On July 14, 1963, the Annette Funicello–Frankie Avalon pairing premiered with Beach Party, and America’s crush on Southern California surf culture bloomed into a full-blown teenage love affair. Beach Party wasn’t the first movie to feature clean-cut American teens “shooting the curl”—that genre began four years earlier with surfing tomboy Sandra Dee in Gidget—but Beach Party focused less on sports in the water and more on teenage sexual games on the sand. Gidget’s boyish one-piece swimsuits may have been the best bet on a longboard, but the girls of Beach Party knew that a cute bikini and a well-practiced shimmy in ’60s sportwear were the quickest way to bag a Big Kahuna.
The movie is the first of seven beach party films American International Pictures released between 1963 and 1966, and the first pairing of Avalon and Annette (they’d go on to star in five of the seven films). In Beach Party, Frankie and Delores (Avalon and Funicello), arrive at a beach house for a romantic summer, until she thwarts his plans for pre-marital hanky-panky by secretly inviting a few dozen friends to join them there. It’s probably not a good sign for the relationship, but at least Delores’ prudish defense ensures that the party—and the plot—will carry on for the next hour and 40 minutes. As for the groovy California fashions, Delores’ first appearance in a garish orange mohair sweater over lemon yellow separates doesn’t seem promising—the former Mouseketeer stays modest until the end—but hang in there: There are plenty of kids in Beach Party who lack her moral standards, and tight, colorful pedal pushers, patterned short-shorts and adorable itsy-bitsy bikinis abound.
While the boys spend their day on the beach “surfing” in front a green screen that’s laughable by today’s standards, the cute girls preen and worship the sun. Delores makes her beach debut in a skirted black one-piece while her friend Rhonda elicits wolf whistles by performing calisthenics in a yellow polka-dot bikini. (Despite claims that Walt Disney made Funicello promise to not appear in a bikini while on loan from her Disney contract, the former Mouseketeer eventually wiggles into a two-piece, albeit a childish powder-pink number that nearly covers her navel.)
To get Delores to give in to his advances, Frankie tries to make her jealous by flirting with Ava, a Hungarian Marilyn Monroe wannabe, but Delores just pouts in a long-sleeved pink tunic buttoned up to her chin. The story turns when she meets Dr. Sutwell, an anthropologist trying to infiltrate the teens’ inner circle to write a book about their mating habits. Don’t worry, the plot isn’t taken too seriously; Sutwell mainly serves as Delores’ awkward arm candy while he studies the other teens frantically frug and watusi their hips off.
A modern anthropologist would probably look at the films more soberly, noting that in contrast to the more confident tomboy Gidget represented, Delores and the other women in Beach Party spend their time trying to inflame and impress the boys. Only a few of the women in Beach Party pick up a surfboard, and all but Delores spend their nights rolling with the boys behind makeshift surfboard barriers in the sand. One particularly depressing moment occurs when Delores, heartbroken to learn that Frankie has declared his love for Ava, asks her reflection in the mirror for advice. Her likeness is surprisingly chauvinistic, scolding that Frankie would still be hers if she had “treat[ed] him nicely.” The message is clear: put out or get out.
The major influence of the beach party movies on American teens probably wasn’t sexism (thank god). Instead, the films introduced the rest of the country to southern California surf kids, their relaxed culture and laid-back style. Even an Iowa farmboy could adopt the Johnny Surfboard look with a bottle of peroxide, a good tiki shirt and the shortest possible swim trunks. The bikini had been introduced in 1946, but it didn’t catch on the U.S. until the 1960s. France was ahead of the game on that one (as usual), and bikini sales there skyrocketed after Brigitte Bardot appeared in a particularly sexy number in And God Created Woman in 1956. However, when the same film debuted in the U.S., Modern Girl magazine dismissed it saying, “It is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” But by 1963, bolstered by the enthusiasm for Ursula Andress’s bikini in Dr. No the year before, Beach Party jumped on the bandwagon. Here, girls in cute, colorful two-pieces are plentiful, and teenagers lined up for more. —Rachel Chambers
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