California Dreaming (1979)

California Dreaming (released 18 May 1979)

Cinema 77 (The Amityville Horror) / American International Pictures
Director: John Hancock (Baby Blue Marine 1976 with Jan Michael Vincent and Glynnis O’Connor)
Writer: Ned Wynn

Girls: Glynnis O’Connor born 1955 (Corky), Tanya Roberts born 1955 (Stephanie), Alice Playten 1947–2011 (Corrine)

Boys: Dennis Christopher born 1955 (T.T.), John Calvin born 1947 (Rick), Stacey Nelkin born 1959 (Marsha), Ned Wynn born 1941 (Earl), Johnny Fain born 1943 (Tenner)

Olds: Dorothy Tristan born 1942 (Fay), Seymour Cassel 1935–2019 (Duke)

California Dreaming performed by America
Forever performed by Michelle Phillips

AFI Catalogue

When filming began, the project was known as State Beach, while Golden Summer was another name being considered, according to a 14 Sep 1977 Var brief. After legal permission was obtained from the copyright owners of The Mamas and the Papas song, “California Dreamin’,” the film was retitled, as noted in the 11 Dec 1977 LAT article.

Capitalizing on the drive-in theater, teen market, American International Pictures, Inc. (AIP) had earned financial success, but also a reputation for “exploitative” material. As executive in charge of production, Louis S. Arkoff was determined to differentiate California Dreaming from the company’s previous offerings, such as Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). Articles in the 11 Dec 1977 LAT and the 29 Jun 1978 HR described how this latest beach-themed production indicated a revamped strategy, involving greater participation with merchandising rights, particularly soundtrack albums, larger budgets and more serious stories. Overseeing California Dreaming from development to release also represented a new, prominent role for Louis S. Arkoff, the son of one of AIP’s founding leaders, Samuel Z. Arkoff.

The film was director John Hancock’s first project after a controversial departure from the production of Jaws 2 (1978).

The production started on location 17 Oct 1977 in Santa Monica, CA, at State Beach, but most of the shooting took place at Pismo Beach, near San Luis Obispo, CA, according to an item in the 2 Jan 1979 HR. Neighboring Avila Beach was also mentioned as a filming site in a 2 Dec 1977 DV brief. By the end of the year, shooting was completed, as stated in a 22 Dec 1977 DV item.

The budget was noted as $2 million in the 11 Dec 1977 LAT article.

As reported by a 20 May 1978 LAT item, the film was scheduled to open summer 1978, but the release was pushed back to avoid competition from films with a similar setting such as Big Wednesday (1978) and Malibu Beach (1978).

The 30 Mar 1979 HR review revealed that the soundtrack album was the first release in AIP’s new distribution arrangement with Casablanca Records and Tapes.

Every ’70s Movie

Made in the early days of the raunchy teen-sex-comedy genre, California Dreaming is a strange picture. It’s primarily the story of a nerd who travels from Chicago to L.A., gets caught up in surfer culture, and learns, among other things, how to score with chicks. Yet the narrative also has a number of downbeat elements, such as the lead character’s quest to honor the legacy of his dead brother, and a likeable supporting character’s struggles with mortality. Plus, the top-billed actor in the cast isn’t Dennis Christopher, who plays the nerd, but Glynis O’Connor, who plays the pretty surfer girl living in the house where the nerd crashes during an eventful summer. So, in some awkward way, California Dreaming is also the story of how O’Connor’s character matures beyond beach-girl superficiality in order to recognize the nerd’s appealing qualities. California Dreaming seems like a real movie during long sequences of sensitive-ish character dramedy, and yet it seems like a sleazy exploitation flick whenever it devolves into ogling shots of undulating female body parts. The sum effect is middling.

One big problem is the way Christopher is presented. Although the actor later demonstrated great oddball charm in Breaking Away (which was released a few months after California Dreaming), his characterization in California Dreaming is excessively awkward. With a faraway look in his eyes, a gangly build, and a weird habit of giggling at inappropriate moments, Christopher’s character comes across less like a geek who needs to get out of his shell and more like a budding serial killer. For instance, the scene during which a topless O’Connor enters a bathroom only to encounter an idiotically grinning Christopher seated on the toilet and staring at her while he’s in the middle of a bowel movement is particularly unpleasant to watch. As for O’Connor, the ’70s teen star who gave delicate performances in the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and the theatrical feature Ode to Billy Joe (both 1976), it’s depressing to see her transformed into yet another bleach-blonde starlet whose bikini body is given more prominence than her dramatic skills.

Still another peculiar aspect of California Dreaming is the pathos found in subplots. For instance, Seymour Cassel easily steals the movie playing Duke Slusarksi, an aging beach bum with a mysterious past; the interest of his performance stems from wondering how many of the character’s tall tales are actually true, and the surprise of his performance comes from a startling scene in which he pays an awful price for prolonged adolescence. Far less compelling is a silly running joke about a local dude who takes a bet that he can live in his car for a month. California Dreaming provides ample footage of cool surfing and hot babes, but it’s hard to figure out the intended audience—the story’s too grim for the picture to qualify as escapist fare, and the abundance of tacky elements makes it impossible to take California Dreaming seriously.