One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 93
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I must admit I don’t make it to the beach as much as I used to back when I was a younger man living near the Jersey shore, or earlier, as a boy in Flatbush, Brooklyn, right down the block from Coney Island.
But even when the beach was a regular part of my summers as a born-and-raised Northeasterner, I’ve got to admit that as a film guy, I was often just as pumped to check out a beach movie on the tube or in a theater (there’s air conditioning in both!) as I was to haul my cookies to the shore and sweat it out on the sand.
Alright, watching what the beach has to offer on the screen doesn’t compare to the genuine article, but the movies sure did give me a lot to choose from. And they still do.
While beach movies have long been associated with the post-WWII rise of beach culture and its attendant young people and of course the beach party genre of the 1960s, American motion pictures have been spending time at the beach since the silent era. From the outset, the sun, sand, surf and swimsuits proved to be very pleasant and highly visual subjects, worthy of capturing in the crosshairs of a camera lens. Certainly, there was a lot to look at!
Leading silent era Hollywood filmmaker Mack Sennett, who became famous as one of the originators of slapstick comedy routines like pie-throwing, car chases and other exaggerated physical comedy, was one of the first directors to routinely include the beach and swimsuit-clad performers—women, of course—in his work.
Beginning in 1915, Sennett assembled a bevy of women in attractive but not-too-provocative bathing costumes to appear in a series of comedy shorts for his Keystone Studios, primarily filmed on the Los Angeles shoreline, as well as for promotional films and events (like beauty contests on Los Angeles’s Venice Beach). The ladies were collectively known as Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and their eponymous boss kept them working regularly for more than a decade, frequently alongside well-known comedy performers like Billy Bevan. Though none of the Beauties were featured or even named, many went on to significant acting careers in the silent film industry, including Mabel Norman and Gloria Swanson (who frequently denied her history with the Beauties after she became a star in her own right).
So successful were Sennett’s Bathing Beauties that imitators began popping up in the 1920s, including the Christie Studios’ Bathing Beauties and the Fox Corporation’s Sunshine Girls (which counted Janet Gaynor as an alumna).
Beach settings appeared in plenty of films during the early sound era and beyond–the 1949 romantic comedy The Girl from Jones Beach with Virginia Mayo and the 1955 film noir Female on the Beach with Joan Crawford are a couple of the more notable ones. But the idea of beach-set comedy-romances accented with fashionable trends and new music, featuring teenagers or college-aged characters and appealing to that same demographic of young people, didn’t really get rolling until a little later.
First came Columbia Pictures’s Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee as a high school senior looking for romance among the denizens of L.A.’s surfing community. It became a fast hit—America’s favorite young ingénue hits the beach only to encounter boy trouble!—and inspired a handful of sequels and a TV show.
It was followed by MGM’s Where the Boys Are (1960), starring Connie Francis, Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss and Yvette Mimieux as a quartet of midwestern co-eds who head down to Fort Lauderdale for their spring vacation. This “spring break” turns into a coming-of-age story for the young ladies, all of whom exemplified different points on the compass of the changing morals of America’s college-aged young adults, particularly in regards to romance and sexuality. The film also included an implicit date rate scenario that briefly turned the pleasant tale into a cautionary one.
With Gidget and its progeny and Where The Boys Are serving as his inspiration,
producer Samuel Arkoff, co-founder of the independent B-movie company American International Pictures (AIP), got the idea to make his own beach film for the burgeoning teen market.
“The beach is a wonderful setting for a teenage film,” Arkoff said in his 1992 autobiography. “And it doesn’t hurt to show girls in skimpy bathing suits."
The result was 1963’s Beach Party, directed by budget-conscious TV veteran William Asher. It starred teen idol Frankie Avalon and just-out-her-teens Annette Funicello, formerly one of the most popular Mouseketeers on TV’s original Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. They portrayed Frankie and Dolores, a pair of young lovebirds who attempt to enjoy a private romantic getaway in a Southern California beach house, only to encounter a whole slew of friends, surfers and bikers looking to all that SoCal has to offer. The fun came in the form of surfing, dancing, singing and, in the words of a visiting anthropologist, “wild mating habits.”
The alchemy achieved in Beach Party by mixing appealing stars, a breezy beach setting, a nubile young ensemble, a pop music score, dancing and, in my opinion, a sexy but lighthearted tone, was incendiary and the film became a sensation. It became AIP’s highest-grossing film to date and launched a new subgenre—the beach party movie.
Arkoff quickly jumped on Beach Party’s success and made a sequel. Then another. And still another. Within three years, hit-and-runners AIP cranked out seven beach party movies featuring the same sun-kissed setting and many of the same cast members (led by Frankie and Annette, who starred in the majority of them).
Not surprisingly, the films became sillier and, well, worse. But the sequels kept coming while other studios attempted to imitate the AIP beach formula with their own productions. So, while AIP’s Muscle Beach Party (1964) and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) were good enough, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (later in 1965) and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), the studio’s final beach movie, definitely were not.
In the Seventies, a handful of L.A.-based beach movies arrived with the kind of sexual permissiveness and nudity that the era’s newly annointed R-rating allowed (and even encouraged!). The Van (1977) and Malibu Beach (1978) were a pair that made some ripples on the low-budget circuit and in the earliest days of premium cable TV. Malibu Beach’s titillatingly low-brow humor featured a scruffy terrier trained by its enthusiastic male owner to snatch the bikini tops off women who were sunbathing. (This was truly the stuff of drive-ins and burgeoning cable channels like the long-gone Wometco and Spotlight!)
The NBC Television Network got in on the fun with the 1978 TV flick Zuma Beach, a jiggly little number starring lithesome Suzanne Somers as an addled rock star who hits the titular sandy playground to enjoy some swimming, chicken fights, beach volleyball and chili dog-scarfing. She's abetted by a slew of admiring hormonal high schoolers played by such soon-to-be-stars as P.J. Soles, Tim Hutton, Rosanna Arquette, Steven Keats, Tanya Roberts and Michael Biehn.
As for spring break movies, they laid more or less dormant until the Eighties with the arrival of Where The Boys Are ’84, an inevitable remake starring Lisa Hartman, Lorna Luft, Wendy Schaal and Lynn-Holly Johnson as a foursome who make the trek from their snowbound Northeastern college to the sunny climes of Fort Lauderdale to engage in the rites of spring. This wasn’t your parents’ Where The Boy Are—one of the gals reveals the times are a-changin’ when she declares, “All you need is a bikini and a diaphragm—and though the movie was rated a relatively tame PG-13, there was tantalization aplenty with its arousing chit-chat and hordes of shapely young people wearing the stringiest of string bikinis and Speedo swimsuits. (Yes, well-cut young men, too!) Further, the movie didn’t contain a lick of nudity or any sex scenes.
This wasn’t the case with the Eighties’ other spring break movies. Quickies like Spring Break (1983) featuring Penthouse Pet of the Year Corinne Alphen and Private Resort (1985) starring up-and-comers Johnny Depp and Rob Morrow were low-budget winners with the college crowd. Others set during the spring getaway season but not in Southern Florida were the Palm Springs-based Fraternity Vacation (1984) featuring Tim Robbins in an early star turn, and Hardbodies (1984), a flagrant 1984 nudie concerning a trio of middle-aged businessmen who rent a beach house on Hermosa Beach and hire a surfer dude to help them meet beach bunnies who are way too young for them.
The sex-and-silliness directives of spring break and other beach adventures retreated to TV in the Nineties and the early aughts, with such popular shows as Beverly Hills 90210 and Head of the Class spotlighting beach-based storylines as part of the networks' newly developed “summer mini-seasons.” In the movies, the sandy surfaces provided more of a backdrop for different kinds of studio genre fare. The surfing-infused crime thriller Point Break (1991) with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze stands out among these. So does the South Pacific romantic adventure Six Days, Seven Nights (1998) with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche, and the Jamaica-set rejuvenating romance How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) based on Terry McMillan’s 1996 bestseller and starring Angela Basset and Whoopi Goldberg. Clearly, big stars go to the beach, too!
The last decade has seen a handful of others, mostly comedies that are definitely a little less leering than the movies of the Seventies and Eighties, while still being fun and playful and, yeah, sexy.
The popular Aubrey Plaza and Zach Efron star in a couple of the more watchable entries, beginning with 2016’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, about a pair of dudes who hook up with a pair of party girls to accompany them to their sister’s destination wedding in Hawaii.
The same year’s Dirty Grandpa finds Efron’s young lawyer being accompanied by his grandfather on his Florida vacation. The big joke here is that grandpa is played by a frequently shirtless Robert De Niro, who at one point is nearly seduced by Plaza’s beach girl, who enthusiastically orders him to “Tear open my bra like it’s a social security check!”
Finally, there’s 2012’s very out-there Spring Breakers, a cult picture written and directed by former enfant terrible Harmony Korine that takes us back to Fort Lauderdale as it follows four college girls who hold up a restaurant to gets the cash to fund their spring break. While partying, drinking and drugging their way across town, they’re arrested, only to be bailed out by a local eccentric named Alien, a multi-hyphenate who makes ends meet by rapping, selling drugs and dealing armaments. And you think these gals ran seriously afoul of the law earlier…?
Oh, the spring breakers are portrayed by Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, the latter two being popular child stars with multiple Disney credentials who joined the cast as as part of their transition to more "grown-up" roles. Alien, meanwhile, is play by James Franco, an actor who has seen his fair share of controversy over the past several years, capped by accusations and lawsuits involving sexual misconduct.
There are a lot of beaches and bathing suits in Spring Breakers—the four leading ladies wear bikinis for more than half the film’s running time—but it’s not really in the name of good clean fun as the ensemble descends into a world of drugs, crime and violence.
Anything fresh and innocent and enjoyable that one associates with beach movies is wholly squashed in Spring Breakers.
A sign of the times? Maybe. But audiences didn’t love it either and the critics, even less so.
Where are Frankie and Annette when you need them?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.