Trav S.D.’s Guide to Beach Party Movies

Today being the first day of summer, and a welcome one after over a year of lockdown, I thought I would mark it with a look at the teenage beach party movie craze of the ’50s and ’60s. Most, though not all, of these movies were musical and/or comical and had the sport of surfing at their heart. Surfing had been brought to Southern California from Hawaii in the late 19th century, although it did not become a widespread leisure activity among teenagers until after the prosperity that followed the Second World War. These films are essentially paeans to the idleness of America’s affluent children. Kids who had to work all summer had no time to be fooling around at the beach! But they too could dream about doing it. Two things happened in 1959 that helped popularize surf culture throughout the country: 1) Hawaii became a state. and 2): this movie:

Gidget (1959)

Based on a novel by Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner about his teenaged daughter, Gidget follows the summertime experiences of the titular character, whose name is a mash-up of “Girl Midget”. In the film she is played by Sandra Dee. In the TV series that sprang from the film a few years later, she was played by Sally Field. It’s an odd coming-of-age story in which idle, dissatisfied Gidget discovers something that excites and motivates her, and it just happens to be the male dominated sport of surfing, as represented by dudes with names like Moondoogy (James Darren) and Waikiki (Doug McClure), and a creepy old dude who hangs out at the beach, The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson). Arthur O’Connell plays her nagging father Yvonne Craig, best remembered as Batgirl on Batman, is her gal pal Nan. Darren also sang the popular theme song.

Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961)

In this sequel, Deborah Walley takes over the title role, but James Darren returns. Carl Reiner plays her dad. Peggy Cass and Eddie Foy Jr play the parents of one of her friends, with whom Gidget believes her parents are swinging! This one was followed by another sequel Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), which we’ll skip. It does continue the theme of affluence, but not of surfing. Don Porter plays the father in that one, notable because he also played the role in the TV series.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Elvis Presley had been wanted for the role of Moondoogy in Gidget but was serving in the army at the time. When he emerged he did G.I. Blues (1960) to play on his army experiences. Then, in Blue Hawaii, his character gets out of the army…and his mother (Angela Lansbury, only ten years older than he) wants him to take over the family’s Hawaiian pineapple plantation! His character’s name is Chad! So, getting out of the army is the only thing the real Elvis has in common with this rich boy character. Chad doesn’t like pineapples, so he decides to be a tour guide. His boss is played by Howard McNear, Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show. And naturally there are lost of musical numbers on the beach. Girls Girls Girls (1962) and Paradise Hawaiian Style (1966) were both also set in Hawaii but not quite beach party films in the same way as this one.

Beach Party (1963)

American International Pictures, a name you can trust, decided to get into the beach party musical business at this stage, and boy were they glad they did, for it proved a financial boon to them. TV wizard William Asher (husband of Elizabeth Montgomery) directed and co-wrote most of the films in the AIP series. Beach Party was the first of the “Frankie and Annette” musicals starring Frankie Avalon and former Mousketeer Annette Funicello.  Bob Cummings plays a creepy old professor who comes to the beach to study the mating rituals of American teenagers; Dorothy Malone is his justifiably exasperated girlfriend. Jody McCrea (son of Joel McCrea) is Deadhead, comic relief among the teens. (Meredith MacCrea, daughter of Gordon MacCrea, no relation to the differently spelled McCreas, is in it, too. Both would return in other films) Morey Amsterdam is Cappy the beatnik who owns the cafe where all the kids hang out, Harvey Lembeck makes his first appearance as Eric Von Zipper, the villain who heads up a motorcycle gang. Candy Johnson is one of the dancers! The gorgeous Yoga Girl is Yvette Vickers!Surf guitarist Dick Dale provides cool music. And no less than Vincent Price (who starred in many a AIP horror movie) makes a cameo at the end as Big Daddy!

Muscle Beach Party (1964)

This one supplements eye-candy for boys (ie, girls in bikinis) with eye candy for girls (a bunch of oiled muscle men, led by coach Don Rickles), making the proceedings not just a Beach Party but a Muscle Beach Party. Frankie and Annette, McCrea, Amsterdam, Candy Johnson, and Dick Dale all return, joined by Buddy Hackett  as a rich agent, and a young Dan Haggerty plays one of the surfers. Peter Lorre replaces Vincent Price in the apparently obligatory horror star cameo. It was Lorre’s last film, released two days after his death. And there is also a musical number by Little Stevie Wonder, then only 13 years old!

Bikini Beach (1964)

“Bikini Beach” — isn’t there where they tested atomic bombs? In this Frankie and Annette picture, Avalon plays dual roles, the other one being British rock star and drag racer “Potato Bug”, presumably so he could strut around wearing an ascot and do his terrible English accent. The great Keenan Wynn plays a millionaire named Huntington Honeywagon III who spoils all the fun at the beach when he shows with a trained chimp who is better skilled at being a teenager than all the kids. The chimp can dance, surf, race cars, and presumably masterbate better than the best of them. Boris Karloff plays an art dealer, the third great horror star to appear in the series. And the legendary Timothy Carey is South Dakota Slim (a dynamite joke, given that no one is more Brooklyn or less western than Timothy Carey).

Pajama Party (1964)

As if to atone for playing two roles in the previous film, Frankie Avalon only has a cameo in Pajama Party, towards the end. Tommy Kirk plays a young martian (sic) who is sent to earth to scope it out for a future invasion. You’d think that would make it into the title somehow, but, nope, the draw apparently is pajamas. He ends up helping a widow named Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester) fend off an evil gang that wants her savings, led by Lonely Maytag Repairman Jesse White. This is the first of the Beach Party pictures to feature the great Buster Keaton, here unfortunately playing an “Indian” character named Chief Rotten Eagle. He’s not the only big star from days gone by to make an appearance. Dorothy Lamour has a small role and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen has a cameo as herself (one year prior to her death). Did we forget to mention Annette Funicello? Well the titular pajama party is HERS, she’s at the center of it. Look for Teri Garr and Toni Basil as pajama girls!

Ride the Wild Surf (1964)

Though it goes here chronologically, this one is not a musical or an AIP picture, although it does include the title tune, performed by Jan and Dean. Though Fabian stars in it, even he doesn’t sing.  This one is more of an earnest surfing drama, one that would make a great double feature with Point Break, including as it does terrific documentary footage of actual Pacific surf.  Fabian, along with buddies Tab Hunter and Peter Brown goes to Hawaii for the surf.  Along the way, there is romance with the likes of Shelley Fabares (then fresh off The Donna Reed Show), and Barbara Eden (soon to star on I Dream of Jeannie). 

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For Those Who Think Young (1964)

You would think a youth oriented film would be called For The Young, but, no, that wasn’t the slogan of Pepsi at the time, and this movie is notable, not to say notorious, for aggressive product placement and tie-ins, not just for Pepsi, bit also Baskin-Robbins, Honda, Buick and others. It was producted by Frank Sinatra’s Essex Productions, and featured Nancy Sinatra in her first film role; it was also the first film role for Claudia Martin, Dean Martin’s daughter. Bob Denver (then best known for being Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis) is Sinatra’s love interest. He performs the musical number “Ho Daddy, Surf’s Up” upside down with eyes drawn on his chin, a sight and sound every bit as disturbing as you can imagine. His Gilligan’s Island co-star Tina Louise plays an aspiring starlet named Topaz McQueen, and frankly I would have a much better time by freezing the film on a still frame of her and gazing at that for 90 minutes. James Darren of the Gidget films and Pamela Tiffin of the 1962 remake of State Fair star in the main plot (the usual one of him being a dawg in pursuit of her, and her playing hard to get). The other plot concerns Darren’s grandfather (western villain Big Bob Middleton) trying to close down the kids’ favorite hangout, so he will settle down to manage the family business. His uncles are played by Paul Lynde (soon of Beach Blanket Bingo), and the unsufferable Woody Woodbury, whose interminable “comedy” routines in the nightclub are the squarest thing about the film. At the time he was known for his comedy albums and for hosting the tv game show Who Do You Trust? The rest of the cast is jaw-dropping: a young Ellen Burstyn (then billed as Ellen McRae), George Raft, Louis Quinn (of 77 Sunset Strip, and Gypsy), Roger Smith (also of 77 Sunset Strip and husband/manager of Ann-Margret, who was originally to appear in this film), Jimmy Griffin (later a founder of the pop group Bread; he sings a number), Mousie Garner, Benny Baker, John Ford stock company member Anna Lee, Jack La Rue, Allen Jenkins, Robert Armstrong, and surf champ Mickey Dora. I’m thinking the presence of one Edie Baskin in the cast may have something to do with the Baskin-Robbins sponsorship.

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The Horror of Party Beach (1964)

Del Tenney’s independent production has been called the worst movie of all time, but on the other hand it got the jump on AIP by mashing up two of their own genres: low budget monster movies and surf party musicals. Music was provided by the New Jersey group The Del-Aires. There are no stars among the principals, although Broadway actress Eulabelle Moore stands out in the cast as a stereotyped maid, in a role not dissimilar from the sort Mantan Moreland would play in some low budget horror films. The beach party-horror combo would once again become a staple during the slasher movie trend of the ’80s, and I would also point out that the toxic waste monster idea would be revived by Troma’s 1984 The Toxic Avenger. 

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

Beach Blanket Bingo was one of two films disrupted by the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. Ride the Wild Surf was originally to feature Jan and Dean as Fabian’s friends (rathen than Hunter and Brown). But Dean was friends with some of the people involved in the kidnapping, so they were dropped. And Nancy Sinatra was to co-star in Beach Blanket Bingo, along with Avalon and Funicello. But as her character gets kidnapped in the film, and her brother Frank Sinatra Jr was recently kidnapped, it seemed in bad taste to have her play the role. Instead the part went to Linda Evans, best known nowadays for Dynasty. Most of the usual gang are back, with the new addition of Deborah Walley of Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Paul Lynde plays a smarmy Hollywood agent and columnist Earl Wilson plays himself. And, as the title promises, the new fad of sky diving is thrown into the mix. I believe this was the first of AIP’s beach musicals I ever saw, on TV as a kid. I can still sing the unbelievably tiresome theme song, “That’s the name of the, That’s the name of the, That’s the name of the game!”

How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

Whether this one or the previous one is the last AIP beach party musical to contain ALL the magical ingredients is a matter of deep, philosophical debate. Most of the stock company are present, although Frankie is only in it for about five minutes. Then he says goodbye and joins the navy, leaving Annette to be pestered by Dwayne Hickman (at the time still a star from The Affairs of Dobie Gillis). Equally hit on is one “Cassandra” (Beverly Adams, also of the Matt Helm movies) who subsequently proves to be the actual Cassandra. That’s not the only magic abroad in the land. On a Pacific Island, Frankie enlists the help of a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) to keep tabs on Annette. Through him we meet another witch (Elizabeth Montgomery as her Bewitched character, who is being a very good sport about this indignity, I must say). Hilarious to mention as an afterthought, but the movie also features Mickey Rooney, and Brian Donlevy, music by the Kingsmen, and a claymation credit sequence by Art Clokey. Damn, could AIP accomplish a lot on a shoestring. My admiration is unceasing.

Sergeant Deadhead (1965)

This is manifestly NOT a beach party musical, but it was definitely a spin-off of AIP’s popular series, featuring regular cast members Frankie Avalon, Harvey Lembeck, Deborah Walley, John Ashley, and Buster Keaton. The idea was to start a series of military comedies. To spearhead the effort, screen comedy veteran Norman Taurog was hired. Taurog’s credits went back to the silent days, but more to the purpose, he had also directed NUMEROUS Elvis musicals (including both beach themed ones and military ones) as well as numerous Jerry Lewis (and Lewis and Martin) comedies, including Lewis’s navy comedy Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959). Not to mention the hardly irrelevant All Hands on Deck (1961) with Pat Boone. To shore up the cast there were also Eva Arden, Cesar Romero, Gale Gordon, Fred Clark, Reginald Gardiner, and Pat Buttram. The failure of this movie is a good indication of a sea change taking place in America. Despite the fact that the Vietnam War was at that very moment heating up, it was no longer a given that a general audience would automatically relate to a service comedy. Post-war America was affluent. Some young people served. Other young people, a majority, in fact, had apparently endless leisure time to fool around on the beach. And those also happened to be the ones with lots of disposable income to spend on movie tickets.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

This was also directed by Taurog for AIP, with a script by classic comedy veteran Elwood Ullman. It has neither a service nor a seashore scenario but it does prominently feature bikinis and several cast members from the earlier series’ so it seemed apt to include. (I should mention here that there was another film between Sgt. Deadhead and Dr. Goldfoot, featuring many of the same cast. But is called Ski Party and has a winter sports setting. Talking about snow and hot cocoa on the first day of summer just seems plain wrong). Anyway, for a long time Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was my candidate for the worst comedy ever. I owned a copy of it years ago, and watched it perhaps dozens of times, like picking a scab, or combing among the debris of a plane crash. Oh, the movie was plenty successful in its day, and is even funny a lot (or some) of the time. But most of the cast are not comedians, and there are no songs to ameliorate the discomfort of watching the many amateurs work so hard to be cute and funny. (Apparently, it was originally a musical and a much better picture, but the songs were cut). Basically the film is a kind of mash-up incorporating some of AIP’s beach party people and some of their horror people, as well as a parody of James Bond films. Unlike the Bond films, exotic locations from around the world were not in the budget, however; the events of the story all take place in San Francisco. Even so, it was the first AIP picture with a budget of over a million dollars. Frankie Avalon plays a bumbling spy, Fred Clark his apopletic boss and uncle, Dwayne Hickman his playboy friend, Susan Hart (wife of AIP president James Nicholson) plays the part that would otherwise have gone to Funicello (who nonetheless does have a cameo), Vincent Price is the titular villan and James Mullaney (also of the Taurog directed Elvis musicals Tickle Me [1965] and Spinout [1966] and the Sherwood Schwartz sitcom It’s About Time) is Dr. Goldfoot’s sidekick Igor. The plot is that Dr. Goldfoot is creating gorgeous girl robots in bikinis, to seduce rich men and take thir fortunes. There is a similar plot in the Italian-made sequel Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), and (I can’t help noticing) also the Fembots on The Bionic Woman (1976-80), as well as Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Come on guys, get a new idea! This one wasn’t too brilliant to begin with! The best thing about this film? Is the Art Clokey credit sequence (again) and the theme song, performed by The Supremes (without Diana Ross, no less).

Girl Happy (1965)

Elvis Presley plays a night club performer who has been enlisted to look after a college girl (Shelley Fabares, from Ride the Wild Surf) in Ft. Lauderdale during spring break!  Along the way he sings the title song, plus “Puppet on a String” (which went to #14) and — wait for it — “Do the Clam”, which went to #21, and was clearly some sort of inspiration for Clambake. Also in the cast: Nita Talbot, Jackie Coogan, and John Fiedler

The Girls on The Beach (1965)

“The Girls on the Beach Are All Within the Reach” goes the wise and universal lyric of the title song. This movie actually features the Beach Boys and Lesley Gore! You may have noticed surprisingly little participation by the KINGS of surf culture, the Beach Boys in this cinematic genre thus far. It actually predates them. They formed in 1961, and became popular in 1963. Of the quintet only Mike Love and Dennis Wilson had any conceivable potential as actors, and that’s being charitable, though later Dennis did star in movies like Two Lane Blacktop after the surf craze was over. You’d think at the very least that the boys would write soundtracks to these movies, but no, most of the tunes were written by hacks. The Beach Boys were neck deep in a grind of recording, touring and making promotional appearances for their albums, too deep to work movies into their schedule apparently. But they did participate in this one film. In addition to them and Gore, it has the Crickets, Buddy Holly’s former backing band, performing Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”. Both Holly and Valens were killed in the same plane crash six years earlier, but that casts no pall over this light comedy about a group of sorority girls putting on a concert.

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Beach Ball (1965)

Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip enjoys his day in the sun in more ways than one in this romp, in which he plays a dude who manages to get grant money to underwrite his rock and roll band! Also features Brenda Benet, Dick Miller, et al, and best of all the full line-up of the Supremes (i.e., including Diana Ross). Better still: it’s directed by none other than Lennie Weinrib — best known as H.R. Pufnstuf. 

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A Swingin’ Summer (1965)

This one is set at a lakeside resort rather than the ocean, but it cleaves to the genre in all other details. The plot concerns some teens who want to produce a concert, and some others who attempt to sabotage that effort. Lots of interesting people in this one: a young Raquel Welch, Lori Williams, William Wellman Jr, and acts like Gary Lewis and the Playboys (featuring Jerry Lewis’s son), the Righteous Brothers, and the Rip Chords. 

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The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)

Former Hollywood star Jon Hall not only plays one of the main roles (a scientist) but directed this beach party/monster movie hybrid, with music by The Illusions.

Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)

This AIP film, really the last in this series, does a much more thorough job than Dr. Goldfoot at sewing together the studio’s two popular film series. From the surf/ teen side there are Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, Dwayne Hickman, Jesse White (from Pajama Party) and, if not a beach, at least a swimming pool. From the horror side, we Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, a haunted house, and, what the hell, silent star Francis X. Bushman. Buster Keaton was dead by this point but vaudeville comedy is aptly represented by Benny Rubin and Patsy Kelly. Nancy Sinatra performs a number, as does Dean Martin’s daughter Claudia. And the boss’s wife Susan Hart returns. The plot? Need there be one? Boris Karloff is a ghost who has one day to perform a good deed so he can get in to heaven! I should have thought heaven would be off the table for Karloff!

The Fat Spy (1966)

One of my favorite films! read about it here!

Clambake (1967)

Okay, Elvis was now woefully behind the curve. As recently as Viva Las Vegas he could lay a claim to being as exciting as the newer groups that were coming up. But Clambake in the year of Sgt Pepper, Monterey Pop, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Jefferson Airplane etc? Even AIP had stopped making beach party movies. The King was suddenly very much yesterday’s papers. As we all know, he managed a major comeback, but that was two years after the indignities of Clambake. The plot? Okay, you asked for it. Elvis plays an oil heir who switches places with a Miami water ski instructor to see if he can find a girl who will love him for himself. Love him for himself? He’s Elvis Presley, a walking, talking, dancing, singing, smoldering, envelope busting personification of male sexuality! Women would line up a million deep to “love him for himself!” Aye, aye, aye. The film also features Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby, Gary Merrill, James Gregory (from Barney Miller), and Hal Peary as the comical doorman.

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But that’s not the end of the story, as I hope you know. AIP moved on to other fads. One of them was biker films — a little ironic given the relentless ridicule of bikers in the beach party films. In the ’80s the beach party millieu would make a comeback, often in slasher films, but also, with more nostalgia and camp in things like Back to the Beach (1987, which reunited Avalon and Funicello) and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party (1987, stage, and 2000, film). How do I know so much about the genre? Well, I too have my own camp horror beach party script I have been developing since the ’80s! It’s had a couple of public readings and is definitely on my bucket list to produce. Backers, please form a line to the left!