From the List of Shame, File #12: Beach Party

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

The goal behind the List of Shame Files is to document our viewing of significant films we haven’t seen. Luckily, many of those films are also good ones, though a film does not have to be good to be significant. Beach Party is not one of the good ones.

Beach Party is a 1963 teen B-movie, distributed by American International Pictures. AIP was a company formed by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff in 1955. The first release was (the original) The Fast and the Furious, and AIP quickly became a house known for distributing films focused on the emerging teen demographic. In the mid 1950s, teenagers were a new market for basically everything. They often went to the movies (especially drive-ins) because their parents dominated the television sets in the home.

AIP came to realize that this newfound source of entertainment revenue was being completely ignored by the studio system. AIP dedicated itself to distributing cheaply produced films centered on whatever the ‘hot teen trend’ was at the time. In the 50s, this would range from “wild youth,” (High School Hellcats), drag racing (Hot Rod Gang), rock ‘n’ roll (Rock All Night), and teen horror (I Was a Teenage Werewolf). Over the course of time, AIP refined their formula on how to make a successful film, known internally as Peter Pan Syndrome:

a) a younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;
b) an older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;
c) a girl will watch anything a boy will watch
d) a boy will not watch anything a girl will watch;
therefore-to catch your greatest audience you zero in on the 19-year old male.

This probably explains modern blockbusters like Transformers and much of the superhero fare.

By the 1960s, AIP had moved onto spy spoofs, lampooning the James Bond franchise, and Roger Corman horror films. Beach Party, starring Annette Funicello and Philadelphia native Frankie Avalon was not only AIP’s greatest success to date, but also instigated a whole genre of beach party films.

Beach Party‘s success is kind of baffling given the actual quality of the film. The plot of the film begins with Dolores (Funicello) and her boyfriend Frankie (Avalon) heading to the beach for a romantic weekend getaway. When they arrive, Frankie discovers his gal has invited all of their friends, making him think she doesn’t love him. He sets out to make her jealous by flirting extensively with other girls.

The film gets weird quickly when it introduces Professor Robert Orwell Sutwell (Robert Cummings), an anthropologist allegedly studying the “wild mating habits” of beach teens. He really comes off as a peeping Tom with scientific equipment. Dolores decides to use Sutwell to make Frankie jealous, which triggers the ire of Marianne (Dorothy Malone), Sutwell’s assistant.

Sutwell’s occupation drives much of the (alleged) humor in the film, with him trying to decipher the bizarre lingo, learning how to surf, and critiquing the dancing of the locals. He also runs into conflict with Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), leader of the local biker gang (an apparent parody of Marlon Brando in The Wild One). Sutwell puts von Zipper in a “time freeze” using some vague eastern art, prompting Zipper to spend the rest of the film planning his revenge. Sutwell also goes through a She’s All That-prescient beard makeover, and is suddenly revealed as a hot stud rather than a story old scientist.

The one redeeming quality of the film is probably the music. Yes, this film is also a musical, but thankfully the film actually has some good quality tracks. Rare for a B-film, Beach Party has a mostly original score, written by Les Baxter. Besides the songs sung by the main cast, other music in the film is performed by Dick Dale and the Dale-Tones, the king of the surf rock bands.

Ultimately, while this is a significant entry in the history of film, it’s not essential viewing. However, it’s a perfect film for putting on in the background at a party. Because who doesn’t love surf rock?

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

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