Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Life's a Beach

Had enough of the snow? We in the mid-Atlantic have had our fill for a while, so in that vein, this week's Dance Party heads to the beach.

In 1963, American International Pictures, which specialized in lower budgeted films, produced a sleeper hit with Beach Party. With its antecedents in the Gidget series of films earlier in the decade, the original intent was to ape the Elvis Presley musicals of the time. They added pop music, bikini babes, and removed any mention of parental authority, and ended up created a new genre of movies. AIP produced seven of the films, and other studios quickly churned out other illustrations of the genre. The plots all had the basic premise of the young leading man and lady trying to make each other jealous by hanging out with others, only to find their way back to each other by the final song. Additional conflict was usually provided by an outsider (Harvey Lembeck had great success spoofing Marlon Brando in several of these films, playing an incompetent gang leader called Eric von Zipper), and as the films gained prestige, Hollywood stars popped up in guest and cameo roles. Peter Lorre, Elsa Lanchester, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Mickey Rooney, and Dorothy Malone made appearances, and comics Don Rickles and Paul Lynde played a leading role in various films. Elizabeth Montgomery contributed a cameo, spoofing her character from the sitcom Bewitched, which was a current hit (Montgomery's husband at the time was William Asher, who co-wrote and directed the AIP beach party films). Give a close look at the fisherman who appears at the end of the clip below; it's silent film clown Buster Keaton.

The premise of the films proved so successful that they eventually moved away from the beach, but nobody seemed to care. Thus, films set in a mountain resort (Ski Party), a haunted house (Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), and at the race track (Fireball 500) are usually considered part of the "Beach Party" ouvre. There was even an attempt to marry the genre with science fiction, in Valley of the Giants, starring a very young and very blond Beau Bridges (that's him on the left, below).

Musical interludes were frequent in these films, and Stevie Wonder, Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, The Righteous Brothers, The Four Seasons, and The Supremes all stopped by in one film or another.

The cast always included a gang of twentysomething actors playing the teens. Sharp eyes can spot Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Linda Evans, Barbara Eden, Raquel Welch, Peter Lupus, James Darren, and Fabian in leading or supporting roles. Darryl Hickman, Deborah Walley, Tommy Kirk, and Shelley Fabares all played the leading couple in one or more of the films, but the undisputed stars of the beach party genre were Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

She grew up on television as one of the original Mouseketeers, and he was already married with children when they were paired in the first beach party movie, appropriately titled Beach Party. They had ongoing pop recording careers independent of the films, and because they appeared in the movie which spawned the genre, they are considered the dream team. They occasionally appeared with other partners, but the half dozen films in which the two star are considered the epitome of the beach party movie.

The genre sputtered out as quickly as it ignited, and by 1967, the beach party was dead. Twenty years later, Frankie and Annette reunited for Back to the Beach, a good-natured spoof of the genre, and the film was successful enough that there was talk of a sequel. Those plans were abandoned when Funicello's health (she has multiple sclerosis) began to decline.

Today's Dance Party was filmed at Paradise Cove in Malibu. Most of the beach movies were filmed here, during the dead of winter, which explains the gray sand and lack of brilliant sunshine. These actors must have been pretty chilled during the filming. But they are not as chilled as those of us on the East Coast who have endured some really nasty weather events this week. Get your twist on, and let's hit the beach!