I’m one of those nostalgists suffering from Born-too-Late-ness. I missed out on so many seemingly great experiences of the mid-20th century—diners, train travel, and the drive-in cinema. Gone are the days when you could sneak your buddies and a four-course meal in your trunk to the drive-in and have a grand evening out. By the time my day rolled around, the local drive-in was abandoned (but possibly haunted by dead teenage motorcyclists) and the idea of just riding in my boyfriend’s trunk for funsies didn’t have the same appeal.
Fortunately, living the Future means that I can at least watch the drive-in movies from the comfort of my own driveway (which is haunted by raccoon motorcyclists). Go get your anthropomorphic popcorn, ’cause we’re gonna watch a bunch of beach party flicks!
For me, the beach party movies are a guilty pleasure, but let’s not fool ourselves. These are not good movies. These are low-budget, bubblegum, frothy make-out flicks. It’s possible that my own parents rounded a couple of bases during Beach Party. My mother probably got mad at her beau for making a crude comment about Annette’s bosoms during How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. And everyone knew, no matter how much of the middle you missed, you could always tell your parents that Frankie and Annette wound up together at the end. An American International picture is not rocket science. Maybe social science. Definitely Mystery Science (Theater 3000).
The series begins with Beach Party, when a bearded anthropologist “secretly studying the mating habits of Southern California teenagers” gets mixed up in all the “teen” antics. Naturally, hilarity ensues. We’re introduced to the perpetually on again-off again Frankie and Dee Dee (Annette), their surfing pals, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, and the villainous Eric von Zipper and his Ratz pack. We’re also introduced to the running gag of the Himalayan Mind Suspension technique, wherein Eric von Zipper inadvertently paralyzes himself by pressing his forefinger to his skull. And Les Baxter provides the musical score for all the smooching scenes and surfing montages.
In 1964, AIP released Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pajama Party. Muscle Beach Party focuses on a rivalry between the surfers and a gang of bodybuilders. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by an Italian countess. Don Rickles lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, bodybuilders walk around in capes and mankinis, and everything works out in the end.
Then there’s Bikini Beach. Oh, Bikini Beach. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by a British pop star “Potato Bug” (Avalon in a dual role). The surfers are also into drag racing, some stuffy millionaire wants to turn the beach into a retirement community. Don Rickles (as a new character) lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, Eric von Zipper and his gang get into a scuffle, and—after a lengthy car chase and a bunch of art slinging—everything works out in the end. Wait, did I mention the monkey?
Pajama Party departs from the standard beach party formula by replacing Frankie with a Martian called Go Go (played by Tommy Kirk). Annette plays Connie, neglected girlfriend of Big Lunk (Deadhead in the previous films). Buster Keaton plays an Indian, Martian Don Rickles lobs a few Martian insults, Eric von Zipper gets a sidecar for his motorcycle, Elsa Lanchester offers advice…there’s subplots, swimming pools, lingerie and longjohns, and everything works out in the end. I guess. If you’re running a marathon of these flicks, Pajama Party is the one you miss most of because of bathroom and snack breaks.
With Beach Blanket Bingo we’re back on track. Frankie and Dee Dee blah blah. Deadhead (now Bonehead) falls for a mermaid, Don Rickles insults everybody, the surfers take up skydiving, Dee Dee argues for gender equality in daredevil stunts, Eric von Zipper falls for (and kidnaps) the visiting singing sensation, Paul Lynde is a smarmy publicity agent, and—after yet another massive brawl between the surfers and the bikers‚—everything works out. It’s getting tougher to pass these kids off as kids. Can’t adults be allowed to blow off everything for a weekend and go surfing with a hundred other adults? Is there a meetup group for that?
We saw how Annette fared without Frankie in Pajama Party. How does Frankie hold up without Annette in Ski Party? Without an established relationship to muck up, Frankie’s left to engage in wackiest of all schemes to land the girl. In Ski Party, Frankie and Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman are a couple of love-starved college guys. The guys join the school’s ski club and tag along on their skiing trip. But wait! These boys don’t know how to ski! Of course the only solution is to cross dress as British exchange students and join the ladies on the bunny slopes! Cue the manipulation, hilarious misunderstandings and co-ed pillow fights. Lesley Gore sings on a bus and James Brown shows up at the ski resort when his bus runs out of gas or something. Eventually everyone winds up at a beach house and everything works out.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is the last beach party movie featuring Frankie and Annette as our heroes. Frankie’s off in the tropics, under the thin guise of naval reserve duty. He’s frolicking with exotic island babes but gets concerned that Dee Dee might get cozy with some other fella (and withhold sex from that guy). Naturally, the solution is to have a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) conjure up a vapid bikini chick to distract the boys from Dee Dee. Dwayne Hickman tackles the role of Frankie’s rival, while all the other guys (otherwise known as Frankie’s pals in all the other movies) stay away from the fully-clothed-for-the-entire-picture Dee Dee. Mickey Rooney calls everyone chicky-baby, Uncle Leo and Dobie Gillis get into a fist fight, Eric von Zipper tries to change his image, a motorcycle race is full of hijinks, everyone sings a bunch of forgettable songs, Frankie returns, and it’s happily ever after for everyone except Dobie Gillis.
The trouble with the beach party films is that none of them are particularly memorable. You can walk away with the basic formula, but the details vanish. These movies weren’t built for careful repeated viewings. The AIP flicks were quick cash grabs aimed at teens looking for something to do on a Saturday night. A beach party movie is good for casual, passive viewing, requiring minimal investment but also offering minimal reward (especially if your date is a real Dee Dee). Since the days of drive-ins are well behind us, the most we can demand of an AIP production is light entertainment during a bout of the flu.
If you’re tuning in a beach party movie to see an accurate depiction of teen life in the 1960s, you’re out of luck. These things were written by middle-aged men with little, if any, insight into the average teenage mind. They steer clear of any political or social upheaval and unrest. Everyone’s just out to have a good time. The only concerns are whether Dee Dee will ever get Frankie to settle down and marry her and whether Frankie will ever convince Dee Dee to just put out already. Those questions are answered in the 1987 nostalgia trip Back to the Beach, which features Frankie and Annette and ignores most of AIP beach party canon.
TCM-worthy fun fact: Eric von Zipper was played by Harvey Lembeck, father of Helaine Lembeck who played Sweathogs foe Judy Borden on Welcome Back, Kotter. One of the stars of Welcome Back, Kotter was, as we know, superstar John Travolta, who went on to play Danny Zuko, another leader of a motorcycle gang, the T-Birds, in the 1978 musical Grease.
American International continued to produce films marketed to teen viewers well into the 1970s. They put out a number of monster horror movies, a series of movies based on the stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman, spy spoofs, car racing sagas, kung fu, and blaxploitation films.