Retro Review – Summer Fun Edition: Beach Party (1963)

All summer long PCA reviews pop culture’s greatest summer films…reminding you that the world’s best films are not in the “New Release” section at your local Blockbuster.

Beach Party (1963) – Growing up in Canada, what passed for a beach was sort of laughable, and we didn’t see to much surf and sand.  But it was a true sign of summer when for two weeks every July Toronto’s CITY-TV ran American International’s legendary Beach Party films starring the queen and king of summer fun, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.  Now these films weren’t high art.  They were tacky, lame, cheesy and of questionable quality, but for what they lacked they made up for it in fun and charm.  The original film, Beach Party, was AIP’a attempt to imitate the almost yearly Elvis Presley films, but instead spawned into a life of its own.  Nobody knew what they had unleashed when Beach Party hit the screens in 1963, but a sub-genre of film was born that would dominate theaters for the next five years, and summers would never be the same without it.

Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, the king and queen of summer films, come together for the first time in "Beach Party" (1963)

Its summer holiday for clean cut college students Frankie and Delores, but while Frankie wants to “make time with Dee Dee,” Delores isn’t just ready yet to go all the way with her surfing boyfriend and, to Frankie’s horror, invites the entire gang along for their surfing holiday.  But they aren’t the only ones on the beach.  Painfully square scientist Professor Stutwell, played by Alan Cummings, is observing the mating habits of teenagers for his brand new book comparing the teens to primitive African tribes.  Yet, although Stutwell has traveled the world and is a man who knows many things, what he doesn’t understand is love.  Looking to make first contact, he leaves his sex starved assistant Marianne, played by Dorothy Malone, along in the beach house and tries to mix in with the hip teens on the beach.  But by the time he arrives, Annette and Frankie are already jerking each other around.  Frankie is busy making time with the exotic Ava, played by model Eva Six, in an attempt to make Dee Dee jealous.  However, Dee Dee, finding Professor Stutwell to be chivalrous despite his awkwardness, takes a shine to the eccentric older man and begins to make time with him to Frankie’s dismay.  But, Frankie and Stutwell aren’t the only two with designs on Dee Dee.  When biker Eric Von Zipper rides onto the beach with his Rat Pack, he decides that he too “adores her.”  What follows is a fast and fun vacation filled with music, dancing, G rated sexual innuendo, fist fights, misunderstandings and head games – all the things that make summer so memorable!.

Annette and Frankie are joined on the beach by Jody McCrea, Dick Dale and John Ashley

Now I’ll be honest.  Even by 1963’s standards I am not sure who the intended audience of Beach Party was meant for.  The film would have been far too square for average teenagers, too sexually taboo for children and too childish for adults.  However, someone must have seen it because Beach Party brought in more money for AIP then any other film had up to that time and would extend to another eleven films in the series over a five year period. In fact, 1964 alone saw four sequels to the film!  An industry record to this day!  Although the genre had been established a few years earlier with films such as Gidget and Blue Hawaii, Beach Party perfected the beach film formula, which would see dozens, although not as successful, imitations by other studios throughout the decade.

Despite the fact that they could be one of the worst film couples in the history of the medium, with a relationship full of head games and cheating, their charm make up for their flaws making them irresistibly endearing

Obviously, the real charm to the film is the winning combination of Frankie and Annette as Frankie and Dee Dee.  Both stars, who by 1963 were already bonafide teen legends, have an irresistible charm separately, but are unstoppable together despite the fact that they could be one of the worst and most dysfunctional screen couples in the history of films!  Their story would remain the same in all of the films that they appeared in together.  Dee Dee wants Frankie to get serious about life, marry her and raise a family.  Frankie just wants to get laid.  Throughout the series, the drama is driven by Annette and Frankie getting into a fight at the beginning of the film, playing head games and cheating on each other throughout the film, and finding each other again by the end.  It is always the same, but we love them anyway.  Annette is chaste and sweet and Frankie is charming to the point of being droll, especially as he often breaks the third wall, decades before Ferris Bueller ever did.  Although Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone were supposed to be the stars of the film, even receiving first credits over Annette and Frankie, it is of little question who becomes the stars of this film.  Annette and Frankie are what summer dreams are made of.

Robert Cummings, as Professor Stutwell, faces off against Harvey Lembeck's classic character Eric Von Zipper

Although Annette and Frankie will always be remembered as the stars of the Beach Party series, Beach Party introduced a number of the regular characters that would become part of the series as well.  Jody McCrea makes his first appearance as Lil’ Abnerish surfer Deadhead, and Candy Johnson appears as a dancer at Cappy’s Place before joining the gang as a regular beach girl in later films.  Other characters would not return to later films, but would instead created the basis for other later regular characters.  For instance, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Morey Amsterdam appears in the role of club owner Cappy, although he would later be replaced by Don Rickles in various similar roles in later films.  Model Eva Six as European beauty Ava, would be replaced in later films by Swedish model Bobbi Shaw as a similar character. Meanwhile, the house band for the film is ultra cool surf band Dick Dale and the Del-Tones who do two of the film’s best songs – Swinging and a Surfing and Secret Surfing Spot.   Of course no Beach Party film would be complete without comedian Harvey Lembeck’s Eric Von Zipper.  A parody of Marlon Brando, Eric Von Zipper remains the comedic villain in the remainder of the Beach films (with the exception of Muscle Beach Party) and it should be noted that the same actors who portrayed his Ratz and Mice would remain by his side in all of the remaining films.

Although tame by today's standards, "Beach Party" was the first film marketed towards a teen audience filled with sexual subtext

Now despite the fact that Beach Party may seem tame in nature compared to today’s movies, in 1963 the film was definitely sexually advanced.  Up until then the only time you saw the subjects of teens and sex together in a film was either an exploitation film or an educational film warning you not to do it.  But although the kids in Beach Party are supposed to be in their late teens/early twenties, Beach Party was really the first film aimed towards teens that exploited sexual innuendos.  The truth is that kids think about sex, and writer Lou Rusoff and director William Ahser knew it.  The question was how do they sell sex but still make it G rated.  There was never any nudity or obvert sexual content, but they did fill the picture full of hot girls in bikinis and half dressed guys with chisel jawed features.  There are breasts shots, butt shots, pelvis thrusts and every type of gyration you can think of.  It’s not subtle, but it’s not pornographic either.  The subtext of sex is in every scene, and kids smart enough to read between the lines know what the kids are up to off screen, while the ones that were still innocent enough not to know could fool themselves into believing they were just kissing and holding hands.  But the subject of sex in Beach Party, as chaste as it might seem by today’s standards, was radical in 1963 and most likely held much of the appeal to teen audiences at the time of its release.  Today’s teens will only find it laughable and lame, but put into its historical timeline, as well as the social climate of an era that was just beginning to enter the sexual revolution, Beach Party was truly groundbreaking.

Vincent Price hanging out on the beach with Annette and Frankie? You just never know who is going to appear in a beach party film!

Beach Party films eventually became famous for it’s cameos, often marking the final screen appearances of some of Hollywood’s greatest legends.  As the film series continued the cameos became greater in number, but easily the oddest of all the cameos was in Beach Party when master of horror Vincent Price shows up unexpectedly to shamelessly plug his appearance in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe installment The Haunted Palace.  Also worth noting is that the blonde yoga girl in Cappy’s Place is tragic actress Yvette Vickers in the years of her career’s decline.

The Beach Party films have not aged well.  If they were ever cutting edge or original, the years have not been kind to them.  However, they remain to be a unique part of the pop culture experience, and they are still, to this day, so darn fun to watch!  One of my all time favorite film franchises, you gotta see at least one of these films once in your life.  Beach Party was the first, and a perfect place to start.

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  1. Vince’s avatar

    Fantastic review; you are one of the few reviewers that actually get this film! It is entertainment, not art! The only place I’ll disagree with you is that I think these films have aged pretty well; naturally it’s dated, as any film from 1963 would be, but the sparkling chemistry between Frankie and Annette is timeless!

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