Disney Channel’s Teen Beach Movie was a sort of Beach Party meets West Side Story meets Out of Sight. Not as bad as I suspected as I was mildly entertained for a good 3 quarters of the movie. The last part bogged down and I found myself reaching for the fast forward button and an itching to pop in Beach Blanket Bingo to see a teen beach musical done right.

The two leads who go back in time were quite pleasant and I liked that the cute blonde surfer boy Brady (Randy Lynch), was the one into the old 60s beach movies while his girlfriend McKenzie (Maia Mitchell) found them to be lame. However, the chemistry between them doesn’t even come close to what Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello had. Also a missed opportunity to cast Frankie in the small role of McKenzie’s grandfather to give it a direct connection to Beach Party rather than Barry Bostwick.

Once the two surfers land back in 1962 after some really cool surfing footage, there are a few nods to the Beach Party movies beginning with the biker gang being called The Rodents comparable to Erich Von Zipper and his Rat Pack and Mollee Gray as the hip-shaking, fringe-trimmed bathing suit wearing Giggles as a homage to perpetual Twister Candy Johnson. The kids hang out in Big Momma’s run by a sassy black woman sort of close to the 60s version where they hung out at Big Drag’s run by insult comic Don Rickles. And Steve Valentine as the movie’s villian does his best Basil Rathbone impersonation straight out of The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini though his plan to ruin the kid’s beach by controlling the weather is lifted from the non-AIP beach movie Out of Sight. I also liked that the two leads really surfed in the present and when back in the 60s they had them in front of blue screens like Frankie and Annette always were. However, for me the similarity to the 60s beach movies ended there. All the songs are instantally forgetable and none come close to the 60s surf music sound. The less said about the Grace Phipps and Garrett Clayton playing the 60s beach stars the better.

Though I sort of enjoyed the movie, it in no way captured what made Beach Party and its sequels so popular. Granted it is a much different time and the innocence of the early 60s is long gone in all facets of life. By the time Beach Party (1963) went into production the second wave of surf music began climbing the charts.  These were pop songs about surfing or the Southern California lifestyle sung in three or four part harmony.  The Beach Boys from Southern California had a regional hit with “Surfin’” and then cracked the Top 20 with “Surfin’ Safari” in 1962.  And in early 1963, Jan and Dean climbed the charts with “Honolulu Lulu” the Queen of the surfer girls before hitting the top of the charts with “SurfCity.”  These songs inspired the surfing dreams of young people across the country some that had never seen the ocean and turned the sport into a national craze.

Beach Party producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff of AIP had the foresight to gamble on a new formula suggested by director William Asher, an avid surfer and denizen of Malibu.  He convinced the producers to make their first pop musical film about clean cut, beach-loving surfers just looking for a good time.  Screenwriter Lou Rusoff set up an interesting premise in Beach Party as it combined aspects of Gidget and Where the Boys Are.  Surfer gets mad at girl for inviting his buddies on their romantic holiday at the beach so he decides to make her jealous.  Throw in an older professor studying the sex habits of teenagers, an inept motorcycle gang, the best stock surfing sequences in the entire series, and a buxom Hungarian vixen, and you have the makings for an entertaining beach party.  In between some of this foolishness, the subculture of surfing is explored.  Surfer slang peppers the script and surf culture is off limits to the adults, biker gang, and “gremmies.”  Yes, we know that real hot doggers don’t break into song or are as dumb as Bonehead, but not since Gidget does a film, amid the slapstick, try to explain the appeal of shooting the curl.

Signed to star in Beach Party (1963) were singing sensation Frankie Avalon and Mouseketeer cast-off Annette Funicello.  Neither actor would be considered an obvious choice to play the typical Southern California beach dweller.  The dark-haired Avalon was slight at five feet, seven inches tall and grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia.  Annette was a buxom, Italian Catholic brunette who had never donned a bikini and never would.  Nevertheless, the chemistry between Frankie and Annette immediately struck a chord with the teenage movie going public as they sang, surfed, bickered, and fell in love under the California sun.  Also contributing to the movie’s immense popularity was the gorgeous Malibu shoreline, ample surfing footage, shirtless surfer boys and bikini-clad beauties, Harvey Lembeck as a fumbling motorcycle gang leader, and authentic surf rhythms provided by Dick Dale & the Del-Tones.  The adult guest stars, including Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone, and Morey Amsterdam, made it appealing to older audiences as well.

AIP meanwhile followed up with two immediate sequels re-teaming Frankie and Annette.  While the first film showed the surfers smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, these activities slowly disappeared in all the subsequent films so as not to rile parents of the teenagers for whom these films were intended.  In Muscle Beach Party (1964) the surfers battle a group of bodybuilders led by the hysterical Don Rickles for their turf on the beach while Annette has competition with Luciana Paluzzi as an Italian countess for the charms of Frankie.  Bikini Beach (1964) was the first AIP movie to introduce another sport as drag racing replaced surfing as the main focal point.  It also lampooned The Beatles with Avalon playing the dual role of Frankie the surfer and the Potato Bug, a British pop singer who flips for Annette. Both were big box office hits as well.

The beach movies were extremely popular as they struck a chord with the teenage psyche.  AIP was probably the first studio to realize that roughly two-thirds of the movie ticket buying public were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.  The beach-party movies were tailored squarely for that audience combining their love of rock music with their hormonal thirst for titillation (e.g. scantily clad boys and girls twitching and singing about love and heartache on the shores of Malibu) without straying from the moral attitudes of the time.  The surf and beach-party movies created a carefree environment where good kids don’t have a care in the world and enjoy an easygoing parentless lifestyle of surfing, dancing, rock ‘n’ roll, and romance, which was unconnected with reality.  It was an escapist fantasy look at the American youth culture—an innocent ideal that most teenagers of the time embraced.

Of course the major studios took notice of AIP’s success with the beach movies and flooded the market with their knock-offs in 1964 and 1965. Soon there was Surf Party; For Those Who Think Young; Ride the Wild Surf; The Horror of Party Beach; The Girls on the Beach; A Swingin’ Summer; Beach Ball; Wild on the Beach, etc. With the over saturation of beach movies in the marketplace, the innovative American International Pictures needed other hooks to lure the fickle teenage ticket buyers into the drive-ins.  They began the year hitting the bulls-eye with Beach Blanket Bingo, arguably the best of the Frankie and Annette beach-party movies.  It threw in everything from mermaids to skydiving and came out a winner thanks to the attractive cast of regulars, newcomers to the genre Linda Evans and Marta Kristen, and hilarious bits from Don Rickles, Harvey Lembeck, and especially Paul Lynde.  The studio ended the year however with a thud.  Though How to Stuff a Wild Bikini featured a pleasant musical score warbled by the cast, the film was weakened by unconvincing leading man Dwayne Hickman, a preoccupied and pregnant Annette Funicello, and a hammy Mickey Rooney. Frankie only cameos at the beginning and end of the movie.

Even so, it was a very popular and profitable run for Frankie and Annette, AIP, and the beach party genre it created. I just don’t see Teen Beach Musical coming close to this phemenon back then though I did read it scored supremely high ratings so I presume a sequel will be in the works.

Great tribute video to all the 1960s Beach Party movies with Frankie and Annette I found on YouTube:






Comments: 4

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  • Michael H

    I see nothing wrong with the Disney Channel serving up an affectionate nod to the beach movies, but it can’t possibly capture the innocence or the spirit of the AIP series. I doubt that Nicholson or Arkoff even had a market research department or knew what a focus group was. They were savvy businessmen who along with William Asher knew there was an untapped market of teens and pre-teens who were looking for escapist fun at an affordable price. The movies were just spicy enough to keep things interesting and they shrewdly sidestepped any of the negative consequences of teenaged hormones ruuning amuck on unsupervised vacations.
    Looking back at those films now, you have to marvel at how smartly they were packaged and it didn’t take ten drafts of a Power Point deck to get a green light or an Excel spreadsheet for the studio to know how profitable they were.

    • Yes, I agree. Actually Arkoff wanted to reignite the juvenile delinquent movies of the mid-to-late 50s but it was director William Asher, a surfer, who came up with the idea of clean cut kids at the beach. Lou Rusoff wrote the screenplay and through in the bungling motorcycle gang led by Erich Von Zipper to appease AIP.

      Also if AIP had their way the movie would have starred Fabian and Sandra Dee. Luckily, he was contracted to Fox and her to Universal and they were not available. We then almost got Bobby Vinton but Frankie Avalon prevailed. And of course Disney only agreed about Annette as long as she did not wear a bikini.

  • Michael

    Interesting info about the casting. I guess Sandra Dee, in addition to being very popular with the teen audience, epitomized the Southern California blonde ingenue and she certainly had big box-office hits with Gidget, Imitation of Life and A Summer Place on her resume. But she didn’t really fit the lithe, athletic image of a beach girl in my opinion. As for Fabian, he was likeable and handsome
    but he never really developed much as an actor. Not that playing Frankie required much acting. Still, I think Avalon managed to make that character more interesting than what was in the script. And as you pointed out, the chemistry he shared with Annette was a significant part of the formula.

    One petty comment I have is that all the media around Annette not showing any navel doesn’t add up. She may not have donned a bikini, but she showed some navel in Beach Party and Bikini Beach. This always sounded more like a press angle than anything Walt Disney decreed. If he had been adamant about it, why didn’t he object to the two piece she wore in the first film?

  • John Black

    I think Sandra Dee would have been fine, but I feel that Fabian was much better as a supporting actor than a lead.

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