. . . or how the first surf films helped American men get over the war and change their act
* * *
In the 1950s and early ’60s, a small, almost exclusively masculine community of briny fanatics suddenly discovered surfing and, in the process, helped turn an elegant, age-old islands tradition into a pop culture craze. Aside from the waves, one thing that brought these cats together was the occasional showing of rough-cut 16mm “surf movies” most people today have never heard of. In hindsight it’s clear that, celebrating the stoke in Elks Halls or rented auditoriums, those grainy sequences of young guys on hot Hawaiian breakers were kickstarting the larger surf boom that would soon fill every transistor with the Beach Boys and every theater with Beach Party.
But what if that lightweight summer entertainment and the fad it helped set off were doing much heavier cultural lifting at exactly the same time? The following will look beyond the familiar story of kids having a blast on the beach of the emerging modern youth culture to examine ways those early images of surfing also spoke to their parents, and particularly to the dads. After the first surfing movie in 1953, hardcore audiences quickly grew to include non-surfers who, even when they didn’t go on to dare the waves themselves, spread the word virally. Many, perhaps most, of these largely male crowds were WWII vets. They went looking for a fun night out. I think they found more than that, nothing less, in fact, than an unwittingly pertinent examination of the American male under certain extraordinary cultural and social pressures at a crucial moment in the nation’s history.
Around 1960 one of those vets, my father, took me to a little Southern California beach town to see a surfing movie. To a ten-year-old, the beefy stud who ran the show was already impressive, even if I didn’t then know Greg Noll was the first surfer ever to take on the giant waves of Waimea Bay. I remember smoke floating in the bar of projected light and the whoops as the guys in the movie somehow kept their feet clattering down enormous walls of water. And on schedule a few years later I joined legions of other California kids listening to Jan and Dean as I hauled my used $75 board to the beach. What surfing represented to us young baby boomers is pretty classic stuff. What interests me more today is what drew a non-surfing 37-year-old vet with two kids and a mortgage to some random auditorium in Hermosa Beach to see Search for Surf.
Like the countless guys jamming the dozens of other surfing films on the beach circuit in the 1950s and early ’60s, he was certainly curious about the lightweight derring-do of the marginal, largely male surfing culture then dawning. Beneath that surface novelty, though, I wonder if he wasn’t also drawn to the same film’s implicit address of the infinitely heavier issue of what it meant to be an American man at mid-century. Look closely at the early surfing movies – as well as the mainstream surf craze they helped create – and you’ll see that their significant subconscious appeal was nothing less than the ways they helped a battered nation lick its war wounds. And for the raucous groups of guys who turned up, the surf film added a hefty bonus, the subliminal message that the postwar period just might offer new ways to go about being a man.
* * *
To understand what those surf movies were, think The Endless Summer, the 1966 shoestring travelogue that blindsided public and critics, and whose poster is still an icon. Yet while Bruce Brown’s film was a sleeper, it was no one-off. Well before Brown’s two Californians charmed mainstream audiences with their easygoing global pursuit of summer, he was only one of a cohort of surfer filmmakers bringing the zinc-oxide crowd together around similar collections of enthusiastic if often unprofessional surf footage. Brown learned, in fact, from another Californian, the equally alliterative Bud Browne, who knocked together the cinematic formula his younger friend and rival would perfect so winningly. Before the 1950s, surfing had appeared in occasional newsreels, in a couple of cartoons, and as exotic background in a handful of Hollywood features. Browne showed the first true surf film in the fall of 1953 when he filled a Santa Monica school hall by posting handbills advertising, essentially, his home movies of friends surfing in Hawaii.
That evening for 65 cents several hundred viewers went nuts for a self-shot, self-edited hour-plus of screaming wave action cut by occasional bits of cornpone comedy, with Browne himself running the projector, start-stopping snatches of recorded music, and improvising a live narration. In 1966, Bruce Brown’s up-market 35mm print would send his surfers farther afield for more than the then-standard mix of Hawaiian and Californian waves. Yet, while the landlubbers made a big fuss, surfers themselves recognized The Endless Summer as just another in a familiar, beloved line of low-tech stoke fests.
Bud would soon be joined by Bruce and by others like Greg Noll, John Severson, Walt Phillips, and Grant Rohloff. Before these guys set up their own tripods, they were all top California surfers who inevitably moved to or at least spent most of their time in Hawaii. They weren’t alone. In the 1950s, a building Hawaiian buzz suddenly made Oahu a necessity for Californians with serious surf chops. From Honolulu they inevitably headed up to the island’s rural North Shore. There, it was soon clear, were seven miles of absurdly concentrated high-quality surf breaks. When the winter swells kick up, they produce some of the most consistent and challenging waves on the planet. Even non-surfers have heard of the Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay, but stacked up between are dozens of lesser-known marvels as well.
Soon two or three dozen haole mainlanders essentially ruled the Shore, outnumbering the small handful of native Hawaiians on the scene and a few earlier arrivals-gone-local. In the 1950s, their surfboards were no longer the stately koa behemoths of Hawaiian kings, but also nothing like today’s toy trick machines. It’s amazing how these early surfers could draw such clean lines on overhead waves with their single-fin battleships and even more how they managed the winter thirty-footers. “Go big or go home” is classic surf bravado. The latter was no option for guys like Pat Curren or Fred Van Dyke or Peter Cole. Charging each huge storm swell, they’d be among the half-dozen little figures fighting their way through apocalyptic impact zones, taking grisly drops, and when bad came to much worse diving clear of 10-foot, 40-pound boards flipped like toothpicks. When that happened, there were no surfboard leashes or jet-skis to pick up the pieces.
We owe the still gripping record of all this to the remarkable series of movies made in the ’50s and early ’60s by the surfer filmmakers above and a few others. Whether Browne’s Cavalcade of Surf or Severson’s The Angry Sea or Phillips’s Once Upon a Wave, the formula varied little in its dedication to firing up a rowdy troop of sunburned males. The bulk of each movie was bitchen rides strung together in three or four-minute sections from the major breaks. Every quarter-hour would bring lame comic relief sight gags or goof-off bits like mud sliding. A wipeout compilation dependably set the room on fire, and the inevitable white-knuckle conclusion featured the winter’s hairiest North Shore monsters. Then a warm “Thank you for watching” and, bingo, back out into the balmy evening.
Before color TV and surf magazines, the almost exclusively male crowds went wild for the only available images of guys and places that – overnight, it seemed – were taking on mythic stature. By 1963 and “Surfin’ USA,” the Beach Boys could make a hit single by grafting a list of surf spots to a Chuck Berry tune. This was only possible because the early surf movies brought the news of Sunset and Doheny and identified the stars who first shone there. The deeply intertwined reasons the surf wave suddenly swept through popular culture include the Baby Boom, new foam technology, and the Southern California defence industry filling suburbs with car-mobile middle-class kids. To get to the Ventures and a mainstream surf romance like 1959’s Gidget, though, surfing also needed a media entry point. The films furnished images, attitude, and lingo for the faithful but also, indirectly, for the dry masses that far outnumbered them. By the early ’60s, Kansans bleached their hair, and kids who’d never touched a board argued about skegs and Mike Doyle and Waimea in the hall outside their lockers.
The dozens of unassuming surf community films made in the decade and a half from Bud Browne’s debut through Bruce Brown’s crossover success in The Endless Summer were central to a then-emerging surf culture, tangentially significant in the wider 1960s youth revolt, and deep background for today’s alternative culture of edgy “extreme” sports. Not bad for some breezy niche entertainment with an August 31 shelf life, but there’s more. The dudes who howled at casual beach town projections of Barefoot Adventure and Cat on a Hot Foam Board came to check out the best surf breaks and the sport’s first stars. In their Pendletons they weren’t consciously aware that what may even more have drawn them in was a chance to come to terms symbolically with a troubled personal and national past, while simultaneously trying out a future offering tantalizing new modes of male behavior. I would argue that, more than just a hoot, the first surf films functioned as a symbolic attempt to heal the collective – and largely male – trauma of more than a decade of crushing economic depression and war. At the same time, they served as an underground debate on the future of an American masculinity abruptly losing ground in the postwar years to the office cubicle, the little woman, and the demanding suburban lawn.
Healing the Body, Refighting the War
For a hero, the American Man at mid-century was in a sorry state. Having won what few refused to call a Good War, he was kissed in liberated Paris and Times Square, accorded fulsome speeches, the G.I. Bill, and a booming economy. In the soft glow of moral certitude and nostalgia, he and his buddies became the Greatest Generation. But look closer and there’s daylight between a traditional myth of hegemonic masculinity and the hard truths of a generation of American men already diminished by the Depression and scarred by horrendous global conflict.
The age-old cultural fiction of male autonomy and dominance enfolds values like steady decisiveness, self-reliance, stoicism, and courage under fire. For Depression-era men and the boys who sought models in their behavior, though, even the bare patriarchal minimum of breadwinning came hard, with unemployment shuffling out beyond 25% and more than one family in three on federal relief. While the run-up to war reasserted a certain collective virility, the male body had gone the way of the paycheck: more than a third of all draftees were found to be, not unlike their own infirm Commander-in-Chief, physically unfit for basic service. The U.S. war machine artfully countered Axis propaganda of corporal perfection with its own images of bulging biceps and a badass Uncle Sam. But the dream of invulnerability proffered by Superman, who had flown to the rescue in 1938, was not to be. During World War II, one in ten servicemen died, was wounded in combat, or endured serious disease, and it’s estimated that one in twenty later suffered from the “combat neurosis” we now identify as post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s no accident that in one of the most emblematic novels of the 1950s, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit suffers from debilitating combat flashbacks
Eminent works by cultural historians like Christina Jarvis and Barbara Ehrenreich have looked seriously into questions of gender and patriarchy at mid-century. Amongst these, Patricia Vettel-Becker’s Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America distinguishes itself by its pertinent analysis of the interface between media representation and the postwar American masculine slump. According to Vettel-Becker, wartime offered a temporary restoration of the Depression-battered traditional ideology of male mastery. Once home, though, out of the platoon’s bear hug and the uniform’s stiff creases, vets found themselves abruptly alone with the emasculating effects of collective and individual war trauma. Hitting hard after the slower erosions of economic depression, this condition was far from eased by the realization that without men, women had successfully kept the strategic industries running and home fires burning. In a different way, the same applied to vets of the conflict that followed in short order, the Korean War. Vettel-Becker looks at how photography as profession and hobby helped reconfigure a traditionally patriarchal masculine image and self-image threatened by these pressures. At first for the small coastal population and later when that advance guard led surfing’s invasion of the general culture, the same can be said of the surf film. For all their playful insouciance, those early movies subtly rewrote a traditional masculine script tattered by Depression and war.
As the 1950s progressed, weekend surf movie nights along the West (and soon the East) Coast brought together increasingly larger male audiences. Certainly, they came for the vicarious thrills of a picturesque new sport and plain curiosity about what even dumb-it-down Hollywood would recognize by 1959 as an attractive subculture. But beneath this vibrant surface, that experience was subliminally communicating another, more profoundly life-affirming message to audiences liberally sprinkled with vets worn down first by economic decline, then four years of combat. One of the surf film’s submerged appeals certainly lay in its role as an extremely upbeat retelling of a wounded generation’s recent collective history.
Look at a typical example, navy vet Bruce Brown’s sweetly amateurish first film Slippery When Wet (1958). In the opening scenes, a young man empties a mailbox, an innocuous act that nevertheless once held a certain underlying drama. Here, though, it contains no draft notice but rather a collection of Hawaiian photos that play a remarkably similar role: essentially ordering post-adolescent American males to enlist in a newly organized expeditionary corps and head out overnight to a faraway Pacific archipelago. For 72 minutes, what follows is a tale of optimistic, energetic, physically whole young men taking on North Shore surfing challenges capping an experience that, while excitingly exotic, was on other levels extremely familiar to the film’s viewers: the guys ship off together overseas, wear the same uniform, live off the land in small male squads, play hard in their downtime, and the driving purpose of all this is to do battle each day with a dangerous enemy that, wave after wave, keeps on coming. Only this time the uniform is trunks not fatigues, and the story one of abundantly healthy bodies, wide grins, and joyfully mastered fear.
The surf culture kickstarted by Slippery When Wet and the other early movies is generally associated with the baby boom generation, to whom it offered scantily clad liberty and an attractively alternate tribal attitude and language. Introducing surfing to many of their elders, the surf movie communicated with them in a different code through its implicit rewriting of recent traumatic history. In simplest form, this occurred through the recurrent celebration of healthy bands of brothers happily enacting a playfully distorted reflection of the GI. experience. In more precise ways, it also took place through these same films’ expressive evocations of certain particularly iconic World War II memories and images.
Propagated by the government-powered media machine, four such signal instants or visual representations stood out with particular vividness for the American wartime population, as they have for later generations: the crackly urgency of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” radio address, jerky footage of predatory Japanese fighters flying low over Pearl Harbor, the flag-raising at Iwo Jima (staged, we now know), and Robert Capa’s famous Life photos of the June 6, 1944 Normandy landing. Starting with the films that helped launch it, surf culture spoke in indirect, pertinently healing ways to these by turns painfully and proudly remembered words and visual images.
The first three – Roosevelt’s broadcast, the Pearl Harbor attack, Iwo Jima – directly concern the Japanese invasion of Hawaii and the subsequent grueling and eventually triumphant U.S. response. Starting less than a decade after the war’s conclusion, alongside the thrills and fun, the surf movie nights Browne set into motion repeatedly included a subliminal message of healing addressing exactly this aspect of the war. For with their recurrent portrayal of energetic young Californians shipping out to Honolulu to set up frontier surf camps, what were the films enacting if not a symbolic American counter-assault of the islands? This time originating not in war-hungry Japan but in the peaceful U.S. mainland, the image of waves of Californians invading Oahu to plant their surf flag recalls – while emblematically reversing – the still vivid shock and ordeal of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific war, as well as, perhaps, more recent Asian hostilities in Korea.
In a postwar political climate re-activating on a global scale the Manifest Destiny myth, certain film details suggest that these barefoot surf invaders saw themselves only taking what was properly theirs. First, the casting. With the exception of Bud Browne’s first film or two, which largely feature cheerful Waikiki beachboys, Californians vastly outnumber native Hawaiians on-screen. One underlying message of the latter’s near inexistence within the frame is that the prime surf breaks belong to the mainlanders who “discovered” them, a verb all over narration from the early films. Since the 1769 day the botanist on Captain Cook’s first circumnavigation spied Tahitian waveriders, the colonialist model has had an uncomfortable association with surfing. In the early films’ treatment of the North Shore invasion, the land grab of “discovering” the best breaks receives symbolic reinforcement from the blithely proprietary act of naming them. Filmmaker Browne personally dubbed at least one spot, just as Bruce Brown proudly made a public point of doing on camera with the famous Pipeline and with the hollow reef break to its east he called Velzyland. In its homage to Dale Velzy, the OC surfboard-shaper who bankrolled the film, and its playful riff on the then-fresh Disneyland buzz, the latter in particular suggests the degree to which Oahu represented to these surfing pioneers a playground extension of Southern California.
Such symbolic flag-raising would be officialized in 1959 with Hawaiian statehood. That very year Bruce Brown flaunts the fact in a revealing sequence from Surf Crazy. A bouncy reference to “our newest state” segues directly into the image of a sad sack fisherman of clearly Japanese origin, his better days long past. Significantly, the film then abruptly cuts to a stretch of sand comically presented as “Cape Canaveral,” site that year of the first test-launching of the intercontinental ballistic missile. As it jauntily plays into a running gag in the film, the reference tosses an offhand but conspicuously confident nod at America’s resurgent power in a post-Hiroshima Cold War world.
That political and military dominance would not have come about in the precise manner it did without the successful issue of the war and in particular the immense and symbolically vital sacrifice of the Allied Forces at Normandy. The fourth in the above list of iconic war moments, Robert Capa’s legendary Omaha Beach series captures with blurry authenticity the determination and desperate terror of young men splashing ashore to withering machine gun and mortar fire. On Omaha alone, roughly half of the nearly 4,000 Allied casualties that day were American. The images published two weeks later in Life came quickly to represent both the chaotic horror of war and the individual cost paid for its victory. Significantly, Capa’s framing places all eleven of the famous shots in the surfline, where overloaded GIs wade frantically or dive for cover amidst the debris of shore fortifications. The parallel is particularly striking between these painful images that would mark a generation and those of the surfing film to which representatives of that same generation soon turned for carefree entertainment and emotional release.
In the light-hearted two-reelers of Severson, Browne, and company, Capa’s offered terms of a grim splash forward through the killing zone morph into the endlessly repeated figure of joyful young men sprinting in exactly the opposite direction out through the soup, then riding playfully back with astonishing degrees of grace and courage. Healthy and intact, they again symbolically reverse recent history, offering a subliminally healing visual pattern that helps in some sense explain the submerged attractions of a leisure activity that would burst into full view in the 1960s surf boom. The first surfing films made Gidget possible and then the endless declensions of the Beach Party flicks, in the process helping turn the beachspace into a theater not of war but of endless summer frolicking. Surfing spoke to the kids but, again, in implicit visual language, to certain striking memories and retinal afterimages of their parents’ wartime generation.
Part of the emotional wallop of Capa’s scramble-shot (and later famously mishandled) images is the way they read visually as near negatives. Shot from directly behind, one of the most striking frames a dozen burdened infantrymen just off the landing craft laboring frantically forward. While the photo’s V composition suggests an opening toward possibility, even a victorious outcome, the shot in fact draws the eye forward toward an oppressively blurry non-horizon. Opening in order to close perspectives, Capa forces attention to the tarry forms of soldiers who, faceless, embody a frustrating contest between life-or-death urgency and the dark overload each is carrying. This is a picture essentially without light, its off grays and blacks a visual correlative for the focus and fear of these young men and of the age. Even if the action in retrospect reads as having changed the world, the issue of the war was not certain at this point, and the immediate effect is one of darkly claustrophobic subjectivity where the future of these unindividualized struggling forms contracts to each dimly perceived next step.
Surf films were shot by similarly embedded filmmakers who, like the hypermasculine Capa, made a virtue of plunging into the action alongside the troops. Extravagantly transmuting his material, however, they send young men joyfully the other way out into the surf and recast the somber essentials of Capa’s grimily convincing black-and-white prints in warm tans, blinding whitewater, and fifty shades of islands blue. Next to Capa’s shots, it’s hard to imagine a more “positive” image than that communicated by the upbeat energy and luminescent color range of a film like Bud Browne’s Gun Ho! (1963). With the combat photographer’s work in mind, look at the spectacularly registered stoke of its emblematic poster. Boards feather light under their arms, four exuberantly happy young men sprint right to left – the opposite direction of Capa’s familiar sloggers – toward a surfline represented by a supersized barrel that, transposed on the image, in turn breaks behind and over them. The shot is everything Capa’s image is not: irrepressible energy, buoyant lightness, a dynamic yet comforting circularity of composition. The hungry, delighted eyes of the quartet are all drawn to the left off-frame, to an unnamed future eye-filling in its limitless possibility. At the center of the image, an outstretched arm and finger make the point that whatever’s out there is well worth the run.
With its visual patterning, the image recalls and reworks the most iconic photo series from the European theater. Significantly, at the same time it turns east to awaken wartime memory from the Pacific. These guys are like Capa’s grunts but also those at Iwo Jima, in that they are uniformed and heavily armed. Only in this case standard issue is trunks and “guns,” surfing slang for the XL surfboards needed to paddle into and remain stable on the biggest waves. A water skills instructor during WWII, Browne makes the Pacific war parallel clear with his film’s punning title. Roughly drawn from the Chinese, the expression “gung ho” dates from its motivational use early in the war by the commander of an unconventional Marine elite unit. When the Hollywood production Gung Ho! hit American screens in 1943, the sanguinary patriotism of its focus on a ragtag band of draftees storming a Japanese-held island drew a bead on the war years zeitgeist. Exactly two decades later Gun Ho! would speak with equal pertinence to an America completing its recovery from that war. One generation’s desperate urgency with everything on the line becomes for the next a jubilant sprint toward unlimited possibility.
Return to the Future
Creating a sandy space for baby boom kicks, the early surf films also reconfigured the wartime experience of a generation, sometimes with Gun Ho! explicitness but more often with via subliminal suggestion. At the same time – and this had to add to their submerged appeal – they quietly but insistently look ahead to a set of new pressures then closing in on the American man. To understand what that guy faced, the go-to text is Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic The Hearts of Men: The Flight from Commitment. The war took its toll, Ehrenreich recognizes, but in different ways so did the post-war ‘50s. According to her convincing analysis, the world vets returned to presented a pair of perplexing new challenges to time-honored standards of male behavior and social positioning. Of course, the game was fixed so men still benefitted from traditional gender-based advantages, but home was now likely to mean a partner somewhat different from the little lady of earlier generations. She who had possibly stepped up to earn a paycheck in the wartime economy might now be exploring her own career options or, if still at home, be perilously close to calling the shots within the gilded, obsessively dusted suburban cage. Meanwhile at work, novel white-collar corporate structures and expectations were falling into place, creating a new class of company men carefully molded for Windsor-knot docility. For many men this less than brave new post-War world came to mean the pipe and the lawnmower, the cardigan and the Brooks Brothers suit.
American culture has traditionally sold men on a vigorous dream of patriarchal privilege and values like courage, rugged autonomy, and independence. But what of these qualities when the far horizon gave on the Millers’ backyard fence or, at most, the morning commute? Within a few years, pop culture would cough up B-movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, ’50s gems that beg to be associated with the emasculating office cubicle and what one misogynistic critic scorned a few years earlier as frightening “Momism.” Then mix in the fact by the middle of the next decade already shaken dads would come off as clueless to kids openly mocking the suburbs their VA Bill-rewarded wartime efforts had made possible. The hearts of American men were, unsurprisingly, unsettled.
At least two escape routes led out of this suburban cul-de-sac. The reflexively tempting first meant turning sharply back toward the past’s inertial forces of culturally defined hyper-traditional masculinity. The trickier but potentially more rewarding second involved swivelling exactly the other way, toward an emerging future of cultural revolt with its new takes on male roles and identity. In addition to treating war wounds, still another appeal of the first surfing movies is the implicit, infinitely casual way they kept their eyes peeled in both of these directions. On one hand the films and the surf bug they spread express a profoundly nostalgic yearning for conservative patterns of behavior reinforcing a threatened masculinity. On the other, they look hungrily forward to fresh dreams of male emancipation tantalizingly offered by icons as seemingly different as Jack Kerouac and Hugh Hefner. The Beach Boys would soon be wondering how things will be “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man).” While every new male generation gives that one a think, the question hit particularly hard just before and after 1960 when the maturing masculine self facing an unexpected new world was torn so fully between an obstinate adherence to traditional norms and the heady allures of radical change.
* * *
Walt Phillips’s Sunset Surf Craze and Surf Mania (1959, 1960) are typical of the genre in their insistence on the extremely rural nature of Oahu’s North Shore. To a surprising degree it’s still so today, but a half century ago the territory Phillips and others caught on film was the Wild West, with ranches, livestock, thick forest, and raggedy farmland. Chasing the stoke, the young men who headed there were enacting a familiar, even archetypal American pattern. Already coming almost exclusively from the Pacific edge of the United States, these wave wranglers pushed a frontier of heroic individualism further west to exploit what they saw in the unoccupied surfline as an untapped natural resource. And, again, they regularly took the traditional frontiersman’s prerogative of name-staking out as their own “discovered” features of land- and seascape. Dominating these natural spaces meant, in a discourse echoing frontier authority, “shooting the curl.” It was no accident that the title of one ‘60s two-reeler urged surfers to Ride a White Horse, while another advertised Have Board Will Travel. In the time-honored cinematic tradition of the Western, the films glorifying these pioneers regularly push an indigenous population out of frame. Throughout, the movies insist on the dynamics of rudimentary all-male groups living a simple wood shack frontier existence given a sharp edge of meaning by the daily need to affront mountainous challenges.
Those who scaled the summits of Waimea and Makaha embodied the most traditional of American male values in the no-sweat cool of their individual feats of high courage. In footage silent but for the filmmaker’s spare narration and flipped on reel-to-reel, actions on these testing grounds speak much louder than words. Like Hemingway or the Howard Hawks of the testosterone adventure films, Noll, Severson, and the others create male microcosms that are as fundamentally crotchety with mainstream society as they are comfortable within their own small team’s codes and rituals. Even in a profoundly homophobic era, situating the group clearly within a frame of traditionally coded masculine courage enabled a comfortable, unambiguous male bonding.
Men without women living physically isolated from society, crew members settle membership questions simply by accomplishment and expertise that, their own reward, don’t require external praise. Then, within the non-judgemental male peer group, once the heroic act is history the oversized hero can safely revert to the most regressive of childlike behavior. Charting this move, the films’ slapdash aesthetic careens impulsively from feats of valor to low comedy and back again. Browne’s movies are eminently typical in their recurring dual focus on a former USC fullback and fulltime big wave badass named Buzzy Trent. His poured concrete torso barely dry after hairy sessions on walls of water that today still take your breath away, deadpan Buzzy was never more than a raised eyebrow from a flurry of wacky stunts deflating the larger-than-life exploits he’d pulled off minutes before.
In such a world the place of the female is particularly problematic. Associated in traditional gender terms with constraint and responsibility, an implicit threat to the group’s cohesion, women can achieve only provisional acceptance. Thus when daring on-screen performers from the day’s minuscule women’s surfing community like Marge Calhoun, Linda Benson, and Joey Hamasaki do rocket impressively up the wave face, as occurs occasionally in the films, the shots are invariably eyeblink brief and the emphasis shifted with sometimes startling quickness back to the guys. Even if to his credit Bud Browne tended to avoid the lascivious or patronizing remark that was the unfortunate norm across the range of his colleagues’ films, the odd girls in the frame are throughout much less likely to be fellow surfers than simply bikinied eye-candy. Gidget and other occasional outliers aside, the Beach Boys again got it, in 1964 clearly placing the “Girls on the Beach,” not in the surfline.
On the beach these swooning spectators for the warriors’ exploits played a decorative accessory role at the edge of the wide-open adventure myth. To understand the values and dynamics of the male crew, however, much more central were their older sisters and mothers back home, or, perhaps more clearly, the closed, tightly monitored domestic space they represented. For the growing crowds of male spectators, the first surf films sprung that trap for an evening of fantasy wish-fulfilment, a North Shore masculine dream of unlimited freedom, uncomplicated camaraderie, and intense physical challenge gesturing insistently back toward deeply embedded traditional frontier behavior.
Yet as retrograde as that male surfing dreamlife might seem, it’s just as possible to see the fantasy portrayed in those early two-reelers as progressive and even avant-garde. When Sloan Wilson published The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1955, he was confirming John Marquand’s social diagnosis of six years earlier, that for American men the Point of No Return was already passed. In 1953, midway between these famously dire markers of an American masculinity stunted at home and withering at the office, Bud Browne tried out his home surfing movies in Santa Monica. Bud later spoke about how extraordinarily stoked the SRO crowd of 500 was. They got the fun night they came out for but maybe also a coded message from the future. In addition to everything else they represented, Browne’s films were a scratchy celluloid sign of times that were, as each passing year made increasingly clear, most definitely a-changin’.
For the buzzcut boymen in chinos whistling bottlecaps across the room as the projector clattered, how not to a read an AWOL life on the sunny North Shore as an act of symbolic masculine resistance against the chains of suburban breadwinning? The surf movie’s enchanted parenthesis offered a parallel world of free time, tangy language, alternate values. After which, for many viewers it was indeed back to the fetters of the 9 to 5, mortgages, report cards, and the need for father always to know best. Some dads weren’t having it, though, choosing at the point of no return to look forward. “Gray-flannel dissidents” is Ehrenreich’s term for the first wave of that male generation tempted to act on certain inchoate emerging desires and open themselves to alternate behavior models soon more widely available in the form of 1960s countercultural ferment and easy hedonism.
In September 1957, On the Road hit the shelves exactly three weeks before the publication of Gidget, the best-seller on which the 1959 Tinseltown ur-surf flick would be based. Kerouac’s seductive model for the “flight from commitment” identified by Ehrenreich was already apparent in the flight to Hawaii, but would soon emerge in other pop cultural terms as the title of the Severson film Surf Safari (borrowed by the Beach Boys) and the constant restless movement of The Endless Summer. The studio feature’s version would be the cool chiasmus of the Big Kahuna, Gidget’s mentor, surf crew honcho, and self-proclaimed “surf bum”: “the only way to get economic independence is to be independent of economics.” Or as the Cliff Robertson-played movie character elaborated, Peru or Hawaii, “gotta’ follow the sun . . . ride the waves, eat, sleep, not a care in the world.” When the screenplay adds that Kahuna was “into Existentialism,” it’s hard not to hear in those Malibu luau bongos others up the coast at North Beach. In any case, the trailer was already touting a movie about “the Beach Generation!”
Indeed, both the Beats and the North Shore surfers were essentially all-male crews valuing the free and active male body on the move. While the Hollywood version of the latter does make room for Gidget, it is, notably, to liberate her from the claustrophobic passivity of female domestic space (while admittedly signalling a later phase of social change when no apology’s needed if girls only want to have fun). In the meantime, though, the transgressive ambition toward free movement and choice was configured in largely male terms, and not only on Kerouac’s dusty backroads or, a few years later, Highway 61.
Less than three months after Bud Browne created the surf movie, Hugh Hefner gave other visual terms to the fantasy of escape in the first issue of Playboy. Stylistically, “Howl” and the glossy centerfold could not be more opposed, but both spoke to the suburban ache, the dry puritan body, and an emerging hunger for the autonomous freedom in such short supply in the family room. Surfing fed these desires as well, and in its way didn’t stint on the sex either. In surf films, bodies are warm, visible, unashamed, and when the camera lingers on occasional tan honeys in bikinis the implication is clear they’re the wave warriors’ post-battle reward. Remember too, the surfing mission leads from dry to wet. In its liquid world of rounded lifts and falls, swells, lips, curls, and sticks, the goal is to get up. When it’s pumping and you know the moves, you slip right into the tube.
Like James Bond, who would make his small- and wide-screen debuts in 1954 and 1962, Hef gave dreamy life to the desire not only for compliant nubile forms, but more largely for a world free from the restraints of normative domestic existence. His vision may have embraced luxury brands and silk smoking jackets, but it was countercultural in ways that parallel those of the Beats and the bellbottomed 1960s. So too for the cleancut vets and their younger brothers who teamed up in the early surf movies to celebrate the romance of jobless poverty, male bonding, and physical challenge.
Over time the intertwining of those countercultural strands would become explicit, such as when in 1959 Kerouac defined the Beats for Playboy or in the 1970s when the magazine’s chosen target of female objectification became early surf star Laura Blears. From the start instinctively marginal in appeal, surfing as represented in cinema would also soon close ranks wholeheartedly with a mobilizing youth counterculture. In addition to co-launching the surf film as early as 1958 and founding Surfer magazine, John Severson brought out the Wavy Gravy of surf movies in 1970. Equal parts reef break and reefer break, laid back and pissed off at the Man, Pacific Vibrations layers solarized light show visual effects and Steve Miller over a mellow eco-ethic and the radical self-expression of contemporary short board surfing.
Like Bud Browne, Walt Phillips, and Bruce Brown, Severson was a vet whose pioneering surf movie work would continue to flow with the times to track vital changes in his and younger American generations and the emerging post-War global popular culture they were learning to dominate. While less assertively political than Pacific Vibrations, Bud’s 1973 Going Surfin’ also caught the subversive playfulness of kids then standing up to Nixon White House suits. Considered the end of the innocence by some, Brown’s The Endless Summer looked just as insistently forward to the best of the social upheaval to come in its light-hearted dream of personal freedom, inquisitive mobility, and supra-national humanity, and then further on toward the borderless interconnectivity of our contemporary economy.
Since then surfing has traversed the eras, animated by a series of internecine struggles pitting “soul surfers” against professionals, dawn patrollers against sales divisions hawking the surf fashion statement, cool daddy longboarders against hyperactive dreadlocked kids. Though it has never paddled fully into the mainstream, surfing has indeed had its share of accommodation with commerce and the image machine since well before the cash-obsessed Reagan ‘80s. So today we have not only a World Surf League streaming commercials live worldwide, but a WSL-sponsored Fantasy League (!), and this for a kook-allergic life choice that ostentatiously prides itself on uniquely primary experiences like the 6 a.m. paddle-out. Like it or not, the surfing life has always reflected what’s happening on dry land. Happily, this has also meant positive developments like at last cracking open gender doors and coming to some self-awareness about surfing’s own neo-colonialist responsibilities in blithely sending droves of empowered white males on surfari throughout the developing world. Across the decades, far more than a thousand (yes, +1000!) surf community movies and, more recently, videos have found the means – sometimes direct, more often implicit – to keep track of these and other changes in surfing and in the larger society on whose margin it perches, even as they cleave to their primary mission, which remains, of course, celebrating the stoke.
Back in the 1950s, the first surfer-filmmakers were just making things up as they tried to coax some of that stoke into their grainy footage. Because they did that so well and in the process managed to capture, intact, a world, they are still a blast to watch. The young Californians who stormed the North Shore with their embedded filmmakers in the 1950s swapped fatigues and suits for trunks and bracing physical adventure. Documenting that choice, the early surf movies promised kids sandy fun fun fun out beyond the tract cul-de-sac. Just as importantly, they also spoke to the buried wartime memories, daily anxieties, and awakening desires of the dads with their VA loans. After war and hunkering down in the suburbs, those dreams of an endless summer delivered – as they still deliver – the thrilling intensity of the moment. But not only, for they also cast long shadows from the past and drew the eye to the future’s far horizon.
Angry Sea, The (1963). Dir. John Severson. Narr. John Severson. Perfs. Tommy Lee, Greg Noll, John Peck, Butch Van Artsdalen.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). Bernard Woolner. Dir. Nathan Hertz. Perfs. Allison Hayes, William Hudson, Yvette Vickers.
Barefoot Adventure (1961). Dir. Bruce Brown. Narr. Bruce Brown. Perfs. Joey Cabell, Del Cannon, Mike Diffenderfer, Joey Hamasaki.
Beach Party (1963). American International Pictures. Dir. William Asher. Perfs. Frankie Avalon, Bob Cummings, Annette Funicello, Harvey Lembeck, Eva Six.
Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959). Dir. Bud Browne. Narr. Bud Browne. Perfs. Phil Edwards, Hevs McClelland, L.J. Richards, Dewey Weber.
Cavalcade of Surf (1962). Dir. Bud Browne. Narr. Peter Cole. Perfs. Linda Benson, Pat Curren, Mike Doyle, Buzzy Trent, Dewey Weber.
Endless Summer, The (1964, 1966). Dir. Bruce Brown. Narr. Bruce Brown. Perfs. Robert August, Mike Hynson.
Gidget (1959). Columbia Pictures. Dir. Paul Wendkos. Perfs. James Darren, Sandra Dee, Arthur O’Connell, Cliff Robertson.
Going Surfin’ (1973, 1977). Dir. Bud Browne. Narr. Hevs’ McClelland. Perfs. Reno Abellira, Larry Bertlemann, Jeff Hakman, Barry Kanaiaupuni, David Nuuhiwa.
Gun Ho! (1963). Dir. Bud Browne. Narr. Peter Cole. Perfs. Candy Calhoun, Phil Edwards, Greg Noll, John Peck, Butch Van Artsdalen
Gung Ho! The True Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943). Walter Wanger Productions. Dir. Ray Enright. Perfs. Alan Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Grace McDonald, Robert Mitchum, Randolph Scott.
Have Board Will Travel (1963). Dir. Don Brown. Perf. Midget Farrelly.
Incredible Shrinking Man, The (1957). Universal International. Dir. Jack Arnold. Perfs. Billy Curtis, April Kent, Paul Langton, Randy Stuart, Grant Williams.
Locked In! (1964). Dir. Bud Browne. Narr. Peter Cole, John Weiser. Perfs. Joey Cabell, Phil Edwards, Jeff Hakman, Joyce Hoffman, John Peck.
Once Upon a Wave (1963). Dir. Walt Phillips. Narr. Walt Phillips. Perfs. Peter Cole, Ricky Grigg, Greg Noll, Fred Van Dyke.
Pacific Vibrations (1970). Dir. John Severson. Narr. John Severson. Perfs. Rolf Aurness, Corky Carroll, Rick Griffin, Billy Hamilton, Jock Sutherland.
Ride a White Horse (1968). Dir. Bob Evans. Perfs. Peter Drouyn, Midget Farrelly, Bob McTavish, Nat Young.
Ride the Wild Surf (1964). Jana Film Enterprise, Columbia Pictures. Dir. Art Napoleon; Don Taylor. Perfs. Peter Brown, Barbara Eden, Shelley Fabares, Fabian, Susan Hart, Tab Hunter, James Mitchum.
Search for Surf (1957-1961). Dir. Greg Noll. Perfs. Pat Curren, Miki Dora, Buffalo Keaulana, Chubby Mitchell, Terry Tracy.
Slippery When Wet (1958). Bruce Brown Films. Dir. Bruce Brown. Narr. Bruce Brown. Perfs. Kemp Aaberg, Del Cannon, Phil Edwards, Henry Ford, Freddy Pfahler, Dick Thomas.
Sunset Surf Craze (1959). Dir. Walt Phillips. Narr. Walt Phillips. Perfs. Linda Benson, Del Cannon, Peter Cole, Pat Curren, Ricky Grigg.
Surf Crazy (1959). Dir. Bruce Brown. Narr. Bruce Brown. Perfs. Joey Cabell, Pat Curren, L.J. Richards, Donald Takayama.
Surf Mania (1960). Dir. Walt Phillips. Narr. Walt Phillips. Perfs. Robert August, Joey Cabell, Peter Cole, Mike Doyle.
Surf Safari (1959). Dir. John Severson. Narr. John Severson. Perfs. Pat Curren, Mke Doyle, Mickey Munoz, Butch Van Artsdalen, Sonny Vardeman
Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. New York: Anchor Press, 1983.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.
Jarvis, Christina S. The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II. Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1957.
Marquand, John P. Point of No Return Boston: Little, Brown, 1949.
Vettel-Becker, Patricia. Shooting from the Hip: Photography, Masculinity, and Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955.
“Girls on the Beach” (1964), the Beach Boys
“Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1963), the Beach Boys
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” (1964), the Beach Boys