In the 1960s, a unique genre of movies came into the world: the "beach party movies." The inevitable ingredients included several attractive "teenagers" (and I use the term loosely), surfing, the beach, a few token adults thrown in, a wafer-thin plot line, and, of course, many almost wafer-thin bikinis worn by the female cast members.
The basic premise was fairly simple: a very innocent boy and girl are in love (in a wholesome way) only to encounter some threat from the outside (of the beach) world, either an adult villain or:
a) A handsome young fellow who tries to attract the girl away from the guy
b) A hot-looking young chick who tries to attract the guy away from the girl.
The plot line is played out, a few songs by '60s artists are thrown in, add some slapstick gags, and a nice, simple resolution in which, above all, the guy and the girl realize that nothing can ever come between them. As simplistic and formulaic as it all sounds, the low-budget beach party movies were tremendously popular in the early to mid-1960s. Teenagers all over America flocked to see the surfing, the mildly amusing jokes and gags, and—let's be honest here—the very healthy young people in their extremely well-fitting swim suits. (The films were usually filmed in Paradise Cove in Malibu, CA, in the dead of winter to fit their future release schedule dates. The poor actors and actresses had to frolic on the beach in swimsuits, freezing in the cold weather.)
Although there were many spin-offs and rip-offs (movie makers never miss a chance to cash in on another's successful formula), the "classic" beach party films were the ones made by American-International Studios and usually directed by William Asher, a total of seven films.
1. Beach Party
In 1963, Beach Party, the first official "beach party" movie, was released and became a box-office smash. It starred the most popular beach party couple: Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. (Oddly, Frankie always played a character named "Frankie," but Annette was inevitable dubbed either "Didi" or "Dolores.") Frankie was already well into his twenties when the film was made, but played a "teen" for the next several years. Annette was fresh from her days as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club with Walt Disney and became the epitome of the sweet, wholesome beach girl. According to Annette, old Walt was severely against her even donning a bikini, as he thought it would tarnish her image, as well as Disney's. (I can't neglect to point out the fact that Annette's bikini is hardly "skimpy;" it is hilariously big and full, almost a one-piece swimsuit with an inch or two sliced out of the middle.)
Nonetheless, the fact is that Annette, more than any other single figure, made the bikini acceptable and popular with American women and untold women and girls all over the world. From its introduction in 1946 to when Annette began donning bikinis in the beach party movies, bikini sales in America actually rose an incredible 3,000 percent. The films also helped generate a huge spike in the mid-'60s in the sale of surfboards to guys.
2. Muscle Beach Party
Beach Party was followed quickly by three more beach party films in 1964: Muscle Beach Party, Pajama Party. The first two were pretty much just more formula films starring Frankie and Annette. The main claim to fame for Muscle Beach Party is that it was the official big screen debut of "little" Stevie Wonder. The beach party films became showcases for other music legends, too, such as the Beach Boys, Little Richard, the Animals, and the Supremes.
3. Bikini Beach
The third movie, Bikini Beach, has a slight (very uneasy) twist: Frankie plays dual roles, that of "Frankie" and also a bizarre "rock star" known as "The Potato Bug." Obviously a take-off of the new musical sensations, The Beatles (beetles, potato bug... get the gag?), Frankie's "Potato Bug" had a mustache, glasses, and a very cheesy British accent. In the end, of course, Frankie's charm triumph's over the "threat" of "The Potato Bug" stealing Annette away.
One indispensable figure of almost all the beach party films, including Bikini Beach, was Harvey Lembeck in his memorable role as Eric Von Zipper. Lembeck, a marvelous character actor, played Von Zipper as a middle-aged satire of Marlon Brando's motorcycle-riding hood in black leather from his classic movie The Wild One (1953). As Von Zipper, Lembeck played the teens' adult nemesis, a bumbling clown who always got the worst of it in the end. He gave the films their single most memorable sight gag with "the finger," a paralyzing index finger being forced against his temple, which left him completely immobile.
4. Pajama Party
The third beach party movie of 1964, Pajama Party, is notable mainly because former Disney actor Tommy Kirk took over the "Frankie" role as Annette's boyfriend. Frankie makes only a few brief cameos, and Kirk is definitely a weak fill-in. As if poor Tommy Kirk didn't have a hard enough time fitting in, in Pajama Party he plays a Martian (!) who comes to Earth, interacts with the resident teens, and is justifiably confused. Oh, and look quickly to spot a teenaged Teri Garr as one of the girl dancers buried in the sand on the beach.
5. Beach Blanket Bingo
The beach party movie genre reached its apogee in 1965 with what is almost unanimously regarded as the finest beach party film, Beach Blanket Bingo. The film is both funny and, at times, quite touching. (I swear!) It features Frankie singing his best beach party song, "These are the Good Times," and also features a young Don Rickles with a glimpse of his famous insulting nightclub act. Paul Lynde acts as comedic relief and, believe it or not, the indomitable Buster Keaton is present to do a few brilliant pratfalls. (Keaton actually appeared in several of the beach party films and was, as always, brilliant and hilarious.) Also featured in the cast is a very young and drop dead gorgeous Linda Evans playing singing sensation Sugar Kane. Marta Kristen (of TV's Lost in Space) plays a mermaid named Lorelei who has a platonic romantic encounter with the beach party films' resident goofball, "Bonehead" (played by a likable Jody McCrea). Beach Blanket Bingo is a perfect time capsule of the pre-Beatles 1960s, although it premiered after their arrival in the U.S.
6. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
In 1965's How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Frankie appears for only 6 minutes. (He may have been getting bored; he was also growing a bit long in the tooth to play the perennial chipper "teenage" surfer boy.) In his place is Dwayne Hickman (of "Dobie Gillis" TV fame) but, like Tommy Kirk, Hickman just can't fill Frankie's shoes.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini does give us the treat of seeing Mickey Rooney camp it up as "Peachy" Keane, an ad executive, with a very fetching Beverly Adams as his protege. According to Rooney, his agent gave him hell for accepting the role; he had been approached by American-International directly and his agent had no part of the deal. Rooney says he was paid well, hung out with a lot of fun kids, and got to listen to rock 'n' roll all day. The money he earned probably came in handy, too, as Rooney had recently declared bankruptcy.
7. Ghost in the Invisible Bikini
The final classic beach party film (and I use the term film loosely) was 1966's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Though there was no Frankie, no Annette, no surfing, and no beaches, this very bizarre movie is still considered the last of the "beach party" films. Featuring the great Boris Karloff in one of his final roles, the movie is about a bikini-sporting ghost who is a guardian angel to the female lead, Deborah Walley. Walley and Tommy Kirk replace Frankie and Annette, who had, by this time, outgrown their "Frankie and Dolores" roles. This "golden turkey" is pleasant only for the lonely guys who want to stare at a gorgeous ghost running around in a bikini. (OK, guilty as charged.)
With Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, the end of the beach party movies had finally arrived.