19 July 2013

BEACH PARTIES: ALL THE CHICKS ARE BIKINI-CLAD

Bitter, scrupulous honesty compels us to admit that Bikini Beach has an alarmingly defective screenplay; by which I do not mean "The script of Bikini Beach compares unfavorably to the script of Network", or something dumb like that, because fucking duh. I mean, even by the standards of the American International beach party movies, Bikini Beach has a broken script that fails at levels you wouldn't even assume it might fail. And yet, despite this, Bikini Beach is the best film of the series to that point, a welcome course-correction after the bland Muscle Beach Party, while largely copying the details of the genre-originating Beach Party with some very important redirected emphases. Basically, Bikini Beach is where the wacky musical comedy stylings of the beach movies, having fully exhausted itself after one (let alone two) entries, went for broke into the wide world of absurdity and surrealism. It's not as wholeheartedly deranged as some of its successors would be, but it's far, far stranger than either of its predecessors, and the bizarre energy thus generated makes it easily the most likable and arresting of the three, even if it's a complete flop even on the level of being a teen sex farce.

The action takes us to summer once again, with the gang - and after three films, they're comfortably "the gang", people you're excited to see again, people you kind of wish would stop hanging around, and all - returning to the same beach as before, presumably, though there never do seem to be the same features from film to film, and the small number of hangout spots that carried over between the first two movies are gone now. Nonetheless, a handful of lines make much too big a point of building intra-film continuity.

ANYWAY, IT'S SUMMER, and Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and Dee Dee (Annette Funicello) have apparently reached detente in their longstanding feud about relationship commitment, because she doesn't make a snarky comment about him marrying her even once. Indeed, Dee Dee seems a whole lot looser and more interesting this time, which makes it disappointing that she gets so little screentime. But there's a lot of story vying for attention, what with British music sensation Peter Royce Bentley* (also Avalon), better known by his stage name Potato Bug, having set up his summertime vacation on the same beach, and local business owner and newspaper publisher Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn) deciding to throw all his influence at convincing the local populace that the teens are literally as primitive as his beloved chimp Clyde (Janos Prohaska), who can surf, drag-race, and dance as well as any of them. In this, Honeywagon meets with the surprisingly intense resistence of local non-teen Vivien Clements (Martha Hyer), though he gains an excruciatingly unwelcome ally in the body of incompetent biker gang leader Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), back from whatever hole he'd been hiding in all through Muscle Beach Party, and being sufficient all by himself to make this film better than that one.

So, here's what I mean by a defective script: Bikini Beach can't decide whether it's primarily about the venal Honeywagon, or the deliriously wacky Potato Bug and the resentment he engenders (for, obviously, he takes an immediate fancy to Dee Dee, setting up many Avalon vs. Avalon face-offs), and it really does not give any amount of a shit. Which is just as well, given that the film functions much better a series of comic moments than as a narrative with momentum and all, but it's still an immense drag on the film pretty much every time that Honeywagon and Clements - a meaner and far less culturally fascinating retread of the Robert Cummings/Dorothy Malone material from Beach Party - show up to pull focus from everything around them, all of it much more entertaining. The fact that Honeywagon's surname - a film industry nickname for portable toilets - is made such a constant source of delight for the screenwriting team of William Asher, Leo Townsend, and Robert Dillon tells us most of what we need to know about the overall level of sophistication with which this subplot is handled.

Everything else, though, is terrific - very stupid and inane most of the time, but terrific. That's mostly because Bikini Beach turns into a straight-up cartoon, completing a journey that wasn't very far for the franchise to go in the first place. Obviously, once you get a chimp racing dragsters and dancing the Watusi, you've landed pretty securely in a proudly ludicrous place, but that's not even the only thing about Bikini Beach operating at a level that can hardly be related to recognisable human behavior, even to the degree that Beach Party could. A lot of this resides in the film's manifestly odd parody of the British Invasion in the form of Potato Bug, who is an overt parody of the Beatles - his song that we hear is full of "She Loves You"-esque oohs and talk of holding hands - but who isn't played by Avalon remotely as anything that even the squarest 1964 viewer might have mistaken for the Beatles. If anything, he's channeling British comedian Terry-Thomas, and his accent is far enough off the mark that I genuinely can't tell if it's meant to be the British or American stereotypes about the British that's coming under attack.

(Also, there's something ineffably sad about a movie anchored in '60s surf culture that so airily dismisses the artistic integrity of the Beatles; not that in '64, anybody could have imagined the ultimate scale of the Beatles' aesthetic triumph and influence, but it feels like watching a fly snort derisively at the Space Shuttle anyway).

More than just one chimp and one incredibly broad caricature of Britishness - enough to make Austin Powers look refined and subtle - Bikini Beach simply thrives on a constant stream of unreality. The wacky cartoon sound effects that had always been part of Asher's directorial toolkit are increased here to heights unimagined by the previous film, and even the disconnect between the various plot threads - and the disconnect within plot threads, as when the primary conflicts of Dee Dee's flirtation with Potato Bug, and Honeywagon's persecution of the teens, are resolved practically offscreen - contributes to the sense that nothing happening is actually real, just moments that only mean anything in relation to themselves. Frequently, this works: the best moments have enough of a hokey time capsule charm that they're perfectly delightful, with Funicello being far more fun and spiky and personable than in the earlier movies, and the best surfing stock footage in the franchise showing up, and Don Rickles giving a vastly sillier and freer performance than he gave in Muscle Beach Party, while playing nominally the same character.

Frequently, it doesn't: the songs are pretty anonymous, not that any of AIP's attempts at launching a music empire involved genuinely good music. But the lyrics reach a new height of strained banality, and surf rock had already begun to play itself out by '64; only the energy of the performances keep the musical numbers from drying up entirely. The third act descends into that terrible trap of so many '60s comedies: the protracted chase scene, this one eventually turning into a virtual copy of the slapstick fight scene from Beach Party.

I mean, let's be fair: Bikini Beach isn't "good". It's just tremendously, wonderfully goofy, giving its perfectly likeable vanilla leads a rare chance to act as daffy as the shenanigans around them, even as those shenanigans are elevated almost to surrealism. It's a curious, strange time capsule, that excellently captures the best aspects of AIP's well-honed pandering to teen audiences, while also showcasing what a sufficiently driven - or at least bored - filmmaker could do when given enough of a free reign by the AIP masters to make something far too unique and exuberantly zany to be as trashy and disposable as you might suppose.

Reviews in this series
Beach Party (Asher, 1963)
Muscle Beach Party (Asher, 1964)
Bikini Beach (Asher, 1964)
Pajama Party (Weis, 1964)
Beach Blanket Bingo (Asher, 1965)
Ski Party (Rafkin, 1965)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher, 1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis, 1966)

3 comments:

Not Fenimore said...

Also, this is a thing that exists. You don't know how tempted I am to buy this thing and mail it to you for the conclusion of the series.

Tim said...

Oh... what a lovely thought... but you really don't need to. Really. REAAAAALLY.

Not Fenimore said...

Well, I don't know your address beyond "Chicago somewhere, right?" so you're probably safe. :P