05 August 2013

BEACH PARTIES: JUST AFTER EIGHT, WE'LL CONGREGATE

It is a matter of debate amongst people whose priorities are severely misplaced whether 1964's Pajama Party is, properly speaking, a part of American International Pictures' beach party franchise or not. It ports over nearly the entire core cast of those films, but nearly all of them are playing different characters. It incorporates Southern California beaches into the story, but that's not really the setting, and that deprives the film of both the surfing stock footage and surf rock that are so tremendously important to the overall effect of the beach movies. On the other hand, AIP obviously wanted to connect the film with its popular series, which was at that point the company's only teen movie concern as it began dedicating itself more and more to horror, and both the title and the ad campaign are clearly meant to evoke the beach movies, even if the content is a little bit askew.

What this leaves us with is a swell laboratory experiment, that does not try to answer the question, "What happens if somebody besides William Asher makes a beach party movie for AIP?", though it ends up doing just that. Pajama Party, you see, was directed by Don Weis, almost exclusively a TV director up to that point, and while I had no small belief that Asher's contributions to the films are easily overlooked and of considerable importance to the ultimate feel and effect of the movies, it's pleasant of Weis to come along and prove me entirely right. Indeed, of the two men prominently missing from Pajama Party, Asher turns out to be leave the far more debilitating gap than Frankie Avalon, who appears in an extended cameo as the leader of the Martian military, leaving it to Tommy Kirk to be Funicello's designated love interest, and reveals in the process just how essential a perfectly plain, vanilla prettyboy with no discernible acting talent can end up being to create a very particular sort of atmosphere.

Allow me to stop teasing and just say it: Pajama Party isn't very good, which is to begin with not much of a surprise, since none of the AIP beach movies are very good - if we are being objective and totally free of sentiment, nothing by AIP is very good - and expecting any random one of them to be suddenly great cinema is to profoundly misunderstand what they are and why the existed. But "good" is somewhat to the side of what a sensible viewer does hope to find with the beach movies, which is a bountiful sense of cartoonish whimsy, time capsule sociology, and shameless delight in bouncy music and bouncy... people.

Pajama Party at least manages to get part of that right: with writer Louis M. Heyward avowedly structuring scenes and gags according to the logic and rhythm of a four-panel comic strip, the film is unabashedly cartoonish, and in a good way. One of the best things about the beach movies is their well-developed sense of the utterly silly, and the flights of pure fantasy, and Pajama Party reaches new heights in this regard, whether it's the fact that the plot - such as it is, and that ain't much - hinges on an invasion force from Mars, or the early gag where a pair of teens enthusiastically Watusi their way out over a pool, look down, realise what they've done, and fall in, in flawless Wile E. Coyote style. Realism not ever being a concern, Pajama Party still represents a major jump ahead for the franchise in this direction, and it sets us on a merry path that will, in due course, arrive at places like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini.

What the film lacks totally is bounciness, the poppy energy that tends to make the utterly trivial nonsense in all of these movies seem like charmingly simplistic fun and not just careless trash. For it a thin line between dumb that is fun and dumb that is just dumb, and the beach franchise made a habit of staying on the fun side of that line while leaning as far over as possible. That, I think, was the result of Asher's intelligently loose direction, which felt uncommonly in-the-moment considering how far he was from the material's target audience; there is a sense, watching his movies, that he genuinely respects the daft, made-up culture he's depicting and the teenagers he is making it for. With Weis, in Pajama Party, I simply do not get the impression that he really understood or liked what he was doing, and where Asher's camera is constantly right in with the kids, Weis and cinematographer Floyd Crosby stay locked in wide and medium-wide shots, occasionally darting in for a leering shot of some comely teenage bosom or wiggling hips, and even those have the feeling of something put in according to a system, because the movie needs sex in it, than because the filmmakers have an intuitive sense for how the energy of their film is flowing.

It doesn't help that Pajama Party is so unfocused: the absence of Avalon means the absence of the tart, somewhat nasty relationship between his character and Funicello's, and also the low-boil sexuality that came with it, and every single movie in the series was founded on that relationship. There is here no organising A-plot, just a grab-bag of plot strands: Go Go (Kirk) is on a mission from Mars to study the teenagers of Earth and thereby bring a report back to military leader Socum (Avalon) and Big Bang (Don Rickles, playing a sort of variation on his stock character in the series). Meanwhile, a gang of crooks led by J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is attempting to find the rumored huge cache of money hidden in the home of charmingly dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester), whose nephew Big Lunk (Jody McCrea) is sort of dating Connie but not really, especially when he falls in love with Helga (Bobbi Shaw), the buxom Swedish member of the criminal gang. Go Go is taken in by Aunt Wendy, who thinks nothing of having a Martian in the house, though she cautions him to pretend that he's a human named George to everybody else. And just to make sure that there's a traditional fight scene to end things, the Rat Pack motorcycle gang led by the hapless Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) has a grudge against the boys' volleyball team that makes up the male contingent of the teen orgy currently staying at Wendy's place.

None of this gels, which is fair, because nobody involved seems to think that it does gel. It's just free-for-all slapstick, disconnected from character concerns of any sort (the romantic travails of the teens are underdeveloped to the point of non-existence). There's a place where this could work, even a place in the AIP teen movie firmament; but Weis doesn't direct it with the kind of loopy fun that would help to get the audience in the same place as the comedy, and so it all just seems shrill. I've never been so grateful in any of these films for Lembeck, I can tell you that; perversely, the absurd comic figure of the other films has a grounding effect here, since he is clearly familiar with it more than anybody else is familiar with anything, and while some of the actors try harder than others (Lanchester especially is hellbent on having a fun time), nobody hits the right tone consistently. And Kirk is a hurtfully bland hero, with no meaningful chemistry between him and his co-star (I have not seen the same year's Disney-produced Funicello/Kirk vehicle The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and maybe they have something that works there; but I tend to doubt it), nor enough of an Everyboy simplicity that he carries his solo material any better.

The one actor who possibly gives Lembeck a run for his money as the saving grace of anything at all, for a much different reason, is the unlikely figure of silent comedy icon Buster Keaton, making the first of four AIP appearances as a unfathomably tasteless slapstick Native American called Chief Rotten Eagle, part of the thieving gang. Sound comedy was not friendly to Keaton, whose routines where entirely physical and whose acting style was based in a studied non-response that seemed just grotesque when dialogue was happening around him; his career had been long washed up by '64, which is undoubtedly how he got to this pass. Still, there have been few men in all of screen comedy who can even think about competing his level of native talent, and it is astounding, if not necessarily pleasurable, to watch as he bends all his years of training and knowledge on building this one-joke caricature with intelligence and consistency, reacting and non-reacting with exactly the precision and gravity he brought to bear on any of his best films from the '20s. It's a sharp, somewhat mystifying conflict between style and content that is nevertheless interesting in its way, though while Lembeck and, to a smaller degree, Lanchester benefit the film by yoking its dizziness to something recognisable, Keaton arguably damages it even more by operating so massively far above the material that he calls that much more attention to how reedy it is.

All of this results in a film that's not much fun to watch at all: it doesn't look as fun as the earlier movies, the music (stripped of surf-rock overtones) isn't as fun, the actors aren't having enough fun. With "fun" being the primary excuse for these films existing, that can be rightfully described as a debilitating flaw. But that's to be expected with sausage-factory film production of the sort that AIP practiced: the casts and crews would tire of this stuff, and four films into a seven-film cycle, Pajama Party is a natural place for that burnout to first make itself known.

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:

Samuel Wilson said...

Casting Keaton in these films was like casting Karloff. Washed up, yes, because Buster was never going to make features again with creative control, but less washed up than in the 1940s. He had much greater visibility thanks to TV so that he probably served as a kind of pop icon the way Karloff did, and as a link to the silent slapstick these films emulated. Keaton's presence enhances the overall Mad magazine feel that redeems most of these pictures.

Not Fenimore said...

Buster Keaton? o.O

I mean, I've seen A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, so I know he was still working then, but still, hell of a trio with this and The Railrodder. ...And as usual the NFB wins. ;)

javi75 said...

"Frankie Avalon, who appears in an extended cameo as the leader of the Martian military, leaving it to Tommy Kirk to be Funicello's designated love interest, and reveals in the process just how essential a perfectly plain, vanilla prettyboy with no discernible acting talent can end up being to create a very particular sort of atmosphere."

This reminded me of "Babes in Toyland"(1961). Tommy Kirk has the extended cameo there, Funicello is the female lead, and her romantic interest is not Avalon but another singing teenage idol, Tommy Sands. The movie is also very colorful and cartoonish.
Bur of course, it didn't happen in the real world. The Beach Party movies do, so I guess that was AIP's genius, plus adding the whole surfing + sex-craze angle.
I don't really know if they were trying to imitate the style of "Babes in toyland" from the very first Beach Party movie, since they were using kind of the same cast (I think it makes Hollywood sense), or maybe cartoony comedy was just in vogue back then. I can think of "Li'l Abner"(1959) (which also has sex-crazed characters) and I belive Frank Tashlin used cartoon sound effects in his late '50s comedies.