California dreamin'Jun 28, 2022 11:00AM ● By Randal C. Hill
Imagine a world where life involves no school or work schedules, no church services and no money problems. Where riots, destruction, murders and protests of an unjust war don’t exist.
Welcome to the world of “clean teen” 1960s California beach party movies, where eternal sunshine, skimpy swimwear, surfing scenes, nighttime bonfires, teen-oriented tunes and the promise of (gasp!) sex were key elements.
Go ahead and scratch that last one. While the assurance of lovemaking was indirectly alluded to in movie trailers and on theater posters, no such activity actually materialized on screen.
Leading the charge for these films was American International Pictures (AIP), which was responsible for several innocuous but highly profitable releases from 1963 to 1965. AIP’s protagonists were young, slim and beautiful. Mostly missing in action were parents, although adults were often featured for comic relief.
AIP had once focused on low-budget ’50s juvenile delinquent features such as “Hot Rod Gang” and “High School Hellcats.” Then, in 1959, the box-office success of Columbia Pictures’ beach-and-surf bash “Gidget” inspired the two biggest guns at AIP, Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson, to order their writers to work up a fun-in-the-sun script that omitted such annoyances as morality lessons and parental involvement.
The result was “Beach Party.”
In AIP’s 1963 release, former “American Bandstand” teen-dreamboat Frankie Avalon was paired with voluptuous ex-Disney Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. It was an odd match up of two dark-haired Italian-Americans, whereas the quintessential Golden State surf/beach devotee was actually blonde.
Music was always an important feature of these flicks. Dick Dale & the Deltones provided the music in “Beach Party,” with the surf-guitar wizard blasting an instrument that was strangely unattached to any visible power source. Later movies featured the Beach Boys, Little Stevie Wonder, the Righteous Brothers and Little Richard.
Reflecting on the movie’s success, Funicello later commented, “It showed everybody’s dream of what they would like their summer vacation to be. It also showed that you could have fun without using vulgar language and without explicit sex scenes.”
Avalon and Funicello remained co-stars in later AIP movies of “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”
In 1987, 24 years after “Beach Party” appeared, Avalon, Funicello and Dale came together one last time in the nostalgic “Back to the Beach.” More a satire than another featherweight teen romp, it proved to be like many high-school reunions: fascinating but with a depressing edge confirming that, no, you really can’t go home again.