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Monday, July 28, 2008
Why I Love the Beach Party Movies
It should seem surprising that a series of forty year old, cheaply made teen sex exploitation comedies should easily rank as amongst my favorite films of all time. I'm not one to romanticise the sixties; for any one who wasn't a straight white heterosexual male Protestant of middle class or better they were a pretty lousy time to try and get by, and the social changes that made improvements for anyone who didn't fit that description couldn't get there fast enough, but the pop culture, and even the fringe culture, of the early half of that decade have an unselfconscious, unironic naivete that's very appealing. There's also a certain sly subversion that bubbles up here and there. The physique magazines claimed to be about healthy exercise, but if you're in on the gag, you know better. The same is true of pop songs of the era, which sound innocent enough, so long as you don't actually think about the lyrics. And then there's the exploitation films of American International pictures. Oh, sure, it looks like these are just movies about the romantic hi jinx of all-American kids having fun at the beach...and then you notice that the plot of each film is essentially Frankie trying to get into Dee-Dee's pants.
There's more to recommend the films, to be certain. There's plenty of eye candy for horny teen boys, in the shape of all those pretty girls in bikinis running around. Not to mention the frequent appearance of Candy Johnson and her perpetually shimmying dresses...
For myself, there's the not inconsiderable male eye-candy as well. Chiefly, there's Jody McCrea, but the other fit young men populating the beach movies aren't too bad to look at either. Frankie's okay, and no one can smarm his way through a film quite like him, but there's something faintly unconvincing about his casting as Alpha Male of the surf pack. I can't quite explain the appeal of McCrea. In most of the films that loosely make up the Beach Party series he's given the thankless task of playing the comic relief, Frankie's dopey girl-crazy side-kick that's perpetually unaware of just how stupid he is. But he's infinitely more engaging as an actor than John Ashley, as Frankie's other side-kick whose name the producers could never quite settle on, or Mike Nader as "extra who occasionally gets to say a line", the only other male actors to regularly put in appearances as surfers in the films. To go back to my earlier statements, it's the unironic performance, coupled with a genuine charisma, that makes it work.
There's the pop music, of course. While the films, by necessity, tend to focus on early surf music, notably with the appearance of Dick Dale in the first few films, a significant amount of branching out occurs. There's Donna Loren, of course, belting out a number from time to time, a Dr. Pepper bottle usually conspicuous somewhere in the shot, and Little Stevie Wonder puts in some time as well. There's also, of course, almost obligatory songs from Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
Ah, Annette. The first, last and only Mousketeer to ever have anything remotely like talent. She occupies a strange place in the Beach Party films. Simultaneously the object of lust and the enforcer of strict social norms. It's Annette's Dee-Dee character who utters the frequent mantra of no sex before marriage, turning each entry in the series into essentially what Jay Presson Allen once referred to as a "delayed fuck" film. But she really is the heart and soul of the films. She's that sweet, innocent core, that bedrock foundation of "traditional values" that allows the debauchery to go on. Without Annette there to remind us of what a good girl looks, acts and sounds like, we might stop and realize that those teenagers are...*gasp-shock-horror* BALLING!
Plus, she sings kind of purty.
But it's not all horny teenagers. The cameo and recurring comedy bits are added value. If nothing else, the producers of the Beach Party films deserve credit for keeping food on Buster Keaton's table. Oh, sure, you've got your Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre walk-ons, and the featured appearances of Don Rickles, Morey Amsterdam, Buddy Hackett and Paul Lynde. But you've also got the greatest comedy villain of all time. Harvey Lembeck as the low-rent Marlon Brando, Eric Von Zipper.
Only missing out on one of the Beach Party films, Eric Von Zipper sets the standard for incompetent menace. From ambitious plots to kidnap pop princesses, to the far more mundane goals of simply, finally, getting one over on those surf-bums for once, Von Zipper is the villain that can never quite catch a break, more of a risk to himself than anyone else, and in deadly danger from getting poked in the forehead with a finger. The Beach Party films just wouldn't be the same without the misplaced optimism of his mantra, "I am my ideal." A few decades later, that phrase would reek of pop psychology bluster, but here it's a mark of just how disconnected from reality Von Zipper is.
All these details add up. The films, as a whole, work on a variety of levels; time capsule, subversive cinema, unintentional social commentary, and slightly naughty yet ultimately wholesome fun. In that light, it's pretty much a necessity that a Beach Party Week exists.