The following is a paper I wrote in college on beach movies in 1998
The advent of rock-n-roll brought with it a new trend in moviemaking. Making movies specifically for teenagers. From 1954 to 1958, Hollywood produced many pictures about juvenile delinquency, but by 1959, teenagers wanted something new. Hollywood tried to start a beatnik craze with films like “The Beat Generation” and “The Rebel Set” but America’s youth couldn’t relate. What teenagers wanted turned out to be beach movies, created by American International Pictures. Beach movies were about squeaky-clean kids having squeaky-clean fun at the beach. AIP’s series was so successful they had every other major studio trying to make their own beach movie. But the majors never could get it right. Their pictures never achieved the same look or feeling that that series at AIP did. As a result, very few non-AIP beach films were ever financial successes. What was AIP doing that the majors weren’t?
Between 1959 and 1962, many cultural events outside the movie industry would take place, giving birth to the newest teen film craze. Teen music was rapidly changing. The original rock-n-rollers were becoming scarce because scandal, jail, or the army had destroyed their careers. This paved the way for teen idols to take over the music scene. Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, James Darren, and Fabian became the hottest things in music. Naturally, their careers ended up in the movies but because of their clean-cut image, they stayed away from making juvenile delinquent pictures.
On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the fiftieth state and America went “Hawaiian”. American backyards became the sites of neighborhood luaus, filled with tiki gods and Tonga torches. Women started wearing muumuus, and surfing became the number one new sport for teenagers on the coasts. Surfer slang, derived from Hawaiian words, like cowabunga, gremmy, and ho-daddy crept into everyday conversation. Around 1962, surf music started appearing on the charts. The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Dick Dale and others helped to create an image of summer and the beach that was nothing but fun. Another factor was the invention of the bikini, named after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The U.S. had conducted atomic testing in that area in 1946, and the bikini was supposed to have the same effect on our beaches that an a-bomb would.
The earliest beach movie emerged out of this time period. “Gidget” opened in 1959 and told the story of a young girl that befriends a group of California beach bums. Gidget was successful enough to spawn two sequels, two TV series’, and two TV movies, but it didn’t start a new trend in teen moviemaking. The next year MGM released “Where the Boys Are” about a group of girls that join the ranks of the thousands of other college kids that invade Fort Lauderdale each year. “Where the Boys Are” wasn’t enough to get the beach ball rolling either. Although Connie Francis sings a couple songs, it was not a musical and the melodramatic moral of the story is that premarital sex can drive you to suicide.
It wasn’t until 1963 that American International started the big beach party cycle. AIP needed to come up with a new series of films for their target audience. For the past couple years AIP had been mainly releasing badly dubbed imports and Roger Corman’s Poe series. AIP was famous for teen exploitation and had made most of their money in the late fifties by making films that appealed to teens. AIP knew how to pack the teenagers into the theaters with their ad campaigns, often presented in a provocative, wild, and sometimes violent fashion. The campaigns were designed to appeal to the immature emotions of the American youth, ages twelve to twenty. The films never promised what the ad campaigns promised, but teenagers didn’t seem to mind.
Then in 1962, American International founders, Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson were previewing films in Italy. One of the pictures really stood out for them, not because they liked the film but because they liked the setting, the beach. When Arkoff and Nicholson got back to the states, Arkoff sent his brother-in-law, Lou Rusoff to the beaches of California to gather information about the young people that hung out there. Rusoff was one of AIP’s most prolific screenwriters and had written such AIP classics as “The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow”, and “It Conquered the World”. He returned from the beach with a script called “Beach Party”. It was about bad kids, marijuana, sex and the generation gap between kids and adults. Basically it was the same kind of thing they’d been doing and Rusoff thought he could start the juvenile delinquent cycle back up.
AIP then called up William Asher to direct the film. Asher had been directing features since 1948 but had been recently doing a lot of television like episodes of “I Love Lucy”, “Make Room For Daddy”, and “Bewitched” which starred his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher liked the idea of making a movie about beach dwellers, he had grown up on the beach, but he felt the film should be about kids having fun without having to worry about serious problems. He wanted to make a movie about kids living it up before they had to make a commitment to something like marriage, college, or a career. AIP reluctantly let Asher have his way so he and screenwriter, Robert Dillon started work on a revised script. In the end, Lou Rusoff would take complete credit for the screenplay since he became very sick. The people at AIP could see that “Beach Party” would certainly be Rusoff’s last script, and they knew it would mean a lot to him to be given the screenwriter credit. Rusoff died while the film was being edited and never got to see the finished product.
For the main cast, AIP wanted Annette Funicello for the female lead but she was under contract at Disney. Disney wasn’t sure what to do with Annette. They hadn’t used her in a movie in two years so her agent, Jack Gilardi thought doing the film for AIP was a good opportunity. Disney had other ideas though. Annette was a personal favorite of Walt Disney and he thought AIP would destroy the clean-cut image they had worked so hard to create for her. Walt Disney knew AIP’s reputation through their wild, sexy ad campaigns, not through their actual films. Eventually Disney loaned Annette out to do the movie on two conditions; Disney got script approval and Annette was not to be seen on screen in a bikini.
Next AIP went after Fabian to play Annette’s boyfriend. But Fabian was under contract at Fox and couldn’t be let go. Bobby Vinton expressed great interest in the part but Jack Gilardi insisted Frankie Avalon be given the part. Frankie had previously worked for AIP in movies like “Panic in Year Zero” and “Alakazam the Great”. When Frankie and Annette finally got together it was obvious they had chemistry. Bob Cummings was signed to play the stuffy anthropologist studying the kids beach activities and Oscar winner, Dorothy Malone was to play his assistant.
“In a sense, Jim Nicholson and I were taking a gamble with the beach movies. After all, there were no beaches in Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, or many of the other places where our movie played.” (Arkoff, 129) “Beach Party” took fifteen days to shoot and had a budget of only $350,000. AIP then launched a major ad campaign costing more than the movie. They were still unsure about the future of the film but they were now committed to it. On August 7, 1963 when “Beach Party” finally opened, the theaters were flooded with teens, breaking many house records at the time. Theaters that passed on booking it now clamored for prints. AIP knew they had created the newest cycle of teen films.
AIP’s series had a basic formula. Boy and girl show up at the beach. They break up. Boy tries to make girl jealous and girl tries to make boy jealous. By the end of the picture they get back together again. Along the way, they dance, they sing, they surf, they have a good time. Usually the end of the picture would contain a big, silly chase scene or pie fight. The only antagonism the surfers face is from leather-clad biker parody, Erik Von Zipper, played by Harvey Lembeck. Erik Von Zipper is the embodiment of everything the surfer’s are against. With his gang, the Ratz and Mice, Von Zipper would show up each movie and try to end the surfer’s fun, but Von Zipper and his gang were terribly inept and more of a danger to themselves than to the kids on the beach.
The cast in the AIP series was important to its success. A lot of fresh, young faces were recruited right off the beaches of Malibu by William Asher himself. John Ashley, who used to always play the bad kid in older AIP juvenile delinquent films, played Johnny. Jody McCrea, son of Joel, played Deadhead. Donna Loren played Donna, a character that didn’t get a lot of lines but got her own musical number each picture. At the time Donna Loren was the spokes-model for Dr. Pepper and like Annette, was forbidden to wear a bikini on screen. Other regular cast members include Don Rickles, Morey Amsterdam, Buster Keaton Dick Dale, Little Stevie Wonder and others. Guest stars include Buddy Hackett, Keenan Wynn, Basil Rathbone and you never knew when Vincent Price or Peter Lorre might show up to give us “the word”. “The word”, being one of the many running gags that made AIP’s beach series such a hit. Although none of the characters were given much development, it was still easy for teens to identify with them.
The fun didn’t stop with just the movies either. Many theaters held their own beach parties prior to show time. Big dump trucks would deliver white sand to theaters, and along with fishnets, old boats, and a band for dancing, the theater owners would create a beach in the lobby. Quite often, the event would be televised. All kinds of promotional events surrounded the beach movies. Seven-Up provided free beverages to the theaters and for a while their slogan was “Fresh-up with 7-Up when you go to a beach party.” John Ashley became a major promotional tool for AIP and drew huge crowds at airports. A “Bikini Beach” dance party held at a Conoga Park Shopping Mall and attended by Annette drew crowds of over five thousand. The beach movies were major events.
Perhaps the most important factor in the success of AIP’s beach party series was due largely to William Asher’s directorial style. Paramount called Asher immediately after the release of “Beach Party” to do a beach movie for them, but he declined due to the fact Paramount wanted a “serious” beach movie. Asher’s style and approach to the beach movies were easily distinguished from the works of others. They had a continuous, vivid, quickly moving flow to them. If Asher had an idea while shooting he wouldn’t stop to write it down, he’d just do it, and it would always work. Surreal elements gave AIP’s beach movies a cartoonish, Mad Magazine quality to them. In fact, the titles to “Muscle Beach Party” were illustrated by Mad Magazine’s, James Warhola. Erik Von Zipper would place himself in a state of suspended animation by jabbing his finger into his temple. Candy Johnson would knock surfer’s from their boards by doing the twist and Dwayne Hickman would stare directly into the camera and tell the audience, “Look, go have a Coke or something, nothing good’s gonna happen for at least ten minutes.” All these surreal elements were what helped to make AIP’s beach series so successful. Repeating the same gags again and again but in a different way was what made an AIP beach movie distinguishable from the rest.
After Beach Party was released, it didn’t take very long for the majors to release imitators. Warner Bros. released “Palm Springs Weekend” three months after the release of “Beach Party” and two months after that, “Surf Party” was released by Twentieth Century Fox. Both studios made the mistake of injecting serious, relevant themes into their beach movies. Kids didn’t want that.
AIP knew they had to act fast and put out a follow up to “Beach Party” so Jim Nicholson called William Asher and Robert Dillon to spend a weekend with him in Miami and talk about a sequel. The three of them came up with the story that weekend. Nicholson and Dillon wanted to show that the characters had grown some since last time, had jobs now, were going to school, etc. But Asher insisted that the kids should still spend all their time on the beach having fun. Asher called it “the longest summer on record”. Asher got his way and seven months later “Muscle Beach Party” was released; another big hit for AIP.
1964 was a big year for beach movies. Eight were produced, three of them by AIP. The two most successful non-AIP beach movies came following the release of “Muscle Beach Party”. “For Those Who Think Young” was released by United Artists in June of ’64. It starred James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Nancy Sinatra, and Bob Denver. The film was packaged as a beach movie, complete with animated surfboards in the titles and a few trips to the beach. But the beach elements seem tacked-on. Most of the time the kids hang out in a college nightclub called “Surf’s Up” and not on the beach at all. The plot revolves around a washed-up comedian named Woody Woodbury who amuses the college kids by telling them jokes about being drunk. It’s obvious when watching “For Those Who Think Young” that the producers were merely trying to capitalize on the growing beach craze by adding beach elements even though they weren’t necessary.
The other successful non-AIP beach movie was “Ride the Wild Surf”, released by Columbia. The story is about three really old teenagers played by Tab Hunter, Fabian and Peter Brown, who go to Hawaii to surf the big waves there. They meet Shelley Fabares, Barbara Eden, and Susan Hart to couple up with and gripe about their dull, rich-kid problems. “Ride the Wild Surf” is a real surfing movie with great footage of surfers in action. Unfortunately, when the surfing stops, so does your interest in the film. “Ride the Wild Surf” suffered from being too melodramatic, and it makes surfing seem too competitive to be fun. “Ride the Wild Surf” and “For Those Who Think Young” both made a lot of money, but unlike AIP’s beach movies, they cost a lot of money to produce, making the profit-margin much narrower. The relative success of “Ride the Wild Surf” and “Those Who Think Young” was probably due more to the fact that beach movies were new and there was a big demand for them, not because they were any good. From then on, teens were more careful about seeing AIP beach movies over those by other studios.
Over at AIP, they were raking in the profits. Their third installment, “Bikini Beach” shattered house records previously held by “Beach Party” and “Muscle Beach Party”. Other studios started getting into the act. Universal released “The Lively Set” and MGM hoped to start a new ski craze with “Get Yourself A College Girl”, keeping the same beach party story elements but replacing the beach with a ski resort. AIP could see that Frankie Avalon was growing restless, and didn’t know how much longer he’d stick around. They then decided to do the first offshoot of the series. The movie was called “The Maid and the Martian” but was later changed to “Pajama Party” in order to have more commercial appeal. The project was an attempt to replace Frankie Avalon and see what would happen. Tommy Kirk, a kid who’d worked for Disney for many years but had been let go after allegations of drug-use and homosexuality, replaced Avalon. The picture also replaced director, Asher with Don Weis. Weis was close in emulating Asher’s style, but there were a few differences. Despite the same type of gags, the same cast, and the same setting, “Pajama Party” felt different. The most obvious thing that was different was the musical numbers. Instead of the kids wildly twisting in the sand, the film had choreographed, professional dancers. Instead of surfing, the kids played volleyball. Also the actors, with the exceptions of Harvey Lembeck and his gang, played different characters. “Pajama Party” wasn’t anywhere near as successful as “Bikini Beach” was just five months earlier and Avalon returned for the next AIP beach movie, “Beach Blanket Bingo”.
Maybe it was just an April Fool’s joke but on April 1, 1965, Twentieth Century Fox released what was probably the worst of the beach movies. Del Tenney, the same director that gave us “Curse of the Living Corpse”, shot the “Horror of Party Beach” in black and white in Stamford, Connecticut. The story involves teenagers spending their days and nights at party beach, dancing the “Zombie Stomp” to the tunes of the Del-Aires. But the kids fun is disrupted when a careless company dumps barrels labeled “Radioactive Waste” into the harbor. The radioactive waste leaks all over some bones, turning them into scaly, reptilian monsters with what looks like a lot of hot dogs sticking out of their mouths. Needless to say the monsters attack and kill a bunch of the beach dwellers before they are destroyed at the end. It was a good idea for Fox to mix the horror genre with the beach genre but unfortunately it was executed wrong, from the dreary Connecticut setting to the decision to shoot in black and white. Five months later “Beach Girls and the Monster” came out. The movie was almost as bad as “The Horror of Party Beach”.
The studio that came closest to emulating AIP’s style of beach movie was Paramount. Originally they wanted a serious beach movie, but held off when they couldn’t get William Asher to direct. Their first attempt was “The Girls on the Beach”, which was released in May of 1965. “The Girls on the Beach” was about a group of girls trying to save their sorority house from demolition. They are led to believe that the Beatles are going to play a benefit concert for them. When the Beatles don’t show up, the girls have to dress up like them in hopes of fooling the surprisingly small crowd that has shown up. Along the way The Beach Boys sing some good songs and Lesley Gore sings some bad ones. Like an AIP beach movie, the plot is silly, never once trying to lecture. But there are so many characters in “The Girls on the Beach” that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. The girls all look alike, and so do the boys. Silly doesn’t always mean fun and “The Girls on the Beach” is proof.
Paramount followed “The Girls on the Beach” with “Beach Ball” five months later. “Beach Ball” starred Edd Byrnes and was slightly more tolerable. “Beach Ball” blended all the elements popular to the beach crowd; surfing, drag-racing, skydiving, skin-diving, and rock-n-roll. Roger Corman served as executive producer and personally hired the hottest musical group at the time, The Supremes, to be in the film. The plot is similar to “The Girls on the Beach” except this time it’s boys trying to raise money to keep their musical instruments. The film comes complete with an AIP style chase scene at the end, where the boys evade their pursuers by dressing as women. Paramount saw that placing the characters in a parentless environment was what made AIP’s series so popular but they still gave the kids too much to worry about. Trying to raise large sums of money leaves little time for surfing and partying.
“How to Stuff A Wild Bikini” was the last pure AIP beach movie. At first, Frankie Avalon refused to have anything to do with it but eventually agreed to do a cameo. The plot was then constructed around Frankie’s absence. While on naval duty in the South Pacific, Frankie gets the feeling Annette will be unfaithful. Frankie gets an island witch doctor played by Buster Keaton to conjure up a girl so beautiful that she will distract all the boys from Annette. This was Annette’s last beach movie too. During the shoot she was five months pregnant with her first child and Asher had to work around that, shooting her in creative ways. It was also William Asher’s last beach movie. The people that made the series such a success were leaving, which was just as well, the fickle taste of America’s teenagers was changing again. They were tired of beach movies.
“How to Stuff A Wild Bikini” made money but AIP knew the series was coming to an end, so they decided they’d start mixing genres. “Dr.Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine” mixed the beach movies with spy movies. It starred Frankie Avalon and Vincent Price and was a success. The next year “Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs” was released. This horrible sequel made absolutely no money. Everything that could go wrong apparently did. The filmmakers even lost the soundtrack to entire film so everything had to be dubbed. Unfortunately, there was so much ad-libbing during filming, the dub looked terrible. Until the day he died, Vincent Price called it the worst film he’d ever done.
AIP also tried mixing beach movies with horror movies in late 1965. “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini”, directed by Don Weis, was like “Pajama Party” in a haunted house. AIP thought that by mixing genres they could revive the series but eventually they gave up. Teenagers wanted something new and eventually rebellion/protest pictures replaced beach movies. Hippies doing drugs replaced squeaky-clean kids. Part of the reason for this was that by 1966, the production codes had been dismantled and studios could tackle subjects they couldn’t before. Universal was the only studio to keep working within the genre, with movies like “Wild Wild Winter” and “Out of Sight”, but after seeing America’s disinterest in them, it was clear that the beach craze was over.
One reason why the beach movies in general were so successful was because of the era they were released in. During the time of Vietnam, racial unrest, drugs, protest and assassinations, the beach movies were a way of holding on to older values that were becoming extinct. For a while most teenagers resisted the changes that were happening and the beach movies were their one last fling before getting serious. Both Life and Look magazines praised the beach movies for their clean-cut way of making films for teens without a lot of sex, drugs, and rebellion. The New York Times, on the other hand, waged war on the series calling it idiotic and full of suggestiveness.
The majors never did manage to get the beach movies right. At first they thought the setting was the most important thing. Throw in a few shots of the beach and you’ve got a hit. The rest of the story will be the same old thing, kids in trouble. That formula didn’t work. The characters had to be having fun at the beach to make it work. When the majors realized this, they took out the parents, the serious problems, the lectures, and everything else getting in the way of good, clean fun. Unfortunately for them it was too late, beach movies were passe.
The beach movies were so important to American International for many reasons. AIP made a lot of money with the series and was able to do higher scale productions than before. The series started with a budget of $350,000 and ended with a budget of $1 million with another million for advertising. But every picture made AIP its money back several times over. Most importantly, AIP had created a series that was uniquely theirs. When AIP first started, their juvenile delinquent pictures were merely imitations of all the others. But the beach series was different. They created it, and no matter how hard the majors tried, they couldn’t make a good beach movie.
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