Beach Blanket Bingo
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Beach Party, the 1963 surprise hit for American International Pictures, became a mini-franchise for that studio pairing Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in a series of slapdash musical comedies set against a Malibu backdrop of surfing and sun worshipping California teenagers. Part of the series' success was due to its episodic nature that juggled pop acts (Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, Little Stevie Wonder, Leslie Gore) and guest star cameos (Vincent Price, Mickey Rooney, Peter Lorre) in a minimalist narrative spiked with goofy, lowbrow humor and acres of young, exposed nubile bodies. By 1965, however, the formula was wearing thin and part of the problem was that most of the cast members were too old to be playing teenagers on a permanent summer vacation. Despite this, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), the fourth entry in the series, doesn't alter the formula drastically but does offer multiple subplots for distraction.
Frankie and Annette, the once perfect couple who now seem like bickering, long-married discontents, constantly find themselves reassessing their relationship. Romantic complications ensue with the introduction of a rising pop singer, Sugar Kane (Linda Evans), and a female skydiver (Deborah Walley), both of whom enjoy a brief flirtation with Frankie. Bonehead (Jody McCrea), usually limited to the supporting sidekick role, gets more exposure here (not a good thing) in a storyline that has him falling in love with a mermaid (Marta Kristen). The remaining story threads involve press agent Bullets (Paul Lynde) and his attempts to get Sugar Kane front page coverage while motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) concocts a plan to kidnap the singing star.
Compared to the other Beach Party films, Beach Blanket Bingo comes up short in the musical department. The Hondells, who had a top forty hit ("Little Hondo") at the time, are the featured band but they don't get to perform their hit song and are relegated to being Linda Evans' backup group in most of their scenes. Ms. Evans, who is dubbed by Robin Ward, performs two pleasant if forgettable tunes - "New Love" and "Fly Boy" - but they're preferable to the dreck that Annette and Frankie have to sing. One of the few bright spots is a musical cameo by Donna Loren who belts out "It Only Hurts When I Cry."
Probably the most interesting aspect of Beach Blanket Bingo are the guest appearances by Paul Lynde and Don Rickles. Both get ample time to do their shtick but Rickles actually gets to cut loose in a beach club monologue where he roasts Frankie, Annette, Bonehead and visiting Los Angeles columnist Earl Wilson in his uniquely insulting style. Lynde also has his fair share of sarcastic asides, delivering zingers to Frankie ("Aren't you getting shorter?"), Eric Von Zipper and other well-deserved targets. In fact, Lynde garnered the best notices for the film with Variety proclaiming, "What is most pleasant about this frolic is the superb performance of Paul Lynde as the frothy, pushy talent manager whose major ambition is to get 'pearls' for Earl Wilson."
Much less fortunate and often painful to watch is the film's exploitation of legendary silent comedian Buster Keaton, who is called upon to perform stupid pratfalls, chase busty dancer Bobbi Shaw around the sets and deliver lines like "It's a wiggy beach!"
Annette, still Walt Disney's favorite ingénue, was making the difficult transition from teenage heroines to more adult roles at this point in her career. Ironically, it was Walt Disney who encouraged her to star in the Beach Party films. She recalls in her autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, that Disney handed her the script for Beach Party saying, "I've read this. It's good clean fun, and I think you'll have a wonderful time doing it. But I do have a special little request."
"Okay," I said, somewhat curious.
"Now, I see in here that all the other girls are going to be running around in bikinis, which is fine. But Annette, I want you to be different. You are different. I would simply like to request that you not expose your navel in the film."
"Mr. Disney, that's not a problem. Of course, I won't," I replied. And it wasn't, at least not for me. I wore a bikini around my own pool at home, but never in public. So I was happy to comply with Mr. Disney's request. I wasn't on the set very long, however, before I found out that not everyone was thrilled by my compliance with Mr. Disney's no-navel edict...Several times I was practically taunted, "So you still have to follow the boss's orders?" I stood my ground, politely but firmly answering, 'No, I do not have to follow "boss's orders." This is something I chose to do and will do.' I was quaking inside, but I refused to let myself be bullied into doing what everyone else was doing. I think this is part of my character - both onscreen and off - that audiences sensed and responded to."
Walt Disney, however, had regrets about encouraging Annette to do the Beach Party films and was very vocal about it with Samuel Arkoff, one of the founders of American International Pictures. According to the mogul in his autobiography, Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants, "He [Disney] became outraged by promotional lines like, "Bare As You Dare!" But the one that really sent him lunging for his phone was in an ad for Beach Blanket Bingo: "When 10,000 Bodies Hit 5,000 Blankets..." To Walt, that was a sign that the moral fabric of America was unraveling, and to him, I was the point man in the revolution. "How dare you subject Annette to this sort of degradation!" Disney yelled as I picked up the phone. "You're looking at the ads and the artwork, Walt." I tried to explain, "I would love you to see these pictures. I don't think you'd find anything offensive at all." "You've really gone too far," Walt said. "Think about what you're doing, Sam. What kind of effect do these movies have on young people?" After a while I stopped hearing from Disney. Maybe he had grown weary of trying to rescue Annette from the evil riptides of AIP and all the social changes around him. Once we had turned Annette, this maturing twenty-year-old, into a modern young woman, Disney recognized that he could no longer cast her as the obedient fifteen-year-old daughter, the role she had been playing in his movies. She never made another picture for Disney after that."
Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Anthony Carras, James H. Nicholson
Director: William Asher
Screenplay: William Asher, Leo Townsend
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Film Editing: Fred Feitshans, Eve Newman
Art Direction: Howard Campbell
Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Frankie Avalon (Frankie), Annette Funicello (Dee Dee), Deborah Walley (Bonnie Graham), Harvey Lembeck (Eric Von Zipper), John Ashley (Steve Gordon), Jody McCrea (Bonehead).
by Jeff Stafford
A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes by Annette Funicello Sam Arkoff: Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants by Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo