Establishing shot: No account of American teenaged sexuality would be complete without mention of Dwight Eisenhower and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. That year, Eisenhower made a multibillion-dollar investment in American highways that led to a boom in drive-in movies and beach vacations. That same year, James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff formed American International Pictures, a company mostly devoted to creating low-budget double features for teens while their parents watched television. AIP, which pioneered the use of focus groups and polling to determine audience tastes, created film cycles about juvenile delinquents, drag racing, rock music and horror.
Their greatest success, the beach movies, established the viability of the formula summer flick. When sitcom pioneer William Asher (the leading director of I Love Lucy was creator and later producer and director of Bewitched) met with AIP, he had a different idea: Why not make a movie about kids "not in trouble?" The result was the beach party movies, a series of low-budget teen flicks combining elements of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex farces with Elvis musicals that became AIP's biggest successes ever.
Close-up: In the opening shot, a canary-yellow convertible hot rod with two surfboards sticking out the back rides toward the beach one morning as Dolores (Annette Funicello) and Frankie (Frankie Avalon) sing a song. After arriving at their beach house, they agree they are going to be all alone together, just as if they were married. Frankie lifts Dolores up to carry her across the threshold. Then he discovers the coy Dolores has secretly arranged for all his friends to be there, and, on the other side of a protective hanging blanket, her girlfriends. Frankie expresses his incredulity at the chaste sleeping arrangements and later vows revenge against Dolores.
Meanwhile, an anthropologist (Robert Cummings) with a "pig bristle" beard, is spying on the half-dressed kids with his telescope on the beach and taping their talk for a new book on the mating rites of American teenagers, accompanied by his skeptical but adoring assistant (Dorothy Malone). When a bumbling motorcycle gang leader, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), begins harassing Dolores, the professor temporarily paralyzes him with a secret finger trick. That causes Dolores to fall in love with the professor who convinces him to shave his ugly beard and makes an assignation to seduce him.
A jealous Frankie makes a play for the zaftig Hungarian waitress (Eva Six), who proves too sexually eager for his comfort level. Ava works at Big Daddy's, a beach-nik joint run by Cappy (Morey Amsterdam) where the teenagers drink beer and smoke … something (is that really a cigarette that Frankie and his pals are passing around while listening to surf-rock king Dick Dale?). After a pie fight and restoration of age-appropriate reconciliations, all is well. Remember, it's all fun and games as long as no one loses their virginity.
Closing credits: Beach Party was an unexpected hit, launching an AIP series that lasted from 1963 to 1966. Asher directed the five core beach films - Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff A Wild Bikini. The plots got zanier, including Martians, witch doctors and mermaids, but the beer and cigarettes disappeared and the sexuality was toned down. Adult comics - Paul Lynde, Keenan Wynne and Don Rickles - played bigger parts, with Rickles stepping out of character in Beach Blanket Bingo to mock Avalon as an over-the-hill "43-year-old," and Funicello as performing seal.
Only the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia could see these movies as anything but brash entrepreneurial cynicism. Beach Party, with its few square inches of fabric away from nudity, wasn't remotely wholesome; what makes it continue to be weirdly fascinating is that it's consistently halfsome.