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On the Beach

Peter Tonguette

Few American events are as synonymous with summertime as the caravan of blockbusters that annually take over multiplexes. Since at least the mid-1970s, the public has become accustomed to seeing a very particular type of motion picture when the weather turns warm: those ungainly, often gargantuan epics of action, fantasy, and spectacle. In economic terms, these productions operate something like the federal budget—they cost a fortune to produce, and they are expected to bring in a fortune—and what they promise is not so much entertainment, and certainly not enlightenment, as much as brutalization.

Pioneering blockbusters like Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979)—each released during, or just before, their respective summers—supplied audiences with primal jolts. In its construction and effects, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark may have been the first big-budget movie that actually mimicked the experience of a roller-coaster ride, the form of recreation to which the picture has been endlessly compared. This past summer, the popularity of Oppenheimer and Barbie may have seemed like something of an aberration—can a movie about the atom bomb or a piece of candy-colored feminist agitprop be considered summer movie fare?—but, in fact, their success was all too predictable. Big, loud, costly, and (in the case of Oppenheimer) literally explosive flicks always sell tickets.

These movies may come out during the summer, but that timing is purely a function of economics. Studios rightly reckon there is plenty of money to be made during a time when kids are on vacation and grown-ups are in a mood to kick back. More than a half-century ago, however, there flourished a whole body of films that sought to capture the essence of the American summertime: the pleasure of long days, the joy of idle time, the expectation that you would be one person in May and someone quite different by September.

These were the so-called “beach party films,” which, during their peak period of popularity from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, featured adolescents (and those who could plausibly pass for adolescents) whiling away their time between schoolyears among the sand and surf. The genre arguably reached critical mass with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funic ello’s Beach Party (1963) and its spate of successor films, before oversaturation of the market with flimsy copycats—including Girl Happy (1965), Beach Ball (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)—spelled its eventual decline and demise.

Yet, whatever their artistic quality—some are appealingly peppy, others pitifully banal—each of these movies luxuriated in a world of suntans, sunglasses, and swimsuits. In Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969, Thomas Lisanti notes that the cycle thrived during a time when 15-to-25-year-olds made up about two-thirds of ticket-buyers. “The beach party movies were tailored squarely for that audience, combining their love of rock music with their hormonal thirst for titillation . . . without straying from the moral attitudes of their time,” Lisanti wrote. “The surf and beach party movies created a carefree environment, where good kids don’t have a care in the world and enjoy an easygoing, parentless lifestyle of surfing, dancing, rock ’n’ roll, and romance, which was unconnected with reality.”

Here, I must depart from the esteemed Mr. Lisanti: These films’ vision of life was far less escapist—far less “unconnected with reality”—than that of modern blockbusters’ fantastical settings and ridiculous stunts because they reflected the real yearnings of a nation of teenagers.

The beach party films not only presented an Edenic vision of young people basking in the blessings of freedom. They located this Eden, most of the time, in California. Today, the thirty-first state may be known for its sanctuary cities, woke governance, and gross disparities between rich and poor. But back then, it was the country’s collective dream destination.

To achieve or attain something in America often means going to a particular place to do it or to take it. Think of Scarlett O’Hara and Tara, or Holly Golightly and Manhattan. Jay Gatsby is not preoccupied with any old green light on a dock but a very particular green light on a dock on the toniest slice of what is meant to be Long Island. So many works of popular culture have titles that refer to the conquering of some new frontier, whether urban, rural, or strictly symbolic: Raoul Walsh’s musical Going Hollywood, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma!, Paul Mazursky’s coming-of-age tale Next Stop, Greenwich Village, even Arlen and Harburg’s classic song “Over the Rainbow.”

So it once was for California, which by virtue of its climate, prosperity, and natural resources, was the embodiment of summer itself. We know this to be true by the pop culture the state cranked out about itself, including the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Surfin’ USA” and even the Mama & the Papa’s “California Dreamin.’” Above all, though, there were the beach party films, which arrived just on the cusp of the Kennedy administration and remained relevant for a few years after. Like the era in which they were produced, the pictures expressed confidence in American vim and vigor, represented in its younger generations. Again and again, the genre showed wholesome but vital young people sloughing off the stodgy ways of their elders without entirely rejecting the world they built. That rejection would come later, but not yet.

The wellspring of the beach party cycle, Paul Wendkos’ well-made and reliably diverting Gidget charts the maturation of Munchkin-like adolescent Francine (Sandra Dee), who stakes out her independence from her buttoned-up parents (Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche) not by partaking in sex, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll but by maneuvering her way into becoming the junior initiate of an all-male gaggle of beach bums, including the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson).

These worldly but largely benevolent surfers give Francine the kidding nickname of “Gidget”—a cute compression of the words “girl” and “midget”—but their transgression of social norms are relatively modest. Yes, most of them lack visible means of support and nearly all of them express uninterest in domesticity, but they have an admirable esprit de corps. Gidget’s parents remain wary of their daughter’s summertime travails, but they needn’t be too wary: Gidget seeks independence but within the limits of what mainstream society would tolerate (and the censorious Motion Picture Production Code, then still in force, would permit). Besides, Gidget ends up in the arms of Moondoggie (James Darren), who is actually a responsible citizen merely dressing up (or down) in swim trunks.

The bulk of the Frankie and Annette pictures—including Muscle Beach Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)—were directed by William Asher, who understood the way his films both gently challenged but subtly reinforced contemporary moral standards. “The key to these pictures is lots of flesh but no sex,” Asher said in an interview with The New York Times. “It’s all good clean fun. No hearts are broken and virginity prevails.” For contemporary tastes, these films can seem like so much white bread. In fact, Frankie and Annette’s attempts at what is alleged to be humor are ironically far lamer than the adolescent angst expressed by Sandra Dee in Gidget. But they must be watched not for their own entertainment value but as representations of what summer once meant for adolescents: a time of delimited emancipation.

Even those pictures that ventured inland from the beach capture that sense of restless promise. At the start of Norman Taurog’s pedestrian but sociologically instructive picture Palm Springs Weekend (1963), a caravan of buses convey members of a college basketball squad to a motel for Easter vacation—which, in those days before mandatory secularism, was identified as such rather than the blandly nondenominational “spring break.” The open road and the desert around it suggest a blank slate—the world is the oyster of these mildly raucous kids, whose ranks include Troy Donahue, Stefanie Powers, and Connie Stevens. Like Gidget and the Frankie and Annette pictures, Palm Springs Weekend gets much mileage out of the promised confrontation between responsible adults and potentially unruly young people, but these would-be hooligans wear sport coats and dress trousers. We know their mildness by their threads.

For all its awful blandness, the picture represents an advance on an earlier era of troubled youth pictures, such as the 1936 anti-marijuana drama Reefer Madness. Instead, Palm Springs Weekend suggests a possible rapprochement between the generations: young people are navigating the same well-ordered world of their parents, but seek to be a bit less square, a tad more fun-loving. “Here’s to sex, sand, and suds,” one character says, and the film treats those words as an aspiration, not a warning. These pictures suggest that the counterculture that was just around the corner need not have been as radical, wild-eyed, or scuzzy as it was; there was another path being blazed by clean-cut cool kids like Troy and Connie. That the world preferred Dennis Hopper and Janis Joplin cannot be helped.

Indeed, the beach party films lost their hold on young audiences as the real counterculture—the one described by Joan Didion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem—became a dominant force in American life. Yet Hollywood was not ready to let go of its idealized vision of itself. Late entrants to the cycle included Alexander Mackendrick’s masterly 1967 comedy-drama Don’t Make Waves, which gracefully took stock of the films that preceded it while advancing the age of its cast from the teenybopper set. Tony Curtis stars as Carlo Cofield, a 40-something-man who, having either taken Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Beach Blanket Bingo too much to heart, has journeyed to Southern California for no special reason. There, he quickly falls in with an assortment of eccentric, fun-loving, healthy-looking types unique to the coast: surfers, gymnasts, a tan bombshell played by Claudia Cardinale, and a va-va-voom sky-diver played by Sharon Tate.

For much of the film, Mackendrick, a wry and wise Scot whose earlier pictures included The Ladykillers (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), seems content to score satirical points. A schemer at heart, Carlo connives his way into a job selling swimming pools, an occupation weirdly redolent of what Mackendrick takes to be the artificiality of this milieu: where but here would millionaires spend money to construct pools beside an ocean? Mackendrick makes gleeful jabs at chiropractors and astrologers, but underneath his humor is a foreigner’s surprise at, and affection for, a distinctively American scene. In perhaps the film’s most memorable moment, Sharon Tate, whose character becomes romantically involved with Carlo, is seen munching on potato chips and glued to the TV while sitting in bed. Here, Tate embodies our country’s simultaneous gluttony and strength: she is indulging in all manner of bad habits, but she is so comely, so shapely, so innocent that we know that neither junk food nor the cathode-ray tubes will be her—or our—undoing.

Yet the world that Mackendrick was good-naturedly spoofing in Don’t Make Waves was already passé. The Vietnam War assured that a generation of young men who would have otherwise come of age on the beach would experience an altogether more brutal trial by fire somewhere in Southeast Asia. A nation’s attention shifted east; with the Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal, California dreaming seemed less compelling than Washington scheming. Just over a year after the film’s release, Sharon Tate would be killed by sick members of the very counterculture the beach party films had once proposed an alternative to. The hippies, dropouts, and losers had won; the surfers, co-eds, and beach bums had lost.

Not only were the beach party films dead, but those few films that sought to exhume their magic could only do so in hindsight. Movies that attempted to evoke the magic of summer, of youth, of California no longer showed us something that existed—or could be aspired to—but something that could only be remembered. In Daniel Petrie’s superbly meditative drama Lifeguard (1976), Sam Elliott stars as an aging variant of Gidget’s Big Kahuna: a muscular, mustachioed man knocking on the door of middle age who, having never gotten the message that beaches are for kids, has permanently installed himself in the lifeguard station, where he is the benevolent, capable, manly lord of all he surveys. Elliott’s character is briefly coaxed into the real world of responsibility, domesticity, and 9-to-5 hours—he permits himself to imagine a domestic future in which he takes home a paycheck from a car dealership—before deciding that permanent adolescence, like permanent summer, can never be passed up. The film knows he is buying into an illusion, but it can’t fault him for it.

Surely the best picture ever made about surf culture is John Milius’s equally reflective epic Big Wednesday (1978), which, like Lifeguard, factors changing times into its portrait of California summers. In the early 1960s, a trio of surfers played by Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey claim the ocean as their own, but as the years add up, each must reckon with the facts of life: alcohol, the draft, simply growing older. Milius, once a surfer himself, accepts these things as inevitable even while mourning the fact. 1987’s Back to the Beach was a product of Baby Boomer wistfulness but also a surprisingly sharp and smart Reagan-era reunion of Frankie and Annette that cheerfully admitted their cardboard stiffness—“Are we the corniest couple you’ve ever seen, or what?” Annette says—while making them seem healthier, hardier, and more fun than the world that had sprung up around them. Among the pleasures of the picture is its witty contrasting of the straight-arrow stars with their on-screen son, a wannabe punk rocker.

Of course, summer lives on in the movies, but for most leading filmmakers, it’s no longer a time of respite or contentment. In America, it seems we cannot resist killing—or complicating, or making strange—that which we love. In 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre used the textures of summer—heat, sun, sweat—as the backdrop for a gruesome horror story. The following year, Jaws reflected the fearfulness and caution that had entered the American psyche: instead of inviting audiences to splash around on the beach, the picture made the water a place of blood and death. Don’t go in; stay away. And in the Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp series of the 1980s and beyond, even summer camps became sites of menace and murder. These films seek to rob us of the illusion of the comforts of summer; in a sense, so do the summer blockbusters. The signature beach party films were fundamentally peaceable and agreeable—reveries of America at rest, at play, on the beach, in the water—while the latest spandex spectacle seeks to pulverize the audience.

Those of us attached to the beach party film are not only nostalgists or purveyors of kitsch. We know their time has passed as surely as we know that summer progresses to fall. Each year, the whir of the lawnmower ends, the glow of the lightning bug fades, the rumble of distant thunder grows silent. Yet we cling to these things, as A. Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote of baseball, “to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive.” For some of us, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Sandra Dee, and Sharon Tate manage to do the trick just as well as a baseball and a bat.

Peter Tonguette’s work frequently appears in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review.


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