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Beach party movies were an American 1960s genre of feature films created by American International Pictures (AIP) with their surprise 1963 hit, Beach Party, and copied by virtually every other studio. Precursors to the genre were Columbia Pictures 1959 release Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as teenage surfer girl Gidget and James Darren as her beau Moondoggie; 1961's Gidget Goes Hawaiian starring Deborah Walley as Gidget; and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963) starring Cindy Carol as Gidget. American International's films took the Gidget idea, added more music and far more bikinis, and removed nearly all references to parents.
Another precursor to the genre was Where The Boys Are, in 1960, which was significantly more serious but still aimed at the same audience. Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii in 1961 is also the same basic architecture. These films helped popularize surfing and later, surf music, and they often included onscreen performances by well-known pop groups.
Several films of the genre do not actually include surfing or even scenes on the beach. Some critics[who?] define a "classic" AIP series of seven films produced by American International Pictures whereas others, including Stephen J. McParland in his 1994 book It's Party Time - A Musical Appreciation of the Beach Party Film Genre, include the AIP films Ski Party, Sergeant Deadhead, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Fireball 500 in the genre, along with non-AIP, non-beach product such as C'mon Let's Live a Little, Wild Wild Winter and Village of the Giants. In fact, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini never depicts a beach.
The AIP storylines typically revolved around boyfriend and girlfriend Frankie (Avalon) and Dolores (Funicello) trying to make one another jealous with newcomers, as they and their friends have adventures on and off the beach, with someone occasionally breaking into song.
The first film, Beach Party, has a more adult point of view featuring a romantic subplot between anthropology professor Robert Orville Sutwell (Robert Cummings) and his secretary Marianne (Dorothy Malone). Sutwell initially rents a beach house to research an academic paper on the tribalistic mating rituals of American teenagers.
The main cast usually had running roles (though their character names sometimes changed from picture to picture), and with the exception of Muscle Beach Party, the villains of the story were usually biker Eric Von Zipper (played by comic actor Harvey Lembeck as a parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One) and his inept gang the Rat Pack, or "Rats & Mice" (which included Alberta Nelson, of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and The Andy Griffith Show).
William Asher elaborated in a 1964 interview:
We take the same teenagers and put them in a slightly different experience in each picture. The plot may change but the faces stay the same... The key to these pictures is lots of flesh but no sex. It's all good clean fun. No hearts are broken and virginity prevails.
Veteran movie stars regularly cropped up in cameo roles while larger supporting parts were given to up-and-coming personalities such as Don Rickles and Paul Lynde. The various beach films also provided an early look at many actors who would soon go on to greater fame in popular television programs. These include: Tina Louise and Bob Denver (Gilligan's Island), Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), Marta Kristen (Lost in Space), Linda Evans (The Big Valley), Yvonne Craig (Batman), Meredith MacRae (Petticoat Junction), and Peter Lupus (Mission Impossible).
Another feature was a series of cameo appearances by veteran actors such as Buster Keaton, Vincent Price, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, and Peter Lorre (in his penultimate film appearance).
Integral to the series were appearances by contemporary musical stars including Stevie Wonder, Nancy Sinatra, The Supremes, The Beach Boys, The Animals, The Castaways, Little Richard, The Righteous Brothers, The Kingsmen, The Pyramids, The Hondells, and Dick Dale and The Del-Tones. Original songs performed by the cast were largely written by Gary Usher and Roger Christian, or by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner.
Don Weis and William Asher directed the films in the AIP series, with Asher's then-wife Elizabeth Montgomery making a voice cameo in Bikini Beach, and appearing on camera in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini spoofing her character from the Bewitched TV series. Asher also went on to direct seven episodes of the Gidget TV series in 1965.
Many of the movies were made at Paradise Cove in Malibu, California. To meet the release schedule, most of the movies had to be filmed during the winter months—when hardly anyone wanted to run around a beach in a swimsuit, or go in the water.
American International Pictures produced a series of seven beach films, starting with Beach Party:
|Film||Release date||Also starring:|
|Beach Party||7 August 1963||Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone and Morey Amsterdam|
|Muscle Beach Party||25 March 1964||Peter Lupus, Luciana Paluzzi and Buddy Hackett|
|Bikini Beach||22 July 1964||Keenan Wynn and Martha Hyer|
|Pajama Party||11 November 1964||Jesse White and Ben Lessy|
|Beach Blanket Bingo||14 April 1965||Paul Lynde, Linda Evans, Marta Kristen and Timothy Carey|
|How to Stuff a Wild Bikini||14 July 1965||Mickey Rooney, Beverly Adams, Len Lesser, Irene Tsu and Brian Donlevy|
|The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini||6 April 1966||Basil Rathbone, Benny Rubin and Francis X. Bushman|
The 1965 AIP film Ski Party (with Dwayne Hickman, Yvonne Craig, Lesley Gore and James Brown) is also notable for employing many of the same actors and schticks, only transplanted to a ski resort in the Sawtooth National Forest.
Susan Hart, wife of AIP co-founder James H. Nicholson, was in Pajama Party, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine as well as two non-AIP beach films, For Those Who Think Young and Ride the Wild Surf.
The success of the AIP movie series spawned many imitators. In 1964 Surf Party with Bobby Vinton and Jackie DeShannon was released, Ride the Wild Surf with Fabian, Barbara Eden and Shelley Fabares, and For Those Who Think Young with James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Tina Louise, Bob Denver, Nancy Sinatra and Paul Lynde. Darren had co-starred in all three of the Gidget movies. Lynde also appeared in AIP's Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965.
Billed as "The First Horror Musical", The Horror of Party Beach (1964), filmed in Connecticut, offers an offbeat blend of music, bikers, and a rampaging monster created by radioactive waste.
The number of beach movie releases peaked in 1965. By this time, even Elvis Presley had a few entries in the genre. His 1961 release Blue Hawaii was immensely successful and one of his best-loved movies of all. Presley returned to the beach with Girl Happy in 1965 and again with Paradise Hawaiian Style in 1966. Many of the beach films were packed with well-known musical acts: A Swingin' Summer with Raquel Welch (who also performs one song) and music by The Righteous Brothers and Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Beach Ball with Edd Byrnes, The Supremes, The Four Seasons, and The Righteous Brothers, The Girls on the Beach with The Beach Boys and Lesley Gore, Wild on the Beach with Sonny & Cher and Daytona Beach Weekend with Del Shannon.
1965 was also the year in which producers began to extend the theme by producing teen-oriented musicals set in non-beach locations, often with scripts that blended music with non-comedic storylines. These included Village of the Giants (which merged the "beach" genre with science fiction), Beach Girls and the Monster (merging the genre with horror), One-Way Wahini (music and mystery set in Hawaii) and Get Yourself A College Girl, a relatively lavish MGM production set on a campus and featuring the first appearances in a U.S. produced teen musical by British Invasion acts The Animals and the Dave Clark Five.
With at least six beach films released in 1965, the genre reached the height of its popularity. That year the 1959-1963 Gidget film series was also remade into a television sitcom starring 19-year-old Sally Field as the titular California surfer girl. The show ran for one season (1965-1966). William Asher was chosen to direct the first 4 episodes plus episodes 6, 8, and 17.
Following in the trail of AIP's Ski Party, the ski-resort formula of replacing sand with snow was duplicated in Winter a Go-Go (1965) and Wild Wild Winter (1966), with music by The Beau Brummels and Jay and the Americans. Another 1966 release, Out of Sight, from Universal Pictures, was a multi-genre blend of beach film, hot rods, rock 'n' roll, and spy spoof. The cast included a pre-Land of the Giants Deanna Lund and music by Gary Lewis & the Playboys, The Turtles, and Freddie and the Dreamers. The Fat Spy (1966) starring '50s icon Jayne Mansfield, was another dual-genre parody of beach party and spy films.
Although American International folded up its beach towel by the end of 1966, a late entry, Catalina Caper (1967) with Tommy Kirk and music by Little Richard, attempted to blend the beach concept into a crime-mystery comedy. This film is generally acknowledged as the "last gasp" of the genre, the final beach-themed film with music. It was also lampooned by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Earlier in 1967 It's a Bikini World came out with, once again, Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley. This movie was actually produced in 1965 but due to contract and music licensing issues was held from release for almost two years.
In addition, early 1967 saw C'mon, Let's Live a Little — a teen-oriented musical featuring Jackie DeShannon and Bobby Vee. Like Catalina Caper, this film tried to merge the beach party theme with another genre (in this case, emerging Vietnam-era inspired campus protest). The general failure of all three of these films at the box office confirmed that the teen-oriented "beach party" musical trend had passed. It was replaced by a new crop of youth-oriented drive-in movies centered around car racing, motorcycle gangs and escapist spy adventures.
As early as 1965 Sam Arkoff was concerned about the future of the genre, due to rising costs and diminishing returns.
Nicholson and Arkoff later claimed in 1969:
During the Kennedy administration there was an idealism among kids... Now they've turned their parents off. That is why we have hippies, black nationalists, wild angels... We are in the confrontation era.
The final entry in the original AIP series was The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, released in 1966. The end credits for the 1965 AIP spy-spoof Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (starring Frankie Avalon and Vincent Price), advertises this film with its original title (The Girl in the Glass Bikini) and intended stars, Funicello and Avalon.
However, both actors passed on this film, appearing instead in AIP's car-racing themed Fireball 500. The lead roles were given to Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley, with an almost all-new supporting cast (including singer Nancy Sinatra). This time the "formula" did not work. The movie—which was more of a haunted-house comedy than a proper beach film—bombed at the box office and the series was retired by AIP. Fireball 500 was followed by another racing film, Thunder Alley, also starring Funicello.
Avalon and Funicello starred in Paramount Pictures' Back to the Beach in 1987, playing off their original roles and subsequent careers. The movie became a hit, and there was talk of making a sequel, but with the beginning of Funicello's trouble with multiple sclerosis, this never came to be.