(Note: I’m thrilled to be writing this post as a part of Chris Sturhann’s “Summer Movie Blogathon” on his Blog of the Darned https://chrissturhann.blogspot.ca/)
I discovered the Beach Boys when I was 12 years old. Soon I began to grow enamored of mid-century Southern Californian culture in it’s entirety. This quickly and obviously led me to the “beach party” movies, especially those produced by American International Studios in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The first film I discovered in this genre was 1964’s “Muscle Beach Party”. On a personal note, I had taped it off TV when it was broadcast on the late, late show on CITY TV in Toronto where I grew up. It was part of their line-up of “Not So Great Movies”. You often hear people say ‘I’ve watched that movie 100 times!’. While I may not have seen “Muscle Beach Party” 100 times, I must’ve watched that video tape dozens of times.
“Muscle Beach Party” was released in March of 1964. It was the second in American International’s “beach party” movie series which began the previous year with “Beach Party”. This second film also features the most unlikely looking beach types in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as Frankie and Dee Dee. Also returning are John Ashley, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Morey Amsterdam, Jody McCrea and many of the “beach party” guys and girls. The film opens with three car loads of kids beginning some vacation time on the beach at Malibu. Frankie and Dee Dee are the leaders of this troupe but early on we see a hint of trouble as Dee Dee seems to be withholding affection from Frank.
It’s Easter vacation and the gang is heading to Malibu where they’ve rented a house on the beach. Morning finds them hitting the surf and discovering a yacht anchored just offshore. Relaxing on the beach, Frankie talks to Dee Dee about some of his dreams. He loves being free to surf and feels like there is an ’80 foot wave’ out there just waiting for him. A gym full of muscle men has set up shop next to the kids’ house lead by ‘trainer’ Jack Fanny. The kids watch the men doing their morning exercises and heckle and mock them.
Out on the yacht, “Bella Contessa”, we meet S.Z. Matts who is the business manager and traveling companion of the very rich Julie Giatta-Borgini. Julie has dragged S.Z. to this neck of the woods in her desire to “buy” Flex Martian, the head muscle man, whom she has fallen in love with while looking at his picture in a magazine. She heads to the beach for a look at Flex and the other muscle men and takes Flex back to the yacht for lunch. Next we see Frankie and Dee Dee stealing away for some alone time by the fire on the beach. Instead of reverie, the discussion gets heated. Dee Dee wants Frankie to grow up, settle down and accept responsibility. Frankie, of course, bristles, declaring he wants no strings. He asks nothing of the world and only takes what’s free: sun, sky, beach and ocean.
Back at the muscle house, S.Z.’s assistant, Theodore, continues to negotiate the purchase of the muscle men with Jack Fanny. Jack seems reluctant. When Julie and S.Z. return with Flex, they find that there are still some details to hammer out. Bored with such details, Julie decides to walk on the beach. She overhears Frankie sing a song and kisses him, smitten. This is witnessed by Dee Dee and the two girls trade barbs. Frankie gets slapped and Dee Dee storms off. Meanwhile, S.Z. and Jack have concluded their deal. S.Z. tells Julie the good news but now she says she doesn’t want Flex and Co. She’s in love with Frankie! When Jack, Flex and the muscle men find out they have been jilted, they are none too happy.
Later, the kids are hooting at Cappy’s while Dick Dale entertains. Frankie and Dee Dee are trying to patch things up when Julie comes in asking Frankie to sing. Dee Dee sits down in a huff and Julie records Frankie’s song, telling him she’s going to make him a recording star. This infuriates Dee Dee but before she can punch Julie out the muscle men barge in. Jack Fanny declares war on the surfers in order to restore his and Flex’s honour. Before the fists can fly, Deadhead announces that the surf is up and the gang splits. That night, the kids further mock the muscle men and Jack Fanny commits himself to destroying them. Later, in a significant scene on the beach at night, Frankie discusses with Julie whether or not they would be right for each other. Frankie says he’s got paradise right here, right now. Julie tells him he can have all of that and more if he goes away with her. Frankie realizes that Julie and her plans for him are the 80 foot wave he had talked about earlier. This is his dream supposedly coming true. Frankie meets the gang on the beach saying they can all come with him on his adventure. The gang, however, is not having it. They are happy where they are. Thanks but no thanks.
Julie and S.Z. run into Dee Dee. Julie explains that Frankie and her are going away together. Dee Dee says that is fine. She is angry but wants Frankie to be happy. Dee Dee storms off and S.Z. wonders aloud if Julie has done the right thing, taking Frankie away. Julie gets upset and asks why can’t she have what these kids have just because she has money. S.Z. wisely suggests that’s it’s a case of “people for people” and that Julie and Frankie don’t fit together. Frankie arrives and begins to pack. S.Z. takes matters into his own hands explaining how Frankie will live off Julie and be “kept”, describing in harsh terms how things will be. Frankie has second thoughts and takes off. S.Z. explains himself to Julie by telling her he was trying to save Frankie and Dee Dee from broken hearts. Frankie runs down to Cappy’s to apologize to Dee Dee and explain to the gang that he was dazzled by Julie’s promises but now he’s come to his senses and realizes that his paradise, his 80 foot wave, is right here with Dee Dee and his friends. Julie arrives to hear the end of his speech and tells Frankie she understands and all is cool. Until the muscle men come in and a ridiculous brawl ensues. The surfers survive the rumble, watch as Julie’s yacht sails away and party the night away on the beach!
The first sequel to “Beach Party” (1963) is probably the best of all the ‘beach party’ movies. Perhaps it’s the absence of Harvey Lembeck as the excessively imbecilic Eric Von Zipper that elevates this film. Certainly the cast is the best of the series. In the previous film, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were billed 3rd and 4th behind ‘mature’ leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but in this second installment they take top billing and center stage.
Frankie and Annette may not look like typical Californians but they carry off the roles well. Avalon definitely had personality and he handles the humourous material naturally. When he is called upon to play it serious or angry, he’s also very convincing. When you think about it, for a guy who’s legacy may be lightweight, he sure had a fair amount of acting – and singing – ability. Annette is pretty and bubbly and you can easily buy her as the girl who is planning for the future and encouraging her man to do the same. One thing about American International; they seemed to be able to attract pretty female talent. Case in point is Luciana Paluzzi as the Contessa. The Italian Paluzzi – still with us at 80 – is possibly best known for portraying SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe in “Thunderball”. She also appeared in “Return to Peyton Place”. John Ashley returns as Johnny (formerly Ken). Small and dark like Avalon, Ashley comes off well as a teen-aged surf bum. He later married “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” actress Deborah Whalley. In the ’80’s, he produced the television show “The A-Team” and provided the narration over the opening credits.
Don Rickles appears as trainer Jack Fanny. Rickles is exactly how you’d like him to be – delightfully zany. Jody McCrea plays Deadhead. McCrea – son of Joel McCrea – obviously knows what he is doing onscreen despite getting stuck playing the moron. He is also exactly in the type of shape guys wanted to be in, maybe even more so than the bodybuilders. Dick Dale is actually a straight-up guitar legend. His rep is so huge that it actually suffers from being in these “beach party” movies. His music in the films is not his own and nowhere near indicative of his virtuoso playing. Here he’s cool, though. Virile. Candy Johnson and her crazy dancing? I’m sorry. Terrible. Real life bodybuilder Peter Lupus appears as “Mr. Galaxy – Flex Martian”. Lupus is billed here as “Rock Stevens”, as he was in the many ‘sword and sandal’ films he made in the 1960’s. He is given idiotic lines and doesn’t particularly shine in delivering them but it’s all good. We give Peter a pass because of his work in the television series “Mission: Impossible”, where he shone delivering few lines but effectively portraying the team’s ‘muscle’.
Valora Noland and Delores Wells deserve special mention. Fresh-faced and attractive, it’s fun to watch them as they decorate every scene they are in. It is difficult to find any info on the internet about Noland but Wells was a prominent Playboy model in the early ’60’s. Singer Donna Loren doesn’t have any lines and only duets with Dick Dale on one mediocre song so there’s not much to say about her in this film. But she turns in a great performance singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a wonderful voice but a decidedly unsuccessful singing career. She is still thriving in the fashion industry in Hawaii. Morey Amsterdam is loony as Cappy, owner of the kid’s hangout. He was funnier in “Beach Party”. Curiously, Buddy Hackett has a low billing in this film. He is great as the oddly named “S.Z. Matts” and while here he is much less manic than he usually is, he is obviously in control, understands his character – such as he is – and plays him well. Little Stevie Wonder actually sings a song. 13 years old at the time, Stevie here puts me in mind of James Brown in American International’s ‘winter beach party’, “Ski Party”: a whole lot of soul in an extremely white environment. Don’t think Stevie built his rep on having been in “Muscle Beach Party”. Keep an eye out for future “Grizzly Adams”, the late Dan Haggerty as one of the muscle men, cutey Amadee Chabot as one of Jack Fanny’s assistants and Peter Lorre, in his last film, as the silent partner, Mr. Strangdour, the strongest man in the world. I take the time to go over the cast because I think each of the above is worth pointing out. It’s actually a great cast with everyone playing their parts well. It’s interesting to me to note that seemingly everybody in this type of film went on to make either terrible movies, terrible movies in Europe or no movies. Ever seen John Ashley in “Black Mamba”? Or Valora Noland in…like..nothing? But the thing is – that’s OK. We love these actors in these roles. They become our friends. We become one of the gang.
“Muscle Beach Party” was filmed in part at Paradise Cove in Malibu. The location now is the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. They have an excellent website (http://www.paradisecovemalibu.com/) and a really good social media presence. Nice to know that you can plan a trip to the actual place where this and other films were made. It’s also great while you watch this movie to look around in the background and see what the land and homes were like at the time. The painting used over the opening credits I call the “Muscle Beach Mural”. It was painted by cartoonist Mike Dormer, whose surfer cartoon character “Hot Curl” can be seen on sweaters throughout the film. I’d kill for one of those sweaters and certainly for the mural. Dormer also created the children’s show “Shrimpenstein” who was a miniature Frankenstein’s monster that was created when his creator dropped a bag of jelly beans in his monster machine. Apparently Frank Sinatra and the boys never missed an episode.
Dr. Pepper was prominently placed in the film, which was why Donna Loren appeared to sing a song; she was the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and sang in their commercials. Legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson – genius behind the band’s music – co-wrote six songs for the film. With frequent co-writers Roger Christian and Gary Usher, Wilson penned the excellent opener “Surfer’s Holiday” sung by Frankie and Annette and the equally good “Runnin’ Wild” that Frank sings in Cappy’s. Although American International did not capitalize by issuing a soundtrack LP, Frankie Avalon did sing these two songs and others on his album “Muscle Beach Party and Other Movie Songs” on United Artists Records. A quality recording, the first side features songs from the “beach party” movies and side two showcases Avalon’s great voice on songs from other popular films.
Here’s the thing about this film. Of all the “beach party” movies – including movies in the same vein made by other studios – “Muscle Beach Party” is really the only one that has a script with any merit. I’m referring mainly to the Frankie-Dee Dee-Julie storyline. Early in the film, we see Frankie on the beach talking to Dee Dee. Keep in mind how old these kids are. We are never told specifically but I think it’s safe to assume they all are at the ‘pivot point’ in life – the time when you begin to turn away from your childhood and look forward to being an adult and assuming your role in society. I’ve always felt strongly about this point in life. It is heavy. It is rife with storylines about how well or how poorly people make the transition. I think of John Milner in the great coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. In that film, it is said of him “y’wanna be like John?! You can’t stay 17 forever”.
In our film, Frankie is dreaming out loud on the beach, sharing part of himself with Dee Dee, his girlfriend. “I think about it sometimes”, he says, “out there, way beyond that white boat, there’s a wave building…maybe it’s 80 feet”. Avalon does well getting the viewer to realize that this is his dream in life – maybe not exactly an 80 foot wave but he has dreams of fun, adventure and accomplishment for his life. The more realistic Dee Dee gently shoots him down saying that that wave is in his head. Even a seagull has to come down once in a while. Frankie disgustedly shakes his head: “Girls don’t fly!”. Later, again on the beach, Frankie and Dee Dee have an argument. Dee Dee again encourages Frankie to start making his life count for something. Sidebar: I own the novelization of “Muscle Beach Party” that came out slightly before the film. It’s written by Elsie Lee, a female author, who punches up the idea that Dee Dee is, of course, the more mature of the two. She is – step by step – making Frankie into the man she wants him to be – the man she knows he CAN be. She uses subtle feminine wisdom to get him to begin to be ready to assume responsibility and be an adult. And – most importantly, a husband.
Back on the beach, Frankie counters with the simple fact that he is happy. He’s living the way he wants to live. He says that Dee Dee is starting to sound like a wife. He expresses his desire to avoid “time-payment city…being in hock, working 8 to 5”. Dee Dee comes back with the fact that they could have a nice home and fill it with kids. Then Frankie delivers a classic line: “Look, this beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own. Now, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t, Dee Dee answers. All you do is take, she says. I only take what’s free, Frankie answers. It’s actually a really well written scene and one that virtually everyone can relate to. Women will smile knowingly and think of how much more grounded and sensible – and, let’s face it, more right – they are. Guys will remember their youthful freedom and how reluctant they were to give it up and face reality. In the midst of all this hassle with Dee Dee, in comes Julie, the Contessa who is gorgeous and filthy rich. She takes a shine to Frankie.
Later comes the important scene I alluded to in the synopsis. It’s night and Frankie and Julie are on the beach. When Frankie asks Julie “where do you go on that big, white boat?”, Julie talks about all the wonderful places she can take him. He asks about surf and she replies “the riders look like gods skimming the crest of the waves”. Frankie looks off into the distance and it hits him: “it’s an 80 foot wave”. He realizes that Julie is handing him everything he’s ever wanted. It’s a dream come true and Frank is all in. Until S.Z. shines a bit of light on the realities of “life with La Contessa”. Frank’s second thoughts lead him to a realization. Frankie realizes that he is already living his dream life. He loves Dee Dee. He loves being leader of the gang. He loves his life: living, working, saving for holidays like this and dreaming. Taking him away from all that is not a dream come true. He has been asked a question that is seemingly easy to answer: what is your perception of paradise? I have a special place in my heart for this idea as it formed the basis of the novel I started writing in my early 20’s and have yet to finish (20+ years later).
Let’s get one thing straight: I understand that most surf movies (except “Big Wednesday”) are lame. I know how none of them accurately depicted true surf culture and how “Gidget” resulted in the glutting of Malibu, ruining it for real surfers. And I know that the American International pictures in particular are goofy and kind of dumb. I’m not suggesting that the Academy take another look at these films. They are guilty pleasures, I always say. I’m a fan not a critic. And what I am saying is that these films are really enjoyable if only as snapshots of a wonderful time in American history. The location shooting, some of the things you see in the background or the furnishings in the beach houses, the cars all combine to make these films delightful especially to those of us immersed in mid-century culture. “Muscle Beach Party” is a great example of one of these films. Films I like to call “delightfully ridiculous”.