Book Talk: Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies

“Hollywood surf and beach movies were extremely popular as they struck a chord with the teenage psyche. (Filmmakers) realize(d) that roughly two-thirds of the movie ticket buying public were between the ages of 15 and 25. The beach party movies were tailored squarely for that audience, combining their love of rock music with their hormonal thirst for titillation…”

“Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969” by Thomas Lisanti (2012)


When I was 12 years old, in 1984, I was given some records by an aunt. I remember one was the soundtrack for The Monkees’ movie Head – which I later, foolishly, got rid of – and another was The Beach Boys iconic compilation Endless Summer. This began my lifelong fascination with what rock journalist Timothy White has called “the Southern California experience”.

One of the things this lead to was my becoming a skateboarder of sorts. Through skateboarding, I was well aware of the term “poser”; someone who adopts a persona with which they have no actual connection. So from the outset I realized that because I lived in Southern Ontario and was not able to nor prepared to give myself over totally to a life spent pursuing sun, water sports and calculated sloth, I would always be perceived as something of a poser. It was like Harry Connick not being fully embraced by the jazz world because he often followed his muse into other arenas.

Paradise Cove Beach Café in Malibu where many beach party movies were filmed. I hope to go there one day.

Posers abounded in Hollywood in the early 1960’s. I’m talking specifically about the “beach party” movies that began with Columbia’s Gidget in 1959. I had loved these films for 30 years before I was able to find the perfect book devoted to them, Thomas Lisanti’s Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies.

I would’ve been happy with an encyclopedia that simply provided me with all the particulars of these films but Tom’s book is so much more. He has his own personal history discovering and watching these movies as a teenager and his fondness for them comes through in his text. He is also able to draw on the extensive interviews he has conducted with countless “B movie” actors and actresses throughout the years.

Muscle Beach Party lobby card
One of my Top 25 Favourite Movies. See my review here.

He gives detailed accounts of how, when and why these movies were made and by whom. His introduction also gives pertinent historical context and explains the societal climate in which these films were offered as idyllic representations of life to teenagers all over the US and indeed worldwide.

The entry for each film starts with title and year of release, of course, but Tom also provides detailed info as a bonus. Each entry begins with a ranking depicting how each film fares in vital areas: Fun, Surfing, Boy Watching, Girl Watching, Music and Scenery. Detailed credits follow with a listing of songs and performers. The plot is discussed plus behind-the-scenes production notes and finally some critics reviews. Some even not negative!

Tom goes deep for some lesser known entries, some not available on home video.

Tom is well aware that these films were disdained by surfers and the real kids that were living in Southern California and other seaside locales at the time. Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Aron Kincaide, Dwayne Hickman, Fabian, et al. were certainly not authentic representations of surfers and the “plots” of these films were often contrived to the point of stupidity but Tom maintains that does not render these films bereft of merit.

The fact that a scholarly work like Tom’s exists is proof that these films are worthy to be defended and – if looked at through the proper prism – these movies can be thoroughly enjoyed – guilt-free – for the amount of pleasure they give the viewer. Let’s face it; most of us are posers when it comes to living the “salt life”. We simply don’t live near water or we have families and jobs, obligations etc. For us, these goofy films and the lifestyles they depict can be all we have and we hold them dear. Sure we know Frank’s not actually riding a wave in that shot but who cares? These films are fine company through the long winters.

Perhaps Lisanti’s most important accomplishment is the interviews. Like other perhaps more serious facets of culture and society have been preserved by interviews and other historical documents housed in museums, Tom’s interviews with these actors and actresses serve as an oral history and help to preserve the story of this unique and beloved genre before the participants begin to pass away. Sometimes the remembrances of a Tommy Kirk or a Valora Noland can be as helpful in understanding an era or the inner workings of Hollywood as those of a Frankie Avalon or a Nancy Sinatra.

Screen Shot 2019-06-02 at 6.14.28 PM
Head to or search for Thomas Lisanti at Amazon.

Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is just one of the many books Tom Lisanti has authored that are invaluable to us retro types. I highly recommend you head to his website to peruse his other books, including: Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973, Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach and Elvis Movies, Drive-In Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-Movie Starlets of the Sixties, Glamour Girls of Sixties Hollywood: Seventy-Five Profiles, Trippin’ with Terry Southern: What I Think I Remember, Dueling Harlows: Race to the Silver Screen, Talking Sixties Drive-In Movies and what I think will be by next purchase Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974. I have also been thrilled to be able to interact with Tom on Twitter @tomlis. It was great to be able to tell him how much Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies has meant to me.


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