Thursday, April 25, 2013

Revisiting Our Youth

Annette Funicello’s death reminded me of her Beach Party movie series with Frankie Avalon in the 1960s. (There was a reunion film, BACK TO THE BEACH, released in the 1980s. I’ve acquired a VHS copy but haven’t watched it yet.) Those were our dating movies. As teenagers, my future husband and I saw all of them—BEACH PARTY, BIKINI BEACH, BEACH BLANKET BINGO, and HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI are the titles I remember. Wanting to revisit those memories, I ordered a DVD set of BEACH PARTY and BIKINI BEACH and recently watched the first one.

Good example of the difference between “classic” and “vintage”! Is this movie great art? Would I pay the theater ticket price to see it today? No. Is it still fun? Yes. Later films in the series had progressively wilder plots, sometimes incorporating fantastic details such as invisibility and a mermaid. BEACH PARTY (1963), however, doesn’t involve any events that couldn’t happen in the real world, or at least none that wouldn’t routinely happen in a romantic comedy with slapstick elements. Why did we enjoy those movies so much? (Well, I suspect my now-husband liked watching the girls in bikinis.) I remember liking them because they were sexy in an innocent teenage sort of way. They featured groups of scantily clad young people swimming, sunning, and surfing, with lots of sexual innuendo but on a level that would be considered squeaky clean nowadays. And they always focused on a love story.

After I re-watched BEACH PARTY the other night, it occurred to me that the script follows a centuries-old pattern seen at least as far back as Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. The story includes a primary couple, a secondary couple, and a clown. The primary couple consists of two fresh, young, virginal lovers, Frankie and DeeDee (Annette’s character; Frankie keeps his real name, for some reason). Their plotline arises from the sexual conflict between them. They’ve planned a romantic weekend alone in a beach cottage, or so Frankie thinks, but DeeDee gets “cold feet” and secretly invites all their friends to join them. She later explains to her girlfriend that she doesn’t want to take the next step in intimacy until she becomes a wife, and furthermore, Frankie has never said outright that he loves her. The first subplot focuses on an anthropology professor, the “fish out of water” in this movie, who has spent his career studying primitive tribes all over the world and now wants to achieve fame by writing a book about the subculture and mating rites of American adolescents. With a hotel room full of viewing and recording equipment, he regards the teenagers as strange creatures equivalent to “savages.” We can see immediately that he has something he needs to learn, just as Frankie does. The Professor has a beautiful, blonde assistant whom he sees strictly as a colleague, while it’s obvious she’s in love with him. They comprise the second couple. The “clown,” the instigator of the other subplot, is Eric von Zipper, world’s dumbest and least scary motorcycle gang leader. His harassment of the teenagers in their hangout, where they dance to rock music in the evenings and wait for “the word” from a beatnik guru called Big Daddy (a cameo appearance by Vincent Price), generates the external threat and the slapstick scenes.

DeeDee provides the focal point that weaves together the three plotlines. Partly to retaliate for her frustrating his plans for the weekend—but even more to combat his own fear of betraying the teenage guy “union” rules by confessing he loves DeeDee—Frankie pursues a voluptuous waitress. When Eric von Zipper and his gang invade the place, Eric aggressively hits on DeeDee, and the Professor, who has come there to seek a “native” informant, rescues her. Partly to get back at Frankie and partly because she’s genuinely impressed by the chivalry of the “old guy,” she pretends to be falling in love with the Professor. By the end of the movie, as we would expect, Frankie and DeeDee untangle their insecurities and declare their love to each other. The Professor comes to see the teenagers as people rather than research subjects and discovers his love for his assistant, much more appropriate for him in age and experience than DeeDee. The sexually aggressive waitress Frankie was fooling around with (but she makes it clear he did “nothing,” to her exasperation) ends up riding off with Eric von Zipper, who hasn’t learned anything. Designed as a one-dimensional comic character, he reappears in every subsequent movie, as thickheaded and arrogant as ever.

A few moments in this teenage romance would make a present-day viewer wince, especially DeeDee’s wistful song to her mirror image about trying to win Frankie back by being “nice” and “kind” to him, as if his straying were her fault. And many contemporary teenagers might have trouble identifying with her determination to stay a virgin until marriage. Yet the core of the story exemplifies the romance genre’s central theme throughout its history: It’s about a woman’s choice, holding out for love on her own terms.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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