EVERY year we watch a variety of beach party films with the kids and crew at Mystery Island, including the genres that cross over, such as: creature feature, hot-rod, and/or JD (juvenile delinquent) films. This goes on throughout the year but usually kicks into high gear from spring break throughout summer ... as the Mystery Island Mai Tai’s call of the wild can be heard loud and clear ... and the cold winds of California give way to the warmth of the sun.
Anyway, I’ve written about the Beach Party movies many times, but with the passing of Annette Funicello ... to the Big Kahuna in the sky ... it’s time to revisit why we love her and why we love the California culture she helped to develop.
Beach Party (1963)
In 1963, American International Pictures (AIP) released the first of the Beach Party movies that would launch a whole new kooky teen genre of drive-in/late night TV fun. Of course, Gidget starring Sandra Dee (1959) pre-dates Beach Party, but Gidget also pre-dates the surf music craze. So, you might say Gidget is to Frankie & Annette as Iggy & the Stooges are to The Ramones. In other words, it's all good, especially when Dick Dale starts slapping those bongos ...
Even though our older brothers had already fallen in love with Annette's tight sweaters on the Mickey Mouse Club, there was a whole 'nother generation appreciating her soft face, killer smile, and girl-next-door personality in those beach re-runs, and truth be told, Annette was a darn good actress. She didn’t have the wild sex appeal of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island or Julie Newmar as Catwoman on Batman. Annette had the good girl quality and always seemed like someone you could actually meet and hangout with, but more importantly, she was fun, and played her part well.
Side note [no offense Annette]: Funny thing is, the older you get, and continue to watch this film, the more you realize how attractive (academy award winner) Dorothy Malone was, playing the adult lead opposite Robert Cummings. She of course went on to play Constance MacKenzie on the Peyton Place TV show.
What truly works for the Beach Party films is the ensemble. Annette worked great against Frankie Avalon, and those two Italian-Americans really helped put the pasta & marinara sauce in teenage cinema. Let’s face it, Italians are great singers. Frankie’s no Francis Albert Sinatra, but hey, “Venus” ain’t too shabby, and I love damn near every corny song from the Beach Party films he sang, especially “Don’t Stop Now” when Frankie’s dancing with Eva Six (Ava in the movie) to make Annette jealous while Dick Dale & His Del-Tones once again lay down the beat.
Eva was like the Hungarian Marilyn Monroe of the Beach Party scene, or as they say in the Beach Party trailer: “A prime asset at any party!”
Add Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) with his Ratz & Mice, a parody of both Marlin Brando in The Wild Ones and Sinatra’s Rat Pack, a few more beach bunnies, and Vincent Price as “Big Daddy” and you have something really special.
Beach Party was AIP’s biggest selling film as of 1963 and, naturally, inspired sequels and many beach-themed knock-offs from other studios, but for the sake of this tribute, we're going to concentrate on American International's fun in the sun and/or wherever else they wanted to party.
Muscle Beach Party (1964)
A great thing about Muscle Beach Party is that it makes fun of all the “muscle heads” that used to hangout on Venice Beach, even though our beloved beach party gang typically hung out on the more exclusive and almost mythical Malibu Beach. When I lived in Santa Monica, I remember seeing those muscle guys standing in a roped-off arena next to the Venice boardwalk, flexing, and staring at their own muscles (and each other's muscles).
The leader of the muscle-bound gang in Muscle Beach Party is of course Jack Fanny aka Mr. Warmth: Don Rickles.
You know, maybe it's not his funniest role ... but it's fun, and I definitely wouldn't want anyone else in the role. Big love to Rickles.
Anyway, Muscle Beach Party is a worthy sequel, right up there with The Empire Strikes Back in terms of character development and continuity. Well, maybe that’s debatable, but it’s got Dick Dale, so shut up! Who could not love a movie with great lines such as:
Countesses [to Frankie]: “You’re cute.”
Frankie: “It’s the way I comb my hair.”
Holy guacamole, that’s good stuff.
Beach Party benefited from songs written by Brian Wilson collaborators, Gary Usher and Roger Christian, but Brian himself joins the gang for Muscle Beach Party (musically) as well as "Little Stevie Wonder," making his first on-screen appearance – jamming with Dick Dale!
Dick Dale is back in full force with talking parts and funny “surfing” scenes, too, a true member of the Beach Party gang, but for some reason did not (could not/would not) appear in Bikini Beach.
The only thing missing from Muscle Beach Party is Eric Von Zipper’s Ratz & Mice, but they do return for Bikini.
Bikini Beach (1964)
The Pyramids and The Exciters Band, two early southern California surf bands step in to fill out the surf music in Bikini Beach. The Pyramids are especially fun to watch as they first appear with Beatles wigs, and then the fake hair is pulled off with strings to reveal the whole band sporting baldy noggins!
Frankie Avalon does a great Beatles parody in Bikini Beach in the form of “Potato Bug.” Anyone who has ever questioned Avalon’s acting ability need only see his awesome Potato Bug portrayal and you’ll be a lifetime fan.
But the true star of Bikini Beach is Annette Funicello’s fishnet bikini. I don’t know, maybe it’s because she’s a little older in this film, but Annette never looked better, a true beach bunny of quality.
Don Rickles returns in Bikini Beach and gives the film many insider Rat Pack jokes in the form of birds & clydes. There is even a surfing ape named Clyde! How could anyone not love that? Oh, and Bikini Beach is the first in the series to crossover with the Hot-Rod/Dragster genre/craze! But don't stop now -- there was even one more in 1964!
Pajama Party (1964)
Pajama Party is the 4th installment in the “official” Beach Party series, one of two films directed by Don Weis, the other was Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and both star Tommy Kirk, not Frankie Avalon.
Some of you may remember that Tommy Kirk starred with Annette Funicello in the 1959 Disney film: The Shaggy Dog, but she also knew Tommy from her earlier days as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. Kirk played Joe Hardy of The Hardy Brothers on a back up segment of the show. Kirk and Funicello also starred the next year [after Pajama Party] in The Monkey’s Uncle (1965). That movie features a fun/goofy title song sung by Annette backed up by The Beach Boys, so … it’s all pop culture connected and Tommy Kirk was a good choice to stand in while Frankie was probably over at United Artists working on I'll Take Sweden with Bob Hope.
The way to understand Pajama Party is to view it as a movie made by the cast of the Beach Party gang—as if the characters themselves were asked to make a pajama party movie. Dee Dee [Annette] suddenly becomes “Connie.” Deadhead [Jody McCrea] becomes “Big Lunk,” maybe because AIP was developing a movie with “Deadhead” in the title? Funny thing is Harvey Lembeck’s character never changes. Eric Von Zipper is Eric Von Zipper in seven beach party films, if you include the cameo in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. (The Zipper gang does not appear in Muscle Beach Party.) That actually makes Eric Von Zipper the most consistent character of the beach party series.
Another interesting aspect of Pajama Party is the kooky addition of Buster Keaton … Buster may have been funny in the very silent films, but in 1964 he was running around in an “Indian” costume as “Chief Rotten Eagle” yelling: “Cowabunga!”
A note on cowabunga: Many people believe the word cowabunga popped up with a cartoon kid named Bart Simpson or from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but in actuality the term began as an Native Indian cliché on The Howdy Doody Show. According to the online Wiktionary the spelling at the time was “kawabonga.” Yet wiki goes on to say the term was popularized by the above-mentioned cartoon characters, which of course is far from true. I grew up hearing beach kids yell cowabunga at each other, but my generation’s pop culture influence and the birth of the “cowabunga” spelling came out of Buster Keaton’s mouth, as yet again, an Indian cliché, thereby making it pretty hard to argue his presentation in this film. Buster Keaton added something to the California mythology.
You may have wondered why I haven’t talked yet about the twenty-something girls in their PJ’s playing “wholesome American teenagers.”
Okay then, well, I have to say the most notable entry there is the addition of Susan Hart. Pajama Party begins with the beach party gang having a pool party, featuring a wonderful shot of Susan Hart doing a hula in a bikini … Don Weis definitely took notice as Susan Hart became the star of the second Weis beach party film as the ghost inside the invisible bikini.
Uh, where was I ... Oh yeah, PJs! Annette sings to her stuffed animals while in her PJs as her girlfriends sway back and forth relating to her boy-troubled lyrics. Classic!
Plus you get a whole choreographed pajama poolside dance routine where Annette’s singing [in PJs of course] and Teri Gar and Toni Basil dance behind her doing the watusi in their PJs. How cool could any genre be?
And, lest you think Frankie Avalon is not in this picture ... he actually plays the Martian leader and Don Rickles plays his Martian henchman “Big Bang.” Did I forget to mention that Tommy Kirk’s lead character is a Martian? Yeah, he’s sent down to Earth by Frankie to scope out a possible invasion, but becomes Annette’s [Connie’s] Martian boyfriend instead.
Onward to Beach Blanket Bingo!
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Beach Blanket Bingo finds things pretty much back to normal (as normal as you get in a beach movie) from the craziness of Pajama Party. Frankie Avalon is back in the lead role as “Frankie” and Annette Funicello is back as “Delores/Dee Dee” although Jody McCrea’s role (originally “Deadhead,” and then “Big Lunk”) has evolved once more into “Bonehead” and carries the major subplot in the film with his romance to a blonde mermaid.
John Ashley, who usually plays “Johnny,” a beach gang regular also gets to step up his participation by switching roles into a larger role as “Steve,” a jump school instructor that has a girlfriend “Bonnie” (Deborah Walley of Ski Party) who tries to steal Frankie away from Dee Dee in order to make Steve jealous, and it’s hi-jinks in the free-fallin’ sky after that. John Ashley and Deborah Walley were actually married at the time, so it was probably fun for them to play against each other.
Don Rickles also returns for Beach Blanket Bingo as “Big Drop,” the owner of the jump school. His “big” role/name changed with each film, the first role beginning in the second beach party movie, Muscle Beach Party.
Don Rickles beach party roles:
Muscle Beach Party: Jack Fanny.
Bikini Beach: Big Drag.
Pajama Party: Big Bang.
Beach Blanket Bingo: Big Drop.
Beach Blanket Bingo was the final beach party role for Don Rickles as his career was then taking off due in no small part to his close association with the Rat Pack. [Note: Rickles’s Rat Pack name was “Rhino”]. Bikini Beach is full of insider Rat Pack jokes and by Beach Blanket Bingo Don was clearly in his “insult comic” mode and gives a stand up performance before introducing the beach party house band, The Hondells.
The Hondells was a fun beach/surf band put together by Gary Usher in 1964 as basically a “Beach Boys” band. The Hondells actually had a top ten hit, reaching #9 with their cover of The Beach Boys song, “Little Honda,” written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love.
“Little Honda” appeared on the 1964 Beach Boys album All Summer Long, but “I Get Around” was such a big hit (number 1) they never got around to releasing “Little Honda” as a single, yet “Little Honda” did appear on a Beach Boys EP in September of that year and you can see on film they did perform it live at the time. Anyway, The Hondells were given permission to cut “Little Honda” as a single just a few months after the release of All Summer Long, giving The Hondells their biggest hit from their premiere album: Go Little Honda.
Also The Queers recorded “Little Honda” in 1996, the same year The Hondells: Greatest Hits album appeared on compact disc.
Do you get the most inside info from a Mystery Island review or what?
My favorite scene features beach party regular Donna Loren singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” while the gang roasts weenies inside their beach house fireplace. The camera keeps turning to Bonehead with tears streaming down his face until the end of the song where you see he’s cutting onions into a bowl.
Ha ha! So funny!
Ski Party (1965)
Ski Party was the first of the beach party gang of films to not feature Annette. She does, however, play the role of a college school teacher who makes out with one of her students in the beginning of the film, so, there is that. The studios were trying to get as much mileage as possible out of Frankie & Annette, so sometimes they were off doing other films. Although, this time around, Annette was most likely busy with Disney's The Monkey's Uncle with her pal (and fellow beach party member) Tommy Kirk.
Frankie this time teams up with Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman, Deborah "Gidget" Walley, and Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig for a sort of ski party remix on Some Like it Hot. You also get great and kooky performances by Leslie Gore and James Brown with his Fabulous Flames. Ski Party is fun. This film could have been a disaster, but there's an awful lot of goofy goodness to be had.
Dell Comics even produced a cool collectible comic book as a movie tie-in.
Ski Party ends with the gang back at a beach house in Santa Monica with the Hondells rockin' out on the beach, so we're right back to more fun in the sun and ready for the next party.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
Frankie has a minimal role in this one, but good ol' Dwayne Hickman fills in the lead spot with Annette very well. I'm still surprised at how good these movies are, this late in the run, and how much I still enjoy watching them. Annette is pregnant, (So that's what she was doing during the ski vacation!) so no fishnet bikinis, but it's actually kind of cool to see her hide behind a classic bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Mickey Rooney actually does a great job in this film. I mean, it's a strange role for him, but he seems to put his heart into the thing. He certainly did his share of goofy young comedies in his day, so I'm sure this was back to school beach style. Check it out. Oh yeah, and there's bikini girls.
This brings us to another fork in beach road with the making of Sergeant Deadhead ...
Sergeant Deadhead (1965)
In a continued attempt to re-imagine the beach party in a different setting, American International sent Frankie & friends to the United States Army. Military comedies were popular at the time, especially on TV. In the 1950s you had The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sergeant Bilko), but the more current influence was certainly: McHale's Navy (1962) and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. (1964).
Unfortunately, Frankie seemed like a fish out of water in this film, and even though the ever faithful beach party member, Deborah Walley, filled in for Annette, much like she did in Ski Party, the chemistry never seems to quite work.
Ironically, it would be beach party gang alumni, Don Rickles, who scored the next hit military comedy show with C.P.O. Sharkey from 1976 to 1978.
A high note in Deadhead is Donna Loren performing "Two Timin' Angel," which carries more of James Bond influence than anything else.
One thing this film could use is a proper DVD release. The bootlegs are poor quality and that definitely doesn't help. A box set containing all these pictures would be ideal.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
Well, if the military comedy thing didn't work out, maybe the stuff is better?
Yeah, sort of. Reliable Dwayne Hickman is back to help Frankie fight off a female robot in the sexy form of Susan Hart, and "Big Daddy" Vincent Price is now the notorious Dr. Goldfoot! (We last saw Susan's curves in Pajama Party, for those of you who are paying attention.) Dr. Goldfoot's bikini clad robots are, of course, the inspiration for the Fembots in Austin Powers, a film franchise heavily influenced by the grooviness of the beach films and spy spoofs.
Yay! What else? Well, you get a theme song by The Supremes and cool cameos by Deborah Walley, Harvey Lembeck, and Annette!
AIP also released a TV special called The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, hosted by Tommy Kirk! Rumor has it that the special was composed of songs that were cut from the Goldfoot film, which is really too bad as the movie needed more music.
Dr. Goldfoot did much better than Sergeant Deadhead at the box office, and it was a hit in Italy, therefore, the 1966 sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, was filmed in Rome with Vincent Price returning as Goldfoot and Fabian filling in for Frankie. Fabian was actually considered for the lead in Beach Party before Frankie! What a different world we would live in if that had happened, but don't worry Fabian fans, he will return before we're done with this tribute.
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)
Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley star in what some reviewers consider the last of the official beach party films, and it's the only film in the franchise to not feature Frankie or Annette, but don't worry, there's still more to the big picture!
Invisible Bikini, despite the lack of the principle players that started the fun, is still full of beach party cast members -- including Boris Karloff. He had previously played the art dealer in Bikini Beach. And, we get a new bikini girl in the form of Nancy Sinatra singing a great tune called "Geronimo"!
What about the ghost in the actual invisible bikini?
Susan Hart of Pajama Party and robot bikini stardom, so you can't ask for more than that!
Invisible Bikini is a fun film, and it meets all the criteria of the former films and even out does a few. The hybrid of the horror/creature feature element was always a part of the beach party gig, so it's fun to see all the cliches full blown here in the ongoing mission to give the beach gang a new place to party.
True, there's no beach in this one, but they use the pool to great effect, as learned in Pajama Party.
Fireball 500 (1966)
When the kids get tired of playing on the beach, it's time to fire up the hot-rods!
Frankie, Annette, and Fabian team-up to kick things into gear in probably the most dramatic role the beach gang ever did.
From the promo poster: "They live from spinout to crack up ... and they love as fast as they can get it."
A note on Elvis during this time: Fireball 500 came out the same summer Elvis was still at the beach in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, which didn't work nearly as well as Blue Hawaii, but by October Elvis would be behind the wheel of a race car (with Shelly Fabares, Annette's BFF!) and guess who his drummer was in that film?
One big happy family.
For Fireball 500, Frankie drove a cool Plymouth Barracuda, given a nice custom tune-up by George Barris, same year he created the Batmobile!
Thunder Alley (1967)
While Frankie was making The Million Eyes of Sumuru for AIP in 1967, Annette & Fabian decided to do one more hot-rod flick, Thunder Alley!
Thunder Alley would have been a better follow up to Fireball 500 if Frankie was able to make this film. Fabian and Annette worked well together, but all of the different pairings, such as Frankie with Deborah Walley, etc., never created the same kind of chemistry that Frankie & Annette seemed to pull of naturally.
Thunder Alley is still a fun film to watch. You get another custom racer by George Barris and Fabian plays Tommy Callahan, a race care driver that gets blackouts ... Annette looked attractively grown up and it seemed like party be it at the beach, in a haunted house, or at the racetrack might go on forever, but that era of the fiesta was essentially over for American International at that point. They would still go on to distribute many more super fun films throughout the 1970s but got absorbed by Filmways in 1982 and ultimately owned by MGM. So, if we want to see all this cool stuff released properly, it's up to MGM. They did produce one Frankie & Annette MGM Movie Legends collection that features 8 of the movies mentioned above.
We would next see Annette in the 1968 Monkees movie: Head, and since The Monkees were also influenced by the beach party films, it was great seeing them hang out together. Teri Gar's in Head, too -- Pajama Party reunion!
Other than a TV reunion in 1977, I don't think Frankie & Annette did the watusi until the great Columbia Pictures film: Back to the Beach (1987).
Even though the signs of Annette's illness were coming on during Back to the Beach, she stayed active and she and Frankie showed up on Full House in the 1991 episode "Joey Goes to Hollywood" as a part of a fictional TV show called Surf's Up, which was probably a test vehicle for a real show that never happened.
Annette Funicello died on April 8, 2013 in Bakersfield, California from complications due to multiple sclerosis.
Frankie Avalon had this to say:
"I'm devastated ... I loved that gal.
"It makes me smile to know that she's up there dancing and singing and having a good time."