Beach Movies

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Beach Movies

During the mid-1960s, one of cinema's most successful kind of film was the beach-movie genre. These low-budget, hastily produced features celebrated California's beaches, surfing, and teen culture. One series of films starred Frankie Avalon (1940–) and Annette Funicello (1942–) as "Frankie" and "Dee Dee"—two wholesome teens who descended upon the beach with dozens of their friends every summer. The group lived free from the interference of parents and without financial worries. They spent their days surfing, partying, dancing, skydiving, and enjoying other innocent entertainments. In Andrew Edelstein's The Pop Sixties, William Asher (1921–), the director of several of the beach movies, described the premise of the series: "It's all good clean fun. No hearts are broken, and virginity prevails."

American International Pictures (AIP), which had profited during the 1950s with low-budget horror and juvenile delinquent films like Reform School Girls (1957) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), produced the beach movies. Sam Arkoff (1918–2001) and James Nicholson (1916–1972), AIP executives, noted that the audience for their delinquent teen films was shrinking while movies featuring clean-cut, wholesome teenagers, like Gidget (1959) and Where the Boys Are (1960), were playing to large crowds. They decided to capitalize on the trend by producing Beach Party (1963). The plot for this film (and all those in the series) revolves around the romance between excitable Frankie and curvaceous Dee Dee. Funicello's character wants to marry Avalon's, but he is afraid of settling down. Numerous musical numbers, melodramatic subplots, slapstick comedy, and chases balanced the romantic aspects of the beach movies. The core beach movies produced by AIP between 1963 and 1966 include Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965; generally considered the best of the series), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

Ironically, Funicello never wore a bikini in any of the films. Walt Disney (1901–1966), her mentor, requested she wear only modest one-piece bathing suits to protect her innocent image.

The beach movies were complete fantasy, as the turbulent social issues of the 1960s never invaded Frankie and Annette's domain. The gang never worried about being drafted to Vietnam, they were racially segregated, and they never had sex. The adults who appeared in the series were comic villains who did not understand the teens and constantly attempted to ruin their parties. Among the established adult celebrities who appeared in the beach movies were Vincent Price (1911–1993), Don Rickles (1926–), Paul Lynde (1926–1982), Boris Karloff (1887–1969), Linda Evans (1942–), Buddy Hackett (1924–), Morey Amsterdam (1908–1996), Elsa Lanchester (1902–1986), and silent-film legend Buster Keaton (1895–1966). The adult actor most associated with the films is Harvey Lembeck (1923–1982), who played "Erich Von Zipper," a Brando-inspired yet comically played motorcycle-gang leader.

American International Pictures attempted to repeat the beach movies' success by presenting their stars in similar films away from an ocean setting. These films include Ski Party (1965), Fireball 500 (1966), and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). By the late 1960s, however, the novelty of the films had worn off and their stars had grown too old to convincingly portray teens. Furthermore, audiences were demanding more realistic cinematic depictions of the young adult experience. In 1987, Avalon and Funicello starred in Back to the Beach, in which they mocked their wholesome images.

—Charles Coletta

For More Information

Arkoff, Sam. Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants. New York: Birch Lane, 1992.

Edelstein, Andrew. The Pop Sixties. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.

McGee, Mark Thomas. Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1984.

Staehling, Richard. "The Truth About Teen Movies." In Kings of the Bs. New York: Dutton, 1975.