Check This Out: California Dreaming


Seymour Cassel and Glynnis O’Connor, 1979


As I fancy myself something of a comedian, I often like to say “I’ve never heard of this song. It must not exist”. As if to say; I’ve heard every song there ever was and if you play me something I’ve never heard, you must have just recorded it today. Now, when I say this, I’m joking but on the other hand – and many of you will know what I’m talking about – when you spend as much time as I do scrolling the internet and reading and learning about classic music and films, surely you must’ve run into everything ever made. As a matter of fact, though, if that were true, it would be depressing; having no more worlds left to conquer, no more music, films or books to discover. Still, I was surprised to stumble on the existence of this film while researching Donna Loren recently.

California Dreaming volleyball
Glynnis O’Connor and Dennis Christopher.

Looking up the skinny on the Dr. Pepper Girl, I read up on her in my man, Tom Lisanti’s, oft-referenced book on beach party movies. There, I came upon a picture of one of the many Playboy Playmates that appeared in beach party movies, Sue Williams, a.k.a. Hamilton. I Googled Sue and learned there is a lot of confusion out there about her actual identity and whether or not she committed suicide with a shotgun blast to the chest in 1969 at age 23 (she didn’t). I learned about her from a site I discovered called Beach Party Movies and, while I was there, scrolling the articles, I saw a picture of Glynnis O’Connor playing volleyball in a film that was considered “the last beach party movie”, California Dreaming. How had I missed hearing about this? I asked myself. Well, I had heard of it. While the wheels were turning, I began to recall this film being mentioned – very much in passing – in Tom’s book. And so, as I like to document for the record such rarities, here we go…

Square T.T. arrives on the coast having completed the trip from Ol’ Chi in honour of his recently-deceased trumpet-blowing brother. He meets up with old surfer and local bar owner Duke (Cassel) who takes him under his wing. Duke takes him into his home but his dishy daughter, Corky (O’Connor) is not thrilled and she freezes T.T. out. T.T. doesn’t know from girls, surfing or volleyball but Duke and some of the local kids take him in hand. T.T. learns the ropes and basically comes of age there on the beach, letting the memory of his brother go and falling for Corky. The gang around him also go through changes and begin to prepare for adulthood; learning what they want from life and what they don’t want.

Make no mistake; this is bad. This film has major flaws in execution. Perhaps it can be traced back to the script; the actual words the characters say, their motivations and their reactions to situations are presented in a disingenuous, head-shaking fashion. I laughed out loud a few times, yelling at the screen “now, why would she do that?!”. Like many films we talk about here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, this one is significant not for its quality and/or charm – it has little of either – but for its significance in the lexicon of beach party films in particular and guilty pleasure films in general.

Screen Shot 2020-08-09 at 5.12.41 PM

Let’s compare it to the film we featured last time on Check This Out, The Sweet Ride. That film has quality. It makes an effort and has players and crew that know what they are about. It has an edge and, truth be told it, really has the characteristics that make it the last beach party movie of the original cycle. Throughout the 1970’s, there were few films in this style. One of my Top 25 favourite films, John Milius’ 1974 masterpiece Big Wednesday, is NOT a beach party movie. It is a film of the highest quality that happens to deal with friends who surf together. You have to fast forward a full 10 years from The Sweet Ride and there we find the original beach party studio heading for the surf again.

California Dreaming is brought to you by American-International Pictures and was produced by Lou Arkoff, son of the co-founder of the studio, Sam Arkoff. Arkoff the Younger stated in the trades at the time that he wanted the studio to “move toward more serious, insightful and creative projects” and that he didn’t want this film to become Beach Blanket Bingo. He should be so lucky.

Duke's Vista Del Mar

The script was written by Ned Wynn, who also appears in the film in a goofy sub-plot that concerns him and a rival battling for the affections of a local waitress. Wynn is the grandson of Ed Wynn and son of Keenan Wynn (Bikini Beach). Ned Wynn had previously appeared as a surfer/beach boy in several of the original beach party films. The director here is John D. Hancock who’s only credit of note is directing Bang the Drum Slowly  (1973). He did work with his actress/screenwriter wife (who also appears in our film) on Jaws 2 (1978) before running afoul of the political machine in Hollywood and being fired.

Glynnis O'Connor

Pretty Glynnis O’Connor was 22 in California Dreaming and hails from New Rochelle although she looks like the quintessential California girl. She does well in this film but has not got up to much in her career aside from making countless TV movies. She can currently be seen in the TV show Condor. Under the heading “These Things Are Always Happening to Me” is Dennis Christopher appearing in this move as the Chicago transplant, T.T. Just the night before I first watched California Dreaming, I saw Christopher in his only other credit of note, Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist western, Django Unchained  (2012).

Semour Cassel

Seymour Cassel (1935-2019) has a face I recognize – and you do, too – but I really don’t know his work. His storyline in this film is where the only meat of the plot comes from. It turns out he has not been lying about his past exploits, a realization of some import to T.T. that is only discovered after it is too late. Also appearing is John Calvin whom you can also see as the bare-chested lecher in the Frankie and Annette reunion film, Back to the Beach (1987).

Tanya Roberts plays Stefanie, a girl from an upper-class home who is wasting her time with John Calvin’s surf bum, Rick. California Dreaming was an early credit for her; she had been at it for only three years and was 24 at the time. She would soon be cast in Charlie’s Angels before becoming one of the least effective Bond Girls this side of Denise Richards when she appeared in geezer Roger Moore’s swan song as Bond, 1985’s A View to a Kill.

California Dreaming lobby card

Of note is the casting of Johnny Fain as surfer Tenner. Born in LA in 1943, Fain is the son of Jeanne Bartlett, a writer with four screenwriting credits to her name, including  Son of Lassie (1943) and one acting credit; she played Daisy in 1935’s Werewolf of London. Fain grew up in Malibu surfing with the best surfers of the area, soon becoming one of them himself. Significantly, Fain was the first actual surfer hired to work on the first actual beach party movie, Gidget (1959) and donned Sandra Dee’s swimsuit and a blonde wig to double for her in a surfing scene; Fain was only 5 feet 5 inches tall. Johnny was then tapped by AIP and was seen in Beach Party, also surf doubling for Frankie Avalon and John Ashley in that film.

Johnny Fain and Stacey Nelkin
Johnny Fain & Stacey Nelkin.

Photogenic Johnny was even more visible in Bikini Beach (1964) and in other AIP beach films before appearing in a small role in the adult beach party movie, Don’t Make Waves (1967), a film that boasts perhaps the most attractive cast ever assembled with Tony Curtis, Sharon Tate and Claudia Cardinale. He also appeared in the TV series Gidget and then wrangled himself a role in the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter. When he scored work on Big Wednesday, he felt like it might be his big acting breakthrough but he went underused in that film.

Tom Lisanti reports that, during California Dreaming, Fain – still hoping to take a step forward as an actor – was injured by a co-star’s surfboard, incurring an injury to his face that required 55 stitches to close. Subsequently, his role was reduced. After this film, John packed it in. Like so many other minor actors from the golden age, Fain would eventually find success in the real estate market.

This film contains an interesting soundtrack headlined by America’s version of “California Dreamin'”. Their recording was a minor hit for them, peaking at #56. The soundtrack album was released on Casablanca Records and also featured a track from Michelle Phillips and two from Canadian Burton Cummings.

The soundtrack album.

More than anything else, California Dreaming is an oddity, an interesting find and an intriguing look at the evolution of the beach party movie. The film industry had changed since the early Sixties, though, and this film looks a lot like other teen films of the time in that it features a bit of sex and nudity and some drug use. There is much surfing to enjoy, though, including a harrowing “shooting the pier” incident, and I like the inclusion of beach volleyball as a pastime the coastal denizens love as much as surfing. If you’re into these films and your a completist – like me – you have to Check This Out.



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