Drive-In Saturday Night 2: BIKINI BEACH (AIP 1964) & PAJAMA PARTY (AIP 1964)

Welcome back to Drive-In Saturday Night! Summer’s here, and the time is right for a double dose of American-International teen flicks, so pull in, pull up a speaker to hang on your car window, and enjoy our first feature, 1964’s BIKINI BEACH, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:

BIKINI BEACH is the third of AIP’s ‘Beach Party’ movies, and this one’s a typical hodgepodge of music, comedy, and the usual teenage shenanigans. The gang’s all here, heading to the beach on spring break for surfing and swinging. This time around, there’s a newcomer on the sand, British rock star The Potato Bug, with Frankie playing a dual role. Potato Bug is an obvious spoof of the big Beatlemania fever sweeping the country, with all the beach chicks (or “birds”, as he calls ’em) screaming whenever PB starts singing one of his songs, complete with Lennon/McCartney-esque “Wooos” and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Avalon has a good time in a wig and Granny glasses (and a Terry-Thomas like accent) poking fun at the latest teen fad, and in typical low-budget AIP fashion, scenes with Frankie and Mr. Bug together have Beach regular Ronnie Dayton doubling for Potato Bug.

The villain of the piece is Keenan Wynn as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who wants to get rid of the surfers so he can expand his old folks home. To prove his theory that the teens are nothing but Neanderthals “with an abnormal preoccupation with sex”, he has his simian sidekick Clyde (Janos Prohaska, The Bear from Andy Williams’s 60’s variety show) ape them by surfing, driving hot rods, and dancing. Martha Hyer is schoolteacher Vivien Clements, who stands up against Harvey for the kids, and guess who sides with him? That’s right, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck ) and his Rats, who hates the surfers even more than Harvey!

Frankie and Annette argue (because of course they do), and she takes up with Potato Bug to make him jealous. Since Bug is a drag racing buff, Frankie decides to take up the sport and challenge him to a grudge race. Don Rickles Don Rickles returns as Big Drag (the former Jack Fanny), proprietor of Big Drag’s Pit Stop, the surfer’s hangout, and he’s funny as ever. There’s plenty of tunes and musical guests, including Little Stevie Wonder (singing “Dance and Shout”), The Pyramids, and The Exciters Band (who worked with the shimmying sensation Candy Johnson). There’s also plenty of padding, with lots of stock footage of surfing and racing, and though it’s an incredibly silly romp, it still manages to entertain if you like these sort of things (and I do!). Oh, and that mysterious art collector who keeps popping in and out of the film is none other than everyone’s favorite monster…

Boris Karloff  in a cameo! Now let’s go to the concession stand and load up on burgers and hot dogs during Intermission:

Our second feature is PAJAMA PARTY, also released in 1964:

Considered by aficionados as the fourth in the series, besides the fact it shares Annette, Jody McCrea, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats, and other regulars (Luree Holmes, Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, Michael Nader, Ronnie Rondell, Salli Sachse), it bears no relationship to the usual ‘Beach Party’ movies. In fact, PAJAMA PARTY is even goofier than normal – if you can imagine – a surreal, almost plotless piece of escapism with self-knowing winks to the audience! It may not be ‘Beach Party’ canon, but the film knows it’s goofy and revels in it.

Martians (yes, Martians!) send their biggest goof-up, an outer space teen named Go-Go (Tommy Kirk ) to infiltrate Earth and pave the way for their upcoming invasion. Don Rickles plays a Martian on the spaceship, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal Frankie Avalon is the alien chief – you’ll recognize his voice instantly. Go-Go lands in the backyard of dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester ), who renames him George and introduces him to her teenage borders, including Connie (Annette) and her dumb jock boyfriend Big Lunk (Jody). Von Zipper and his Rats are around, out to get “them volleyball kids”, and a crook called J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is plotting to steal Aunt Wendy’s millions, left to her by her late husband – in cash! All this takes place amid one slapstick situation after another, until whatever plot ends are neatly tied up.

Among J. Sinister’s henchmen is Buster Keaton , making his first appearance in the series. The Great Stoneface has some funny gags and bits, and could still take a pratfall with the best of ’em! Also making her ‘Beach’ debut is Bobbi Shaw, the “ya, ya” girl, and actor and nightclub comic Ben Lessy rounds out the villainous quartet. Dorothy Lamour guest stars as hostess of a fashion show, and even gets a musical number, “Where Did I Go Wrong”. Sexy Susan Hart gyrates her way through the film without any dialog, which isn’t a bad thing; the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson was better at window dressing than acting.

The songs are no great shakes except for Loren’s rocking “Among the Young” and Annette’s uptempo “Pajama Party”, but there’s some real energetic 60’s dancing going on (see if you can spot Teri Garr and Toni Basil movin’ and groovin’ in the crowd). The Nooney Rickets 4 provide a few instrumentals for the kids to boogie to, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper pops up everywhere (Loren was the Dr. Pepper Girl for years in 1960’s TV ads). Both BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY are products of a bygone era, and both are still a lot of fun. A perfect double feature to watch on a hot summer night, with some popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper!

KOWABUNGA!

Fun in the Sun: BEACH BLANKET BINGO (AIP 1965)

You’d think by the fourth entry in American-International’s ‘Beach Party’ series, 1965’s BEACH BLANKET BINGO, the formula would be wearing a bit thin. Frankie and Annette are still trying to make each other jealous, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats are still comic menaces, and the gang’s into yet another new kick (skydiving this time around). But thanks to a top-notch supporting cast of characters, a sweet subplot involving a mermaid, and the genius of comedy legend Buster Keaton , BEACH BLANKET BINGO is loads of fun!

Aspiring singer Sugar Kane skydives from a plan into the middle of the ocean and is “rescued” by surfer Frankie. But not really… it’s all been a publicity stunt by her PR agent ‘Bullets’. Sugar is played by lovely Linda Evans, right before she landed on TV’s THE BIG VALLEY, and ‘Bullets’ is none other than the fantastically sarcastic Paul Lynde. But wait… Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and his motley crew have spied Sugar, and the Head Rat immediately declares she’s “nifty”, and Sugar replaces his idol, “Marlo Brandon”.

Frankie wants to try skydiving, and so does Dee Dee (our girl Annette, for those unfamiliar with the series), but macho Frank thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen. The gang heads to Big Drop’s Skydiving school, run by ‘Mr. Warmth’, the late, great Don Rickles . Instructors Steve and Bonnie (real-life husband and wife John Ashley and the delectable Deborah Walley ) cause romantic complications for Frankie and Dee Dee, because that’s just the way things go in these films. Meanwhile, big goofy Bonehead ( Jody McCrea ) opts out of the skydiving scene, and winds up meeting and falling in love with Lorelei the mermaid, played by marvy Marta Kristen (LOST IN SPACE’s Judy Robinson).

Things get real (or about as real as they can in a drive-in flick) when Von Zipper kidnaps Sugar, only to be snatched from him by his no-goodnik pool hall pal South Dakota Slim (the one and only Timothy Carey !). Slim takes her to his “bubby” house (he calls everyone “bubby”) and ties her to a buzzsaw, resulting in a silent-film style slapstick ending straight outta THE PERILS OF PAULINE. That ending, along with other comic bits, was devised by Keaton, who’s Big Drop’s “assistant”, and it’s obviously the comedy master’s handiwork. Buster has some wonderful sight gags spread throughout the film, like having troubles casting his fishing line in the surf, chasing (and chased by) Bobbi Shaw along the seascape, doing his own crazy version of the watusi, and hanging from a tree limb during the sped-up race to Slim’s sawmill. Buster Keaton still did his own stunts here at age 69, and his dedication to his comic craft, even in a low-budget teen movie like this, is a testament to his considerable talents.

Lynde and Rickles each get to showcase their own comic personas, with Rickles doing some of his stand-up insult comedy while emceeing Sugar’s singing performance, and it’s one of the movie’s comic highlights (Don to Frankie: “You’re 43, Frank! You’re old!”). Donna Loren returns to sing “It Only Hurts When I Cry”, surf rockers The Hondells appear, and even Lembeck and his Rats get a musical number, “Follow Your Leader”. Famed (at the time) columnist Earl Wilson plays himself, 1964’s Playmate of the Year Donna Michelle is one of the surfer girls, and Michael Nader (later Evans’ costar on DYNASTY) is Frankie’s pal Butch. BEACH BLANKET BINGO is perfect for a hot summer night when you’re looking for some mindless laughs, with a bevy of beauties, harmless musical interludes, and some fine comedy from Lynde, Rickles, and especially Buster Keaton. Kowabunga!

 

RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television

“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back, and a style was born. When Frank Sinatra caught one of Rickles’ gigs, the comedian started lobbing his insult grenades at the superstar. Sinatra loved it, and Rickles’ career took off like one of his verbal poisoned arrows, landing spots on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and especially Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Don made his movie debut in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, a 1958 submarine drama alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Not bad company for a Jew from Queens! Highlights from his film career include the role of the shady carnival partner of Ray Milland in Roger Corman’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Rickles also appeared in four of AIP’s “Beach Party” flicks, playing basically different variations of the same character (Jack Fanny , Big Drag, Big Bang, Big Drop). He was “Crapgame”, the hustling supply sergeant, in Clint Eastwood’s 1969 WWII heist movie KELLY’S HEROES, and had a memorable role as Robert DeNiro’s lieutenant in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 CASINO. That same year, Rickles gained a whole new audience when he began voicing Mr. Potato Head in the TOY STORY series.

But it was episodic television where Rickles truly got a chance to shine. Rickles never headlined a successful sitcom on his own (the closest he got was two seasons as CPO SHARKEY), but his guest shots are among some of my favorite Don Rickles performances. For example, his Newton Monroe on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ,   a nebbishy door-to-salesman who’s given a boost of confidence by Andy and Barney (“I’m not inept anymore! I’m ept!!”). Or the renegade Hekawi Bald Eagle, son of Chief Wild Eagle, on F TROOP. He was fugitive kidnapper Norbert Wiley, raising a ruckus on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Rickles hilariously played Sid Krimm, old Army buddy of Maxwell Smart (“When do we meet the broads, Max?”) on a two-part GET SMART, with his close friend Don Adams as Agent 86. Best of all was his 1990 appearance on HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, as the mentor to Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the creepiest in the series!

And we can’t talk about Rickles without mentioning his insulting every star in Hollywood on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts:

We’ve been blessed to have such a man as Don Rickles to make us laugh over the years. Hail and farewell, ya hockey puck! We’ll miss you!

 

 

Back to the Beach: MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (AIP 1964)

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The “Beach Party ” gang’s back and so’s the familiar formula in MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, second in the American-International series. It’s Easter vacation and Frankie Avalon is still horny, Annette Funicello’s still waiting for marriage, and a beautiful foreign woman is again coming between them. This time it’s Lucianna Paluzzi as Countess Julie, a rich heiress who wants to make Frankie a singing star and her personal property.

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Eric Von Zipper and his Rats aren’t around this time, replaced by a bunch of bodybuilders led by trainer Jack Fanny (the inimitable Don Rickles). Julie first sets her sights on “Mr. Galaxy” Flex Martian, but dumps him when she spies Frankie. This leads to war between the surfers and the musclemen, with the inevitable slapstick melee. Flex is played by Rock Stevens, a real-life bodybuilder who muscled his way through a few Italian peplum films before reverting to his real name of Peter Lupus and co-starring in the long-running TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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The gang’s all here: John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Candy Johnson, Valora Noland, and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. Alberta Nelson, usually one of Von Zipper’s Mice, is cast as one of the muscle girls. Newcomer Donna Loren makes her series debut singing “Muscle Bustle” with Dale and company. Miss Loren was spokesperson for Dr. Pepper soda, and the soft drink is prominently featured in some scenes… coincidence? I think not!

Rickles made his first of four series appearances as Fanny, although always in different roles. He’s Big Drag in BIKINI BEACH, Big Bang in PAJAMA PARTY, and Big Drop in BEACH BLANKET BINGO. Morey Amsterdam returns as Cappy, owner of the gang’s hangout. Comic Buddy Hackett is Julie’s business manager S.Z., and Peter Turgeon, primarily a stage actor who once played Dr. Woodward on DARK SHADOWS, is her hapless lawyer Theodore. 13-year-old Stevie Wonder makes his film debut jamming with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones on “Happy Street”:

There’s some fun with Frankie Avalon constantly breaking the Forth Wall, California surf artist Michael Dormer’s opening cartoon credits, and plenty of cool surfing footage. Beach Boy Brian Wilson co-wrote six of the tunes to add some authenticity. The most fun for film buffs is undoubtably the surprise cameo by Peter Lorre as Mr. Strangdour,  the silent partner of Jack Fanny’s  bodybuilders (“he bends things”), at the movie’s conclusion. A tag line at the end touts Lorre’s next appearance in BIKINI BEACH, but alas it wasn’t to be. After making Jerry Lewis’ THE PATSY, Lorre died on March 23, 1964, ending a great screen career.

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MUSCLE BEACH PARTY isn’t as good as BEACH PARTY, but sequels rarely top the originals. The formula was already in place for the series, and would continue right up to GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, the final film. While certainly not high cinematic art, the “Beach Party” series are goofball drive-in flicks designed for viewers to shut off their brains for an hour and a half and enjoy a few summertime laughs. And honestly, what more can you ask for out of a drive-in flick than that?

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