Judge John Floyd catches a 30-foot wave of nostalgia with a pair of teen icons he adores. And when John Floyd adores you, you stay adored.
"Where the torsos are more-so!"
Once upon a time, teenage sex comedies were frothy, fun affairs that could safely be enjoyed by the whole family. Long before Kim Cattrall howled like a hound dog in Porky's, before Jason Biggs was intimate with a hot pastry in American Pie, before Christopher Mintz-Plasse became "McLovin" in Superbad, there were the amorous adventures of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He was a youthful singing sensation, she a sweet but early-developing Mouseketeer. In 1963, these two clean-cut, charismatic kids became the faces of pubescent romance in the tuneful, farcical Beach Party. The on-screen couple spent much of the remainder of the decade singing, surfing, and swinging (and skiing, and skydiving, and stock car racing) their way through the trials and tribulations of teenage love for American International Pictures.
Facts of the Case
The Frankie & Annette MGM Movie Legends Collection repackages a handful of the distributor's "Midnite Movie" Double Feature DVDs into an eight movie set that showcases the bulk of the duo's collaborative cinematic efforts. The films on the first three discs are rollicking, often cartoonish musical comedies about healthy American youngsters looking for love and laughs over summer vacation. The last two features are more serious, adult-oriented melodramas in which the former teen idols have traded in their surfboards for stock cars. The end result is a lively but uneven collection that harkens back to days of innocence past, and explores adolescent sexuality against a backdrop of sunshine, song, and slapstick.
The best films in this set are the five Beach Party movies on hand. In all five, Frankie and Dee Dee are a pair of handsome, wholesome youngsters who are hopelessly in love with one another but invariably have to overcome some minor falling out before their romance resumes and the end credits roll. In Beach Party, Frankie wants some intimate alone time with Dee Dee in a beach house, but she gets cold feet and invites their gang of surfer friends to join them. After an argument, they turn to others who embody what they believe they want in a mate in order to make each other jealous—Frankie to a curvaceous waitress, Dee Dee to an anthropology professor studying the behavior of the surf set. It doesn't take them long, however, to realize that their hearts still belong to one another. This sweet, light-hearted drama plays out against a backdrop of colorful silliness that includes a biker gang called the Rats lead by the terminally inept Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), an endless stream of gags, a handful of celebrity cameos, and musical numbers by Dick Dale & the Del Tones and the two leads. This pleasant first entry set the formula for the entire series.
In Muscle Beach Party, Frankie has gotten his libido under control but still struggles with immaturity. Tempted away from Dee Dee and the gang by a beautiful Italian Contessa (Lucian Paluzzi) and the promise of a singing career, our hero must decide what is most important to him—love, or fame and fortune. Von Zipper and his Rats are noticeably absent this time around, replaced by Don Rickles and a gang of brainless bodybuilders (including Peter Lupus of Mission: Impossible fame, billed here as "Rock Stevens") who aren't keen on sharing the beach. Also on hand are Dick Dale, singer and Dr. Pepper spokesmodel Donna Loren, Buddy Hackett, Peter Lorre, and "Little" Stevie Wonder, in his first film appearance. The gags come even faster in this sophomore outing, and there are a few well-acted serious moments, but the film as a whole is not quite as sweet or satisfying as its predecessor.
Bikini Beach features the return of Lembeck's Von Zipper and Don Rickles, a subplot about Keenan Wynn and a trained chimpanzee trying to shut down the beach, and a dual role for Avalon as both Frankie and a British singing sensation called "Potato Bug." The jokes are broader and just a bit raunchier, the plot even more nonsensical, and the requisite climactic fight/chase scene ridiculous and fun. But when Frankie and Dee Dee resolve their differences (again stemming from his refusal to grow up) and sing a duet of the charming "Because You're You," the viewer is reminded that underneath all of the shenanigans is a tale about coming of age and learning the difference between lust and real love.
Beach Blanket Bingo is a high energy, madcap farce that ultimately deals with sexism and equality—albeit, in a typically light and fluffy way. Paul Lynde, Linda Evans, Marta Kristen, Deborah Walley, Buster Keaton, Bobbi Shaw, and Timothy Carey are all on-hand to liven up the proceedings, which include diverting subplots about a visiting teen singing sensation and her snide manager, and a fleeting romance between series regular Bonehead (formerly called "Deadhead," and played by Jody McCrea) and a mermaid. Also back are Rickles, aiming some of his patented insult shtick at Avalon and Funicello, and the irrepressible Lembeck, who finally gets to sing. The main thrust of the plot involves Walley and series regular John Ashley (here playing a different character than usual) as skydiving instructors teaching Frankie and Dee Dee how to free fall. Frankie doesn't want his girl involved in such a dangerous hobby, while Dee Dee wants to prove to herself that she can do it. In the end, our male protagonist realizes the error of his ways just in time for the obligatory zany chase scene to break out. Bingo is the fastest-paced, funniest, and most enduring of the Beach Party films
Avalon is only in How To Stuff A Wild Bikini for a few minutes, his character now deployed on a South Seas island in the Naval Reserves. Though he is enjoying the company of a sexy native girl, he becomes concerned that Dee Dee might be tempted to stray in his absence. He approaches the local witch doctor (Buster Keaton), who sends a pelican to keep an eye on his beloved and a curvaceous decoy to distract all of the boys on the beach. Brian Donlevy and Mickey Rooney appear as ambitious ad men looking for the "boy and girl next door" for their new campaign, with Dwayne Hickman playing the leading male candidate and a would-be suitor for Dee Dee. This sixth entry in the series is about as cartoonish as a live-action movie can get, but it is funny and loaded with catchy musical interludes, and its underlying theme of fidelity in adult relationships represents the final passage into maturity for our smitten protagonists.
Though all eight features look great in colorful, widescreen transfers, the remaining three films in the set are largely disappointing from an entertainment standpoint. Ski Party is an attempt to transplant all of the surf & sand silliness to the snowy slopes, but the characters are different and Funicello is relegated to an against-type cameo as a sex education teacher. Avalon and Dwayne Hickman are in love with Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig, respectively, but can't seem to get any reciprocal physical attention. They join the objects of their affections on a ski trip, where they dress in drag and impersonate female exchange students to get ski lessons. The high points are a yodeling polar bear on skis and a musical number by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Though the movie tries admirably to address the differences between what guys and girls really need from romantic relationships, it ultimately feels a bit hollow and listless compared to the beach films.
Fireball 500 and Thunder Alley are even worse. Avalon appears in the former as a racecar driver who gets caught up in moonshine running while competing for a shot to go to the Daytona 500. Funicello is out of place in this rather grim film, and her love interest is country boy Fabian, not Frankie. Though the story (which also features Harvey Lembeck in a rare serious role) has potential and Avalon is good, the execution is clunky and the resolution dull. The latter film does not include Avalon at all, but rather pairs up Funicello and Fabian as drivers in a stunt show. She's the daughter of the greedy promoter; he's a former stock car star trying to overcome blackouts that once caused him to accidentally kill another driver. As that synopsis indicates, Thunder Alley is a far cry from the frolicking, frivolous antics of Annette's beach blanket days. The performances are solid, but the film certainly isn't much fun. These two additions to the collection are curiosity pieces at best.
Lesser outings aside, this set still accomplishes its primary goal of making the viewer nostalgic for the day when puberty and sexual experimentation could be explored on the silver screen without gross-out vulgarity. Even at the time of their release, American International's Beach Party films were clean by comparison to other movies addressing similar subject matter. The bodies on display were beautiful and mostly bare, but the hearts of both the filmmakers and the stars were always in the right place. Narrative was rarely a strong suit of these films, but it also wasn't the point. Avalon and Funicello were virtually impossible to dislike as Frankie and Dee Dee, and the audience always knew that no matter what obstacles and temptations were thrown before them, their love for one another would win out. There was something comforting about these simple, light-hearted romances in the increasingly bleak and confusing world of the 1960s. Though the emotional conflicts showcased were never weightier than the average television sitcom episode, these films still managed to find the pulse of America's youth in their day. Today, they are time capsules from a bygone era, worthwhile reminders of a simpler and safer yesterday.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all their charm, these films are rather inane and ludicrous, making them truly enjoyable only to the nostalgia lover and the very young or very undemanding viewer. For the completist, it's hard to justify the omission of Pajama Party and Ghost In The Invisible Bikini, the fourth and seventh installments in the Beach Party series, respectively. Though the former was non-canonical and the latter did not feature either Annette or Frankie, they would have been a better fit in this set than the two dreary racing films. For that matter, where is Back To The Beach, an underrated 1987 nostalgia trip which reunites Funicello and Avalon and gives them a surfing, swinging teenage daughter of their own? Because this is simply a repackaging of previously released double feature discs, the movies are not presented in their release order, and there are no extras.
Beach Party and its sequels were exercises in fluffy frivolity and cotton candy carnality, silly but sweet tales of fun-loving teenagers maturing into adulthood before each other's appreciative eyes under the omnipresent California sun. Their slapstick humor and infectious musical numbers distanced them from the gritty juvenile delinquent, biker, and tripped-out hippie genres of the same decade, and their approach to the challenges of puberty was charming and accessible to viewers of all ages. They were about sex, indeed, but they presented the subject in a romantic and unchallenging way which placed the emphasis on emotion over gratification, implication over explicitness. Though incomplete, the Frankie & Annette MGM Movie Legends Collection allows the viewer to relive the fun and fancy of the Beach Party franchise in all its sun-drenched, widescreen glory.
This set is guilty of innocence. If you consider that a crime, skip it. But if you miss the relatively carefree days of adolescence, when your whole world was the girl or boy next door and your most momentous decisions usually involved where to go on Saturday afternoon, you should dive into this set headfirst. As Linda Evans' Sugar Kane so eloquently puts it in Beach Blanket Bingo, it's "marvy!"
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