June 11th, 2005

Party Tiki

Beach Party

the_geoffrey's party tonight is themed "Beach Party," specifically targeted as Beach Blanket Bingo, the 1965 Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello sequel to their 1963 debut, Beach Party. I persuaded my favorite costumers, phierma and cos_x, to rent these and invite me over for costume research, to see what we could slap together for the party. That was my excuse, anyway. My real reason was to introduce two of my favorite people to two of my favorite movies of all time.

That's right, the Beach Party movies. Samuel Z. Arkoff, producer. American International Pictures production. Two of the worst singers in the history of manufactured pop stars as the leads, in dirt-cheap teen exploitation flicks, cranked out by the same team at the rate of up to three per year. And to my taste, despite having all of that stacked up against them, this series in general and these two pictures in particular are among the most spot-on, deadly true, delightfully sarcastic, and gut-bustingly funny movies in the history of film.

That first one is the best one, although I didn't think so as a kid. As a kid, I liked the insanely complicated interwoven subplots of Beach Blanket Bingo better. As an adult though, with them fresh in my mind, the first one edges ahead of them for the sheer quality of the joke writing, the spot-on historical and cultural context, and the much better direction.

The series of (depending on which Avalon/Funicello movies you count) five to seven movies is set in a specific time and a specific place, a very thinly fictionalized version of an actual subcultural scene, the Malibu beach surf culture circa 1959 to 1963. The stars of this fictionalized, over the top parody of the Malibu scene are Frankie (I'm assuming that Frankie Avalon was so dumb that he couldn't remember his character's name if it weren't the same) and Deedee (Annette Funicello). He's the best surfer on the beach, and a crooner doing early-Sinatra-immitation love songs. She's his high school sweetheart, but more importantly, she's the girl who's got a rock-solid 100% clear goal in mind: she is going to marry Frankie, and nobody else is going to stand in her way. She's an anachronism in the suddenly countercultural surf scene, and she knows it, and so do all of her female friends. They don't want to marry their surfing partners or idols, they just want to fuck them. And given that he is portrayed as the guy who's thought to be the sexiest guy on the beach (and this is where serious suspension of disbelief is required, particularly given his hideously freakish hair), at the beginning of the series there are no shortage of girls who are equally eager to fuck the cutest, dreamiest guy on the beach. Fortunately, Deedee has a powerful weapon in her arsenal, and she knows it. It's not that she's the biggest cock-tease in the history of film; that's just a technique. No, the truly powerful tool is that no matter how badly Frankie wants to get laid, he really is head over heals in love with Deedee.

Officially, the villains in this series are a biker gang from nearby Los Angeles called the Rats, lead by a chubby, Hitler-loving Jewish guy from Brooklyn who calls himself Eric von Zipper. In fact, the bikers are comic relief in these movies ... and what wonderful comic relief they are. Long before the truly villainous South Dakota Slim comes along in the third and fourth movies and creeps out even the bikers, you should have figured out that Eric von Zipper and his "army of stupids" (as he calls them after they get their butts kicked at the end of the first movie) are not actually scary people, or even particularly villainous. They just want people to think that they are. They're illiterate, unemployed, broke, and clumsy to the point of being almost helpless; they've adopted Marlon Brando costuming and a motorcycle lifestyle in hopes that people will be afraid enough of them to finally give them some respect. Delightfully, this never works, because they just can't pull it off. And every time Von Zipper humiliates himself trying to act tougher than he is, it's always the same plaintive cry: "Why me? Why me all the time?"

No, as every critic of these movies loves to harp on, the true villains of these movies are the Bad Girls. In each movie, there's a sexy woman, older than Frankie and Deedee, who for personal reasons wants to peel Frankie away from the "Good Girl" Deedee, enthusiastically use him like a Kleenex, and throw him away. You would think that the other girls in the gang, being bad girls themselves, would side with her, but they don't. Not only do they on some level admire Deedee, let's face it, the new Bad Girl is new, not one of the gang. It's a gang of girls circling the wagons to protect one of their own. (Does it surprise you to find out that even as a fairly little kid of around 10 or 12 when I first saw these, I mostly loathed Deedee and sided with the bad girls? I didn't think so.)

Ah, but it's the plot details and minor characters who make this movie. In the first movie, perennial character actor Robert Cummings plays a globe-trotting Harvard anthropology professor who's rented the house next to the gang's flop to study them, planning to write a Coming of Age in Samoa about the Malibu surf culture. Perhaps one of the best bits of dialog in the whole series: the professor says to his infatuated assistant, "Marianne, this book will be my triumph," and she snappily and sarcastically replies, "And you'll never get it through the mail. But hang on to the picture rights. I'm sure American International will snap it up in a minute." But no, the really brilliant cameos in this first movie are the ones that actually hint at putting Malibu surf culture in something close to the right historical context; comedian Morrey Amsterdam plays "Cappy," the World War II era surfer who taught the first of these kids to surf, from the first generation of the Malibu surfers, and Vincent Price (!!!) plays an aging proto-beatnik prophet, "Big Daddy."

In the second movie, comedian Don Rickles plays a Jack Lalane knockoff named Jack Fanny (he and his stable of body-builders want to take over the same stretch of beach the kids are using) and Italian sex symbol (and later Bond girl) Luciana Paluzzi plays a jet-set Italian socialite who wants to bag herself a sexy crooner. In the third movie, the cameos really crank up, with Keenan Wynne as a corrupt real-estate developer, Don Rickles (again) as an early drag-racing promoter, and a tiny cameo by Boris Karloff. In Beach Blanket Bingo, Rickles is back again as the owner of a skydiving school. Why skydiving? Because Paul Lynde is a corrupt music industry promoter with a vapid, malleable, and incurably dim-witted synthetic pop star (played by Linda Evans!) to promote; he's trying to create a replacement for "beach music" called "skydiving music." Buster Keaton has a delightful role as one of Rickles' assistants, bringing his signature style of slapstick humor with him. In the last and weakest installment (before the fun but incredibly post-modern 1987 sequel Back to the Beach), Frankie Avalon is reduced to cameo status, ostensibly because his character is in the south Pacific (on his way to Vietnam?); Buster Keaton is back playing a jungle witch doctor, and Mickey Rooney is an ad executive cruising the young girls on the beach for easily controlled disposable models. What all of these roles have in common is that they are cameos, mostly by big-name actors and actresses having the time of their life, and even the worst-written roles do a fantastic job of actually putting the Malibu subculture in its right historical context, and of documenting that particular slice of the 1960s.

And it doesn't hurt that quite a bit of the music is really good, too. In fact, because I wasn't really into the genres the last time I saw the first movie, I hadn't realized how much really, amazingly good exotica/tiki music and how much remarkably good bongo playing there are in Beach Party; I find that I want to own a copy now just for the music. Surf rockers Dick Dale and the Dell Tones are practically the house band for the series. Stevie Wonder made his film debut in one of these movies. I'm not a fan of weepy chick ballads, but Linda Evan's "It Only Hurts When I Cry" ranks right up there with the best of that genre. And a few of Frankie and Annette's numbers are actually pretty good, too, especially a really catchy tune called "I Think You Think" from Beach Blanket Bingo.
  • Current Mood
    okay okay, but I've got a headache
  • Tags