Movie review: ‘Beach Party’

Just as “Where the Boys Are” in 1960 popularized spring break for college students, “Beach Party” and its four successors were fuel for the emerging beach culture of the 1960s. Although Frankie and Annette are best known for the film, check out Bob Cummins and Dorothy Malone as its headliners. Although it has teenagers hanging out in a bar as a central theme of the film (right after the sand of the beach), this one is truly family-friendly. No true surfer ever admitted liking “Beach Party,” but it has its own verve and is a classic.

‘Beach Party’
(1963; 101 minutes; unrated; directed by William Asher and starring Bob Cummins, Dorothy Malone, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello)

DON’T BE A GREMMIE OR A HODAD … ENJOY THE PARTY

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and updating links on April 5, 2016.)

OK, despite the fact that surfers looked askance at “Beach Party” in 1963 like real brothers probably look at the relationship between the “Beaver” and “Wally” on TV, this is an amusing film that is surprisingly layered with notable performances by Dorothy Malone, Harvey Lembeck and Morey Amsterdam (yes, Morey Amsterdam) with a surprisingly strong turn by headliner Bob Cummins.

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In “Beach Party,” Cummins is an anthropologist who plans to study the amorous habits of the teenager beach culture. He flies in on a deserted Malibu beach (yes, you must suspend your disbelief as well as realize it was a long time ago) and sets up shop to monitor teenagers. Of course the beach is inhabited by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and their circle of friends. Also of course he becomes involved in the group and in the process manages to come out of his academic shell for beautiful assistant Malone.

The film was honored 15 years later in “Grease,” with you see Frankie singing “Beauty School Dropout;” the film opening on a beach; and an anatomical reference to Annette. While Frankie, Annette and John Travolta were under 25 in their respective roles as high school students in their respective movies, only Olivia Newton-John at the brink of 30 was really pushing the age envelope in her role.

Now, back to the “Beach” (hey, “Back to the Beach” was the 1987 sequel! – click here for my review of that one).

Here’s a look at some of the expansive primary cast:

  • Frankie and Annette were joined at the hip in this movie franchise and therefore pretty much throughout the rest of their careers. So, I can say the same about both: each is funny, energetic and earnest. While not Oscar material, they do convey their respective characters’ personalities with relative ease. Both became entertainment legends and that’s never bad.
  • Although this is a fluffy beach movie, Cummins flexes solid thespian muscle among the beach boys. He shows an emotional versatility as the intelligent, but basically dim, professor studying the kids. He starts out with a beard grown so he would look older to his peers and ultimately shaves it to reveal a younger and more forceful person. Cummins, who passed in 1990 at the age of 80 of kidney failure, was a Primetime Emmy winner and five-time nominee. He was in “Dial M for Murder” and was on just about every TV show of note in the 1960s.
  • Oscar winner (not for this one) Malone plays Cummins’ more-worldly wise assistant and gets her man in the end. Although Malone brings just the right amount of sparkle to the film, she has the most mature character and is an oasis of calm in the storm on the beach. She is best as she offers a series of dry one-liners that Cummins cannot see piercing his persona. I would have liked to see more of Malone, since she won an Oscar for “Written on the Wind” in 1956 with Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall and was twice nominated for a Golden Globe for TV’s “Peyton Place,” which she was on from 1964 through 1968. She just had her 91st birthday in January 2016.
  • Lembeck plays iconic motorcycle gang leader “Eric Von Zipper.” He’s kind of a Gen. Patton on acid at the head of his “army of stupids.” Lembeck couldn’t be in a more dramatically different role than from the one he played in the World War II drama “Stalag 17” ten years earlier. He reprised the “Stalag 17” role from the Broadway play that “Stalag 17” was adapted. All in all, a very funny turn for Lembeck, who shows impeccable timing here, shows his talent for slapstick and has the perfect voice for the role. Lembeck died at the relatively young age of 58 of a heart attack in 1982.
  • Emmy nominee Amsterdam is quite underrated in this film. He’s “Cappy,” the owner of “Big Daddy’s,” the bar that caters to the teens by selling them pies and beer (yes, pies and beer). Amsterdam bounces around with energy and probably understands the kids better than anyone. It’s a hoot to watch him. Like Cummins, Amsterdam’s resume is packed with TV shows (including “Hollywood Squares”). He died of a heart attack at 87 in 1996.
  • Supporting actor Jody McCrea, at 6-foot-3 he towered over most of the players, came along for the ’60s sequels, but his name changes from “Deadhead” in the first two to “Bonehead” in the last two. I have to admit I haven’t researched the why behind this bit of trivia. It’s difficult to evaluate McCrea’s performance, but I’d best sum it up as a beach bum’s “Jethro” – totally dim, but without the screen time Max Baer Jr. got on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” He passed of a heart attack in 2009 at the age of 74.
  • Beach Party” was the first role for Candy Johnson, who was called “Perpetual Motion Dancer” in the credits. She became “Candy” for the next two sequels and was “Candy” in 1964’s “Pajama Party” with Annette. Other than that, you really can’t say anything about acting in her work here. There just isn’t any … no, not even a smidgen. Johnson passed away in 2012 at 68 of brain cancer.
  • Eva Six plays the sexpot “Ava” and had only three roles in Hollywood and all were in 1963 (the others were “Operation Bikini” and the Sinatra-Martin vehicle “4 for Texas”). Eva was bad in this one and I didn’t see “4 for Texas,” so I can’t say if she ever managed to step up her game. However, she was named “Miss Golden Globe” at the Golden Globes in 1963.

On the music front surf-rock guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones provide the music, including the “Secret Surfing Spot” lyrics “where the gremmies and the hodads never go.” I checked out the slang. A “gremmie” is a novice surfer whom everyone hates and a “hodad” is a non-surfer who hangs out at the beach pretending to be a surfer. Dale is really cool: he wears a large earring and in addition to his signature Fender guitar, he plays bongos.

As for another point … It’s really odd by today’s standards to see a bar serving pitchers of beer to high schoolers. In one scene a tour guide walks in and calls it “a favorite spot of the teenagers to gather and have fun.” At a bar. OK, it was the ’60s.

** SPOILER ALERT **

You read it right. There’s a spoiler alert for “Beach Party.” A cameo of a just a few seconds at the end steals the show and it’s really cool. Vincent Price revives his 1961 movie “The Pit and the Pendulum” while playing “Big Daddy,” who only wakes up at the end to give the kids “The Word.” He says, “The pit. Bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swinging.” He then goes back to sleep.

** END SPOILER ALERT **

Frankie and Annette would reprise their surf act in “Muscle Beach Party” (1964), “Bikini Beach” (1964), “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965), “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965) and the closing sequel “Back to the Beach” (1987). All of the ’60s films were directed by Asher and Lembeck was in all except “Muscle Beach Party” (and, of course, “Back to the Beach” since he passed five years before its release). “Beach Party” wasn’t at the top of any awards list, but it did win “Sleeper of the Year” in 1964 at the long-defunct Laurel Awards.

Beach Party” was just outside the top 25 films of 1963 with $2.3 million at the box office on a budget of $300,000, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton spectacle “Cleopatra” with $57.7 million, while the 007 classic “Dr. No” was No. 9 with $16 million, according to Wiki. The only other film from 1963 that I’ve reviewed is “The Great Escape” at No. 17 with $11.7 million (click here to read my review of that World War II classic).

Some other notes about the cast and film (details from IMDb.com):

  • “Stupid” is Lembeck’s signature word and he uses like, “I got an army of stupids.”
  • The final sequel “Back to the Beach” from 24 years after the original has even more supporting cast star-power, but I’ll have to address that in another review (which I did on Aug. 27, 2014 – here’s the link that I’ve already given you).
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “Although “old fogey” Professor Sutwell knew nothing about beach life, actor Robert Cummings was a competent surfer himself, as documented in personal home movies shot in Hawaii by Hollywood’s television host and author Ken Murray.”
  • Almost finally, a lot of “Beach Party” stars went on to do guest spots on “The Love Boat.” Frankie, Annette, Cummins and Lembeck all took a turn on Capt. Steubing’s watch – click here for my take on “The Love Boat.”
  • Now, finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Although more than one shooting location has been given (and mixed up with various other beach movies) for the beach scenes, the exact spot is about 830 yards east of the intersection where Malibu Rd. splits off from the Pacific Coast Highway, between Point Dune and Malibu Bluffs Park. Satellite views of the coastline confirm the double rock formation just beyond the shoreline seen in many of the outdoor shots.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner
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