13 August 2013

BEACH PARTIES: RIGHT BLANKET, WRONG MISS

The fourth "true" film of American International's beach series, Beach Blanket Bingo, is also all but universally regarded as the best, not by any little margin, either; and after a fashion, it is the last one before the wheels fell off entirely, for it was the last time that Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were romantic co-leads. But there is nothing valedictory about the film - for indeed, nobody knew at this point that Avalon would be reduced to a glorified cameo in the next picture - which comes by its stature not by attempting to draw the arc of its characters' stories to a close (what arc?), but by hitting that wonderful point where the people responsible for cranking out movies like fast food hamburgers have run out of ideas and just start throwing any and all shit at the wall, to see what sticks; but not yet to the point where they obviously resent what they're doing, and themselves for doing it.

Basically, this means two things above all: skydiving and mermaids. And if there's anything that says, "we've hit the 'fuck it' point" like throwing a mermaid right on in your teen beach party/surfer movie, I'm quite sure that I don't know what it is, nor do I seriously entertain the notion that it actually exists. Beach Blanket Bingo is pretty damn hard to top for sheer wackiness, with director and co-writer (with Leo Towsend, writing his second of three beach movies) William Asher really opening up and letting whatever idea seemed to be worthwhile play out onscreen merrily, free of fussy notions about story logic, character logic, or physics. Think that it was fun when Pajama Party threw some gags based on cartoon physics in there? Beach Blanket Bingo yawns at that: Beach Blanket Bingo has an entire third act inspired in equal measure by silent serial melodrama and the more recent cartoons that were parodying those exact same melodramas - there is an honest-to-God sawmill sequence, with the pretty blonde about to be split down the middle if the heroes don't get there in time. The heroes being in this case both the surfers and the bikers, led as always by Harvey Lembeck's utterly hopeless Eric Von Zipper, who gets more to do in this film than ever before - even his very own musical number! - though of course the bikers are idiot jerkfaces who get their comeuppance in one of the most surreal split-screen gags ever performed in an American movie: I would not dare to dream of spoiling it, but you'd expect to see it happen to Daffy Duck, not a flesh-and-blood human, and the juxtaposition here is manic and marvelous.

Nominally, this is hung upon a plot, and the nominal plot is thus: during their latest summer trip to the beach (the film opened in April, 1965, the third year of the series), Frankie (Avalon) and Dee Dee (Funicello) once again find themselves quarreling over unwanted flirtations and infidelities, but it's not the obvious suspect, a sexy pop singer named Sugar Kane (Linda Evans) - one of the few outright mistakes of the script lies in stealing a gag from Some Like It Hot, which couldn't have seemed like a safe target even as early as '65 - who initially seems to be drifting into Frankie's affections, but ends up pursuing the surfing gang's resident idiot, Bonehead (Jody McCrea, like Lembeck given far more to do than in other movies in the series). In fact, Frankie and Dee Dee are being tag-teamed by Bonnie (Deborah Walley) and Steve (John Ashley, who had to this point been a good guy in these movies), a pair of skydiving instructors employed by the latest identity of Don Rickles's series-spanning huckster, here named Big Drop. Frankie goes skydiving to make Dee Dee jealous; Dee Dee goes skydiving to make Frankie jealous; meanwhile, Sugar's manager Bullets (Paul Lynde) is ineffectively attempting to turn every single situation into an opportunity to promote his star in front of big-time newspaper gossip columnist Earl Wilson (playing himself).

Also, Buster Keaton chases Bobbi Shaw all around the beach, the both of them occasionally pausing long enough so that he can do a few seconds of immaculately-timed physical comedy, and perhaps briefly confusing the teenagers necking at the drive-in, wondering who this old dude is with the unusually grave expression and far more dignity than it feels he ought to have. I'faith, I do like him better in Pajama Party, where he at least got more screentime and anything that didn't have to do with chasing after a beach bunny. But I still like him here more than his embarrassing final screen credit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. So it is what it is.

Every beach party movie since Beach Party was first and foremost an exercise in silliness, but none prior to Beach Blanket Bingo was so transparently an excuse for riffing: Rickles dropping any pretense of his character and just doing a few minutes of his acerbic stand-up (and confirming, in the process, that Rickles's comedy has not survived the passage of a half of a century very well); musical numbers that start and stop out of nowhere; the sudden, near-complete replacement of surf culture with skydiving, even skydiving with unusually well-integrated stock footage. In '65, the surf fad as it extended outside of California was starting to wind down pretty heavily, so it certainly makes sense that a company as merciless in its adoption and abandonment of pop culture ephemera as AIP would be on the leading edge of replacing the last fad, though I hardly need point out that skydiving never even briefly became a thing on a national level like surf rock did, and I do not take this to be proof that James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff missed the boat, but that Beach Blanket Bingo absolutely was meant to be taken for a completely loopy, farce, totally divorced from any kind of stable reality.

That sounds like a bad thing, but in reality, this is easily the most consistently entertaining movie in the series, one of the most entertaining teen movies of the 1960s, in fact. Or at least, it's so weird in so many ways that it's never even a little bit boring, which is frankly just as good. From putting an annoying comic side character in the center of a paranormal love triangle, to making fun of Avalon and Funicello for visibly looking much too old to play lovesick teenagers, to including the best slate of songs in the franchise (the title theme is the best song in the series, and the leads' bouncy love duet is a fair #2 for me), this is a film that is pumped to the gills with energy, and Asher's handling of the visuals with cinematographer Floyd Crosby is constantly kinetic and upbeat, a perfect comparison to the free-for-all writing and constant barrage of deeply corny, rarely funny, always zippy jokes. It's a shame that it lacks the candy-colored palette and exuberant raunchiness of Beach Party, but in all other ways, this is head and shoulders above its peers: an encapsulation of all the frantic goofiness of its era with only the good cheer and high spirits, none of the grating zaniness, none of the tedious slapstick. It's a nutsy romp, and it doesn't give any shit about anything, and there's so much energy that I don't even know what to do with it all.

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)

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