Beach Parties: Vacation is here! Beach party donight!
-"How do you like this title: The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult, and its Relation to Primitive Tribes."There is nothing quite like the bloodlust of a savvy movie producer, and there was never a pair of movie producers quite as savvy in such a specialised way as James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the paired impresarios of American International Pictures, as legendary a low-budget B-picture outfit as ever stretched a dollar. And in all the annals of Nicholson and Arkoff and AIP's ingenious tricks for separating teenagers from money, the very acme of their artform is surely the beach movie cycle from the 1960s: the studio that more or less invented the idea of a teen movie with their juvenile delinquency and I Was a Teenage _____ horror pictures in the '50s crafting what very well might remain, all these decades of increasingly arrested pop cultural development later, the most craven, exuberant teen-baiting properties of all time, and taken as a unit, the biggest financial success stories of AIP's existence.
-"I've got a shorter title: Teenage Sex".
Born to cash in on the burgeoning popularity of Southern California surf culture (itself one of the oddest inlets of teen culture I can name - surfing is as geographically proscribed as outdoor sports get, and yet for a healthy chunk of the '60s, surf music was a fixture throughout the United States), the beach movies were initially just a beach movie, and it was called Beach Party: shot in unsummery March of 1963 and released in August of the same year (AIP was not in the business of fucking around) it was a pastiche of various generic chunks of movies stretching from Elvis Presley's Hawaii musicals to the very same juvenile delinquency films that AIP had itself driven into the ground, starring a Mousketeer and a prettyboy teen idol, it is simply not possible to consider any single element of Beach Party to be remotely creative or insightful or radical; but when they were all put together something electric happened, and an entirely new genre was created. Beach Party itself was a massive smash - a new record-holder for AIP, and the biggest sleeper hit of '63 - and if AIP and its likeminded competitors knew how to do one thing, it was to start churning out copies of low-budget hit films. By the end of the summer of 1964, beach movies were already starting to take on the unmistakable creakiness of a dying fad.
And with that, I will stop getting ahead of the game, and stick with Beach Party itself, a charming and charmingly dumb movie about people gearing up to fuck. I'd love it if there was a more direct way of saying that, because the movie itself is direct to a degree that is virtually impossible to wrap your head around, considering that it was 1963 and there was still, presumably a Production Code on. But that was ever the privilege of the tacky studios of the drive-in circuit; they were little enough that nobody cared. And the lack of caring about Beach Party results in a movie that's downright smutty in its acknowledgement that when boys and girls meet on the sandy SoCal beaches wearing damn near nothing, it's not entirely surfing or Dick Dale and the Del Tones that they have on their mind.
Heck, even the plot of the story - which is very different from every other beach movie I can name - hinges on the characters coming right out and saying, "teenagers thing constantly about sex, and have it whenever the possibility arises". The star of the film is middle-aged anthropologist and biologist Professor R.O. Sutwell (Bob Cummings), who is coming off of his study of the adolescent sexual rituals of various indigineous peoples of the world, and with long-suffering, visibly horny assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone - beg pardon, Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone, and not even that far in the past), he is ready to turn his scholarship on the most acutely primitive teen culture in the Western world: California surfers and their gals. And the fig-leaf of absurd comic science doesn't even begin to distract us from how openly the film acknowledges and even jokes about things that nice movies of the day just did not mention. Undoubtedly, this was part of what made the film such a big hit: horny teens were able to see a movie in which horny teens simply were, and not telegraphed through implication or constrained by formalism. Beach Party parades one bikini-clad girl after another, demonstrating that it was a cold March indeed in Santa Monica in '63; and when it is not openly male-gazing up and down the bodies of various nubile young things, it is lingering with solemn importance on dripping wet, shirtless boys, and their rigid boards.
Equal-opportunity PG-rated sexploitation it's to be, then, and that, perhaps, is what Beach Party really did invent: not merely a sex drive, but a sex drive that was identified by that exact name, freeing up the movie to situate its softcore musings in the context of a farcical plot.
The plot, by the way - since credited writer Lou Rusoff (who died of a brain tumor before the movie was released) and uncredited writers Robert Dillon and William Asher knew better than to make a middle-aged scientist the lynchpin of their teen sex romp - centers on Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and Dolores or "Dee Dee" (Annette Funicello), who went to the beach to be alone for a spell; but Dee Dee understands exactly what carnal shenanigans Frankie has in mind, and so surreptitiously invites everybody they know for a big sprawling multi-day beach party. Peevishly trying to get back at her, Frankie immediately starts flirting with local Swedish waitress Ava (Eva Six), sending Dee Dee to just as peevishly throw herself at Sutwell, who just assumes, to begin with, that the young lady is simply really excited about helping him with his research. Acting as catalyst, the incompetent Rat Pack biker gang, led by the utterly hopeless Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) tries to throw their weight around, but when the befuddled old guy can beat multiple bikers in a bar fight, it's clear that the Ratz don't pose much of a threat to anybody but themselves.
It's frivolous; it's purposefully silly; it's also shockingly grounded, relative to the ludicrous heights that its sequels would attain. Outside of some cartoon sound effects (notably, the sound of surfboard screeching to a halt as a pretty girl sashays by in next to nothing), there's nothing determinedly unreal in Beach Party, and this matter-of-fact "realism" - which is true only in relationship to the films that would follow it - gives it a kind of documentary gravitas attained by no other beach movie. That's still damn little gravitas, but the sense that the movie is depicting a kind of raw, actual teenage behavior manages to cut through all of the dizzy nonsense, the AIP in-jokes (including a dazzlingly brazen ad for the three-weeks-later release of The Haunted Palace during the end credits), the musical numbers (anchored by the surprisingly clever score by Les Baxter, one of the series' MVPs). Sutwell might be a likable boob (and his blithe equivocation of teen surfers with aboriginal youths a fascinatingly knotty comment on post-colonial exploitation of underdeveloped countries, given that the film doesn't ever get around to disagree with him on the teens' basic animalism), but he is, after a fashion, doing exactly what he sets out to: documenting the sexual behavior of teen surf culture.
That is, incidentally, what the beach movies, good or bad, do best: act as time capsules. The AIP cycle is particularly good at this, given director William Asher's uniquely sensitive eye for the trappings of pop culture (he'd helm a total of five beach movies for the company), pinning down with cinematographer Kay Norton, in this particular case, an excellent cross-section of early '60s visual ephemera. Beach Party, March skies and all, is a bright movie, and a massively oversaturated one. Permit me to share a single frame:
That's Beach Party in a nutshell: daft, simple, crazily energetic. Later movies in the cycle would drive into strange alleyways of camp and kitsch and things even weirder, but for the most part, this first movie is just about having a good time and being easily amused. It's not great cinema: in fact, I am reasonably certain that it is bad cinema. But I do awfully admire its corny simplicity and enthusiastically sweet sexuality, even so.
Reviews in this series
Beach Party (Asher, 1963)
Muscle Beach Party (Asher, 1964)
Bikini Beach (Asher, 1964)
Pajama Party (Weis, 1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (Asher, 1965)
Ski Party (Rafkin, 1965)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher, 1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis, 1966)