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American International Pictures' Beach Party (1963) initiated one of the shortest film series on record - seven movies in just over two years - but these films mirrored a specific "fad" in American pop culture in a surprisingly freewheeling and self-reflexive manner. As Tim Lucas notes in the magazine Video Watchdog, "the 'Beach Party' movies...spoke the secret cultural language of their day, providing a unique interface between such timely interests as rock 'n' roll, skimpy swimwear, surfing, other surfing movies (Ride the Wild Surf , the 'Gidget' series), drag racing, motorcycles, MAD magazine, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and CAR TOONS magazine, Don Post horror masks, and of course, American International Pictures itself." Beach Party and its successors in the series managed to simultaneously chronicle and be a part of a particularly vibrant moment in American popular culture.
Beach Party opens as Frankie (Frankie Avalon) drives his girlfriend Dolores (Annette Funicello) - in a beat-up jalopy loaded down with surfboards - to a beachhouse on the Southern California coast. Frankie's plan to have some private time with Dolores is spoiled, though; she has already invited dozens of their friends to meet them at the getaway. At a nearby beachhouse, anthropologist R.O Sutwell (Robert "Bob" Cummings, complete with beard) has set up a telescope and listening device designed to observe the language and mating habits of the beach-going teenagers. Prof. Sutwell is writing a book called The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes, and is accompanied by his romantically frustrated colleague Marianne (Dorothy Malone). Away from the beach, the main hangout is Big Daddy's, a beatnik club presided over by Cappy (Morey Amsterdam) in the absence of the mysterious Big Daddy. Amidst much surfing, dancing, and merrymaking, the principals become entangled in a variety of romantic misunderstandings: Frankie attempts to make Dolores jealous, for example, by flirting with Ava (Eva Six), a waitress at Big Daddy's, while Dolores, in turn, considers taking up with Prof. Sutwell (or "Old Pig Bristles" as he is called by the kids). For his part, Sutwell decides that it may be better - and more enlightening - to be a participant in this youth culture rather than just an observer. Into this diverse mix of characters drives a motorcycle gang calling themselves The Rats and Mice, led by the pompous Brando-wannabe Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck).
Lucas notes that the plot of Beach Party is remarkable for its "...enlightened sense of fair play: it not only (lightly) criticizes juvenile irresponsibility, but also the critics of juvenile irresponsibility, who are depicted as well-meaning people who, in getting older, have grown so alienated from life that they can only understand the concept of fun by abstracting it into cold, dead, analytical text."
Screenwriter Lou Rusoff had been a mainstay at AIP, having written several of Roger Corman's monster pictures for the studio (including Day the World Ended  and The She-Creature ) as well as a number of films featuring less wholesome groups of kids (such as Runaway Daughters , Motorcycle Gang , and Hot Rod Gang ). In 1959, Rusoff wrote Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, a slight little genre-bending film that sent up the earlier monster and dragster films, and featured a group of fun-loving "teenagers" that appeared to be more in their mid 20s. It is fairly easy to see this movie as a bridge between the AIP films of the 1950s and those of the later Beach Movie Cycle. In the early 1960s AIP had great success in tackling a more prestigious horror vehicle with their Poe adaptations, adding color, widescreen and a bona fide star (Vincent Price) to their standard economical filming methods. Writer and co-producer Rusoff took the gang from Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, and adding color, widescreen and the then-current fad for the surfing lifestyle, had the makings of a new moneymaking formula. Rusoff's script, though, originally had more freewheeling references to sex and drugs. Director William Asher eliminated those elements because (as he told Mark Thomas McGee in Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures) he wanted to show "kids not in trouble. These films are fantasies." Perhaps to drive home the point that these teenagers were indeed more clean-cut than the kids of earlier Hot Rod Gang days, AIP borrowed Annette Funicello from Walt Disney Studios to play the teen female lead. (Reputedly, Walt asked that the filmmakers cover up more of Annette's skin for the sake of her wholesome Mickey Mouse Club image).
Beach Party scores major points in credibility by presenting Dick Dale, the King of Surf Guitar himself, as the main musical presence. His two songs, "Swingin' and a-Surfin" and "Secret Surfing Spot", were penned by Gary Usher (soon to be a powerhouse writing and producing fixture on the L.A. studio scene) and local deejay and songwriter Roger Christian. Both Usher and Christian had already worked with Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and the chief architect of the "California Sound" then hitting national airplay in landlocked America. (Usher and Christian can be spotted in the background of beach scenes in the film as well).
Beach Party clicked with its intended audience and was a major box-office hit. Older critics weren't so impressed: the critic for The New York Times wrote, "Doom-Daddle, doom-daddle, doom-daddle. That's the swingin' beat, the dialogue flavor and just about the sum and substance of Beach Party." He goes on to say that "the early scenes are downright yummy," and that the film starts as "harmless, eye-filling and disarming....The real trouble is that almost the entire cast emerges as the dullest bunch ever...the co-producers, James H. Nicholson and Lou Rusoff, have kept the proceedings flat, contrived and neatly and serenely suggestive." This reviewer trashes any of his coolness factor, though, when he remarks that "a clanging group called Dick Dale and the Del-Tones look like praying mantises." Variety wrote that Beach Party "...has a kind of direct, simple-minded cheeriness," and that Bob Cummings "provides the picture with what real comic substance it has."
As mentioned, the Beach Party movies reflect (and comment on) a variety of popular culture references, and certainly this initial outing offers 60s Pop junkies an eyeful. In addition to the aforementioned appearances, sharp-eyed viewers can spot cult favorites like Yvette Vickers, Bobbi Shaw, Meredith MacRae, and Candy Johnson among the cast. In a hint of things to come for the series, AIP regular Vincent Price also makes a memorable cameo.
Beach Party also sets up visual and editing patterns for the rest of the series. Gary Morris writes in Bright Lights Film Journal that the Beach Party films "...are a patchwork quilt of motifs and formal strategies, alternatively distanced and in-your-face, heavy with subplots and random songs, cartoon characterizations, slow-motion and speeded-up visual effects, and even blatant audience acknowledgements, all of which show that structurally the films are practically anarchic."
Director William Asher came from a TV directing career, where he worked on dozens of series including the powerhouse I Love Lucy. Among his few feature film credits is the low-key and thoughtful (and unabashedly right-wing) science-fiction drama The 27th Day (1957) from Columbia Pictures. Following his stint directing five Beach movies at AIP, Asher returned to television, where he was creative consultant and primary director of the long-running series Bewitched, starring his wife Elizabeth Montgomery.
Executive Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff
Producer: James H. Nicholson, Lou Rusoff
Director: William Asher
Screenplay: Lou Rusoff
Cinematography: Kay Norton
Film Editing: Homer Powell
Music: Les Baxter
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Costume Design: Marjorie Corso
Cast: Robert Cummings (Prof. Bob Orwell Sutwell), Dorothy Malone (Marianne), Frankie Avalon (Frankie), Annette Funicello (Dolores / DeeDee), Morey Amsterdam (Cappy), Harvey Lembeck (Eric Von Zipper), John Ashley (Ken), Jody McCrea (Deadhead), Dick Dale (Himself).
by John M. Miller