One of the earliest uses of the term in print is found several times in the June 1965 issue of Mad magazine in an article written by Larry Siegel. Commentators on the genre have used this term as well. The term "beach party film" is distinguished from a “surf film” or “surf movie” in that the former refers to the comedies of the 1960s, whereas the latter terms refer to surf documentaries (such as The Endless Summer or Riding Giants), a still-active genre. Occasionally the term “surf movie” refers to a straightforward dramatic film that uses surfing as a backdrop or plot device, such as Big Wednesday or Blue Crush.
Although both Columbia Pictures’s Gidget (1959) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) have been cited as precursors to the genre, in that Gidget “launched surfing into mainstream America,” while its sequel merely repeated the effort, AIP had actually established an archetype for Beach Party with 1958’s Hot Rod Gang and especially with its 1959 sequel Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, both written by Lou Rusoff. Both films, which were up-front comedies for teenagers, "employed the tried and true formula of a popular trend coupled with romance and music."
Additionally, 1960’s Where the Boys Are, from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and perhaps to some degree 1961’s now-obscure Gidget imitator, Love in a Goldfish Bowl, from Paramount Pictures, are two films that established a tone of light-hearted adolescent sexuality that would be exploited by AIP in Beach Party.
AIP Producer Sam Arkoff, in his biography, Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants, explained that he got the idea for the first Beach Party movie from an unnamed Italian film that he and fellow producer Jim Nicholson screened in Rome in the summer of 1962. Arkoff said that he didn’t care much for the Italian production because “there’s not enough there that American teenagers can identify with. But the beach is a wonderful setting for a teenage movie. And it doesn’t hurt to show girls in skimpy bathing suits.” A few days later Hot Rod Gang/Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow writer Lou Rusoff was assigned to do some research on the beaches of Southern California and by the end of the week, Rusoff was writing the script for Beach Party.
AIP’s premiere Beach Party took the Gidget idea, removed the moral lesson and the parents, added more young talent with fewer clothes, and followed the studio’s usual format of pandering to teenage moviegoers with popular trends, original songs and music. Although the AIP films are not usually spoken of as ‘musicals’ in the traditional sense, most of them – as well as their imitators – are the only American cinema musicals (i.e., non-Broadway-based) that were produced in the 1960s, with the exception of the MGM films of Elvis Presley.
Regarding the idea of adding more music - and specifically the kind that attracted a teenage audience - film and music historian Stephen J. McParland writes:
Another key to the success of Beach Party and its many sequels was the theme of teenage freedom, as parental involvement was non-existent. Unlike previous films such as the aforementioned Gidget and Love in a Goldfish Bowl, parental characters do not appear in any of the AIP films, and are rarely mentioned in their plots, if at all. This part of the formula was something that appeared to be lost on imitators, as several films of the genre by other studios featured parents as major characters and parental interference as plot points.
The politics and problems of the day, such as the seemingly endless Vietnam War, the political assassinations, the civil rights riots and similar issues were also ignored as these were primarily viewed as problems created by adults, not teenagers. Additionally, these movies were produced as escapism, so the characters in them lived in a world where the focus was on having a good time.
The advertising for the films was also fairly suggestive for the time period, promising on the poster much in the way of teenage sex, yet delivering little of it onscreen. For example, Beach Party teased, “It’s what happens when 10,000 kids meet on 5000 beach blankets!” while Muscle Beach Party promised, “When 10,000 biceps go around 5,000 bikinis, you know what’s going to happen!” Likewise, Ski Party intoned, “It’s where the HE’S meet the SHE’s on SKIS - and there’s only one way to get warm!” Though the clothing for both sexes in the cast was revealing by the standard of the day, the films never featured any sex scenes or nudity.
Occasionally modern critics – and even Arkoff himself – have suggested that the so-called “clean teens” in these films didn’t smoke or drink, but this appears to be based on recollection rather than observation: Avalon and others smoke in both Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party (the Surgeon General's report on smoking was not released until January 1964), and beer is referenced in several of the AIP films, as well as their imitators like 1963’s Palm Springs Weekend and 1965’s Girl Happy.
AMC’s Tim Dirk calls the AIP series a "four year, seven-film ‘beach party’ continuing series" (yet lists eight films) and describes it as "mostly sexless, antiseptic, and well-groomed antics of beachgoers" - in spite of the fact that the AIP films are overflowing with sexual innuendo both in dialogue and action, as well as seduction, sexual-teasing, and even include brief scenes of faking a sexual assault (Beach Blanket Bingo), gender dysphoria / egodystonic sexual orientation (Ski Party) and references to homosexual tendencies (How to Stuff a Wild Bikini), albeit in a comedic setting. In reality, more “sex” was suggested in these films - as well as their posters and trailers - than in anything the studio had previously produced.
Arkoff was able to get 1956 Academy-award winner Dorothy Malone (who had appeared in his first picture for AIP, The Fast and the Furious) and the popular Bob Cummings as adult supporting characters, but he needed a couple of names for the lead teenagers. Arkoff already had a working relationship with Frankie Avalon, who had starred in two films for AIP, Panic in the Year Zero and Operation Bikini, and had become a much brighter star than AIP regular, singer/actor John Ashley. Arkoff next made a deal with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, whose contract with Walt Disney had a clause stating that she could work in non-Disney films subject to the approval of Disney’s legal team. The deal came with one caveat, that Funicello not appear in a bikini (reportedly, Disney himself had to be settled down by Arkoff when he discovered that his subordinates had allowed Funicello to appear in the AIP film at all).
With Avalon and Funicello on board, a shrewd pairing was evident. CinemaEditor magazine summed it up this way:
Beach Party was able to use Ashley as Avalon’s sidekick; picked up Jody McCrea and Eva Six from AIP’s own Operation Bikini; and secured “red-hot” surf music pioneer Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (whose second and third albums would be released by Capitol Records in 1963) to bring in their usual demographic.
When Beach Party hit screens in July 1963, it was a huge hit with the first five-day grosses reportedly well ahead its competition, which consisted of the popular concurrently running major studio films Hud, Tammy and the Doctor, The Nutty Professor and The Birds.
AIP followed up with Muscle Beach Party barely seven months later in March 1964, and Bikini Beach, released only four months after that, was the highest-grossing film in their history - as well as the highest-grossing film of the genre.
American International Pictures produced a series of twelve films that fall into the genre. With the exception of Sergeant Deadhead, Fireball 500 and Thunder Alley, all were related by recurring characters. For example, much of the cast in Bikini Beach appear in the follow-up Pajama Party, albeit with different names - however, biker Erich von Zipper appears in the film, along with his gang of “Rats,” playing the same characters as in two previous films. In addition, Ski Party would appear unrelated, except that the characters of Todd and Craig also appear in the later Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which is also linked to How to Stuff a Wild Bikini by the appearance of Erich von Zipper and Annette Funicello.
The only film not to have an appearance of some kind by either Avalon or Funicello is The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (early promos for the film had announced that the two would appear, but it didn’t happen); Funicello does not appear in Avalon’s Sergeant Deadhead and Avalon does not appear in Funicello’s Thunder Alley.
Note: *In November 1966, AIP released Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs an Italian spy-spoof film directed by Mario Bava and starring Vincent Price, Fabian, and the Italian comedy team of Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia. Although the film was styled as a sequel, its content does not place it in the beach party genre.
As mentioned above, in addition to Avalon and Funicello appearing in nearly every film, AIP employed several newer actors, who were either relatively unknown or on the rise at the time. The following cast members showed up in at least three or more films: John Ashley, Dwayne Hickman, Jody McCrea, Deborah Walley, Bobbi Shaw, Salli Sachse, Luree Holmes, Michael Nader, Valora Noland, Andy Romano, Susan Hart, Jerry Brutsche and Linda Rogers.
Now-famous surfers Mickey Dora and Johnny Fain each appeared in six films of the series, both as extras and as stunt-surfers.
A few actors - such as Fabian, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley and Nancy Sinatra - appeared in beach party films made both by AIP as well as from other studios.
The AIP films also used a couple of established comedians more than once. Morey Amsterdam appeared in both Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party as “Cappy,” the owner of the beach bar/hangout known as Cappy’s Place; and famous insult comedian Don Rickles appeared in no less than four films in a row, starting with Muscle Beach Party, each time as more or less the same character but with a different name. Comedic talent Fred Clark appeared in both Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Sergeant Deadhead. Other popular comedians who made at least one appearance included Buddy Hackett and Paul Lynde.
In addition, the AIP films regularly secured the talents of many well-known yet admittedly past-their-prime talents, with Buster Keaton being featured in three films (Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Sergeant Deadhead), and Boris Karloff being featured in two films (Bikini Beach and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini). Other golden-age stars included Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Elsa Lanchester, Mickey Rooney, Dorothy Lamour, Brian Donlevy, Eve Arden, Cesar Romero, Gale Gordon and Basil Rathbone.
The musical talent that AIP hired was a mixed bag of established artists and those who were about to break. Shimmy sensation Candy Johnson appeared in the first four films (appearing with her band, The Exciters, in the third film, Bikini Beach). Dr. Pepper spokemodel Donna Loren appeared and sang in four films beginning with Muscle Beach Party. The aforementioned Dick Dale & the Del-Tones appeared in the first two films, and a 14-year-old Stevie Wonder performed in the second and third films. An up-and-coming Nancy Sinatra acts and sings a song in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, (two months after her monster hit “These Boots Were Made For Walking” was released) backed up by the also-yet-to-break Bobby Fuller Four.
Other acts that appeared include James Brown, Lesley Gore, The Hondells, The Kingsmen, The Pyramids and The Supremes.
All seven of the major studios of the 1960s managed to release at least one film that would later be deemed part of the ‘beach party’ cycle, either big budget affairs that they produced themselves, or low-budget knock-offs that they picked up for distribution. With the exception of MGM’s Girl Happy (an Elvis Presley vehicle) and United Artists’ For Those Who Think Young, none of these were able to duplicate the box-office success of the AIP product.
The number of movies in the genre peaked in 1965, when no less than 12 were released between January and December of that year (the television sitcom Gidget starring 19-year-old Sally Field as the titular California surfer girl also premiered this year, lasting one season).
Like AIP, other elements sometimes were blended into the mix – horror, science fiction, spy spoof, college melodrama, etc. – however, unlike the AIP movies, none of the following films were sequentially related.
Columbia released the mostly surf-less Gidget Goes to Rome in August 1963, and rather than copying what Beach Party had started, the studio released a true “surf drama” in the form of 1964’s Ride The Wild Surf, which turned an eye on big wave surfers challenging Waimea Bay – the first surf drama to do so – albeit with the usual Hollywood gloss and fluff. The studio’s only true “beach party” film was the low-budget ski-oriented entry, Winter A-Go-Go, released in October 1966.
Fox released three films in the genre, starting with what has been called the “first Beach Party ripoff,” with their distribution of the low-budget Surf Party, from Associated Producers, directed by Maury Dexter, only five months later, followed by Del Tenney’s now classic The Horror of Party Beach in April of the same year. In August 1965, the studio released a Maury Dexter-directed Lippert production, Wild on the Beach. It is interesting to note that all of AIP’s beach party pictures were full-color and in widescreen format, whereas Fox – a studio that was known for glossy, big budget productions – put out three contributions that were each low-budget affairs, in the standard 1.33:1 format, and in black-and-white.
The aforementioned and rarely screened Love in a Goldfish Bowl, Paramount’s answer to Gidget, (with Tommy Sands and Toby Michaels as knock-off versions of James Darrin and Sandra Dee) was released in July 1961. An illustration of a surfer was used in the poster for the film, and a short beach scene was featured in the trailer, nevertheless, the bulk of the action takes place at a lake house in Balboa. However, following the success of Beach Party, Paramount later put out three full-fledged ‘beach party’ imitations, starting with The Girls on the Beach and Beach Ball, both in 1965, and C’mon, Let’s Live a Little in 1967.
Warner Bros. was filming Palm Springs Weekend when AIP’s Beach Party hit the screens, and although the posters were already on the streets, reportedly the film itself was “re-tooled” to match the style of the AIP hit. Starring Troy Donahue and Stephanie Powers as collegiate types on a group vacation, it was released in November four months after Beach Party. Palm Springs Weekend was the studio’s only venture into the genre.
MGM released three films in the genre - two with college-themed backdrops: the Sam Katzman-produced Get Yourself A College Girl with Mary Ann Mobley and Chad Everett in November 1964, which shared the same clubhouse set with their Fort Lauderdale-based Elvis flick, Girl Happy released five months later in 1965. Katzman also produced the ambitious When the Boys Meet the Girls in October of the same year.
At some point MGM had bought the film rights to Ira Wallach’s 1959 satire novel on Southern-California culture, Muscle Beach, but by the time it was finally filmed - and released in 1967 under the new title, Don’t Make Waves - it was not so much a beach party film as a bedroom farce with an all-adult cast of characters.
UA released only two films in the genre, the Hugh Benson-produced For Those Who Think Young in June of 1964, a college-based comedy with unusually little music; and the critically panned Elvis Presley vehicle, Clambake in December of 1967. Identifying itself with the genre, the trailer for Clambake promised “the wildest beach party since they invented the bikini and the beat!”
Universal released the comedy-drama The Lively Set in 1964 (using the same leads as UA’s For Those Who Think Young from four months earlier), then released the two pure comedies directed by Lennie Weinrib: the college-in-the-snow-based Wild Wild Winter in January 1966, and the Malibu-based spy-spoof Out of Sight four months later.
Seven films were produced in the genre that were released without the benefit of major studio backing, most of them either filmed or released in 1965. As with the major studios listed above, none of the following films were sequentially related either.
Dominant Films, which also released H.G. Lewis’ Blast-Off Girls and Six Shes and a He, released the obscure Daytona Beach Weekend, featuring Del Shannon, in April of 1965. Originally filmed in 16mm at Daytona Beach during Easter weekend, today the film is rare, with no revival screenings or home video releases.
Embassy released the sci-fi Village of the Giants in 1965, starring Tommy Kirk (who appeared in four films in the genre, including two for AIP) as the older brother of kid-genius Ron Howard who accidentally invents a substance that enlarges living things, with music acts provided by The Beau Brummels and Freddy Cannon.
United Screen Arts released two films in the genre, both in 1965: A Swingin' Summer, a Lake Arrowhead-based outing starring James Stacy, William Wellman, Jr., Quinn O'Hara, Martin West, Mary Mitchell and Raquel Welch; as well as the rarely seen, even-lower-budget, Hawaii-based One Way Wahine, starring Joy Harmon.
US Films released Beach Girls and the Monster in September of 1965, starring Jon Hall, Sue Casey and Walker Edmiston as characters in a Malibu-based monster murder-mystery.
According to several sources, both Trans American's It's a Bikini World and Crown International's Catalina Caper appear to have been filmed in 1965, but neither hit movie screens until 1967, with It’s a Bikini World coming out in April and Catalina Caper premiering in December. Catalina Caper is generally cited as 'the last beach party movie,' although that distinction should probably go to Allied Artists' English-dubbed version of the 1966 Gaumont Czechoslovakian production Ski Fever, released in the U.S. in 1968. Starring Martin Milner, the film received a 1968 Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for the Jerry Styner/Guy Hemric composition, "Please Don't Gamble with Love” - the only film in the genre to be nominated for a Golden Globe.
Like AIP, both the major studios and independents loaded their films with a decent sampling of trendy (and not-so-trendy) pop music acts and stars, who either appeared onscreen as themselves or sang theme songs offscreen. These include:
*Note: The Astronauts have the distinction of appearing in a total of four films in the genre - more than any other surf band.
AIP's Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, which hit the screens in April 1966, was essentially a box-office failure, and AIP immediately switched the focus to stock car racing, a fad that was peaking at the time. Only two months later, they had Fireball 500 with Avalon, Funicello and Fabian ready to go, and by March 1967, their last entry was Thunder Alley with Funicello and Fabian. In the meantime, Paramount released C'mon Let's Live a Little, and two independent films (which were made a couple of years earlier – see "Contributions to the genre by other studios" above) were released, Trans-American's It's a Bikini World, and Crown International's Catalina Caper. Before the summer of 1967, the outlaw biker film had become the major genre, of which AIP's own surprise 1966 hit, The Wild Angels (with Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra), proved to be the leader. AIP dominated this genre as well, and quickly released the semi-sequel Devil's Angels, followed with The Glory Stompers in 1967, and eight more films in the genre between 1968 and 1971.
Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas writes, "the 'Beach Party' movies...spoke the secret cultural language of their day, providing a unique interface between such timely interests as rock 'n' roll, skimpy swimwear, surfing, other surfing movies, the 'Gidget' series, drag racing, motorcycles, MAD magazine, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and CAR TOONS magazine, Don Post horror masks, and of course, American International Pictures itself."
In the Encyclopedia of Surfing, Matt Warshaw writes, “The cartoonish beach movies were reviled by surfers in the '60s, embraced in the '80s as ironic camp, then - for some - cherished in the ’90s and ’00s as silly but likable tokens of a more innocent past.”
John M. Miller of Turner Classic Movies writes, “Beach Party and its successors in the series managed to simultaneously chronicle and be a part of a particularly vibrant moment in American popular culture.”
The genre has been referenced, parodied and lampooned several times since its beginning. A few notable examples are as follows:The June 1965 issue of Mad features a five-page satire of the genre entitled, "Mad Visits a Typical Teenage Beach Movie." Several films are referenced both through dialogue and art, as well as beach party cliches, such as thin plotlines, silly pop music, unawareness of controversial subjects and the general similarity between all the films in the genre. This issue hit newsstands in April 1965, the same month as Beach Blanket Bingo and Girl Happy premiered.
The January 1966 issue of Mad features a five-page satire of the Grande Dame Guignol genre entitled "Hack, Hack, Sweet Has-Been – or – Whatever Happened to Good Taste?" wherein a mysterious killer is revealed to be "Annette Funnyjello" who is out to put a stop to the encroaching on the beach party movies' monopolization of the industry.
The Batman TV series spoofed the beach films and surfing culture in the third-season episode: "Surf's Up! Joker's Under" from 1967. Here, the Joker (Cesar Romero) challenges Batman to a surfing contest. Yvonne Craig, who was also in Gidget, appears as Batgirl.
The March 5, 1978 episode (#11.21) of The Carol Burnett Show included a "Late, Late Movie" presentation of "Beach Blanket Boo-Boo," a spoof of 1960s "Beach Party" movies with Steve Martin in the Frankie Avalon role and Burnett as Annette Funicello. The sketch plays on the usual beach party genre cliches, and borrows its climactic plot point from Ride the Wild Surf.
In 1978 Saturday Night Live did an extensive parody sketch of the beach movies entitled "Beach Blanket Bimbo from Outer Space." Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, wearing thick black wigs, imitated the Frankie and Annette characters. John Belushi played biker Eric Von Zipper, and Dan Aykroyd played a curiously effeminate Vincent Price. Guest host Carrie Fisher appears, dressed in a gold bikini, reprising her Princess Leia character from Star Wars.
The "Beach Blanket Bizarro" episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch from 2001 also paid homage to the series with Frankie Avalon appearing as himself. Concerned about her plans for a wild spring break weekend in Florida, her aunts use their magical powers to send Sabrina and her friends into the alternate reality of a tame 1960s beach film.
Disney's made-for-television Teen Beach Movie premiered on the Disney Channel in July 2013. The TV-movie was dedicated to Annette Funicello who died in the same year. It was followed in June 2015 with a sequel, also made-for-television, Teen Beach 2.
Without mentioning a specific film, The B-52's 1978 song, "Rock Lobster" relied on 1960s beach party movie imagery and featured a surf guitar sound, with lyrics referencing ‘60s dances like the Frug and the Twist, as well as bikinis, surfboards, flippers, flexing muscles, and tanning butter. The song ends with a list of sea creatures, culminating in the fanciful "Bikini Whale," whose name is greeted with a shriek of hysteria from the band's female members.
The Revillos 1980 song, "Scuba Boy", also featured 1960s beach movie-influenced lyrics and sounds, with its chorus of "Scuba! Scuba!" and lyrics expressing the lead singer's desire to join her scuba boy "in the deep."
Surf II: The End of the Trilogy (1984) was a modern send-up of 1960s beach films and 1970s horror films, revolving around a mad scientist turning surfers into garbage-eating zombies through chemically altered soft drinks.
Avalon and Funicello starred in Paramount Pictures Back to the Beach in 1987, playing off their original roles and subsequent careers.
The 1996 movie That Thing You Do! touches briefly on the phenomenon, with the fictional music group The Wonders making an appearance in a beach party movie called Weekend at Party Pier.
Psycho Beach Party is a 2000 film based on the off-Broadway play of the same name, directed by Robert Lee King. Set in 1962 Malibu Beach, this is a parody of beach movies in general and Gidget in particular.