diverting and zany

Critical reaction to Muscle Beach Party was, not surprisingly, harsh. The New York Post branded the outing “abysmal.” Photoplay was kinder, daring to suggest that Muscle Beach Party was superior to Beach Party while Seventeen went out on a limb to declare it “diverting” and “zany.” Star Annette Funicello received a Golden Laurel Award nomination for “Top Female Musical Performance,” an honor tempered by her nomination for “least promising young performer” by the Harvard Lampoon. – Richard Harland Smith, Turner Classic Movies article.

Muscle Beach Party (1964)

American International Pictures’ “Beach Party” movies were meant to represent the next wave of Hollywood entertainment but the films (seven in all) instead became an intersection for the old studio guard and the most recent graduating class of young hopefuls. For all the fun and sun of Beach Party and its six sequels, an air of melancholy haunts the series. The 1963 original had been a surprise success, prompting a cash-in follow-up. Shot under the working title Muscle Beach, Muscle Beach Party (1964) deviated not a wit from the first film. The sacrosanct relationship of Malibu sweethearts Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello was again threatened from without, with Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi taking over seductress chores from Beach Party’s Eva Six. Replacing mature guest stars Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone this time out were transplanted Borscht Belt comedians Morey Amsterdam, Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett.

Surprise guest star Peter Lorre (who had previously appeared in AIP’s Poe-themed comedies The Raven (1963) and A Comedy of Terrors, 1964) went unbilled until the end credits as “Dr. Strangedour” (a comic poke at Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, 1964). Twenty years past his prime as the unforgettable costar of such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Twentieth Century Fox’s “Mr. Moto” mysteries, Lorre was resigned to his has-been status, showing up for jobs with a makeup case full of schnapps, cracking jokes and pulling pranks. His show of good humor masking depression and disappointment, Lorre completed only one more film before he died of a stroke at age 59 on March 23, 1964, two days before Muscle Beach Party opened nationwide.

The success of the Beach Party series put leading lady Annette Funicello in a bind. Although the ex-Mouseketeer was eager to distance herself from her treacly association with Walt Disney Studios, she hated the beach and any prospect of getting her hair wet. More problematic was that the dark-eyed beauty disliked her director, William Asher. Happily, Funicello’s onscreen chemistry with leading man Frankie Avalon reflected the pair’s genuine, platonic affection for one another. Funicello’s involvement with the series grew icier from sequel to sequel; by the time of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), she was hiding her pregnancy behind matronly frocks and missing the mostly absent Avalon, who appears only in a cameo and was replaced for that go-round by Dwayne Hickman. At least in Muscle Beach Party, the actress seems to be having a good time, even while pretending to hang ten in front of an unconvincing rear screen projection. Kicking up the sand behind her were the usual crowd: Jody McCrea (son of western star Joel), John Ashley (later a B-movie producer/star with credits as diverse as Black Mama, White Mama (1973) and Apocalypse Now (1979) on his resume) and Mike Nader (as Michael Nader, a star of the popular prime time soap Dynasty). Making their feature film debuts were former Mr. Indiana Peter Lupus (billed by AIP as “Rock Stevens” and pointed towards a lucrative European vacation as the star of a run of Italian sword-and-sandal films), “Little” Stevie Wonder and Dr. Pepper girl Donna Loren, who belts out the Roger Christian-Gary Usher-Brian Wilson (yes, that Brian Wilson) tune “Muscle Bustle” backed by surf guitar king Dick Dale.

Critical reaction to Muscle Beach Party was, not surprisingly, harsh. The New York Post branded the outing “abysmal” while Howard Thompson, writing in The New York Times, hissed “…if you can last through this, you’re a double-dyed stoic.” (For the record, Thompson was also lumping the film’s co-hit, Warner Brothers’ A Distant Trumpet, into the equation.) Photoplay was kinder, daring to suggest that Muscle Beach Party was superior to Beach Party while Seventeen went out on a limb to declare it “diverting” and “zany.” Star Annette Funicello received a Golden Laurel Award nomination for “Top Female Musical Performance,” an honor tempered by her nomination for “least promising young performer” by the Harvard Lampoon.

Derided in their day as being tailor-made “for morons,” the “Beach Party” movies have nonetheless enjoyed a long-lasting appeal. In 2001, critic Tim Lucas provided a fitting explanation of the charms of the short-lived but long-legged series:

“Age was relative in this fair-minded series; no one had to “get old” just because they were getting older, and sometimes the “fossils” (Robert Cummings, Buster Keaton, even Vincent Price) turned out to be the hootingest hotdoggers on the beach…the “Beach Party” films were, are, and will always be the heart and soul of American International Pictures for inland kids like me, who would gladly pay to sit in the dark on a Saturday afternoon, just to bask in their particular brand of California sun.”

by Richard Harland Smith

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