Friday, 12 June 2015

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

I have a confession to make. I really don't like the beach very much. What's more, I don't like summer at all. That having been said, I have always had a weakness for American International Pictures' series of "Beach Party" films from the mid-Sixties. It was in the summer of 1963 that AIP released Beach Party starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The film proved to be a roaring success, so much so that it not only launched the "Beach Party" series from AIP, but it also sparked a cycle of "beach party" films in which nearly every major studio took part in some way, shape, or form.

AIP's "Beach Party" movies were standard fare on television when I was growing up. The networks showed the films on their various movie anthologies. Later local television stations would show them, usually on weekend afternoons in those days before sporting events overtook television on Saturdays and Sundays. As a kid growing up in the late Sixties and the Seventies it would have been very difficult to miss the "Beach Party" movies. As it was, I think I saw most of them before I was ten years old. In fact, the very first one I can remember watching was Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). To this day it has remained my second favourite of AIP's "Beach Party" movies, right after the original Beach Party (1963).

Like nearly all of the "Beach Party" movies, the plot of Beach Blanket Bingo was less important than the various comedic bits, songs, and appealing actors in the movie. Quite simply, like the other "Beach Party" movies Beach Blanket Bingo was pure escapism, set in a world where it is apparently never too hot, never too cold, and the worst thing that could happen is biker Eric Von Zipper  (played by Harvey Lembeck) spoiling the party. Not surprisingly the plot threads of Beach Blanket Bingo are pretty easy to summarise: agent Bullets (played by Paul Lynde) is staging publicity stunts for his singer Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans) around the beach; Eric Von Zipper becomes smitten with Sugar Kane (as does presumably most of the male population in the film); Dee Dee (played by Annette Funicello) and Frankie (played by Frankie Avalon) decide to take up skydiving; and Bonehead (formerly Deadhead, played by Jody McCrea) meets a mermaid (played by Marta Kristen).

Not surprising given the success AIP had with the "Beach Party" formula, Beach Blanket Bingo differs very little from previous entries in the series. Perhaps the biggest change was in the name of Jody McCrea's character. In the first several movies he is called "Deadhead", a reference to his general lack of intelligence. At some point prior to the production of Beach Blanket Bingo, however, American International Pictures decided that they wanted to use the word "Deadhead" for the title of the film Sergeant Deadhead (1965).  As a result Deadhead became "Bonehead" and remained so for the rest of the series. Regardless of his name, Jody McCrea's character was still good hearted but not terribly bright, the Li'l Abner or Jethro Bodine of the beach. Whether he is called "Deadhead" or "Bonehead", he is the favourite "Beach Party" character of many people.

Of course, in addition to Dee Dee, Frankie, and Bonehead, biker Eric Von Zipper also returns in Beach Blanket Bingo. Eric Von Zipper, the leader of the biker gang known as the Rat Pack or the Ratz (as it is spelled on their jackets), had first appeared in Beach Party and then in the sequel Bikini Beach (1964) and the related film Pyjama Party (1964). For Beach Blanket Bingo he received even more screen time and even a song ("Follow Your Leader"). Harvey Lembeck would continue to play Eric Von Zipper for two more "Beach Party" movies.

Two other actors who were regulars in the "Beach Party" films would also return for Beach Blanket Bingo. John Astley had appeared in the previous movies Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), and Bikini Beach (1964), although he played a different character every time. In Beach Blanket Bingo he played skydiving instructor Steve. Like John Astley, Don Rickles was another regular actor in the "Beach Party" series who played a different character every time. In Muscle Beach Party he played a character named "Jack Fanny", although in his successive appearances he would play characters called "Big (fill in the blank)". In Bikini Beach he played "Big Drag". In Pyjama Party he played  Big Bang The Martian.  In Beach Blanket Bingo he played Big Drop, the owner of the local skydiving service. While basically playing a variation of his earlier characters in the "Beach Party" films, Don Rickles actually does get to perform his well known insult routine in the film (for which he was famous even then).

Of course, the "Beach Party" films are famous for their many guest stars, and Beach Blanket Bingo had its fair share. Paul Lynde appears as singer Sugar Kane's none too honest agent Bullets. Gossip columnist Earl Wilson appeared as himself in the film. Character actor Timothy Carey played South Dakota Slim, a comedic take on the various psychopaths and sociopaths he played over the years (South Dakota Slim had previously appeared briefly in Bikini Beach). Fans of classic film may be happiest to see Buster Keaton in recurring bits throughout the film, although sadly he wasn't utilised to his full potential.  While some of Buster's bits in  the film are rather funny, many simply seem to fall flat. Buster Keaton would also appear in the next "Beach Party" film How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).

The "Beach Party" films were also famous for the various music acts that appeared in the films, and Beach Blanket Bingo was no different. Singer Donna Loren had already appeared in Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pyjama Party. In Beach Blanket Bingo she performed the song “It Only Hurts When I Cry". American surf rock band The Hondells also played two numbers in the film. One big name singer who did not appear in Beach Blanket Bingo was Nancy Sinatra. The role of Sugar Kane was written for Miss Sinatra, but she dropped out of the film before shooting began following the kidnapping of her brother Frank Sinatra, Jr.  Quite simply a subplot in which Sugar Kane is kidnapped made her uncomfortable. Non-singer Linda Evans was then cast in the role of Sugar Kane. Miss Evans's singing voice was dubbed by Jackie Ward, who had the hit song "Wonderful Summer" in 1963.

Depending on whether one counts Pyjama Party as part of the "Beach Party" series or simply a film related to the series, Beach Blanket Bingo was either the fourth or fifth film in the series. And while the "beach party" cycle of films peaked in 1965, in many ways Beach Blanket Bingo would be the beginning of the end for the "Beach Party" series. It would the last "Beach Party" film in which Frankie Avalon starred until Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), in which he played a completely different character. He would only appear briefly in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Beach Blanket Bingo would also be the next to the last time Annette Funicello played Dee Dee and Jody McCrea played Deadhead/Bonehead. They would each play their respective roles one more time in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. After Beach Blanket Bingo there would only be three more "Beach Party" films: How to Stuff a Wild BikiniDr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

Sadly,  The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini would fail miserably at the box office in 1966. That same year American International Pictures' outlaw biker movie The Wild Angels would prove to be a surprise hit. AIP abandoned the "Beach Party" movies in favour of a new cycle of biker movies that would continue nearly until the end of the decade. It would seem that Eric Von Zipper and his Rat Pack won in the end.

Like the other "Beach Party" movies, Beach Blanket Bingo is not a great film. I am not sure that I would apply the term "classic" to any of them. That having been said, like the other "Beach Party" movies Beach Blanket Bingo is a fun, lightweight movie that goes down easily. It is the sort of escapist fare that one can enjoy and through which one can forget about one's troubles for a while. That having been said, it would be a mistake to assume that Beach Blanket Bingo, or any of the "Beach Party" movies for that matter, is the motion picture equivalent of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show. In both  Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party the characters smoke, and there are references to drinking in the earlier films as well.

The smoking and drinking in the "Beach Party" movies would soon fall by the wayside, but one thing that would remain in the films is a good deal of sexual innuendo. The "Beach Party" films are hardly sexless by any means. In fact, in many respects they function as a teenage equivalent of the Sixties sex comedies of the era, those made by Doris Day and Rock Hudson's perhaps being the  best known. Indeed, Beach Blanket Bingo and the other "Beach Party" movies feature the same sort of misunderstandings, attempts at seduction, attempts at deception, assumed identities, and other related tropes often seen in the Sixties sex comedies. By today's standards the "Beach Party" movies might seem like relatively good clean fun, but they weren't nearly as antiseptic or sexless as many today believe them to be.

Many fans of the "Beach Party" series regard Beach Blanket Bingo as their favourite of the series, while others count it as their second favourite after the original Beach Party. Indeed, at IMDB it has the highest user rating of any "Beach Party" film after Beach Party itself. Despite this in many ways Beach Blanket Bingo was the last hurrah for the "Beach Party" movies. It would be the last of the films in which Frankie Avalon starred as his character of Frankie, and the next to the last film in which Annette Funicello played Dee Dee and Jody McCrea played Deadhead/Bonehead. It would be only a little less than a year later that Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was released, spelling the end of the series. The "Beach Party" series that had begun in 1963 would be over by 1966.


Silver Screenings said...

Great analysis of the movie and the series. And you're right – many people say this film is their fave of the series. I love that Paul Lynde plays a shady character in this film. His presence is a real treat.

Thanks for coming to the Beach Party Blogathon!

Kristina Dijan said...

These films are a good way to vicariously enjoy the summer and beach :) you give a nice look at the movie and the things people enjoy about the series. Love Jody McCrea's doofus character. Thanks for taking part.

Spiritually Cramped said...

Maybe you just need to love the beach vicariously through movies :)
This is one of my favourite beach movies (although I haven't seen that many!) because it's a fun, instant mood-enhancer. You can't help but feel happy while you're watching it. And after all, isn't that what summer is all about?


Too bad I haven't found any beach Party films to watch until now! They seem unpretentious and funny. And I knew Buster Keaton had bit parts in some of them. Doesn't Francis X Bushman appears in one film of the series as well?
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Terence Towles Canote said...

Lê, Francis X. Bushman appeared in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Anyway, I think you'd really enjoy the "Beach Party" films. They are a lot of fun.