little Stevie Wonder sings. She didn't have a career beyond her three or four beach party pix, but she was said to have inspired the Strangelove's single, I Want Candy. Cute singer Donna Loren is given part of a song; she may have initially come along with the Dr. Pepper connection, as at the time she was a company spokeswoman/singer for the beverage. Valora Noland has a sunny smile, and advanced to a slightly longer string of movie appearances.
Several girls are given featured moments dancing or 'reacting' to Frankie. We now note how little personality they're allowed. The dancing really isn't top-rank, but it's all pretty good; for my money the best dancer in the series was Teri Garr, in Pajama Party. Teri had serious hip-swinging experience in Viva Las Vegas, and she always looked like she was having fun. 1
Muscle Beach Party isn't so much artificial or dated as it is grotesque (in a nice way). The lighting is attractive, if flat; scenes take place at the beach but most of the show is filmed in interior sets as stylized as those on Gilligan's Island. Surfing & driving close-ups, etc, are done with obvious rear projection. All the clothes are bright and clean and the kids wear them as if their pay will be docked should anything get even slightly dirty. The girl's hairstyles are always perfect, giving the impression that everyone is wearing wigs. The filming of a 'beach party' scene in Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! captures the tacky scenery, silly costumes and plastic people almost exactly. The show has the dopey look of pap marketed for kids by a pompous producer chomping a cigar as he counts his cash.
Each beach party entry has a musical guest star or two, lip-synching to one of their records, only occasionally a big hit. Why should Arkoff pay royalties to promote somebody else's record? Dick Dale (and his Del Tones) were hot performers at the time, and his surf guitar licks were unsurpassed. For Muscle Beach Party he performs not one of his guitar hits but instead a glurpy ballad. Dropping into this all-white beach from another dimension is "Little" Stevie Wonder, who just stands and sings "Happy Street" in his infectious style. For three minutes the film's entertainment quotient zooms to a higher plane.
"Happy Street" composers Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner also wrote "A Girl Needs a Boy", a love balled tag-teamed by Frankie and Dee Dee. Avalon's voice sounds smooth, if generic. Today we're highly aware that he's smoking a cigarette as he sings. It's a fantasy in which sex-crazed kids hardly ever kiss and drink Dr.Pepper, but Frankie smokes? The exaggerated echo applied to Annette's vocal makes her sound as if she were recorded in a sewer pipe. She's sweet and nostalgic and who would want it different? We do wish that Dee Dee didn't have to wear the bouffant 'big hair' that now seems so unattractive. That her personality shines through is a credit to her appeal.
A.I.P. films of this period weren't seen much in the '70s and early '80s, and came as something of a shock when we caught up with them later. The Corman-Poe pictures looked better than ever but the beach party romps suddenly seemed grotesquely un-cool, as in, embarrassing. Now I think we can better rationalize or interest in them. For a couple of years they seemed legit, and now they're almost as remote as the college movies of the '20s and '30s, where rich kids on campus barely attended classes, helped the dummy jock pass French and held spectacular pep rallies choreographed by Busby Berkeley. 2
It's just a different fantasy -- Muscle Beach Party isn't as desperate as some of the later beach installments stuffed with drag racing, skydiving or wild bikinis, and is thus more charming. Buddy Hackett for once doesn't play his standard pea-brain, and delivers a nice sentimental line. Do Frankie and Annette belong together? Why not? They're complete prisoners of their show biz personas anyway. Ms. Funicello seems to be cooperating mostly to make her fans happy. That's okay by me.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Muscle Beach Party is a perfect HD encoding of this upbeat slice of '60s happy-kitsch that still carries considerable nostalgia value. Colors are excellent, from the close-ups of the stars to the little animated bugler that tells the beau-stealing Julie to charge full speed at Frankie. The music is given a peppy mix as well.
Olive offers no extras. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Muscle Beach Party Blu-ray rates:
2. Just because I'm a California boy doesn't mean I had any real contact with the beach scene. My teen years were spent in San Bernardino, a hundred miles inland but a million miles from Malibu or the Sunset Strip. Everybody pretended they were surfers. Guys even dyed their hair. They used jargon like 'Gremmie' and 'gnarly', but nobody I knew got near a beach unless it was a school trip. We did know cute girls!
3. Annette and Frankie appeared as guest stars on a 1990s Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas special, playing a dream couple from our cultural unconscious: Frankie and Annette. Because of Ms. Funicello's health problems, they appeared lounging on this floating piece of décor -- I forget what exactly. It only reminded us of how much we loved her.
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