With summer starting to fade, what better way to while away the hours than by revisiting the beach, as imagined by exploitation studio American International Pictures in the early 1960s? This article first appeared in Bright Lights in May 1998.
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The beach movies helped turn the beach into an exaggerated version of the suburban backyard, complete with “swimming pool” in the form of the Pacific Ocean
American International Pictures (AIP), founded in 1954, based much of its early cinematic output on the conflict between sexless (or sexually repressed) authority figures (parents, doctors, teachers) and disobedient, sexually aggressive teenagers. This conflict permeated the low-budget company’s every genre, from juvenile delinquency (Edward Bernds’s Reform School Girl, (1957) to horror (Gene Fowler’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf the same year), even to westerns, where AIP recast the rebellious teen as the rebellious, violent female (Roger Corman’s Apache Woman, 1955, Machine-Gun Kelly, 1958).
In 1960, the company released the first of its Poe cycle, marking its first major bid for cultural legitimacy: higher budgets, color/widescreen (Panavision), name actors (Vincent Price), and an important literary source (Poe) translated to film by major genre writers (Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont).
In 1963, AIP released Beach Party, the first of a four-year, seven-film cycle.1 Founders Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson were almost ten years older now, and their company had become a “major-minor,” the most successful low-budget film company in the United States. Like the Poe films, Beach Party marked another step in AIP’s attempt to upgrade its image, this time using the same commodity — the American teenager — on which they had built the company. Detailing the comic adventures of a group of white middle-class teenagers who rent a beach cabin for a last summer fling before adulthood, the beach cycle was AIP’s most publicized, popular, and profitable series.
Beach Party established many of the conventions, but the fourth entry, Beach Blanket Bingo, is probably the most fully realized of the series, combining elements of music, fantasy and farce, teenage lust and lust repressed, and simultaneously worshipful and satirical views of American consumerism. Beach Blanket Bingo begins boldly on the beach itself (unlike Beach Party, which opens with tentative aerial surveys of the beach), with twisting, frugging teenagers and the two principals, Franky (Frankie Avalon) and DeeDee (Annette Funicello) singing to the audience. The snickering tone is set early, with shots of Buster Keaton fishing, eventually hooking one of the teen’s bikini tops, causing her to run off in a panic. Buster spends most of his screen time chasing the voluptuous, bikini-clad Bobbi (Bobbi Shaw), who titters in broken English and alternately dodges and accepts his advances.
Beach Blanket Bingo is more a series of vignettes than a linear plot, with equal weight and screen time given to a variety of situations and characters. Though the film is in a sense a musical vehicle for its already popular stars, like the others in the series, Beach Blanket Bingo is more than a simple showcase for the bland singing talents of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.
Much of the story concerns the romantic difficulties experienced by the matching pairs of lovers, surf dwellers Franky (Frankie Avalon) and DeeDee (Annette Funicello), and skydivers Steve (John Ashley) and Bonnie (Deborah Walley). These couples argue about commitment, about romance and sex (or the lack of it), about the other kids, even about women’s rights (“Women can even vote!” DeeDee reminds Franky, who testily replies, “That’s the American tragedy!”).
A fantasy element appears in Bonehead’s (Jody McCrea) ill-fated romance with a mermaid, Lorelei (Marta Kristen), and he’s also intermittently involved with sexy singer Sugar Kane (Linda Evans). Bonehead acts throughout the series as the butt of the other kids’ surprisingly nasty jokes, which he good-naturedly accepts. Cynical marketing man Bullets (Paul Lynde) exploits Sugar Kane and her potential audience, the kids on the beach, who also represent the kids in the audience. Bullets insults the kids and and uses them to market Sugar Kane (“Surfer Saves Singer”). He’s attended throughout the film by Earl Wilson, whose then-topical newspaper gossip column is constantly referred to.
Another fixture in this ensemble is “Big Drop” (Don Rickles), who runs the skydiving school, allowing the teens to conquer both sand and sky. In a startling display, Rickles breaks through the artifice of the film during a five-minute nightclub diatribe in which he baldly ridicules the teenagers, particularly Frankie and Annette. The film seems to dissolve around them as he shakes his finger at the “kids” and screams that they are talentless and old — “forty-three-year-old teenagers!”2 Like Bonehead, they laughingly accept the insults.
In yet another thread, Erich Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), a Brando-pastiche motorcycle gang leader, invades the beach and kidnaps Sugar Kane. Like Rickles, this character has a shtick that is constantly on display: he tells Sugar Kane “I am my ideal but you are my idol.” As in Beach Party, he constantly “gives himself the finger” — accidentally putting himself into a trance by touching a pressure point on his head. His indulgent gang (“Rats” and “Mice”) spend most of their time carrying his stiff body offscreen. More ominous is South Dakota Slim (Timothy Carey), who calls everybody “Booby” and puts Sugar Kane to the buzz-saw a la The Perils of Pauline.
There are also numerous musical numbers here that the filmmakers use to show the kids’ sentiment and sincerity — “These are the good times,” Franky wistfully reminds everyone — and their sarcasm — Donna Loren laughs and roasts hot dogs during her number, “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” and Bonehead appears to be weeping bitterly, until the camera pulls away to show that he’s actually chopping onions.
In spite of the many theoretical threats to their scene (and they are treated so lightly they are only theoretical) — Bullets, Von Zipper, Steve’s plot to have Franky crash during a skydive, and a trumped-up rape charge by Bonnie — the end of the film finds the kids back on the beach doing what they do best: laughing, drinking Cokes, surfing, leering at each other, and kissing — but not having sex.
Beach Blanket Bingo and the films that preceded and followed it have a schizoid air, typical of the period of social flux in which they were made. While the “text” (evident from the above description) is a farcical portrayal of the carefree lives of happy vacationing teens experiencing minor romantic problems, the subtext is reassurance. The films exist in an insular world untroubled by the Cold War (fear of nuclear holocaust), collapsing race relations, exploding criminality and drug use, the sexual revolution, and the emerging Vietnam War. They show teenagers as wistful, comic, conformist creatures, sexless and predictable, ultimately willing to carry on the traditions of consumer capitalism that they, as voracious consumers themselves, clearly benefit from.
Social conditions at the time were such that this message of reassurance could not be delivered undiluted. The films are not in fact integrated on a formal level, and they subvert their own theme of comforting conformity with a kaleidoscopic visual and structural approach that moves far from coherency and totality toward the kind of social chaos happening in America itself, just beyond the beach.
Sources and Authors
The sources for these films are quite varied. They are a mosaic of influences — everything from AIP’s own rich history (which the films attempt to repudiate), to the ’60s “clean teen” phenomenon and its major manifestation, the burgeoning California beach culture, that emerged as a reaction to the troubling social, racial, and sexual barrier-busting occurring in American society. We can add to the list of contributors writer-director William Asher and a traditional Hollywood genre, the musical.
Good Teen, Bad Teen
The major source of the films is of course AIP’s own history, its torn-from-the pages-of-life playlist, what Jean-Loup Bourget, analyzing the sources for Douglas Sirk’s films, referred to as the “storehouse of traditions” of any movie studio (19). AIP’s early films focused on teenagers3 and other socially unempowered groups and their inability to assimilate into a society whose conventions (conformity, ambition) they ridiculed and rejected. This rejection tended to take extremely anti-social, anti-institutional forms — titles like Reform School Girl and Monster on the Campus come to mind. The group’s goal was typically the creation of a private, often violent and cultish, youth society able to function autonomously, often through criminal enterprise — the final flowering of the American Captains of Industry beloved by high-school history teachers. The group is subversive in its preference for illicit thrills over employment, marriage, and a tract house. Other manifestations of their refusal to conform include cynical intellectualism (the beatniks in Corman’s Bucket of Blood) and the ability to physically transform themselves into monsters (I Was Teenage Werewolf), the transformation clearly symbolic of their violent rejection of assimilation/socialization.
The Beach movies recall this focus on a group of teenagers living in tribal communion, not going to school (summer vacation), and not working (a hazy threat in the future). But they are different from their delinquent predecessors in crucial ways. Although they appear to be divorced from (or oblivious to) society at large, they don’t express their isolation in sexual or criminal ways. They too attempt to form their own society within the larger one, but it’s an antiseptic, virtually sexless, wink-and-leer society, punctuated by “innocent” beach frolics and bland romantic entanglements.
Unlike their predecessors, these kids don’t need to steal; they’ve been bankrolled by a culture that has thoughtfully provided everything they need: beach house, endless Cokes, surfboards. They reject the criminality, lurid sexuality, and general social deviance that marked their forebears. No teenage werewolves here. As AIP moved closer to mainstream success and social approval, so did its teenagers. The monstrous brats of the past are reborn as well-groomed, “normal” middle-class, surfing, singing “clean teens” — symbolic siblings of the lily-white youngsters seen on television shows like Ozzie and Harriet and American Bandstand and successful mainstream movies like Paul Wendkos’s 1958 Gidget.
But why did AIP, dedicated to the ethos of teenage rebellion, reject its own history? First, the company’s founders were now quite a bit older than their target audience (Samuel Arkoff was 45 when Beach Party came out), and this put a certain distance between them and their earlier product. By 1960, with Corman’s Poe films, AIP’s normally penurious owners were willing to finance larger pictures with the clear hope of moving out of fringe escapism and closer to the mainstream. The inevitable effect of such a move was to limit the company’s status as curdled outsider/observer and increase its role as participant in — that is, endorser of — mainstream, conformist cultural values. A film like House of Usher (1960) looked positively plush compared to, for example, High School Hellcats just a year before, and although AIP’s films continued to play in drive-ins, they also moved the company into first-run houses.
For all their notoriety, AIP’s delinquent gangs and teenage monsters lacked both the cultural and commercial seal of approval of their bland counterparts in the major studios — the “Gidgets” at Columbia or Pat Boone’s smarmy go-gooders at Fox (Bernardine, April Love), notable for Boone’s contractually based refusal to kiss a woman onscreen. Even major product with a modern edge (MGM’s Where the Boys Are) were undercut by the inevitable drift toward wholesome values. This contrast between AIP’s delinquents and Fox/Columbia/MGM’s goody-goodies can be read as a manifestation of the eternal conflict between the major studios, which primarily endorsed the culture’s value system,4 and the minors, which were better positioned to criticize it, and often did.
In addition to having many models from the major studios to emulate, AIP, while cultivating a renegade stance, was clearly affected by the attacks on its films by groups like the PTA and the FBI, which said that the company glorified criminality (Arkoff 65-69). In 1958, mainstream producer Jerry Wald, at an AIP-sponsored luncheon, denounced AIP films like Hot Rod Gang, saying such pictures “may make a few dollars today,” but “they will destroy us tomorrow.” Arkoff was stung by this attack but replied (surely ironically): “AIP’s monsters do not smoke, drink, or lust” (quoted in Doherty 158-159). This defense of his “monsters” notwithstanding, Arkoff did change the company’s roster (at least until the mid-1960s when it returned to its roots with works like Corman’s The Wild Angels and The Trip). By 1960, AIP was being reviewed not only in Variety (which emphasized marketability over aesthetics) but also in the New York Times. By 1963, Arkoff and Nicholson had now simultaneously positioned AIP to exploit the youth market that it had created and to gain a higher level of acceptance by showing a new breed of teen that could repudiate nagging cultural doubts.5
Global and Domestic Threats
We must ask ourselves what elements besides AIP’s own desire for respectability — and the higher profits inevitably allotted those who support rather than criticize the culture — helped change the bad teen into the good teen. First, American society itself had changed, by becoming more threatened globally and internally. It was more important in 1963 than in 1956 to show that young people were reliable and trustworthy in a world that was becoming increasingly less of either.
Global tension was higher than ever, due largely to the perceived threat of creeping communism. America reeled when Russia launched the first satellite in 1957. Senator Henry Jackson referred to the success of “Sputnik” as “a devastating blow to the prestige of the United States” (Goldman 308). Castro’s liberation of Cuba two years later was especially troubling because of that country’s proximity to America. By 1963, America was obsessed with nuclear war, “communists under every bed,” Khrushchev’s endlessly televised statement that “we will bury you!”, and suburban bomb shelters. In the face of these symbols of capitalism’s precarious hold, any refusal by the upcoming generation to accept its dictums and conform caused tremendous agitation and helped create an effective contrapuntal image — the breezy escapism of the beach.
Closer to home, the dream of 1950s suburban America was becoming a past and lost fantasy as the situation for the poor and disenfranchised, byproducts of failed capitalism, was growing particularly intolerable. The country could no longer afford to indulge its young people in fantasies of unpunished criminality, runaway sexuality, and cynical intellectualism.
Internal upheaval took many forms, not least of which was the emergence of a variety of antiestablishment groups. These included artists, jazz musicians, beatniks, and activist (sometimes expatriate, like Richard Wright) blacks, who viewed American bourgeois culture with disgust and were not afraid to say so. The teenagers of the 1950s who would get a better life from the hard work of their parents were also getting something that the parents could not have wanted for them — the kind of college education that forced many of them to recognize the injustices in American society, which eventually placed them side by side with disenfranchised blacks during the violent civil rights struggles.
Many of those “underclass,” nonintellectual whites who were unable to reap the benefits of a 1950s college education were nonetheless moving simultaneously toward an outsider stance through the liberating effects of rock and roll. Teenagers questioned the wisdom of parents and preachers who decried such music as unwholesome, even godless, and continued to buy rhythm and blues as well as rock and roll records in vast numbers. The nonconformist (willfully or not) groups — poor blacks, who contributed rhythm and blues, and poor whites, who contributed “hillbilly music” — lay beneath much of the adult hatred of this music. This mixture was reviled as a sort of musical miscegenation.
The fear and hatred of blacks in America, suggested by white adult reaction to the “black elements” of rock and roll, crystallized in the 1950s. Although the successful white middle class could exult in postwar affluence by moving to fresh new suburbs, the inner cities were abandoned to largely black populations migrating from the South in vast numbers. White suburbanization destroyed these inner cities. New freeways skewered downtowns, breaking up neighborhoods so that affluent whites, traveling to their city jobs, could get into and out of the city as quickly as possible (Miller and Nowak 201) without having to confront the grim effects of their rise on those who would not be accompanying them.
The schism between what was promised blacks through legislation and what was actually delivered began to wear on the culture, and was forcing it to retreat deeper into fantasy. The reality of burned houses and immense — ghettoes could be obliterated by the shared unconscious effort to present an alternative picture of America, to its own restless population and to the rest of the world. Just as 1950s science fiction, with their gross mutations of humans and animals, tried to submerge nuclear fears into fantasies that could be forgotten when the audience left the theater, so the beach films presented a detailed but vastly different tableau of the culture than what one could see in the dark, deteriorating major cities of 1950s America. The beach was America’s dream backyard — predictable, serene, and white.
The Beach as Backyard
The creation of a happy, positive image of the beach required a major transformation. The beach in postwar films looked quite different from the innocent expanse we saw in 1963. Prior to 1963, it was more likely to act as grim backdrop for film noir (Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal), low-budget horror (Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters), even nuclear destruction (Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach). The beach movies helped turn the beach into an exaggerated version of the suburban backyard, complete with “swimming pool” in the form of the Pacific Ocean. The beach of Beach Party could answer the culture’s need for a safe, satisfying environment in which its children could enjoy themselves while being kept under control.
This transformation also grew out of the burgeoning surf culture, a Hawaiian phenomenon imported to the United States decades earlier but flowering in the 1950s and 1960s. Surfers were young men (mostly) whose heartwarming quest for the “perfect wave” could be sold to young people, via print and visual media, as an acceptable alternative to the boredom evinced by violent, anti-social, maladjusted teenagers previously held up as icons (e.g., James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause). “Don’t play chicken — ride a wave!” was the message.
Romantic images of the safe thrills afforded by the beach (and of course the car used to get there) abounded in the visual and aural media of the time. Groups like the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Hondells, and many others built careers on the energetic and wistful images of cars, surfer girls, and “catching a wave.” Television followed suit with shows like Surfside Six and Hawaiian Eye — their omnipresent background: the beach. The success of Columbia’s Gidget inspired many films whose major star was not so much the actors who populated them as the endless gorgeous expanse of the beach itself, with all its leisure and romantic pleasures.
It is possible to isolate specific architects of this employment of an environment as a tonic to unacceptable social and cultural trends. Dick Clark, for example, used his show American Bandstand to pioneer the image of the clean teen (Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon) whose flowered shirt and white deck pants seemed especially appropriate to the beach. However, it is important to recognize that people like Clark, while personally benefiting from the popularity of the beach as a highly marketable symbol of American achievement, were responding to cultural needs, particularly the need to provide middle-class children with a fantastic open environment that was nonetheless contained (almost self-contained) and restricted. Like another cultural artifact of the late ’50s/early ’60s, the car, the beach’s access was restricted to those with the proper admission ticket — suburban, white skin. (One might suppose the beach, being an “open space” would be portrayed as egalitarian, particularly in light of United States supremacy after World War II, but the kids idealized in beach music and movies are unmistakably a product of the increasingly affluent white middle class.) Like the backyards of suburbia, the beach became a by-product of consumer capitalism — a gift from parent to child as a reward for conformity.
Consequently, the beach movies could hardly help being reactionary, as they presented AIP’s now sugarcoated vision of the coming generation, to assure mainstream society that, in spite of mild personal eccentricities like surfing or falling in love with mermaids (Beach Blanket Bingo), young people were ultimately predictable and trustworthy and would fall in line. The major conflict in these films is between DeeDee’s (Annette Funicello) middle-class values (yearning to get married) and Franky’s (Frankie Avalon) wanderlust, expressed as an inability to commit himself when tempted by “the Big Wave.” The films thus exist far from the headlines of the day, in a never-never land of white leisure-class youth, reaping the postwar profits of their parents’ hard work and studious conformity to enjoy the pure sensations of innocent irresponsibility (however brief) and sanitized romance. Blacks do not exist in the world of the films, with the exception of the traditionally acceptable role of guest star: Stevie Wonder in Bikini Beach. You’d never dream there was a massive civil rights struggle occurring in the culture at large. And isn’t that the point of the films? The offscreen space, the world beyond the beach, is a terrifying reality that must not be allowed to intrude.
Issues of race, sex, and drugs were equally missing from the beach, though, curiously, the original Beach Party script by Lou Rusoff (a Corman standby) featured both sex and drugs. William Asher jettisoned this idea through successful arguments to AIP. He wanted to make a film that would feature “kids not in trouble,” (McGee 196), an unimaginable strategy for AIP. The company’s go-ahead would continue what they had started with the Poe films, that is, reach an increasingly wider audience and earn that ever elusive respectability. Asher convinced them to offer America a definitive version — in accessible movie form — of the beach ethos that was gaining currency on television and in pop music. Asher’s conformist thrust is obvious from his use of an assortment of rather dowdy Hollywood icons — Buster Keaton, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff — as comic chaperones. They fit well into Asher’s worldview: the “good clean kids” in this Hollywood movie would be watched over, blessed, by the “ghosts” of Hollywood’s mainstream past, further legitimizing the project. Asher’s contribution was simply his ability to successfully deliver a “product” that reflected cultural needs.
Echoes of the Musical
The final, major source for these films is the Hollywood musical. Indeed, as disposable as most of the music in the beach movies is, these are unquestionably, among other things, generic musicals, more specifically, vehicles in the old Hollywood style, intended to introduce new talent to audience or to showcase a known quantity. Some of the music derives from the “singing-from-life” style perhaps most fully realized in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. Most of the music, however, is simply low-grade 1960s pop, inserted almost randomly to keep up the films’ frantic pace.
A cross-comparison might be Elvis Presley’s equally clean-minded post-military films. Like the AIP teens, Elvis moved from a 1950s juvenile delinquent persona (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole) to a 1960s middle-class fantasy-object cleansed of deviant impulses. His later films are flat, flimsy vehicles that show the star in a variety of exotic settings (often beaches), chased by sexually demanding females whom he rejects in favor of innocent fun with his male friends. The beach movies feature similar reassuring characters who express their vitality safely — through music.
At the same time, the formal aspects of the films imply a far-from-reassuring world in their chaotic, fantasy-based,6 unpredictable visual style. Again, the Hollywood musical is the source of much of the “chaos” created by the introduction of fantasy elements that might seem intrusive in a realistic narrative — mermaids, Martians, flying bikinis, and witch doctors. In the musical, such things are permissible, even encouraged. We accept them just as we accept the hyper-reality of Fred Astaire walking up a wall and across a ceiling. The power of the world portrayed in the musical is such that classic linear narrative would only get in the way — Astaire cannot be bound by spatial limitations. The beach movies too defy such limits, though this defiance is not derived, as in the Astaire film, from the power of a single personality in the “liberated” world of the musical. Instead, it comes from the exuberance of the ensemble, the lust for life (consumption) they exhibit, that permits the filmmakers to constantly rupture the narrative, whether by using fantasy motifs, showing characters directly addressing the camera, or using slow-motion and speeded-up camerawork. We might add that the film’s playful-to-destructive attitude toward the narrative unwittingly looks forward to major American works of the deconstructed ’60s and ’70s, in which classical narrative is heavily skewed (Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, Boorman’s Point Blank, Aldrich’s Legend of Lylah Clare).
We’ve argued that the beach movies are in part a repudiation of troubling social phenomena and AIP’s own “trashy” history, a bid for wider cultural acceptance, with Arkoff and Nicholson taking advantage of the success of “good, clean kids” — teen idols like Frankie Avalon who represented a rejection of rebellion. But we must ask, do the films themselves support this view? Are the kids really all that clean?
Richard Staehling has aptly summarized the sexuality of the films: “The super up-tight sexual overtones remained — never outside Playboy has such sick plastic sex been seen — with the chicks all looking like centerfolds from Nugget or Escapade and the fellows all straight out of the Hardy boys” (237). Indeed, the films are remarkable for how little sex seems to occur in a group of clearly hormonally driven teens. DeeDee wears elaborate outfits (while the rest of the girls wear bikinis). She refuses to yield sexually to Franky unless he forsakes the surf and agrees to marry her. She is in fact the films’ chief morality watchdog, suppressing not only her own and Franky’s natural impulses but those of the entire group. In Beach Party, she secretly invites their entire peer group for the summer in order to avoid Franky’s troubling advances, constantly hanging blankets to segregate the sexes.7 In Beach Blanket Bingo, Bonehead falls in love with a mermaid, and, given the repressive ambience established in the film, we don’t question the technical difficulties posed by the two of them having sex. In the insular world of Beach Blanket Bingo, sex represents a form of rebellion that must be squelched.
On the other hand, although avoiding sexual imagery per se, the films are rife with verbal and physical innuendo. Recurring character “Candy” (Candy Johnson) has such intense sex appeal that when she shakes her hips, men go flying through the air. Leering actors like Morey Amsterdam, Don Rickles, and Buddy Hackett bring their own smirking attitudes with them, and there are innumerable scenes where the “kids” suggestively feed each other hot dogs, spill Coke on each other’s crotches, and lovingly strap each other in and out of parachutes. In Muscle Beach Party, “the Countess”8 is warned that her helicopter is moving too close to the beach and may cut off some bodybuilders’ heads. She replies, “I’m not interested in their heads” — a statement we can well believe when we see her drooling over these men, dressed in tight bikini briefs, with the camera (her eyes) lingering on their crotches. The movies veer between this kind of snickering sexuality and florid sentimentality (Bonehead’s bittersweet romance with the mermaid, von Zipper’s obsession with Sugar Kane). Obsessive love is treated mostly as low comedy.
Looking at the traditional messages the films are sending via the script (premarital sex is bad, fidelity — “One Boy” — is all important, and the cynical capitalist ultimate: everything we have we deserve), it’s surprising how chaotic the films actually look on the screen. Deriving from so many sources and influenced formally by America’s social decline, they are a patchwork quilt of motifs and formal strategies, alternately distanced and in-your-face, heavy with subplots and random songs, cartoon characterizations, slow-motion and speeded-up visual effects, and even blatant audience acknowledgements, all of which show that structurally the films are practically anarchic. Characters often mug ruthlessly, speak directly to the camera, burst into song with no provocation. In Beach Blanket Bingo, after saving Sugar Kane from the crazed Timothy Carey’s buzz-saw, Franky complains directly to the audience via the camera: “I do all the work, and he gets all the credit!” Characterizations are so unimportant that many of the actors are simply called by their real names, as if the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to think up different ones: Frankie Avalon is “Franky,” John Ashley is “Johnny”; even a guest star like Eva Six is barely altered to “Ava.”
Some of the humor is topical satire (Harvey Lembeck’s Brando send-up, Franky’s Beatles satire in Bikini Beach, “Potato Bug”), some is idiotic by any standard (cartoon cupids appear onscreen to indicate love). Chase scenes (usually the climax of the films) are shown at speeded-up tempo, giving the effect of looking at a silent film — puzzling indeed considering the films’ target audience.9
The beach movies are also rife with stock footage that the f’ilmmakers have made no attempt to match to the rest of the film stock. We see the same grainy shots of surfing teens and huge crashing waves throughout the series. The formal aspects of the film are as “free,” as unpredictable, as the teenagers. Nonlinearity is the order of the day as subplots arise from nowhere and disappear quickly. Fantasy and horror elements appear and disappear (Pajama Party’s Martian teenager, Buster Keaton’s alcoholic witch doctor). Other AIP films, including the Poe series, are blatantly plugged (Vincent Price appears at the end of the Beach Party, talking about a pendulum). Conflicts, particularly between Erich Von Zipper and the “kids,” seem virtually disengaged, and the obligatory fight scenes are endlessly undermined by comic interludes, such as the recurring device of Von Zipper going into a trance. (In the world of the beach, there are no authentic conflicts. Even Von Zipper, the kids’ alleged enemy, does himself in before he harms anybody.) In Beach Blanket Bingo, the director repeats a shot of a woman punching a man at least ten times, making the film look more like something by Stan Brakhage, exploring the free physical possibilities of film, than a traditional teenage musical. In spite of the scripts’ middle-class moralizing, then, the films thus practically deconstruct (or self-destruct) before the viewer’s eyes, as all elements are geared to reproducing the carefree dancing, singing, surfing, sky diving and drag racing presumed to comprise American beach culture in the early ’60s and an important image to sell not only to the rest of the country but to the world. The validity of traditional romantic moments, evening strolls on the beach, is challenged by the frenzied activities that surround them. Characterization, plot consistencies, verisimilitude — all are ultimately irrelevant to the ambience of ravenous consumption and mindless thrills that the films create.
A review of the series shows inordinate attention paid both to the tribal aspects of these beach habitues and the threat against the “tribe” by developers and marketing men bent on destroying their scene. The group’s tribal nature is mockingly shown from the outset in Beach Party when an anthropologist played by Robert Cummings sets up an observation point to study “teenage courtship rituals,” comparing them to those of whooping cranes. Of course, in spite of the satirical viewpoint, they are a tribe. Their casual interplay reveals a tight-knit, insular group with its own customs, acting throughout the film as a single intelligence — dancing, surfing and singing together, and resolving conflicts with no hint of blood or lasting enmity. Though the group seems marginally more fragile in some films (Muscle Beach Party) than others, it does have an overall air of evanescence, even extinction. The beach seems to be providing the setting not for an endless party but for a last desperate party before the horrors of the real world engulf it. The box-office failure of the series’ last entries, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, shows the beach was indeed engulfed, its desperation clear immediately from the use of ancient former stars like Boris Karloff, Francis X. Bushman, and Patsy Kelly. Several of the films show exploitative adults moving in on the beach (Keenan Wynn’s nasty land developer in Bikini Beach) or on the kids themselves. The films particularly target advertising/marketing men who scour the beach in search of an exploitable “Boy and Girl Next Door” (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini) or who use the wide-eyed beachniks as decorative fodder for ad campaigns (Beach Blanket Bingo). The kids, of course, ridicule and resist these characters, even as they participate in their schemes. In Beach Blanket Bingo, Bonehead and Franky both date the prepackaged singer Sugar Kane, even as they rail against her Machiavellian manager, Bullets (Paul Lynde). The presence of these exploitative adults (played again by familiar members of Hollywood’s doddering Old Guard: Brian Donlevy, Keenan Wynn, Mickey Rooney) implies an attack on the very values — exploitation, marketing, consumerism — that underlie the films, though the attack is not realistic or credible. Like the sexuality of the kids, these men are essentially harmless, most of them simply registering disgust or amusement at what they snickeringly portray as the “wild” behavior of the kids. Their plans for developing the beach or even staking out a separate place in it (Don Rickles’ bodybuilders in Muscle Beach Party) eventually fade in the face of this frantic “beach party.”
Of course, these exploitative adults can also be viewed as doubles for the producers of the films themselves because both are attempting to perform exactly the same function with regard to these simple-minded, fun-loving teens: taking their last dollar.
Though the films, with their bizarre formal strategies, are about as self-reflexive as they come, they are not as high in self-awareness, and it may be arguing too much to say that AIP was capable of (or, more accurately, interested in) any serious self-criticism. Again, the garish, mindless fun of the beach — bodybuilders, bikers, and Beatniks — dominates.10 In spite of their reactionary aspects, their dogged escapism, and look-but-don’t touch ambience, the beach movies marked an historic moment (1963-1966) in American cultural history. Squeezed between the postwar disillusionment of the Beatniks (a group that the films repeatedly ridicule) and the social and political activism of the ’60s, the movies represent a major postwar attempt by the culture to use films to deny its own problems. By 1965, the social phenomena of race riots, the Vietnam War, and widespread use of drugs would do what the land developers and advertising men could not: crush the fragile world of the beach and its temporary inhabitants. These events were so real that the “beach party” couldn’t — and didn’t — survive them.
Arkoff, Sam. Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants. New York: Birch Lane, 1992.
Bourget, Jean-Loup. “Sirk and the Critics,” Bright Lights Film Journal Winter (1977-78): 6-10+.
Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
Goldman, Eric. The Crucial Decade and After – America from 1945 to 1960. New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
McGee, Mark Thomas. Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1984.
Miller, Douglas and Marion Nowak. The Fifties. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
Staehling, Richard. “The Truth about Teen Movies,” in Kings of the Bs. New York: Dutton, 1975: 220-51.
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Note: Images appear courtesy of Photofest.
- The films are Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, 1966), all by William Asher except Pajama Party and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, directed by Don Weis. Other companies released Beach movies, but this is the core group. [↩]
- Rickles was not exactly off-base. None of the principals were authentic teenagers. Frankie Avalon, for example, was 26 when Beach Blanket Bingo was shot, and married with children. [↩]
- Teenagers were also the films’ target audience. AIP is often credited with recognizing the importance (buying power) of this group, whose tastes dominated American studio filmmaking from that point on and continue, in large measure, to do so today. [↩]
- We will not deal here with the many ’50s auteurs whose work for major studios was critical of the culture. These (mostly) men — Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Robert Aldrich — usually placed their criticisms safely below the surface. Sirk is a prime example. His films can be read both as conformist women’s pictures parading every feature of capitalist success (Lana Turner’s jewelry and clothes in >Imitation of Life), and as irony-drenched critiques of the same consumer-capitalist culture (Turner is a completely unsympathetic character). Rarely could these directors attack American culture with the nihilistic gusto of “outsider” low-budget auteurs like Roger Corman, though there are exceptions like Aldrich. [↩]
- Annette was still under contract to Walt Disney in 1963 and Disney’s lawyers threatened to sue AIP if their now voluptuous star appeared in Beach Party in a bikini (Arkoff 127-28). AIP capitulated — an unimaginable act for the company prior to this, before the stakes were raised. Annette would not only not wear a bikini in the film, she would spend most of her screen time repressing the sexuality of the other kids, an odd angle indeed for the once exuberantly permissive and exploitative AIP. [↩]
- William Asher stated flatly, “These films are fantasies” (McGee 195). [↩]
- This suppression also appears to take its toll on DeeDee. A typical male-female exchange reveals a surprising tension and cruelty in a supposedly sweet, wholesome character. In Beach Blanket Bingo, DeeDee says to Bonehead, “You remind me of the ocean, ” to which the dimwitted surfer replies, “You mean because ah’m so deep?” DeeDee acidly replies, “No, because you make me sick.” This harsh “comic” statement can perhaps be traced to the culture’s purposeful thwarting of the female’s sexuality. [↩]
- Most of the characters are types — “the Countess,” “Bonehead,” “Candy,” “Big Drop” — rather than unique, credible individuals with actual names. Because they are mainly symbolic creations, acting as objects of cultural propaganda, they do not need (or want) realistic names or rounded, realistic personalities. [↩]
- The presence of actors associated mainly with silents, early talkies, or certainly with another era — Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Elsa Lanchester — furthers the view of these films as objects of reassurance for worried adults and subverts the idea that they were directed solely at teenagers. What teenager in 1963 would have been interested in Buster Keaton, or even know who he was? [↩]
- A 1987 attempt to update the series, Back to the Beach, gives the curious effect of looking into a kind of cinematic retirement home, with the exhaustion of now-parents Annette and Franky, forced in the earlier films to carry a social burden they could hardly sustain, quite evident. The mindless fun is still there but only in pastiche. The twisting teens have become tired, fretting, middle-class drudges — their parents. [↩]