The beach party films (1959 – 1967)
By Matt Martin
By the early sixties, American teenagers had grown bored with the greaser, juvenile delinquent lifestyle, made popular by Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, that had dominated youth culture throughout the fifties. Spurned by a prospering economy and the beginnings of the sexual revolution, teenagers believed better times were ahead, unaware that Vietnam and massive social change was looming. The time had come, however brief it would be, to just have a good time. It was time for a different kind of teenage, hedonistic escape in cinema: the beach party films.
America’s obsession with beach culture exploded in 1959 with the creation of Hawaii as a state. Instantly, people everywhere flocked to all things Hawaiian and tropical, from hula lessons to tiki torches. Surf rock filled the airwaves as The Beach Boys and other California bands rocketed to quick stardom. Out west, the California coast became a Mecca for bored teenagers. In the east, college students on Easter break began flooding Florida every year, creating the modern ritual of spring break. As always, Hollywood responded quickly to the cultural change.
In 1960, two films were quickly made to capitalize on this overnight phenomenon. First came Gidget, with Sandra Dee as a young beach bunny who whiles away the last days of her teenage years amid the sand and surf. The film was an immediate smash and would go on to spawn several sequels and a TV show starring Sally Field. That same year MGM released Where the Boys Are, the story of four female students who head to spring break to cut loose, meet guys, and maybe fall in love. Both films set the standards for the genre: young, adventurous, naïve teenagers on the edge of maturity; a complete absence of any parental/authority figures; random musical numbers; and a happy-go-lucky air of anything goes and everything is fine.
But sure enough, it took a star to take the beach bash flicks from teenage fascination to nationwide obsession. In 1961, Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii, a playful tale of escapist fantasy. After leaving the army (in the movie and in real life), Presley returns home intent on living a better live. Much to the chagrin of his more ambitious parents, he decides he just wants the beach life and his Hawaiian girlfriend over empty careers. The film would be remembered as one of Elvis’ most beloved, and its soundtrack became his most successful chart album. It stayed at the #1 spot for 20 consecutive weeks and was the top selling album of 1961. Elvis’ musical marriage on a luau barge at the end remains one of his most iconic cinema moments. With that scene, America was beach crazy.
Soon after, legendary B-movie producer/director Roger Corman hired teen pop idol Frankie Avalon and former Mousekateer Annette Funicello to play what would be considered the definitive surf couple in his landmark film of eternal summer known simply as Beach Party. Released in 1963, the film hit a mark with young people, merging California free-living culture with an old-fashioned romantic musical. They would star in four sequels, each more over-the-top than the last. Aside from never-ending parties and quiet kisses by moonlight, the focus of each film was the constant confrontation between beach kids and the delinquent biker teenagers hell-bent on spoiling their good time. This culture clash between the rebellious teenagers of the fifties and the peaceful, fun-loving teenagers of the early sixties was never more obvious.
Over the next three years, no less than 30 different beach party movies followed. Kids loved them, and the plot formulas rarely strayed from its simple origins. Boys meet girls, one couple falls in love, party ensues, bitter delinquent types try to stop the fun, kids fight back with goofball antics, and the beach is reclaimed for the surfers – all sealed with a kiss at sunset amid the breaking waves. Occasionally, the studios would even merge them with other genres to expand the fun, using sci-fi (Pajama Party, where a Martian explorer is studying beach culture ‘etiquette’) and horror (The Horror of Party Beach, where a laughable seaweed monster threatens the surfers).
By 1967, the beach flicks ran out of steam, as more and more teenagers embraced the growing counterculture. Ultra clean-cut, tanned, happy teenagers gave way to long hair, shaggy clothes, and self-seriousness. Surfing, beach cookouts, and old-fashioned romance gave way to drugs, war panic, and free love. But those sun drenched, Technicolor summers live on and are still the ultimate vacation escape cinema. Kick back in the sun with these other unforgettable beach bash movies and let waves of sixties summer schmaltz wash over you. Hang ten, surf kings and bikini bunnies!
Beach Blanket Bingo
Paradise, Hawaiian Style (also with Elvis)
Muscle Beach Party
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
Ride the Wild Surf
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (with Vincent Price!)
Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.