Beach Party, the groundbreaking surf musical starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; but AIP's own first knock-off (for ripping itself off was one of the things the company did best) was Muscle Beach Party, released in the spring of 1964. Of course "knock-off" isn't the word that the film prefers me to use; it would rather go by "sequel", though the narrative connections between the various beach party movies hardly matter, being limited mostly to the fact that Avalon and Funicello have the same character names throughout. MBP makes a few thin nods in the direction of continuity that other films in the franchise lack - Avalon's character, challengingly named "Frankie", is aware that the central conflict between him and Dee Dee (Funicello) is yet another iteration of an old fight, and Morey Amerstdam's club owner Cappy shows up here for the second and last time, making him one of the few non-teen characters to put in appearances in multiple films - but part of the generic concept is that there's no room for developing plot: it's yet another adventure on the beach for vacationing kids, the kind that barely even seems to matter to them while it's playing out.
In this case, it's Easter vacation (once again leading to my observation that the popularity of surf culture in places where it couldn't exist - places where you'd die of hypothermia if you jumped in the water in March, for example - is just damned fascinating and strange), and Frankie and Dee Dee and a whole lot of familiar faces are going to their favorite beach to sleep in the safely sex-segregated house they've rented, surfing and cuddling during the day and attending convenient Dick Dale and the Del-Tones concerts at night (in fact, Dale traveled with in their convoy). Meanwhile, the same beach is being used by Jack Fanny (Don Rickles), gym owner and personal trainer who is spending his time sculpting a cadre of men into impeccable physical specimens, with his pride and joy being Mr. Galaxy winner Flex Martian (Peter Lupus who, like Flex, was given a fake name: Rock Stevens). Flex has attracted the attention of the stupidly wealth Contessa Giuliana Giotto-Borgini (Luciana Paluzzi), who has ordered her rich business manager S.Z. Matts (Buddy Hackett) to buy Mr. Galaxy for her collection. While waiting for that deal to go through, she naturally falls head over heels for Frankie, who reciprocates a little too readily for Dee Dee's liking, particularly with them having had another "I want to get married!" / "I want to surf and have fun!" spat. Incidentally, for all the obvious and immediate ways that these movies are clearly time capsule pieces (the colors, the slang, the music), nothing has aged them as thoroughly as the spectacle of what I imagine to be 19- or 20-year-olds having an argument about getting married.
Let us be frank: whatever charms Beach Party has - I think that they are fairly immense, at that - they are not possessed by its first sequel. The free-for-all sense of absurdity that animates the later films, and is spotted in a limited form in the original, really isn't here at all, except in a reprise of Candy Johnson's character stopping men in their tracks with comic sound effects. The candy-colored '60s iconography isn't entirely muted (you can only do so much, with a surf movie, and the Ed Roth credits are a divine piece of period pop culture ephemera), but it's also not as eye-catchingly captured by cinematographer Harold E. Wellman and art director Lucius O. Croxton as their predecessors, Kay Norton and Daniel Haller. Most disappointingly, Muscle Beach Party is more chaste: the original film, with its downright smutty enthusiasm for depicting teenagers as sexual beings, was as interesting a sociological time capsule as a pop-cultural one, but not only does Muscle Beach Party have less overt sexuality, it even calls attention to itself for having less, with the bifurcated beach house and its concomitant elimination of furtive screwing.
On the other hand, as suggested by its title, Muscle Beach Party is hugely homoerotic, though given the people who made it and especially the studio that paid for it, I can't swear that all of it is intentional. That some of it is intentional seems beyond doubt: Buddy Hackett pulling increasingly odd but invariably approving looks as a line of immaculately-shaped young men in bright pink briefs and capes parade in front of him can't possibly be an accident, assuming that director William Asher had even the least awareness that gay men existed, and working in the film industry, one assumes he must have. And while that's an interesting shift in focus, it's not really something the film does much with at all: lines of dialogue that would require nothing to nudge them in the direction of sounding intensely suggestive are kept firmly neutered, and none of the teen boys in the surfer camp seems to have any sort of latent awareness one way or the other.
That speaks to a problem greater than just "there ought to be some sex in this teen sex picture"; Muscle Beach Party is unusually good at not being about anything, even when it should be. Robert Dillon's screenplay, from a story he co-wrote with Asher, is structurally bizarre and not in any kind of good way: with the surfers, the bodybuilders, and the Contessa serving as three possible points for conflict, the film still struggles to have any kind of story: first the surfers are angry and the bodybuilders and then vice versa, but then the Contessa shows up and there's a damn long stretch of the movie without much of any connection to anything else, as S.Z. Matts and Jack Fanny hash out a business deal (Hackett is in fine form, but Rickles, given an oddly uncharacteristic role, is largely unpleasant), and the teens barely even show up in disconnected cameos. When the film resumes, it's on the back of the Dee Dee-Frankie-Contessa love triangle, and when the bodybuilders return, it's as unexpected and pointless as a celebrity cameo from Peter Lorre, who died only two days before the film's release, and before having a chance to film his promised appearance in the eventual Bikini Beach.
Given that the limited story is already a retread of Beach Party, where the same character beats were worked into the more expansive, wackier outside plot, it's impossible to see this as anything but tepid, paint-by-numbers mechanical storytelling, and while the film goes through the motions well enough - good stock footage surfing, fine surf rock tunes co-written by Beach Boy mastermind Brian Wilson, Frankie and Annette are playing their established characters fine, even if neither one (Frankie especially) has much of anything to do - it is plainly just that: going through the motions. Nobody expects a beach party movie to be a great work of cinematic art, but the least it can do is to offer some good playful romping, and Muscle Beach Party is simply too impersonal to achieve that.
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)
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (Asher, 1965)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis, 1966)