Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Beach Party

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Beach Party (AIP, 1963) – Director: William Asher. Writer: Lou Rusoff (s/p and story). Stars: Robert Cummnigs, Dorothy Malone, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Morey Amsterdam, Harvey Lembeck, Eva Six, John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Dick Dale, Andy Romano, Jerry Brutsche, Bob Harvey, John Macchia, Alberta Nelson, Valora Noland & Candy Johnson. Color, 101 minutes.

The revolution has arrived. Accompanied by the sound of Dick Dale on the bongos, we are given an overhead view of Malibu Beach while the opening titles flash before us in vibrant color. Cut to a Piper Cub making its way to a landing on the beach. Being as this is American International, any view from a plane must be accompanied by the sight of the actual plane itself. As we shall soon learn, the plane is an important plot point. 

A quick cut and we see a bright yellow Ford Model A tooling down the highway. In the front seat are Frankie and Annette, who break into the title song: 

We got a early start,
We’re gonna have a ball,
We’re gonna ride the surf,
And that ain’t all.

Nothing is greater than the sand, surf, and the salt air, 
Unrack our boards just as soon as we get there, 
Stack ‘em in the sand while they’re breakin’ just right, 
Yeah, we’re surfing all day and we’re swinging all night, 
Vacation is here, beach party tonight!

As if we were expecting anything else. 

As scored and performed, the piece, while not rock n’ roll, is upbeat and bouncy enough to let us know this is a different sort of musical. 

As the car pulls into the beach at Paradise Cove and parks in front of a nice-looking beach house, we learn that Frankie and his girlfriend Dolores (Funicello) have rented this bungalow for a surfing vacation. Just the two of them, alone. Dolores remarks that it will be just like being married. Frankie nods, for there’s one thing on his mind. But when he carries her over the threshold, he discovers that they’re not alone. Far from it. Dolores has invited the whole gang to stay. Frankie is taken back, horrified by Dolores’ deceit. Dolores tells Frankie she invited the whole gang of friends because she “doesn’t trust herself” to be alone with him. A rift forms and it brings into play a theme repeated in all the sequels: Frankie and Annette quarrel over something or other, try to make each other jealous, and end up happily reconciling.

As the gang hits the beach we see they’re being watched by a pair of eyes looking through a telescope and using a listening device. The eyes belong to R.O. (Robert Orwell) Sutwell (Cummings, complete with bushy beard), an anthropology professor who has rented an adjoining beach house and is observing the language and mating habits of the beach-going teenagers for an upcoming book. He is soon joined by his assistant, Marianne (Malone), who before she ascends the stairs to his home, makes sure to kick the tires of his plane and allow us to make the connection.

As Marianne looks over Sutwell’s impressive display of early ‘60s spying equipment, she makes some remarks about the depth of his interest in the teens’ sex lives. Sutwell doesn’t realize she’s joking and explains that his book, which he plans on calling The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and Its Relation to Primitive Tribes, could be his best to date. Marianne suggests an alternative title, “Teenage Sex,” which horrifies Robert, lest she get the wrong idea. He’s serious: “They’re a true subculture. They live in a society as primitive as the aborigines of New Guinea.” 

Although he’s traveled the world and knows about many things, what Sutwell doesn’t understand is love. He is naive to the point of being painfully square. Marianne, though romantically starved (she’s obviously in love with Robert), agrees to help him with his book, but also gives him a piece of advice: “After you write this book on sex ... read it.” 

Back at the beach, Dolores’ friend, Rhonda (Noland), shows her how easy it is to knock the boys off their surfboards by just wiggling and jiggling. Dolores isn’t impressed, telling Rhonda that Frankie has her in the deep freeze. Rhoda tells her it’s because she turned a weekend alone into “a teenage flophouse.” Dolores admits to getting cold feet, but tells Rhonda there’s more than just sex, such as love and marriage, and that’s what she’s holding out for from Frankie.

During the initial beach scenes (composed of some great stock surfing footage), Dick Dale appears in the sand with his Stratocaster, and jumps into “Secret Surfin’ Spot,” a surf lingo-filled uptempo dance piece. The song is vintage Dale, and the kids jump up to start dancing as Sutwell observes, comparing the dancing to “the Haitian Voodoo ceremony, the Samoan puberty dance, and the mating dance of the whooping crane.” 

Frankie, still seething over the trick Dolores played on him, discusses it with the guys. Frankie hits on the idea of paying her back by flirting with sexy waitress Ava (Six) at Big Daddy’s, the local beer and music hangout. Deadhead (McCrea) says that Ava has everything, to which Frankie replies, “Well, I’ll tell ya, if she doesn’t it’s only because she hasn’t got room for it.”

The owner/host at Big Daddy’s is Cappy Caplan (Amsterdam), a beatnik type who recites lousy poetry, accompanied by Dick Dale and the Deltones, who function as sort of a house band in the film. In the corner is a man fast asleep in a chair. He will remain like that until the end of the movie. That's the man the club is named for – Big Daddy. Dale grabs his Stratocaster and jumps into “Swingin' and Surfin’,” an upbeat number that of course immediately gets the gang dancing. Dolores stews as Frankie flirts and later dances with Ava. After Frankie finishes singing “Don’t Stop Now,” the leather-jacketed Eric Von Zipper and his motorcycle gang enter the cafe, much to the disgust of Cappy, who tells Eric he was hoping they’d skip him this year. 

Dolores, miffed by Frankie’s behavior, gets up to leave, but trips into Von Zipper’s lap. When he won’t let her go, Sutwell, who has been listening and recording from the back, comes to her rescue, temporarily paralyzing Von Zipper with a martial arts trick he picked up in the Himalayas. He then asks Dolores if he can escort her home. Her answer is an enthusiastic “yes,” to the annoyance of Frankie. As he walks her home, they engage in a rather awkward conversation as she thinks he’s after sex, when all he’s after is information. When he tells her their conversation should be finished at his place, she reluctantly agrees, but then he tells her, “so, tomorrow, then?” She smiles and tells him how he knows when a girl shouldn’t be rushed, as she goes into her bungalow blowing a last kiss at Sutwell.

The next morning, Marianne comes by to drop off research texts. Sutwell boasts to her that he made his first contact, “after only two days!” When Dolores suddenly shows up in a bikini, Robert looks at Marianne and suggests to Dolores that they continue this at the beach. He’ll be right along. After she leaves, Marianne says, “No wonder you feel old.” Robert objects that this is strictly business, to which Marianne interjects, “Lolita business,” to an abashed look from Robert.

At the beach, Frankie’s friends Ken and Deadhead entice Robert to get on the surfboard. He takes them up on it despite Dolores’ objections, and after a few spills, catches on nicely. Afterward, Robert wanders off alone to visit Cappy at Big Daddy’s, where he’s told Von Zipper is looking for him. 

Asked by Sutwell for advice on the kids, Cappy relies, “Boy you came to the right cat. If there’s anything you want to know about these kids I can tell you the whole thing in two words. They’re nuts.” “They’re nuts?” “You see, you noticed it too. What do you think they do all day? Run around the beach all day and they only got one thing on their mind – each other. They need a reason, a cause.” And that’s why he has Big Daddy there, to give them the reason, the cause, the word. When Sutwell asks what the word is, Cappy doesn’t know, but is sure Big Daddy will give it to them. 

Frankie enters to have it out with Sutwell, accusing him of “brainwashing her with his beard.” When Robert asks him if that’s the case, then why is he running around with “that Hungarian goulash”? Frankie admits that all the attention to Ava is to make Dolores jealous. Before Robert leaves, Cappy poses a question: “Professor, are you studying these kids’ sex lives or are you getting involved in it?”

Frankie later argues with Dolores at their bungalow over Sutwell, during the course of which he admits to Dolores that he loves her. But their embrace is broken up by Ava, who gets Dolores so angry that she leaves in a huff.

At the campfire get-together later that night on the beach, Robert shows up in another outlandish outfit. As a joke, Ken sets fire to his hat when he isn’t looking. Frankie, disgusted that Dolores is paying so much attention to him, goes off with Ava as the group splits off to make out. Dolores gets him to shave off his beard and compliments him on how young he looks. When she mentions some eerie things happening at the beach, such as a plane with red lights flying overhead, Robert shows her his plane. She wants to take a ride and they agree to meet later, at three in the morning. When he comes home he finds a note from Marianne, whom he has delegated to listen in and take notes. The note simply says “I’ve heard enough!” Sutwell is somewhat amused that Marianne is jealous.

Meanwhile Von Zipper and his minions show up looking for Sutwell. Looking over the bungalows, Von Zipper mistakenly chooses that of Frankie and his gang. He gets a boost to get him through the window, but to his horror he discovers that he’s landed in Dolores’ bedroom. She screams as Von Zipper tries to find his way out. Sutwell, hearing her screams, runs to her aid. He accidentally knocks Von Zipper silly with a surfboard and enters through the window to see if Dolores is all right. Frankie and the rest enter to find Dolores holding onto Sutwell in a compromising, though innocent, position.

Robert takes Dolores on a flight in his plane. He shows her evasive maneuvers he taught during the war while she gets airsick. But he notices that she is far too attracted to him for both their good. The next day, he seeks Marianne’s help in deflecting the attentions of Dolores. She’s a bit reluctant, but when he spots Dolores coming from his window he grabs Marianne in a passionate embrace. Dolores comes in to see them kissing and boils over. “You’ve traded in a red beard and become a bluebeard!” she says as she stalks off.

When she returns upset to the group’s bungalow, Frankie takes the gang to take care of Robert. While there, they discover the manuscript of his book and begin to read, growing angrier with each sentence. They turn to confront him further, only to discover that he and Marianne have taken a powder.

Robert and Marianne have run to Cappy’s for sanctuary, followed by Frankie, Annette and the rest. Robert settles everything between Frankie and Dolores, but then Von Zipper and the gang enter looking for Robert. Frankie and the gang form a protective circle and a fight breaks out – a pie fight. While almost everyone in the cast catches it with a pie, Robert applies his martial arts technique to members of Von Zipper’s gang. As he sees his gang decimated, Von Zipper calls a truce and asks Sutwell if they could be friends, to which Sutwell says sure and shakes his hand. Von Zipper then says that since they’re now friends, could he teach him the Himalayan technique? Before Sutwell can answer, Von Zipper manages to paralyze himself with his own finger.

Suddenly, the sitting figure of Big Daddy begins to come to life. He’s asked by Cappy and Sutwell as to what the word is. Raising his hat he turns out to be Vincent Price. The word? “The pit. Bring me my pendulum kiddies, I feel like swinging.” An obvious plug for the Corman AIP horror series based on Poe, in which Price stars.

As the film ends, Frankie and Dolores are back together, Robert and Marianne are together, and Von Zipper is taking off with Ava, promising revenge on the gang.


Beach Party was a movie that AIP wasn’t even planning on making. According to Sam Arkoff’s autobiography, in the summer of 1962, he and partner Jim Nicholson were watching films in Italy with an eye towards purchasing some of them for U.S. release. They saw one about a middle-aged man who falls in love with a young woman who spends all her time at a beach resort. They didn’t care for the movie but thought the setting was attractive and commissioned Lou Rusoff to come up with a script. Their plans were to make a JD movie at the beach. Rusoff dutifully presented them with a script about teens in trouble with their parents. 

They then turned to director William Asher for help with the production. Asher reads the script and suggests that instead of making just another JD feature they should make one about kids not in trouble; maybe about kids at the beach having fun. As the talks progressed, Asher, who surfed as a hobby, suggested surfing as the motif. 

It was then suggested that songs be put into the film, as with the popular Elvis vehicles: light comedy interspersed with music. It was a break from what AIP was doing before, musicals with pretentious dramatic storylines with said music almost always coming from a soundstage or recording studio.

Arkoff and Nicholson gave Asher the go-ahead, so he re-wrote the script with Robert Dillon. Arkoff asked them not to take credit; to leave it for Rusoff, who was dying of brain cancer. They agreed, and Rusoff, who died in June 1963 before the film came out, has sole credit.

All this led to a whole new genre and a big moneymaker for the studio.

Funicello was the only choice to play Dolores. As she was under contract to Walt Disney at the time it took a lot of palavering on Arkoff’s part to secure her services. Part of Disney’s demand was that Annette not appear in anything too skimpy, and although she did wear a bikini, it was quite conservative. Fabian was the original choice for her co-star, but as he was under contract to 20th Century Fox, Frankie Avalon was signed instead.

Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone were selected for the main adult roles, that of a naive anthropology professor and his assistant. For Cummings and Malone, AIP was a landing place after their careers had gone cold. John Ashley, who had made a number of movies for American International, was cast to play Ken, Frankie’s best friend, and Jody McCrea was cast in the role of the goofy member of the gang, “Deadhead.” (Later changed to “Bonehead” in the sequels.) The rest of the cast was quickly put together from actors Asher knew and had worked with in earlier projects.

The first thing we notice, besides the bongos of Dick Dale and the panorama of the beach, is the bright yellow Ford Model A Frankie and Annette are driving to the beach. Though it’s only on screen for a few minutes, it represents AIP’s break with its JD hot car racing past. Cars are now made to be seen rather than raced and are wonderful for carrying surfboards to the beach. They are also immaculately styled, not beaten down jalopies, as in the past. The car was also chosen for its look, as Beach Party was shot in color.

As anthropologist Robert Orville Sutwell, Cummings walks off with the movie. (The “Robert Orville” is taken from his given name of Charles Clarence Robert Orville Cummings.) His beach house contains all the latest electronic equipment with which to snoop on the beachgoers. His naiveté provides much of the comedy, especially when he tries to communicate with the kids, whose lingo he doesn’t understand.

Much of the comedy is centered around Sutwell’s relationship with Dolores, which began when he rescued her from the clutches of Von Zipper at Big Daddy’s. Big Daddy’s is a parody of sorts on the Southern California coffeehouse scene, in particular, Cafe Frankenstein, where beatniks would recite poetry over cups of java. A further added bit is the presence of uncredited Sharon Garrett and Yvette Vickers as Cappy’s yoga girls. They remain in the lotus position throughout the film, deep in meditation (or asleep). 

For Sutwell, Dolores is just another source of research. But she sees it differently; for her he’s a knight in shining armor and she falls madly for him, beard and all. Frankie, for his part, is pretending in be interested in Ava to pay Dolores back and get her jealous. But her interest in Robert is so strong that he can’t really keep up the pretense. He’s the one who becomes jealous, calling Sutwell “old pig bristles” among other things. 

Robert’s relationship with Dolores throughout the film is awkward, as he struggles to communicate for research purposes while she has stars in her eyes. Their dialogue illustrates the gap, as she teaches him surf lingo and criticizes his choice of bathing attire, including a Japanese bathrobe and an old-fashioned bathing suit with a small skirt, which Frankie’s friends have a good laugh over. Later in the film, she gets him to shave off his “pig bristles,” revealing a much younger man underneath all the thatch.

The other highlight of the film is the music, especially Dick Dale. He’s not called “the king of the surf guitar” for nothing, as he proves amply in this movie. (Dale ranks 74th on Rolling Stone's list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”) Both his two songs, “Swingin' and a-Surfin” and “Secret Surfing Spot,” were written by the team of Gary Usher and Roger Christian. Both had previously worked with Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and the chief source of the California sound that would compete with the British Invasion for the ears of American youth. Usher and Christian can also be spotted in the background of beach scenes in the film as well. But it’s not only his two rocking songs that move the film, but also his work on the bongos. With a big earring in his left ear, emphasizing his beatnik creds, Dale serves as sort of a minstrel for the beachgoers, whether the sand, at Big Daddy’s, or later on the beach during the campfire scene. He was able to parley the success of this film into an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 6, 1963, two months after the film opened. 

As mentioned before, Frankie’s turn at singing is the rocker “Don’t Stop Now,” by Bob Marcucci and Russ Faith. It’s not the greatest song, but the piece is entertaining enough because of the choreography. Frankie starts out dancing with Ava, moves on to that perpetual motion machine Candy Johnson before dancing with a group of women, eventually getting the whole gang up and dancing. (At the end of the movie, Frankie does a more rocking version of the title song, to the accompaniment of Johnson and her wonderfully frantic dancing.)

Annette also gets her chance for a solo with the ballad, “Treat Him Nicely.” Regretting her “loss” of Frankie to Ava, Annette sings one of the best ballads of the entire series to her reflection in a mirror. As shot by Asher, it’s a slow, beautifully orchestrated piece, redolent of the era, with Annette herself adding a restrained but emotional vocal. The scene also benefits greatly from some wonderful camerawork on the part of Kay Norton. (She would later reprise the song on Dick Clark’s TV special, Dick Clark's Celebrity Party, in November 1963.) Later we hear Dorothy Malone singing along to a recording of Annette singing “Promise Me Anything” (with a close-up shot of the American-International label on the LP) while she spies on Robert and Dolores. Annette’s songs were written by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner.

Beach Party really takes off after the introduction of one of the great comic characters in the history of psychotronic films: the bungling, totally inept motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper, beautifully realized by Harvey Lembeck. A parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, Von Zipper is the leader of the Rats, a leather-clad club with the word “Rats” on the back of their jackets and a picture of a rat underneath the word. The women’s auxiliary, as it were, is called the Mice. Von Zipper can’t even dismount from his motorcycle cleanly; as he does it gets away from him and we hear it crash. His gestures are exaggerated for the benefit of his gang and perhaps to prove his leadership to himself. Assisting him is his right-hand man, JD (Romano), which Von Zipper later explains to Sutwell, is short for “juvenile delinquent.” Throughout the film, Von Zipper’s actions backfire on him, especially in regard to Sutwell, for whom Von Zipper is no match. After the pie fight in the finale, Von Zipper and his gang take off with Ava in tow as they swear revenge. As he starts his motorcycle, it once again gets away from him, the final insult.

Although Cummings and Malone are top-billed, the real charm of Beach Party is the combination of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Bonafide teen idols by the time the picture began shooting, they each possessed individual charm, but when teamed together they were unstoppable. They were also one of the most dysfunctional screen couples in film history. They established the pattern in the first film that would be repeated in each sequel: Dolores wants Frankie to marry her and raise a family. In short, she wants him to get off his surfboard and take life seriously. But Frankie, for his part, just wants to get laid. Thus, they would get into a misunderstanding at the beginning, play games with each other to get the other jealous, and reunite at the end of the film. It was the chaste and sweet Annette versus the charming and droll Frankie, who often broke the fourth wall when things went awry. Twice in Beach Party he turns to the camera and asks the audience, “Where did I go wrong?” They are the essence of summer fun in the sun. 

Annette, more than any other single actress, model or designer, made the bikini acceptable and popular with American women. Beach Party and its sequels also helped generate a huge spike in the sale of surfboards.

The essence of Beach Party is sex. Although William Asher would be later quoted in interviews as saying it was “all in good clean fun with lots of flesh but no sex,” the picture was loaded with innuendo. From the opening dispute between Frankie and Annette over sex to the giggling of the bikini-clad women to Candy Johnson’s suggestive wriggling, Beach Party is dripping with sex; it was the first film aimed specifically at teens that exploited sexual innuendos. The only question for Asher and the producers was how to sell sex but at the same time make it G rated. What they came up with wasn’t subtle, but neither was it pornographic. With the subtext of sex in every scene, it was up to the kids in the audience to read between the lines. Those still innocent enough not to know what they were seeing could merely believe they were just kissing and holding hands. A prime example occurs in the campfire scene, where the kids pair off to canoodle. Ava wants Frankie to make love to her, but he’s more interested in what Dolores is up to with Sutwell. Finally Ava raises from behind the surfboards and says she’s never been so frustrated in her life. Those reading between the lines were hip enough to know that Frankie couldn’t get it up. Today’s audience may find the film laughable and rather lame, but let’s place it into its historical timeline. It was released just as the popular culture of the time was beginning to segue into the sexual revolution. Seen in this regard, Beach Party was groundbreaking.

As a point of trivia, sex wasn’t the only thing going on. As Dick Dale performs “Swingin' and Surfin’,” look closely and you’ll see Frankie passing what looks like a joint to Deadhead.

As with the vast majority of AIP productions, Beach Party was a fast and efficient shoot, with primary filming completed in just over three weeks at a cost of about $300,000. As it was shot in March and April at Newport, Balboa, Laguna and Malibu Beach, the producers and the cast had to deal with the weather. It may have been shot in Southern California, but the weather in March is still chilly. In Gary A. Smith’s informative book, American International Pictures: The Golden Years (Bear Manor 2013), John Ashley recalled that everyone had to wear body make-up because no one had a tan. (Almost no one, that is. In the liner notes to one of his albums, Dick Dale noted that he was the only one on the set with a genuine tan.) Ashley goes on: “One day Frankie and I had some dialogue to do on our way to the water with our surfboards. It was colder than hell that day and the water was freezing. We had our backs to the camera and Frankie said, 'Man, can you believe us? Two thirty-year old guys in body make-up playing teenagers.'”

Several real surfers (including Mickey Dora, who doubled for Cummings in long shots, although in reality Cummings was an accomplished surfer) were employed as doubles and extras. Sharp-eyed viewers can spot Bobbi Shaw, Meredith MacRae, Brian Wilson and Peter Falk (as one of The Rats) among the cast. In a hint of things to come, AIP regular Vincent Price also makes a memorable cameo plugging AIP’s upcoming film, The Haunted Palace

Beach Party was the highest grossing film AIP had made to that date, earning more its opening weekend than any of its competition, including Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It spawned not only a host of sequels but also a host of imitators, including Surf PartyRide the Wild Surf, and For Those Who Think Young (all 1964); A Swingin’ Summer and Beach Ball (both 1965); and Catalina Caper and It’s a Bikini World in 1967. At one point, there was talk of a Beach Party TV series but it failed to get off the ground.

Beach Party is an entertaining movie with several laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a time capsule of its era, a cultural crossroads between rock 'n' roll, skimpy swimwear, surfing, motorcycles, Mad Magazine, and Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and the car culture, all brought to audiences through the good offices of American International Pictures. To watch it is like going back to the early ‘60s, and therein lies its fun. Just don’t take it seriously.

Notable Quotables

Marianne: Well! I can see the headlines now: “Famed anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell arrested as a Peeping Tom.”

Sutwell: My dear young woman, at this moment I’m concentration on developmental biology in human beings.

Marianne: That’s what I mean.

Sutwell: Marianne, this book will be my triumph.

Marianne: And you’ll never get it through the mail. But hang on to the picture rights. American International will snap it up in a minute.

(Sutwell explains to Cappy why he grew his beard)

Cappy: Amazing how our lives parallel. I mean, you got the, uh ... and ... you know how I happened to raise this? I got a dimple in my chin and I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for Kirk Douglas.

Sutwell: But you don’t look anything like Kirk Douglas.

Cappy: You see?


  1. Peter Falk as a glorified extra in a 1963 AIP movie??? If that is true, it makes no sense other than as some slumming he did for a friend. He had already appeared in several major movies in key supporting roles!!

  2. I find it strange also. Reputedly he was a good friend of Harvey Lembeck, so maybe that explains it.