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Before the counterculture and psychedelic music of the late 1960s, the beach scene and the California Sound were associated with youth culture in America. Beach movies featuring the music of pop and rock artists of the day, girls in bikinis, sand-and-surf settings, and a cast of youthful stars reflected and expanded the popularity of the beach scene and the image of the carefree lifestyle that went with it.
While the rock 'n' roll musicals of the 1950s created a teen market that the beach movies depended on for their success, two 1959 films launched the subgenre. Surfer Bruce Brown's documentary Slippery When Wet attracted mainstream attention to the little-known sport of surfing, while Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as the titular "girl midget," blended teenage romance, the beach, surfing, and carefree summers into an irresistible combination for young viewers. The following year, Where the Boys Are contained a crucial characteristic that would become essential to the beach movie formula, despite the film's serious take on youthful romance and its heavily dramatic climax. Parental supervision is entirely absent in Where the Boys Are, creating a world in which young people and their concerns are front and center.
By 1961, surfing had become a subculture primarily associated with teenagers with its own clothing style, slang, and music. In that year, legendary surf guitarist Dick Dale released his first hit record, "Let's Go Trippin'," which introduced the surf sound to the mainstream public. With its heavy, driving beat, stomping bass, and prolonged, reverb-laden electric guitar solos, the largely instrumental music was loud, fast, and intense. When American International Pictures (AIP), whose horror flicks and teen melodramas catered to the youth market, hired Dale and his Del-Tones to appear in Beach Party in 1963, the last important convention was added to the formula for the beach movie--guest appearances by the biggest pop and rock performers of the day. The musical stars did not play fictional characters but appeared as themselves performing on the beach or at the local surfside hangouts.
Beach Party became the archetypal beach movie, bringing together the successful characteristics of Gidget and Where the Boys Are in a winning formula. Minimal storylines featured teenagers living on the beach and dancing their days away to the latest pop-rock music with adults marginalized to the fringes of the plot. Any drama or tension derived from bikini-clad girls fretting about going too far with boys, and yet they never did. The characters lived an independent, carefree existence devoid of real responsibilities that teenagers looked forward to and adults envied.
The success of Beach Party spawned four sequels and a host of imitations from other studios and producers, including Paramount's The Girls on the Beach in 1965. The girls of the title are Selma, Cynthia, and Arlene, a trio of college coeds who are spending the summer in their sorority's beach house. They catch the attention of surfers Duke, Brian, and Wayne, and the three couples anticipate spending the summer dancing at the Sip n Surf to the sounds of Lesley Gore, the Beach Boys, and the Crickets. Their idyllic summer is interrupted when the girls discover that their housemother has inadvertently lost all of the sorority's funds, and their house is in danger of closing. Selma, Cynthia, and Arlene take on the job of raising money to save their beloved sorority house. To impress the girls, Duke, Brian, and Wayne claim to know the Beatles and lead them to believe that the Fab Four will fly from England to perform at their musical fund-raiser. But, just before the opening of the show, the girls realize that the boys have lied to them. Their only choice is to impersonate the famous British group themselves in the hopes of salvaging the evening.
Despite the madcap conclusion, The Girls on the Beach lacks the cartoon surrealism and self-reflexive cleverness of AIP's Beach Party series. Freewheeling and full of youthful abandon, the AIP beach movies incorporate everything from Erik von Zipper's motorcycle gang to dance crazes to mermaids to Frankie Avalon doppelgangers, creating a style of humor that is pure Americana. Of the dozens of beach movies and ski party spinoffs produced during the 1960s, only the Beach Party movies made enough of an impact on pop culture to be consistently referenced decades later.
However, The Girls on the Beach benefitted from the participation of two people that made it unique among beach movies--musician Brian Wilson and director William Witney. Wilson is best known as the leader, producer, and main songwriter for the Beach Boys, whose intricate vocal harmonies on songs about cars, catching waves, and girls competed with Dick Dale's driving guitar solos to be the official surfing sound. Wilson penned the title tune for the film, which he performed with the Beach Boys along with "Little Honda." The Girls on the Beach is the only beach movie that the Beach Boys, who embodied the California Sound, ever appeared in. The previous year, Wilson wrote songs for Muscle Beach Party and Ride the Wild Surf, but neither he nor the Beach Boys performed in the films.
Director William Witney is acclaimed as the preeminent serial director of the Golden Age, but his career is more diverse and extensive than that designation might suggest. His career began in 1933 when he was hired as a messenger boy for Mascot Pictures, one of the small, Poverty Row studios that specialized in low-budget fare. When Mascot merged with Republic Pictures, Witney was elevated to script clerk and then promoted to editor. At age 21, he was tapped to finish directing the serial The Painted Stallion (1937) when the original director became too unreliable to finish on the tight schedule allotted serials. Making the most of the opportunity, Witney became one of Republic's best directors of the serial format, often co-directing with John English and Spencer Bennett. From 1937 to 1943, dubbed the Golden Age of Serials, he directed twenty-three action-oriented serials in a variety of genres, including Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), Jungle Girl (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), and Dick Tracy Returns (1938).
After a tour of duty in the Navy during World War II, Witney returned to Republic, but he requested feature film assignments instead of serials. He became the main director of the musical westerns starring singing cowboy Roy Rogers, helming twenty-seven over the next several years. When Republic shut down in 1956, Witney took his talents to AIP, where he directed several teen-targeted movies with juvenile delinquent storylines, including Young and Wild (1958), Juvenile Jungle (1958), and The Cool and the Crazy (1958). Witney's experience at AIP made him a good choice as director for The Girls on the Beach. He also directed episodic television during the 1960s, particularly westerns. He ended his career in 1975 with Darktown Strutters, a comedy spoof of racial stereotyping.
From his experience in directing serials, Witney became adept at lean, clear storytelling, a characteristic admired by contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino. His forte was exterior action scenes that were alive with movement and energy, which was sometimes the result of slightly undercranking the camera to artificially speed up the action. He is credited with being the first to choreograph fight scenes cinematically, that is, breaking down fights into a series of shots that were less than two minutes. After establishing the fight in long shot, Witney preferred to film sections of the fight, one shot at a time. He would move the camera after each shot, allowing the stunt men an opportunity to rest so they could give it their all in each take. When edited together, the individual shots not only gave clarity to the action in the fight but infused the scene with energy. Witney's experience with advancing the story via action instead of dialogue proved to be an advantage for the young, inexperienced actors of The Girls on the Beach.
The cast consisted mostly of television actors, such as Ahna Capri, Linda Marshall, and Noreen Corcoran, who played Arlene, Cynthia, and Selma, respectively. Corcoran was the only recognizable name because she had costarred as the resident teenager on the popular sitcom Bachelor Father. Lori Saunders, who played sorority sister Patricia, later landed the role as one of the daughters on Petticoat Junction. Martin West, who costarred as Duke, worked in episodic television for most of his career, while Steven Rogers was a veteran of youth movies, including Ski Party (1965) and Wild, Wild Winter (1966). The Girls on the Beach also included some stunt casting: Lana Wood, Natalie's younger sister, appears in a small role as does Nancy Spry, who was that year's Miss Teen U.S.A. Interestingly, the most experienced actor in The Girls on the Beach did not get a screen credit. Dick Miller, veteran character actor of Roger Corman's AIP movies, played a waiter who utters the film's funniest line, not because of the line as written, but because of his delivery. After the pop group the Crickets are introduced, Miller utters the aside, "Crickets, Beatles, Cockroaches . . . what's next?"
Producer: Gene Corman, Harvey Jacobson
Director: William N. Witney
Screenplay: David Malcolm
Cinematography: Arch Dalzell
Music: Gary Usher
Film Editing: Morton Tubor
Cast: Noreen Corcoran (Selma), Martin West (Duke), Linda Marshall (Cynthia), Steven Rogers (Brian), Ahna Capri (Arlene (as Anna Capri)), Aron Kincaid (Wayne), Nancy Spry (Betty), Sheila Bromley (Mrs. Winters), Lana Wood (Bonnie), Mary Mitchel (Emily).
by Susan Doll