From the Surf to the Screen: A Cultural Analysis of Beach Party Films

Paper by Cole Kronman.

It’s the 1960s, and the American film industry is in a state of unrest. The studio system of classical Hollywood has crumbled due to dramatic social and industrial change, and from the wreckage, a new style of filmmaking emerges that, in a number of ways, challenges cinematic norms.

One of the more significant changes is the rise of “exploitation” films. Exploitation as a genre is broad, and contains many sub-genres, some well-known, some obscure; exploitation horror, exploitation sci-fi, and “blaxploitation” are all examples of the former. Beach party films are an example of the latter.

These films, which took off following the release of Beach Party in 1963, lasted for only the rest of the decade and were all low-budget and highly formulaic. And yet, their mass-market appeal made them highly profitable. This indicated not only the success and saturation of exploitation films, but also the existence of a burgeoning youth rebellion during the 1960s. Beach Party serves as an excellent lens through which to analyze these points, as it remains the genre’s archetypal film; all others following it were more or less imitations of its themes and formula.

From the onset, it’s clear that Beach Party is not a film made for adults. That’s not to say its themes are necessarily child-friendly, but rather that it takes a stance of active rebellion against authority (which is represented by adult figures). The basic plot is this: Frankie (Frankie Avalon) is looking forward to a spring break spent alone in a beach house with his sweetheart Dolores (Annette Funicello). But when they arrive, Frankie discovers that Dolores invited “the whole gang,” which is easily a couple dozen other young men and women. Meanwhile, a middle-aged anthropologist is studying the group of teens from afar, as though they were a wild animalistic species, in order to gather research for a paper.

Within the film’s first few minutes, the emphasis on teenage independence is made obvious. Frankie and Dolores repeatedly coo at one another about spending time alone, free from authoritarian constraints. Even when they discover their friends littering the floor of the beach house, not a single adult is in sight; everyone present is a teenager. These characters so obviously thrive from their independence, and are shown in the very next scene jovially riding waves, dancing on beach blankets, and overall just having a rockin’ good time. The positive depiction of this culture was critical to the film’s success, as Brian Chidester notes in the text Pop Surf Culture: “Itself an exploitation of the dollars made from Gidget, A Summer Place and Where the Boys Are, Beach Party banked on their popularity, but added two crucial ingredients that made these cherry bombs explode: rock ‘n’ roll combined with teenage junk culture” (158). Glorification of youth independence continues to be a running theme throughout, and manifests in other ways that quickly become apparent, about ten minutes into the film.
Enter Professor Robert Orville Sutwell (hilariously portrayed by Bob Cummings), the bumbling forty-something anthropologist analyzing the beachgoing teens and writing a book about their behavioral patterns. Sutwell is a thinly-veiled caricature of an adult as seen from the perspective of a teenager – in every sense, he is someone who just doesn’t get it. He describes his studies as being about “developmental biology in human beings,” and states his planned title for the book: “The Behavior Pattern of the Young Adult and its Relation to Primitive Tribes.” Because Sutwell doesn’t understand teenagers, he sees them as lesser, “primitive” beings. His ineptitude is comedically enhanced by the direction of this scene: as Sutwell goes on his long-winded, outlandish diatribes about the mystique of teenage etiquette, the camera repeatedly cuts away to shots of what he’s studying, and it’s nothing more than regular kids talking and goofing off. The fact that such simple behavior is viewed as unnatural is a testament to just how constrained by authority youth at the time felt. Sutwell’s assistant Marianne seems to be a mouthpiece for this viewpoint, telling Sutwell that “these are just normal American kids.” Nevertheless, Sutwell continues his studies, as Beach Party in tandem continues ramping up its anti-authoritarian themes.

That’s not to say Sutwell remains the same character for the film’s duration. Surprisingly, he becomes a protagonist, though in an unsurprising way: he only achieves likability when he begins acting less like a stuffy troglodyte and more like a fun-loving teenager. This arc commences when he emerges from his beachside hovel to study the teens up close in a bar, where he inadvertently provokes a physical confrontation from skeevy bike gang leader Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck). When, in a shocking turn of events, Sutwell easily incapacitates Zipper, Dolores suddenly gains a newfound respect and fondness for the old professor. From here on, Sutwell’s character is crafted into one more palatable to teenagers; right off the bat, Dolores, thinking Sutwell’s surname is unbecoming, opts to call him Robert instead. In the following scenes, Sutwell questions his age and behavior, asking Marianne if she sees him as “old,” and then saying, in reference to the teens dancing, “Strange… in all the years I spent in the jungle, I never took time out to learn to ‘squirm.’” It’s quite possible that “squirm” is a double entendre, which would certainly be consistent with the sexual undertones of the film and genre as a whole (more on that later).

Sutwell’s development is gradual, of course. Immediately after the aforementioned musings, he shows up at the beach in a swimsuit that looks like it belongs in the 1920s. But his attempts to blend in by learning surfing techniques and teenage lingo are in earnest, and it starts becoming clear that he’s no longer just in it for research, but validation as well (Marianne will later accuse him of “going native”). His backstory as a young person shunned by his peers suggests that he’s looking for the youth he never had.

What validation Sutwell does receive comes from Dolores, who grows smitten with him after his takedown of Zipper earlier in the film. Her attachment to him only grows as he acts progressively more youthful, suggesting that he would have been unable to form meaningful emotional relationships had he continued to act his age. Dolores still has some reservations however, namely Sutwell’s long scraggly beard, which she (and the other teens) view as a symbol of adulthood; at one point, Marianne describes it as giving Sutwell an “academic” look, which of course is contrary to the “no rules” ideology the beach partiers live by. Thus, Sutwell’s ultimate act of personal development comes when he gives into Dolores’ request that he shave the beard off. When he does, he’s revealed to be surprisingly handsome, and Dolores calls him “Bob” from that moment on. He proceeds to do some fancy high-flying tricks in a plane, quell the vengeance of Eric Von Zipper, gain the respect of the teens, and enter a relationship with Marianne. This last point is especially thematically important, as it once again suggests that Sutwell was only able to find companionship when he stopped behaving like an older man. The film ends, and Sutwell, now young at heart, presumably lives happily ever after.

Here is where Beach Party’s status as an exploitation picture warrants discussion. Exploitation pictures are exactly what they sound like – films that exploit a certain topic and/or trend for mass marketability. Linda Ruth Williams, in Contemporary American Cinema, has the following to say: “Outside of the Hollywood mainstream, and in competition with it […] was the thriving sector of the so-called “exploitation” picture, which most blatantly capitalized on this new topicality of cinema. Producing low-budget films especially for youth audiences, such independent production/distribution companies as American International Pictures […] had long pushed the boundaries of acceptable representation, and deliberately traded on notoriety and controversy in a way generally avoided by Hollywood[…]” (20). It just so happens that American International Pictures, or AIP, is the same company that produced Beach Party, as well as around a dozen other films in the genre. The death of the studio system and the sharp decline of the production code meant that these independent companies could churn out movie after ridiculous movie for little cost and then reap the rewards. Simply put, the rebellious themes of Beach Party were there because they were profitable. This was not a movie made by teenagers, but adults.

Tom Lisanti, in the text Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, recounts a quote by Louis Arkoff, son of Beach Party executive producer Sam Arkoff: “‘[Beach Party] was a story about an anthropologist in his mid-forties who is doing a paper on the mating habits of teenagers. The movie is told from the point of view of the older man, which by the way is what Jim, Sam and Bill Asher were at the time’” (77). (Note: Arkoff is referring to James Nicholson (producer/co-founder of AIP), Sam Arkoff (executive producer/co-founder of AIP), and William Asher (director).) So as it turns out, the character of Sutwell was in fact a projection of the film’s creators. It goes further. Arkoff alludes to the fact that his father Sam studied teenagers much in the same way as Sutwell: “‘My father kept a very good gauge on what was going on with teenagers. We had a screening room in our house and we would welcome as many friends that I wanted to watch these movies to study their reactions to it’” (76). What this all amounts to is Beach Party, as well as its many spiritual sequels (which shared mostly the same production crew), being blatantly exploitative, or to perhaps put it more lightly, pandering. These older men recognized that there was an outspoken youth movement and made money from it. It would be difficult to argue that films in the genre were legitimate social problem pictures analyzing youth rebellion in the same vein as films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Graduate (1967). Beach party movies were, more or less, all in good fun.

So the anti-authoritarian elements were exploitative – what else was? Beach Party, as briefly mentioned earlier, is rife with sexual undertones. For the most part, this is all talk and no show; the film’s tagline reads, “It’s what happens when 10,000 kids meet on 5,000 beach blankets!”, suggesting that the film’s central plot would somehow revolve around sex, which it ultimately did not. But what better way to fill up theaters with swarms of horny adolescents? Of course, that’s not to say the film didn’t deliver to some extent. From start to finish, Beach Party features dozens of scantily-clad actors and actresses, and is aware of it (at one point, a female side character in a bikini does a sensual, gyrating stretch while standing on the beach, claiming it makes the boys “come unhinged” – cut to a shot of more than a few male characters ogling her and falling off their surfboards). This was a primary selling point of beach party films, one that AIP actively strived to preserve. According to Lisanti, “[William Asher] literally scoured the beaches of Southern California from San Diego to Malibu looking for boys who looked good and could surf, and girls who were pretty and could nicely fill a bikini” (79). Visual titillation wasn’t all Beach Party has in the way of sexual themes; intercourse, though never shown, is repeatedly mentioned, both explicitly and through innuendo. At one point Marianne quips that Sutwell should change the title of his research paper to “Teenage Sex.” Later on, the local beachside bartender asks Sutwell if he’s “studying these kids’ sex life or gettin’ involved in it.” There is an extended sequence later still when the teens all disperse across the beach in boy-girl pairs; each of these pairs lodges a surfboard in the sand, hides behind it, and presumably has sex. When asked by Sutwell where they’ve all gone, Dolores responds, “If you don’t know that, you must have flunked biology.”

This is only scratching the surface, and listing every subtle innuendo in this film would probably require an essay of its own. Essentially, though, beach party films lured their target audience to the theater with the promise of carnal thrills, and then proceeded to deliver only the bare minimum (pun not intended). Still though, it worked. Teens continued to flock to AIP beach flicks under the impression that they would feature steamy material, and AIP in turn would continue to tease them with its taglines. Muscle Beach Party (1964) had one similar to that of Beach Party: “When 10,000 biceps go around 5,000 bikinis, you know what’s gonna happen!” Ski Party (1965), a spinoff that followed many of the same formulas as other beach films despite taking place at a ski resort, boasted: “It’s where the HE’S meet the SHE’S on SKIS and there’s only one way to get warm!” These dangling carrots served the same exploitative purpose that the themes of teenage independence did, and sure enough, they made AIP plenty of money.

It should be noted that, despite all these seemingly liberating and revolutionary ideas, Beach Party makes some decidedly conservative choices regarding gender. The relationship between Frankie and Dolores is complicated, and difficult to succinctly summarize: they are planning a romantic getaway, but Dolores sabotages it by inviting all their friends. She later reveals to a friend that she did this because she wants Frankie to stop seeing her as a girl and start seeing her as a future wife. Frankie, meanwhile, intends to get back at Dolores for this sabotage by flirting with Ava (Eva Six), a female waitress at the local bar. That night, at the bar, Frankie dances with and seduces Ava, trying to make Dolores jealous. He succeeds, but is not without guilt. Later, he tries telling Dolores that his affair with Ava was an act, and professes his love for her. Ava interrupts, telling Dolores that Frankie had already professed his love for her, which rekindles the feud between Frankie and Dolores. Frankie, after refusing to get physical with Ava, is rejected by her. Dolores almost falls for Sutwell, but is insulted when she discovers his love for Marianne. Frankie and Dolores, both single at this point, happily reunite.

Dolores’ role in the entire situation is key – her arc is centered around the desire to be a suitable wife for Frankie, and she acts practically subservient to him. Upon discovering his affair with Ava, instead of being (justifiably) angry, Dolores dejectedly asks herself where she went wrong, and sings a song titled “Treat Him Nicely,” a ballad in which she laments all the errors she’s made and all the harm she’s caused Frankie… even though, up to this point, Frankie has been the one trying to get under Dolores’ skin, not the other way around.

The narrative treats these characters in a clearly skewed fashion. Frankie never gets his own ballad about all the wrong he’s done, and he actually does wrong. When Dolores becomes infatuated with Sutwell, she’s subservient to him too, even telling him at one point that she loves being his “guinea pig.” For such a presumably progressive movie, Beach Party didn’t do much to subvert the patriarchal standards of classical Hollywood.
Williams writes that “Hollywood cinema [was] generally resistant to the massive social and political changes of the day, only acknowledging them reluctantly and indirectly[…]” (12). Evidently, in some aspects this even carried over to non-Hollywood exploitation films, films that were supposedly all about embracing new, innovative ideas. And yes, in some ways Beach Party did do this, but the sexism, as well as the fact that there isn’t a single non-white actor featured in the film, do not help its case, especially at a time when the civil rights movement was in full swing and the second-wave feminist movement was on the rise. Other films in the genre would continue this trend, sometimes taking it even further – The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), for example, features actor Benny Rubin in brownface portraying a Native American.

Talking about beach films would be impossible without mention of how they relate to surf culture. There were myriad ways the crew behind Beach Party attempted to make it authentic in this sense, the most significant being the hiring of multiple famous surfers as stunt doubles and extras. Director William Asher reached out to surfer Eric Garner for casting help, who in turn recruited a few of his own surfing buddies, namely Mickey Dora, Johnny Fain, Mike Nader, Duane King, Mike Doyle, Mike Hynson and Dewey Webber (Lysanti, 80). Dora was the most prominent icon to appear in the film – he was a legendary surfer, dubbed “The King of Malibu,” and Asher was a huge fan. Big names like this were further attempts to boost sales, as is the nature of exploitation filmmaking.

The musical aspect of beach films, and how it in turn relates to surf culture, is also significant. Beach Party, for example, features a number of tunes by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones. Dale and his band were hugely influential in the development of surf music as a genre; Lisanti writes, “They quickly became the rage of Southern California’s teenage set and Dale was dubbed the ‘King of the Surf Guitar.’ Before long, due to Dale, the Beach Boys and Jan Dean, surf music became the new national fad” (80). In general, films in the genre heavily incorporated a “garage surf” style of rock-n-roll, often in the form of extended musical sequences, strengthening their connection to the surf dweller subculture.

Was this connection successful? Evidently, in some cases, not very. Chidester describes the backlash: “Real California surfers attending the premiere of Beach Party turned away in disgust. Such criminal misrepresentation was considered a desecration of everything they held sacred. Things got so bad in the theater that Malibu legend (and surfing stunt-man) Mickey Dora released a jar of moths, which promptly covered the screen” (159). Dora himself hated the movie, despite appearing in it! Chidester goes on to argue, however, that the film, and its sequels, remain culturally significant: “But 30 years later, the beach party flicks are one of the few places you can still see Hot Curl art, tiki-culture teen clubs and Dick Dale playing lead guitar on Gary Usher-penned songs like the brilliant ‘Secret Surfin Spot’” (159).

If this particular aspect of Beach Party failed to resonate with the intended demographic, the other elements must have worked doubly well: “Though the film’s music didn’t make a dent in the charts, Beach Party was a smash at the box office, striking a chord with teenagers across the country” (Lisanti 89). To this day, the film and those following it remain fascinating examples of exploitative filmmaking: its processes, its agendas, its strengths and its flaws.

Though beach party films had fizzled out by the end of the decade, the exploitation genre long outlived it – all things considered, this subgenre was a mere fraction of American International Pictures’ expansive filmography. Between 1955 and 1980, the studio saturated the market with hundreds of motley films, often producing well over a dozen within a single year. As David A. Cook discusses in the text Lost Illusions, producers in the 1970s and 80s would look to this model of oversaturation when attempting to market high-quality studio releases, and it paid off; he cites Jaws (1975) as being the first major example of this (43). When this film, advertised as though it were exploitation, became an immensely profitable blockbuster, it served as a testament to the genius of AIP’s formula, developed decades earlier. Beach Party was only the beginning.

Works Cited

Williams, Linda Ruth., and Michael Hammond. Contemporary American Cinema. London: Open UP, 2006. Print.

Chidester, Brian, and Domenic Priore. Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film, and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica, 2008. Print.

Lisanti, Tom. Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. Print.

Beach Party. Dir. William Asher. Perf. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. American International Pictures, 1963. Web Video.

“Beach Party.” IMDB. Web.

“Beach Party Film.” Wikipedia. Web.

“American International Pictures.” Wikipedia. Web.

Cook, David A. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. New York: C. Scribner, 2000. Print.

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