Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.
Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh. Even the old “haunted house” chestnut got used in the series’ last entry, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley replacing Frankie & Annette).
Here, the beach antics involve Frankie & Annette on school vacation, where horny Frank plans to spend quality time alone with her. But not so fast: Annette’s invited the whole gang to join them at their rented beach house. Frankie is pissed, and gets with Hungarian hottie Ava (Eva Six, Miss Golden Globes of 1963), a waitress at the gang’s hang-out, Cappy’s (played by Morey Amsterdam). Cappy’s an overage beatnik who harbors Big Daddy, a mysterious beachfront guru from whom everyone’s waiting to hear “the word”.
Bearded anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is on the beach doing research, studying the mating habits of teens. He compares them to Aborigine tribal customs, with their slang talk and wild watusi-ing. Sutwell’s accompanied by assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner for WRITTEN ON THE WIND), who pines for the uptight, clueless professor. Annette uses the older man (who the kids mockingly call “pig-bristles”) to get back at Frankie’s philandering with Ava.
Enter Eric Von Zipper and his Rats. Arguably the most popular character in the entire series, he’s played by Harvey Lembeck, memorable in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 and as costar of Phil Silver’s SGT. BILKO show. Von Zipper’s clearly patterned after Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE, but this bumbling biker’s dumb as a bag of rocks. With his catchphrase “You stupids!” and exaggerated Brooklyn accent, Lembeck steals the film with his comic zaniness. The best part is when he confronts Sutwell, who gives him the ancient “Himalayan finger”, causing its victims to revert to a state of suspended animation.
Also appearing in the cast and subsequent “beach party” flicks is pushing-30 John Ashley, who was in AIP’s 50’s epics HOT ROD GIRL and MOTORCYCLE GANG, and went on to star Eddie Romero’s Filipino “Blood” trilogy, and later produced TV hit THE A-TEAM. Candy Johnson was the girl in the fringe whose wild shimmying literally knocked the boys off their feet. Jody McCrea, son of Western star Joel, makes his debut appearance as Deadhead, the loveable goofball of the gang (later changed to Bonehead for some strange reason). Andy Romano and Alberta Nelson are the most recognizable Rats, while Meredith McRae, Valora Noland, and Gary Usher represent the surfers. And cult star Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT LEECHES) has an uncredited bit as one of Cappy’s yoga girls.
Plenty of music is provided by surf guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones, who perform “Swing’ and Surfin'” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot”. Frankie rocks out to the twist number “Don’t Stop Now”, while Annette sweetly sings “Treat Him Nicely”, and the duo duets on the theme song “Beach Party Tonight”. All these hijinks are ably handled by veteran director William Asher, who directed the bulk of TV’s I LOVE LUCY episodes, and produced and directed the series BEWITCHED for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher’s flair for comedy is highlighted by wild brawl that turns into a pie fight at the conclusion.
Oh, and Big Daddy is finally revealed to be none other than our old friend, Vincent Price, who gives us “the word”: “The Pit… bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin'”. Yep, it’s a plug for Vinnie’s upcoming Edgar Allan Poe flick THE HAUNTED PALACE. AIP may not have been known for highbrow product, but they sure knew how to cross-promote!
Take it away, Candy!!!: