The Silly, If Delusional, Charm of the Beach Party Genre
The beach party genre began in 1963 with the release of Beach Party by American International Pictures (the irony of the name presumably lost on the company). Largely inspired by Gidget and tropical Elvis Presley musicals, the genre grew as AIP and imitators released more films that centered on teens partying at the beach. And nothing else.
While the first film Beach Party was conflict-free, the sequels added villains who threatened to stop the teens’ beach partying, including jocks (Muscle Beach Party), land developers (Bikini Beach), Martians (Pajama Party), and ghosts (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini). Every time, these outside forces are defeated. Although these films were intended as comedies, taking the context of the 1960’s into consideration reveals a dark undercurrent within the beach party genre.
The beach party films attempted to portray the white-bread innocence of the 1950’s despite being made during a time of extreme unrest. The villains mentioned above can be viewed as a metaphor for the 60’s itself from a white establishment perspective. All of the characters from the beach party films are extremely WASP-y and the exceptions, the leads played by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, found their ethnic origins (read: being Italian) extremely downplayed. As the 1960’s saw the previously disenfranchised attempting to gain equal footing with the primarily WASP establishment, it makes sense that those belonging to said establishment would see outsiders as existing solely to threaten their way of life (albeit a very myopic and stupid kind of sense).
According to Bikini Beach, the height of innovation was a surfing monkey. Of course, no conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the character representing the white establishment compares these youngsters to a monkey. None at all.
Where the first film sympathized with the teen characters, the later films — Bikini Beach included — show as much contempt for their shallow partying as the films’ ostensible villains do. These films weren’t a celebration of youth culture; they were a celebration of the 1950’s establishment-approved youth culture. These deluded messages create a lot of incidental humor in addition to the few half-baked intended laughs.
As with Reefer Madness, much of the unintended comedy comes from viewing this dated fear mongering through a modern lens. But unlike that propaganda, the beach party films maintain a veneer of shallow comedy, with only the context opening them up to greater interpretation (and greater laughs). An episode of Saturday Night Live from 1978 hosted by Carrie Fischer included a great sketch that lampooned the genre, proving that while the genre belongs to the 60’s, its potential for humor is timeless.
In this mess of parody and self-parody since the genre’s inception, it can be forgotten that the original Beach Party is a legitimately funny movie. Unlike the later films, its laughs are fully intentional. Beach Party empathizes with these teens, shallow and stupid though they may be. It’s telling that the film has no villainous attempt to end the teens’ partying, instead adopting a “live and let live” mentality that must have felt more at home in the 1960’s. Beach Party’s main adult figure is an awkward anthropologist who honestly attempts to understand these teens.
One cannot help but see David Hyde Pierce’s character from Wet Hot American Summer as a modern day equivalent to Bob Cumming’s beach professor.
Indeed, Beach Party itself works as a proto-Wet Hot American Summer: both parody dated niche genres (surf and summer camp, respectively), focusing more on inoffensive jokes than any real conflict. Each film has an ensemble cast largely comprised of teenage characters with a few adult characters (such as Pierce and Cummings as well as their respective love interests, played by Janeane Garofalo and Dorothy Malone).
It’s a shame that the rest of the beach party genre couldn’t sustain this fun-loving, conflict-free atmosphere, instead choosing to introduce threats to the beach party lifestyle to make up for a lack of character work (not to mention joke writing). Thankfully those films’ quaintly regressive mindset provide potential for new laughs.
Justin Geldzahler plans to revitalize the beach party genre with his new script, Beach Party Business, because if there’s one thing a remake/reboot/rewhatever needs, it’s a focus on finances. Right, Dark Shadows?