Review: Bikini Beach (1964)


Director: William Asher

Starring: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Martha Hyer

Release Date: 25th July 1965 (UK)

As far as pre-credits sequences go, you can’t say Bikini Beach is misleading. The viewer follows the bouncing butt as a nubile young lady in a red bikini and no self-awareness wanders along a beach causing mayhem among gawping male morons. One tumbles off his surfboard, another crashes his car off-screen, yet another is slapped by a ladyfriend with who he’s sharing a string of licorice in tribute to Lady and the Tramp (1955), while one man preparing a barbecue drops his meat (not a euphemism). We freeze-frame on the butt in question, and we’re off into the credits.

Can a film that starts at the bottom work its way up? A pertinent question were we dealing with any ordinary film, but as you may have guessed from the title, we’re looking at a prolific sub-genre almost exclusive to the early to mid-1960s. The surf is up, school’s out and the bikini is in – welcome to the wild yet wholesome world of the ‘beach party’ films.

The genre had its precursors in the likes of Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959), a kind of beatnik hot rod party effort, while Columbia Pictures’ three film ‘Gidget’ series, and in particular Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) set the tone for American International Pictures’ smash hit of 1963, Beach Party. This became the first of AIP’s seven-strong ‘beach party’ run, starring the original beach bunnies, Frankie (singing star Frankie Avalon) and girlfriend Dee Dee (one-time Mousketeer, Annette Funicello). Bikini Beach was the third in a run also including Muscle Beach Party, Pajama Party (both 1964), Ski Party, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), though both Avalon and Funicello had bailed out before the latter.

These films, and their dozens of imitators, stuck to much the same formula, namely the 5 S’s: sun, sea, silliness, and the suggestion of sex, but although there was more young bare flesh onscreen than was usual, the films kept relatively chaste, coming across as slightly more risque versions of the contemporary Disney family comedies (they often shared the same actors, such as Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley). Add in pop songs, some smooching, and a sprinkling of ‘name’ adult actors happy (or not so happy) to join in the fun, and you had yourself a beach party film, though the spirit of such films were such that sometimes not even the beach was required.

The American youth of the beach party films provided a marked contrast to the ‘troubled teens’ seen in the 1950s, be it James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), or the suburban misdemeanors of a film like Teenage Thunder (1957). These ‘JD’ or ‘juvenile delinquent’ films showed America as a nation venerating youth, yet as the US operated as a functionally schizophrenic society, in opposition to the Soviet Union’s monolithic state-enforced group-think, it was also necessary to show youth as riven with corruption and loose morals. A ‘JD film’ would give the kids a thrill and yet also keep adults happy (or at least justified in their grumpiness), as long as justice was done.

This condemnation of America’s key asset of youth evolved into a more relaxed view, summed up by a line in Bikini Beach: “the presence of these younger people is a fond reminder to the older generation that they were young once, and perhaps still are.” This is the America viewed with nostalgic fondness in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), with its tagline ‘where were you in ’62?’ Answer: on the beach and not in Vietnam. The emerging horror of that conflict killed the spirit of the beach party film, and led to the biker films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vietnam caused the ‘innocent’ era of the beach party film to became mythologized, just as the 1990s suddenly became cause for nostalgia on September 11th, 2001.

Yet we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. For the moment, it’s summer 1964 and it’s time to hit the beach!

As the titles play out, we join Frankie, Dee Dee, and rest of the regular beach crowd on the road in a bizarre vehicle that resembles a cross between the Creepy Coupe from Wacky Races and a World War One collier ship. I know America is all for freedom from restriction and regulation, but the way the cast are clinging to this vehicle, as if they were passengers on the Bombay express, makes one cry out for the intervention of the National Safety Council – Red Asphalt (1964) can’t come soon enough. The cast survive the credits however and hit the titular Bikini Beach.

That night, the girls post warning signs on their caravan to discourage nocturnal visits from the boys, although Animal (Meredith MacRae) doesn’t trust herself to behave. I think Animal is what was once politely termed ‘a game girl’ and one dreads to think how she obtained her nickname. One of the boys, series regular and lovable (it says here) oaf Deadhead (Jody McCrea) tries his luck and his repelled by the girls’ secret weapon, Candy (Candy Johnson) and her magical butt. A shake of what Candy’s momma gave her repels Deadhead as if he were hit by an invisible car which one day, if we wish hard enough, may just happen.

Frankie calls on Dee Dee and tells her the moon and the waves are calling and so they should leave “the children” behind. Dee Dee, as befits the gang’s unofficial ‘mother’ figure, insists “until I hear wedding bells, I’m children too.” A marked contrast to both the JD and biker films, where marriage was for stiffs and squares, and an example of the series’ comparatively traditional moral stance.

The next morning, and tents have appeared nearby. Notices identify the inhabitant as Potato Bug, a hugely successful English pop star (“sixteen million records sold”). The gang go gaga, especially the girls, but Frankie complains about their friends “going beetle over that Potato Bug…that crumpet eater.” Dee Dee can’t resist though and joins the throng.

As you may have guessed, Potato Bug is a none-too-subtle dig at The Beatles, who it’s rumored were to appear in Bikini Beach as themselves, until their fame outgrew AIP’s budget. I find it hard to imagine any incarnation of The Beatles appearing in a beach party film, let along the black suit and tie Beatles of 1964. Maybe it was wishful thinking on behalf of the film’s producers, or a way of explaining how they came to represent the British Invasion as one guy in a wig.

First though, we meet Potato Bug’s French bodyguard and servant, Yvonne, aka the Lady Bug (Danielle Aubry, dubbed with the voice of Elizabeth Montgomery). Deadhead, comic relief in a film which is quite comic enough, fancies his chances with Lady Bug who is an expert in what looks like kick-boxing. You can guess what happens what next, but no, it isn’t fatal. Deadhead does set up a fun line though, as he explains “she can do with her feet what Candy can do with her – ” and a random surfer pops up and cries “massive ground swells!” and with that, it’s time for Bikini Beach‘s first song as Donna Loren, making the second of her fourth appearances in the AIP series, performs ‘Love is a Secret Weapon.’

The songs featured in beach party movies are an acquired taste in the same way as Wonder Bread, Cool Whip and Twinkies. They appear, hang around for a couple of minutes, and they’re gone. Repeat. Helen Loren has a perfectly good voice, and her career speaks for itself, but like the rest of the songs in Bikini Beach, you leave the film whistling whatever tune you whistled as you entered. The combination of the English influence on US pop music, and surfer bands playing electric instruments without power leads, provided the possible  inspiration behind mock-English combo The Paranoids in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

We watch the gang surf and water-ski as Loren sings, or rather we watch their doubles surf or water-ski with the occasional shot of cast members before the appropriate back projection footage (back projection, the CGI of its time, was likewise used to excess in low-budget films). The various water-bound stunts come crashing to a halt as butt woman walks along the beach, as if the guys had never seen a girl in a bikini before.

“Clyde, they’re doing your dance”. Watching these shenanigans from a distance, and from within a beautiful vintage Rolls-Royce, is a distinguished-looking middle-aged fellow, and a marginally less distinguished-looking chimpanzee, because in beach party films, even animals join in the fun. Well, I say ‘animal’, as unlike a future simian star named Clyde, it’s clear from less than half a second into the chimp’s first appearance it’s someone in a monkey suit.

Clyde (Hungarian-born stuntman Janos Prohaska) and his owner, who dresses like H G Wells on a walking tour, stroll onto the beach, where Clyde delights Frankie, Dee Dee and friends by hopping onto a surfboard and performing all manner of stunts and tricks on the sea. “He’s better than you,” Frankie tells Johnnie (John Ashley, another series regular), “and better looking too.”

“That’s one sharp chimp!” exclaims Frankie as Clyde paddles back to shore. “You’re missing the point,” replies the newcomer. “The point is, the intelligence of you young people has fallen to his level.” The chimp’s owner introduces himself as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, played by Bikini Beach‘s ‘special guest star’ Keenan Wynn. Wynn, son of actor and vaudeville star Ed Wynn, appeared in dozens of films stretching across nearly four decades; indeed, such was the variety of Wynn’s career, one of his other 1964 films was Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove.

Honeywagon is the owner of Sea-ista by the Sea, a nearby home for old folks and even older puns. “Your behavior is an eyesore,” claims Honeywagon, who intends to use his local newspaper (he’s a publisher as well as a chimp trainer – quite the polymath) to turn public opinion against the teenagers and force them off the beach. “He looks like something from The Twilight Zone,” comments one of the gang, a possible in-joke, as Wynn had appeared in a 1960 Zone episode, ‘A World of His Own’. Another Zone alumni is Bikini Beach director William Asher, who helmed another 1960 episode, ‘Mr Bevis’, but is better known for his directorial work on TV sitcoms I Love Lucy and Bewitched, and he also directed ten episodes of the TV version of beach party inspiration, Gidget.

“I say, over here dad.” Looking on from his tent is Potato Bug (Frankie Avalon, in a dual role), a remarkable sight with a Beatles mop-cut, round-rim spectacles, safari suit and a manner suggesting too many Terry-Thomas films. Imagine Davy Jones of The Monkees had caught rabies and hallucinated he was Austin Powers, and you start to get the measure of Frankie Avalon’s performance as the English pop sensation who, if he’d wandered through any part of Liverpool in 1964, would’ve been drowned in the Mersey within five minutes. Frankie later describes Potato Bug as having a “head like Gibraltar” and Avalon’s performance is very much the rock upon which Bikini Beach is either anchored, or flounders upon, according to your taste.

In any case, the girls adore Potato Bug as if he’s the Fab Four themselves. The guys aren’t quite so taken with the Englishman; it’s a myth the whole of the US fell in love with The Beatles the moment they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and many a young American male in 1964 would have sympathized with Frankie, Johnny and Deadhead as they grumble about Potato Bug and poke fun of his lack of surfing skills. Once Potato Bug has deciphered the gang’s surf slang – “I thought you spoke English in the colonies” – we ascertain he’s a drag racer in his spare time (a niche sport to say the least in 1960s Britain) and more used to driving at 220mph than surfing at 80mph, as Frankie boasts; as ever in the US, speed is everything.

Potato Bug gives an impromptu performance of one of his many hits, a shrill take-off of The Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ entitled ‘Give Me Your Love’. Sixteen million copies sold? Sixteen full stop more like, and I bet half of those were returned. Potato Bug, whose real name we later learn is “Peter Royce-Bentley of Sussex” seems very upper-class for a British pop hero of the time but hey, according to Hollywood everyone in the UK is tenth in line to the throne, although thanks to the increasing inequality of wealth distribution in the UK, soon the only people able to afford to embark on a musical career across the pond will have double-barreled names and talk as if they’ve an Oxford English Dictionary stuck up their ‘arse’.

Everything stops for tea, even for a Brit in California, and so Potato Bug retires for tiffin. Meantime, Honeywagon is driven back to his office by Clyde, who’s a nifty chauffeur as well as a surfer. Oddly enough, this attracts the attention of two cops (Paul Smith and James Westerfield) who embark on a half-hearted chase, ending in a mother-in-law joke so obvious Henny Youngman would have hesitated to use it. Still worth a laugh though.

Frankie and Dee Dee argue over Frankie’s sudden decision to take up drag racing, which Dee Dee describes as “another way to kill yourself.” Frankie claims anyone can learn how to drive a drag racer. “Frankie, if you want to learn something, learn to get yourself a job now school is out, or learn to settle down.” Dee Dee’s beloved is much against the idea of cozy domesticity: “where I’m going, I want to go in a hurry.” Spoken like a true American – both of you. Stop and go, settle down and carry on, individual and family, all the American way, and not the American way. You win, you lose.

After her latest bust-up with Frankie, Dee Dee bumps into Potato Bug and complains to the Brit of her guy’s “suicidal tendencies”. Potato Bug replies in what will become a familiar barrage of English colloquialisms: “A sticky wicket, what? You’re too much of a chipper filly to end up a poor widow.” Potato Bug invites Dee Dee in for tea and reminds her he is rich. Mr Garrett Deasy would be pleased at this Englishman’s ability to pay his way, but Frankie is less than happy with the arrangement.

Hold the front page – publisher in ‘forcing his worldview onto others via newspaper’ shock! Lead article in today’s Bikini Bugle (no, really): YOUTH OF TODAY LEAVES NO HOPE FOR TOMORROW. Honeywagon congratulates himself on his feature article, only for teens’ high school teacher Miss Clements (Martha Hyer, Oscar nominated in 1958 for Some Came Running) to burst into his office, outraged at the article, although she’d be better off outraged at why adults in their early twenties still attend her high school. By surfing, claims Miss Clements, the kids “are building healthy bodies” and by working on dragsters, “will help build tomorrow’s ships to the Moon.” Or in Deadhead’s case, will work as tomorrow’s crash test dummies.

Honeywagon denies the teens are anything more than “delinquents” who sleep “on the beach side-by-side, unchaperoned. Now what kind of society is it that would allow such a thing?” I don’t know, a non-fascist society? Miss Clements accepts Honeywagon’s challenge of studying the teens for one afternoon, said studying to take place at a wretched hive of scum and villainy known as Big Drag’s Pit Stop. And this brings us to Don Rickles.

Rickles, who plays Big Drag, owner of both the beach gang’s preferred drinking den and the local drag strip, brings a lot of enthusiasm to his role, though you may wish he’d left it at home. It’s odd a man renowned for insult comedy (and who’s still cracking up audiences at the age of 89) should opt to appear in four beach party films; Rickles’ Wikipedia page mentions Barbara Bush once teased him for the films, and when Mrs Dubya can score points off you, you might want to question your life choices. Although Rickles won acclaim for his straight roles, most notably as Sgt Crapgame in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), here he doesn’t so much chew the scenery as boil it down into soup and drown you in it. Rickles went on to win a new generation of young fans as the voice of Mr Potato Head in the Toy Story films.

We join Big Drag as he dabbles in Abstract Expressionism, rendered by throwing globs of paint at a canvas, in a moment of cultural satire. Big Drag is watched by his pet bird Freida, a splendid Red-Tailed Hawk and the best avian actor since Penelope the Crow in Great Guns (1941). Needless to say, Freida can talk, and isn’t impressed by her owner’s artistic efforts. When Big Drag objects, Freida chirps “I just call ’em as I see ’em, ya bum.”

Honeywagon, Miss Clements, and Clyde arrive and the publisher explains his moral crusade to Big Drag. We know Miss Clements is a teacher as she attempts to order liquor, only to be told by Big Drag “this place is strictly for kids. Beer or soft drinks,” and points out “there are no cigarette machines” in the bar. Quite progressive for 1964 (McDonald’s was unusual in adopting a similar approach), though you can’t help but wonder why any kids outside of a Christian youth group would choose to hang out at a bar priding itself on moral sobriety.

A motorcycle bursts through the door, ridden by an idiot in a black leather jacket. Beach movie fans will know this means the teen gang’s perennial nemesis, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), and his bikers, The Rats and The Mice (males and females respectively). The twisted heart of the beach party films, Von Zipper’s dastardly incompetence stops the series from completely clotting up and dying of diabetes. Played with cheer and gusto by Lembeck (Corporal Barbella in The Phil Silvers Show), Von Zipper’s halting, childlike speech, including his catchphrase “you stupid!” whenever a minion becomes annoying, and his habit of pratfalls and collisions with any given object, gave the Beach Party series the extra legs it needed to make it a success.

Success is not a word in Von Zipper’s limited vocabulary however and as far as menacing biker gang leaders go, this guy resembles Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler from The Wild One (1953) as much as my black cat resembles Bagheera the panther from The Jungle Book and so, when Von Zipper expresses admiration (“Eric Von Zipper likes you!”), the publisher is less than impressed. “I consider you one of the lower classes,” huffs the publisher. “Yeah!” replies the biker. “I made it all the way through third grade.”

Having sworn to help Honeywagon, whether he likes it or not, to destroy the surfers, Von Zipper turns his attention to Big Drag, who must suffer “the Rats’ revenge”. The bikers prepare to beat up Big Drag, but Honeywagon intervenes, impressing Miss Clements. Von Zipper warns he has the power of the magic finger, or “the Himalayan suspenders technique” as he calls it, learned from Peter Lorre’s character Mr Strangdour in Muscle Beach Party (1964). Yep, Peter Lorre was in a beach party film. Makes the heart sink a little, doesn’t it?

Von Zipper gets a little carried away with demonstrating the magic finger trick on himself, and freezes, unable to move, until he gets carried away again, by his gang. That’ll be “the special kind of brain” Von Zipper boasts of possessing.

The beach teens visit the local drag strip (actually the famous Pamona Raceway in southern California) and try to persuade Frankie to forget about racing, but the youngster is adamant. Potato Bug arrives in a swish silver sports car, together with Dee Dee. Honeywagon and Miss Clements are also present, with the publisher dumbstruck by Potato Bug: “what is that?” he asks. Miss Clements replies “England’s revenge for the Boston Tea Party.” And the tea party is history’s revenge for the Tea Party.

Frankie, now modelling his look on Jeff from American Dad!, watches as Potato Bug sets a new world record, of 9.9 seconds at 202.3 mph along the quarter mile track. Potato Bug accepts Frankie’s challenge and there’s a nice moment summing up the two nationalities as Frankie’s all-American surliness and competitive spirit is met with English civility and good-humored sportsmanship.

A mystery racer causes a sensation by beating Potato Bug’s new record. The sensation becomes yet more sensational when the driver is revealed as Clyde, part of Honeywagon’s plan to show up the beach gang. “So, you taught a monkey to drive,” remarks Miss Clements, “but he didn’t build a machine, he didn’t create anything.” “But I did,” counters Honeywagon, “I created the impression that teenagers live in a simian world.” Normally, I’d examine the semantics of such an exchange, and the philosophical implications of animals creating tools, but I’m still recovering from last week’s Ulysses review, so you can work all that out for yourself.

Frankie, Johnny and Deadhead visit Big Drag’s garage to buy a racer, but all the cars are too expensive. Showing the guys around leads Big Drag into an inexplicable lecture on the roundness of wheels and the squareness of squares and Big Drag knows a lot about squares. The few functional connections in Deadhead’s cerebral cortex spark into life, and he recognizes Big Drag from somewhere else, from Muscle Beach Party in fact, where the Don Rickles character Jack Fanny looked after the family gym. “I got out of the Fanny business,” explains Big Drag, and all I can say is, it’s a good job Potato Bug didn’t hear him say that.

All the main characters are present for the evening’s entertainment at the Pit Stop. The first band up are The Pyramids, a surf instrumental group from California who scored a Top 20 hit in 1964 with ‘Penetration’. The bands’ Beatles wigs fly off as one, revealing clean-shaven scalps, a gimmick that cuts no ice with the equally bald Honeywagon: “This savage music stimulates their post-adolescent preoccupation with sex.” Miss Clements notes Honeywagon is himself preoccupied with the word sex, and our daytime drinking teacher is taking a shine to the wealthy publisher. “I’m here as an observer,” reminds the straight-laced Honeywagon. “I think you’ve always been an observer,” comes the reply. Life can make observers of the best of us, Miss Clements.

Big Drag lives up to his name by asking Potato Bug to sing, and so we get ‘How About That’ and how about not? Frankie relieves our eardrums by joining in, as the two men jostle for Dee Dee’s attention via the magic of lyricism. After this, The Pyramids play again, with one guitarist performing an impressive backflip off the stage. Frankie talks to Dee Dee and she allows him to walk her back to the beach. Potato Bug considers this “jolly sporting” though he does call Frankie “a rude bugger” once he’s gone, and that’s almost proper swearing from an Englishman.

Frankie and Dee Dee take a romantic walk in front of a back projection of a beach and warble ‘Because You’re You’, a ballad so lethargic neither singer notices the background waves should be up to their waists. The two youngsters patch things up, but Frankie is determined the race against Potato Bug will go ahead, so “you keep out of it.” Dee Dee does her bit for feminism by meekly agreeing, and giving her guy a kiss.

The next day, Miss Clements bursts into Honeywagon’s office wearing an extraordinary hat that looks as if a bucket of froghurt has landed on her head. This isn’t why she’s so angry; Miss Clements objects to Honeywagon’s latest anti-youth newspaper article. The teacher accuses Honeywagon of wanting to remove the surfers so as to expand his old folk’s home. The publisher/property developer/monkey-trainer refutes this; he’s merely cleaning up “an evil environment” so the oldsters can live in peace. “All they do is vegetate” counters Miss Clements. The teacher accuses Honeywagon of “holding a double-barreled shotgun – killing off the old folks, and killing the fun for the youngsters,” before storming out.

Honeywagon muses on this and there’s a nice moment of Mel Brooks-style visual comedy as portraits of the publisher’s father and grandfather, expressing dismay and shock, revert to their normal state as Honeywagon looks up at them. Wynn and Hyer, both used to better and more respectable films, nonetheless approach their roles here with professionalism, and they carry off the more serious scenes in Bikini Beach with credit.

Back at the beach, Dee Dee prepares to ask Potato Bug to call off the race, not knowing that Frankie has disguised himself as the Englishman to…well, I assume it’s to persuade Dee Dee to cease and desist as far as Potato Bug is concerned, I’m not entirely sure. Now we watch Frankie Avalon playing Frankie playing Potato Bug, but as Avalon’s portrayal of the English pop star is so over the top to begin with, he’s left himself nowhere to go. Still, it’s enough to fool Dee Dee, who on failing to get the race called off, turns the talk to love and kisses ‘Potato Bug’ just as the genuine article wanders by. Dee Dee berates Frankie for his “low down trick” and stomps off: “I hope you both succeed in killing yourselves!” I say love, that’s a bit much. Make a dashed queer ending to the jolly old picture, what?

We visit Rats HQ for the most puzzling scene of Bikini Beach. Von Zipper plays pool with South Dakota Slim played, as in Muscle Beach Party, by the unmistakable Timothy Carey who in another decade would have made an excellent Frankenstein’s Monster. Apt then, sitting nearby watching the pool game, is a werewolf. A werewolf, in motorcycle leathers. Playing our teenage werewolf is a young man named Val Warren, who won the part as first prize in a ‘monster make-up’ competition organized by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. This indicates, if nothing else, how seriously one should take a film like Bikini Beach, which is with several degrees of solemnity less than I seem to be doing.

One of the Rats rushes in, and reads out the bad news: Honeywagon has performed a volte-face on his opinion of the surfers. Von Zipper, infuriated by this “ape-ology”, leads his gang to enact revenge upon his fallen idol. Slim asks the werewolf how he’s fixed for blood, and is growled at for his troubles, so decides to play by himself (I think he does this a lot). Oh, did I mention there are pictures of Hitler and Mussolini hanging on the wall? I know the early 1960s are seen as a more innocent time, but jeez, show some class, movie.

“Eric Von Zipper has been betrayed!” The Rats invade the office of Honeywagon who responds to their concerns in the traditional American way by punching out a couple of the goons, much to the admiration of Miss Clements. Von Zipper, that leather-clad Lou Costello, gives himself the finger again and the Rats beat a retreat. Delighted by this display of machismo, Miss Clements embraces Honeywagon and they kiss; nice to see the pair flying the flag for the older set in a youth movie.

Big Drag’s garage, and the man himself blathers on about fun or funds or whatever (BD’s dialogue is full of extraneous words, such as “I didn’t expect this unexpected pleasure”, making him difficult to listen to, though I doubt if it’s worth the effort). Dee Dee is still unhappy with Frankie: “you’re riding an eighty-foot crest and you’re close to the wave”. Frankie replies that the sea is wild and can’t be controlled – unlike a machine. “You want to take every chance there is,” says Dee Dee, but gives Frankie her blessing, knowing there’s no keeping an all-American young man down; anything else is just plain Communism, damn it. Dee Dee returns to the pretend beach to sing ‘This Time It’s Love’, but let’s not dwell on unpleasantness.

The Rats sneak into Big Drag’s garage to sabotage Potato Bug’s dragster, ensuring Frankie will get the blame. Meanwhile, the Bikini Bugle goes into overload, announcing the engagement of Honeywagon and Miss Clement; the pair’s new charitable youth foundation; and the sell-out crowd expected at the drag strip for the cross-Atlantic challenge between Frankie, and Potato Bug. The old folk are seen gleefully hopping onto a coach on their way to watch the race. “You see,” cries Miss Clements to her fiance at the track, “you’ve got them living again,” a statement that would carry more weight had we not seen the old folk earlier in the film looking perfectly content.

Frankie and Potato Bug wish each other luck and the race begins, only for Frankie to lose control of his car and crash off-screen. Potato Bug helps rescue the stricken Frankie, who looks for a moment as if he’s dead, but soon comes round. To my mind, despite the awesome racing cars (Bikini Beach is a must if you’re interested in vintage motorsport) the coolest car in the film is the ambulance that arrives on the scene, looking much like Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters (1984). “I told them to fix Potato Bug’s car,” announces Von Zipper, in rather a giveaway comment, and we lead into the kind of wacky car chase that were the stock-in-trade for light Hollywood comedies of the time.

All present give chase, including a topless skateboarder (male, since you ask), and some poor guy on crutches. Von Zipper takes a go-kart and the chase continues on the road, ending when the butt girl from the pre-credits distracts Von Zipper, who crashes into Big Drag’s Pit Stop and ends up, if we’re to believe the sound effects, head first down a ladies’ toilet. This might just mark Bikini Beach as the first Hollywood film to acknowledge the fact that women, as well as dirty, beastly men, need to use the bathroom. It’s one way to make history, I guess.

Time for the showdown, and a huge fight breaks out in the Pit Stop between Von Zipper’s gang and everyone else. No-one holds back, and even Dee Dee, Candy, and Animal get stuck in, taking punches as well as dealing them out. “In England, we call this a ‘bit of the old nasty'”, remarks Potato Bug, only for Yvonne to add, “in France, we call this an election.” Candy uses her magical butt powers to fell a couple of Rats, while Von Zipper finds his “Himalayan suspenders technique” only works on himself. “The battle’s over!” cries Frankie. “Von Zipper’s stoned again!” And I think they knew what they meant – the early Sixties weren’t that innocent.

All the while, Clyde has kept himself busy by throwing clods of paint at a blank canvas, and what happens next will depend upon your memory of early 1960s TV commercials. Back then, horror actor Vincent Price, a known art lover, fronted a campaign for Sears’ new fine art department, picking a collection of artworks sold in Sears under his own name. In the subsequent TV ads, Price was seen in a distinctive hat and gown, admiring various pieces included in the collection, and throughout Bikini Beach, a similarly-garbed art dealer appears in the Pit Stop to examine Big Drag’s paintings, only for Big Drag to shoo the dealer away. The art dealer now re-appears and offers to buy Clyde’s painting for $1000, under the mistaken impression it’s by Big Drag. The club owner agrees, and for the first time the art dealer turns to face the camera – and it’s Boris Karloff! “I must tell Vincent Price about this place,” he tells us. While it’s always good to see dear old Boris, always a good sport, the sequence makes the point that sometimes, nothing is so ephemeral as the present day.

Frankie bids a friendly farewell to Potato Bug, who’s now engaged to Yvonne. Big Drag closes proceedings with another musical act, and he’s saved the best until last, as we’re treated to another Muscle Beach Party co-star, Little Stevie Wonder, who sings ‘Happy Feelin’ (Dance and Shout)’ in an all-too-brief cameo, as young and old alike dance along.

I mentioned The Monkees earlier on, and if you’re a fan of that kind of comedy, or of its TV contemporary Batman, then you’re sure to enjoy the easy-going camp of Bikini Beach and the other beach party films. Like those shows, the villains are over the top, famous actors often drop by for a fun guest appearance, and as with The Monkees, there’s pop music (of varying quality) to enjoy along the way. It’s true you’d need a sunny disposition to get much in the way of laughs from Bikini Beach, though it’s all harmless enough, and if you get bored of the action, then there’s at least a lot of cool cars and bare flesh to enjoy.

Yet this is America, and nothing is quite so harmless; that’s all part of what makes it such a fascinating country to study, and this time period in particular. There are many in Europe, or South and Central America, who would have watched Bikini Beach and almost burst with the desire to idle on a beach in California, take a trip to a dragster meeting, or just hang out at a cool bar with a gang of friendly, nice-looking surfers. Part of America’s appeal to its allies in the Cold War took the form of envy of its luxuries, its popular culture and its freedoms – the Beach Party films, like many American films or TV shows featuring youngsters, comes free of family obligations and social responsibilities. Of course, one great problem within America remained unrepresented on the silver screen, an issue acknowledged in Bikini Beach only within the mind of the viewer. It comes when The Pyramids walk onto the stage, and we see one member of the band is black. In a film with a talking bird, a surfing chimp, and a werewolf, that this is the most surprising moment in Bikini Beach speaks volumes.

 

 

 

 

 

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