24 August 2013

BEACH PARTIES: STUFF AND NONSENSE

How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is a film of lasts: the last of the American International beach party movies directed by the series' animating spirit, William Asher; the last starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, no longer resembling teenagers even to the minute degree they did in the earliest films of the run, but still standing in for a certain sense of lingering post-Kennedy youthful idealism and innocence. The one thing it conspicuously isn't the last of, is that it's not the last AIP beach movie, for James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff were too good at scraping money off the bottom of a barrel to let their great cash cow die off just because everybody involved in making it had moved on to better things.

It's also the fifth of the damn things to come out in just a 23-month span, sixth if we count the Asher- and Avalon-free spin-off Pajama Party, and it's not remotely surprising that a long-delayed fatigue kicked in, and hard. Perhaps it's the case that Asher and his co-writer Leo Townsend had used up all their best ideas on Beach Blanket Bingo, which came out earlier in 1965 and represents by nearly universal acclaim the highest peak of the beach movie cycle, both at AIP and among their many competitors. Certainly, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini isn't remotely at the level of that movie, which it openly pillages it for ideas - not in the way that all of the beach party films recycle narrative conceits and basically re-tell the original Beach Party of 1963, either. That's just following formula; the whole fun lies in seeing how the new movie will bend itself around to do interesting new things while working out the exact same conflicts and narrative beats. That's traditional. No, what's going on in Wild Bikini is that it's copy sequences and gags directly from its immediate predecessor, and even having the characters call attention to it in one scene; it's as clear a sign of creative exhaustion as you could want from a movie that's plainly run out of gas even without such metatextual evidence.

The action begins in the south Pacific, where Frankie (Frankie Avalon) is doing a stint in the Naval reserve. Petrified that his girlfriend Dee Dee (Annette Funicello) is having as much fun fooling around back in California as he is in Tahiti, he cuts a deal with local witch doctor Bwana (Buster Keaton) to spy on Dee Dee for him, which Bwana does by sending a magical pelican to wander around the beach, stalking her. In the meantime, he has his studiously unseen daughter (eventually played, in a genuinely fun cameo, by Elizabeth Montgomery, Asher's then-wife and star of Bewitched) create a magically perfect woman to drop in among the beach kids and distract all the boys from so much as looking at Dee Dee.

This backfires instantly, when the woman in question, Cassandra (Beverly Adams) immediately falls for Ricky (Dwayne Hickman), who finds her loose, wanton ways a turn-off, and instead decides to pursue the most visibly frigid woman on the beach. Who would, of course, be that same Dee Dee. As for who the hell Ricky is, he's been selected by adman J. Peachmont "Peachy" Keane (Mickey Rooney) as the new face of the All-American Teen Biker, what with the tides of history turning back towards motorcycles and away from surfing. A metanarrative that Wild Bikini deserves credit for bringing in, given that this is exactly what was happening in teen culture at that moment, and it would only be a couple of years before AIP was heavily investing in biker movies itself, abandoning the beach films cold after 1966.

The point is, Peachy needs a girl to go alongside his boy, and Cassandra is plainly it; but she's already become the object of affection of a real biker, albeit a supremely terrible one: Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), who immediately decides to supplant Ricky as the new face of Teen Biking, urgently declaring himself the ideal boy next door, with the make-up artists doing their bit to make Lembeck look every inch of his 42 years, in case we missed the joke.

There is, in other words, a shitload of plot in Wild Bikini, and you will observe that not a huge amount of it centers around Dee Dee, and basically none around Frankie at all. In the latter case, this is supposedly because Avalon demanded too much money and was smacked down by a demotion to a cameo (and not even a cameo mentioned on the poster!), though it's at least as likely that he was simply too busy starring in Sergeant Deadhead and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine for AIP around the same time, films dedicated to the project of finding ways to keep the beach movies alive in the face of a culture that was turning on the surfing fad that had birthed the beach movies in the first place. Funicello, meanwhile, was pregnant, necessitating costumes that were powerfully unsexy and not at all appropriate for beachwear, and perhaps as a direct result of her condition, she appeared to have aged five years in the months since Beach Blanket Bingo, and looked positively foolish cavorting with young adults who themselves were a touch on the old side to convincingly play teens.

No Annette & Frankie, then, and that takes with it most of the reason that any of the beach movies "work": they all have pleasures totally unrelated to the central couple, but the pretext, and the justification, is that tart relationship at the middle of all the movies, fun and flirty and laced with the threat of imminent sex. Take that away - and replace the likably dim Avalon with the painfully anodyne Hickman, who cannot remotely keep up with Funicello's acid-flecked line deliveries in their so-called banter - and you sacrifice all the dramatic spine of movies that, even at their best, had absolutely no dramatic spine to spare.

To replace them: nothing. Nothing but death rattles, far as the eye can see. Left to retread all his best moments from Beach Blanket Bingo, Lembeck is the worst he's been in any of the movies; Keaton, red-eyed and sagging and stuck with cartoon-inspired sight gags far beneath his talents, is just heartbreaking to watch; Rooney is saddled with the absolute worst dialogue of a movie that tortures the language far too much for jokes that don't work, and even though I cannot typically stand Rooney, I still find it tragic how much this movie wastes all of the talents he does have. The songs are grueling, insipid book numbers that have completely abandoned the last inch of surf rock for something perfectly anonymous and trivial; Asher's direction includes very little of the absurdist invention of his best work, relying instead on repetitive slapstick, which is totally fucking insane when you recall that this is the beach party movie with actual fucking magic in it. It should be a field day for cartoon physics, not just one gag played out four times where steam comes out of Buster Keaton's ears.

It is not a complete wash. The opening credits are fantastic: claymation done by Art Clokely, creator of The Gumby Show and Davey and Goliath, neither of which remotely prepare one for the abstract geometry and organic fluidity of of the titles and the shapes and half-formed bodies beneath them; it's closer to Jan Švankmajer than anything resembling American children's television. And Cassandra's titular wild bikini, before she inhabits it, is a floating effect drawn by former Disney animator and director Jack Kinney, who gives even the empty swimwear personality and sensuality in just a few well-made frames.

But boy, when you have to start name-dropping animators to explain why a beach party movie isn't an utter morass of boring, stupid jokes and junky sex humor, that alone tells us the crushing scale of the failure involved, y'know?

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)

6 comments:

Rick Rische said...

Kinda sorta off-topic, but I'm continually amazed that Mickey Rooney is still alive and still working.
It's like the feeling I had when Gloria Stuart was still with us- that there's a living piece of Hollywood's deep past, and you could run into her at a restaurant and ask her about filming "The Old Dark House" (a friend of mine did exactly that.)

Mickey Rooney was hanging out at MGM with Judy Garland when Louis B. was feeding her pills and bitching about her weight, and he's got a movie in production (according to his imdb page.).

It's just fucking surreal, is what I mean to say.

Benjamin said...

Totally off-topic, but I'm really hoping that in anticipation for your review of The World's End that you do a Blockbuster History piece on Shaun of the Dead (as for TW'sE being a blockbuster, a man can dream, right?). Reviewing it would be a real nice itch to see scratched.

Rob Niven said...

Oooh! Oooh! What Benjamin said! Do that!

Tim said...

Rick- My secondhand Mickey Rooney story: two summers ago, my mother was attending an outdoor concert in the Chicago suburbs, and at the cafe in the park prior to the show, she was seated just a couple of tables from Rooney and his wife. Apparently, he was a total dick.

Benjamin, Rob- Well... I had something different lined up. But as I am not made of stone, I'm sure I can fit a Shaun screening sometime this week.

Rob Niven said...

This makes me way happier than it should. Hearing my favorite reviewer's opinion on one of my favorite movies is a big thign for me I guess.

Not Fenimore said...

Since you've already done Hot Fuzz, my fingers are crossed for Left Behind ;) :D

"Anyway, Cam-Cam makes one final, inept attempt at some kind of "This is London" sign-off when he's interrupted by the arrival of the Mysterious Man in the Prophet Costume. The MMPC recites a snippet from the book of Daniel in a flat monotone — as though he's afraid any inflection in his voice might cause his fake beard to fall off — and then, just as mysteriously, he hobbles away."