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When it came to producing low-budget genre films custom-made for double bills at drive-ins and grind houses that were able to turn a profit, producers Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson, the masterminds behind American International Pictures, had a genius for it. Take, for example, Operation Bikini (1963). No, it wasn't another entry in their famous Beach Party franchise even though it did feature Frankie Avalon. Instead, it was a World War II submarine drama that cleverly incorporated real combat and archival footage into a scenario that was mostly played out on cheap sets and studio back lots with a truly eclectic cast. Arkoff and Nicholson tried to appeal to every conceivable audience with their casting of pop singers (Avalon), veteran character actors (Scott Brady, Jim Backus), fading teen idols (Tab Hunter), sons of famous actors (Gary Crosby, Jody McCrea) and new screen discovery Eva Six (allegedly the girlfriend of producer Arkoff), who had a brief 3-picture career. The result is no masterpiece but a routine black and white programmer with a few unexpectedly outrageous interludes incorporating color dream sequences.
The bare bones plot, set in the South Pacific in August 1944, has a navy demolition team headed by Lt. Morgan Hayes (Tab Hunter) being given passage to Bikini Island aboard a submarine commandeered by Capt. Carey (Scott Brady) and his second in command, Lt. Fourtney (Michael Dante). Hayes's crew is charged with locating and destroying a sunken U.S. sub before Japanese forces can retrieve it and utilize the top-secret equipment on board. Along the way there is resentment and friction between the two crews but once they arrive at their destination, Hayes's unit disembarks and joins forces with a band of island guerillas against the occupying Japanese forces. Despite some losses, the demolition team achieve their objective and make their getaway back to the U.S. Navy submarine.
By the time he made Operation Bikini (aka The Seafighters), Tab Hunter was no longer being offered leading roles in major motion pictures due to his limited acting abilities and the fact that he was no longer the top male pinup of the bobbysoxer crowd. The high profile days of Damn Yankees! (1958), probably his peak, They Came to Cordura (1959) with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, and The Pleasure of His Company (1961) starring Fred Astaire and Debbie Reynolds, were behind him. He had entered the second phase of his career where his only offers were either leads in B-movies like War Gods of the Deep (1965) or an occasional minor part in an A-production like The Loved One (1965). However, there was a brief period in the early sixties when Hunter was being considered for a major role in a Luchino Visconti film, an opportunity that never materialized.
In his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (co-written with Eddie Muller), the actor recalled, "My next picture, regrettably, was a far cry from Visconti's realm. While he prepared a masterpiece, The Leopard , I signed on for Operation Bikini...Going back to Hollywood put an early end to my European excursion, but it also meant I'd finally be able to pay off my debt to Jack Warner...It was yet another war movie, and I was once again in military uniform - a demolitions expert in the South Pacific in 1943, escorted by a submarine crew to Bikini Island for the top secret test that will change the course not only of the war but of history. My Polynesian love interest, who helps me fight off the Japanese, was played by Eva Six, a bountiful blond Hungarian starlet in a black wig who sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor. Frankie sings about going home, surrounded by warheads. Only AIP would have the chutzpah to advertise a story about the development of the atomic bomb with the tagline: "Temptation in Paradise...Neither Hell Nor High Heels Could Stop Them!"
Hunter's performance in Operation Bikini is more low-key and less wooden than expected but he is stranded more than once with lame dialogue and a clumsily staged tussle with guerrilla warrior Reiko (Eva Six) which leads to their brief on-screen romance, one that culminates with a sweaty massage by campfire. However, Hunter manages to survive Operation Bikini with most of his dignity but not Frankie Avalon as Seaman Malzone who is front stage and center in the most tasteless, exploitive and hilariously awful moments in the film. While dreaming of his girlfriend back in the states, the screen suddenly segues into bright lurid colors as Avalon launches into the ludicrous Les Baxter song, "Girl Back Home." Alternating between ballad and Las Vegas show tune, the musical production juxtaposes images of Avalon's innocent stateside girlfriend with sexy shots of some wanton seductress (a disembodied leg wiggles across the screen, a headless torso shimmies in sequins) while Avalon gamely tries to mimic Frank Sinatra at his swingingest. But not even ole blue eyes could pull off lyrics like these:
"She has apple pie eyes
This one's got exciting red lips
She's got angel-like hair
This one's got hips that make me fly - they wanna do flips!"
Just when you thought you had seen the worst of it, another color dream sequence pops up in the film's second half featuring a reprise of "Girl Back Home." Nothing else comes close to the jaw-dropping effect of the musical numbers but there are other stunningly bad moments such as any scene Jody McCrea is in (playing yet another variation on his "Deadhead" character from the Beach Party movies) and the unbelievable epilogue in which a Rod Serling-like narrator intones "chances are Bikini will be remembered for something else, not a bomb, not a battle - but the bathing suit!" At which point, the film once again bursts into color as the final credits roll over footage of two shapely women bathers posing and cavorting on a deserted beach.
Among the film's supporting cast, special mention must be made of Jim Backus, who is more famous for his television appearances as the voice of the animated character Mr. Magoo and as the millionaire Thurston Howell III on the long-running series, <>Gilligan's Island. Operation Bikini may not be his finest hour on screen but he does get a few choice one-liners - "This ain't the Ritz!" he announces when he first spies his bunk sandwiched between two torpedoes - and he gets to bark orders at the younger cast members in his imitable grouchy voice. He also leads, most unexpectedly, a calisthenics class on the submarine's deck which dissolves into a brawl and, despite his relatively small role, he actually survives the mission with nothing more serious than a leg wound.
Operation Bikini marked the directorial debut of Anthony Carras, who had been working steadily as an editor at AIP since the late fifties on such films as A Bucket of Blood (1959), Ski Troop Attack (1960), and Panic in Year Zero! (1962). His career as a director, however, was brief; he only made three more films after Operation Bikini with The Fearmaker (1971) starring Katy Jurado as his final credit.
Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Lou Rusoff
Director: Anthony Carras
Screenplay: John Tomerlin
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Film Editing: Anthony Carras, Homer Powell
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Music: Les Baxter, Robert Marcucci
Cast: Tab Hunter (Lt. Morgan Hayes), Frankie Avalon (Seaman Joseph Malzone), Scott Brady (Captain Emmett Carey), Jim Backus (Ed Fennelly), Gary Crosby (Seaman Floyd Givens), Michael Dante (Lt. William Fourtney), Jody McCrea (Seaman William Sherman), Richard Bakalyan (Seaman Hiller), Eva Six (Reiko), Aki Aleong (Seaman Ronald Davayo).
BW & C-77m. Letterboxed.
by Jeff Stafford