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Sunday, 5 October 2008

Beach Party (1963)

In the mid sixties, American International introduced a new exploitation genre that did far better than they could ever have expected: the beach party movie, of which this was the first. I've seen a growing number of them and while they're all terrible films, they do have endearing qualities and I'm sure count as guilty pleasures to many. This is my fourth out of the seven entries in the classic AIP series but it only took two to see how there's no real difference between any of them. They all have the same plot, or lack of plot, and that rarely varied throughout. This one certainly defined the formula and losing ten minutes in the middle due to bad cable signal really made no difference.

They're all about cute kids hanging out on the beach where the guys surf and the girls chill. There's lots of sun, sand and surf and the ever present suggestion of sex: none of the kids wear much, naturally. The main characters were usually Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, though they weren't top credited here and officially serve as a subplot. The official plot here has anthropology professor Robert Orwell Sutwell writing a book about the primitive subculture of post-adolescent surfers and doing hands on research. Usually the subplot is the whole plot: that Frankie and Annette spend almost the entire film making each other jealous.

I never did understand how they could be so hot for each other given that neither of them seemed to be a good catch, but that's especially obvious here with Annette mostly dressed and spouting family values and Frankie making her jealous by 'cheating' on her with Hungarian vixen Eva Six. Even in a bikini, which didn't happen often, Annette Funicello wasn't much to look at and Eva Six is dynamite in whatever she's wearing or not wearing. She was aptly described as 'Monroe's face, Mansfield's body and Zsa-Zsa's accent', and I'm stunned that she only made three films. The lack of Annette Funicello flesh on show was due to her still being under contract to Disney, who only allowed her to appear if serious conditions were met.

The other standard plot elements are all here too. There's the current surf band to do some shameless promotion: this time around it's Dick Dale & His Del-Tones. There's the Rats & Mice, a moronic biker gang led by Harvey Lembeck as Erich von Zipper, a bad but annoying accurate take on Marlon Brando in The Wild One. There's a running gag through the series that has him continually paralyse himself with a magic finger, and the origins of that move begin here with Sutwell's esoteric anthropological knowledge. There's also a tiny guest appearance from an older more established star who would somehow remain cool to the youth audience, usually a horror icon borrowed from the studio's seriously awesome roster. Here it's Vincent Price as Big Daddy, who sits unmoving in the background in a couple of scenes with his head down, only to wake up once to deliver a campy line and go back to sleep. The credits shamelessly promote his next film, Edgar Allan Poe's Haunted Palace.

Given how bad these things generally are, this one was surprisingly good but then again it was the first and things do tend to go downhill in series. Certainly it seemed pretty fresh here, with people like Harvey Lembeck and Jody McCrea being less annoying than usual. I never got anything out of Frankie and Annette, but enjoyed some of what else went on: the parts that went to people like Buster Keaton, Timothy Carey, Peter Lorre, Paul Lynde, Boris Karloff or Keenan Wynn. Here my interest went mosty to Bob Cummings (with a little help from Oscar winner Dorothy Malone) and Eva Six.

Cummings is Prof Sutwell and while his storyline is completely inane, he has huge fun with the part, appearing comfortable in no end of insane outfits. He was getting back into movies after a gap of over half a decade to host The Bob Cummings Show on TV but the few parts he managed to land were not a patch on what he had previously been used to. Think Dial M for Murder and an Emmy for the original TV version of 12 Angry Men. I'm still stunned at how little Eva Six has to her name. She made three movies in quick succession, all in 1963, this being the middle one between Operation Bikini and 4 for Texas. She was also voted Miss Golden Globe in 1963, but then she seems to have vanished. I wonder why.

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