Reviewing a great reference guide to kick off the Beach Party Blogathon.
To brush up on my facts for this week’s Beach Party blogathon, I read Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 by Thomas Lisanti. Lisanti writes at SixtiesCinema.com, and has written many other books focusing on the stars of that decade.
Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies is a wealth of information divided into three big parts. The lengthy introduction serves as a great overview of the genre, from the real life “Gidget” to the genre’s decline a decade later. The second and biggest section is an in-depth guide to 32 beach movies, ordered chronologically. Each of those movie chapters contains Lisanti’s review, behind-the-scenes stories, a plot summary, full cast and crew listings, star ratings for categories of surfing, boy or girl watching, fun, music and scenery, plus box office statistics, a selection of contemporary reviews, awards/nominations and memorable lines.
I really enjoyed Lisanti’s analysis and reviews of these movies because not only does he include lots of context, background, research and interview material, he’s also a fan. You’ll find no trashing of the genre, its quality, intentions or meaning here, yet he’s fair and honest about the flaws of the cheap knock-offs and the genre’s wrong turns. Whether he’s discussing hits or misses, he always captures their spirit: they were and still are innocent, wholesome, good clean fun, generous servings of music and “sexy flesh but no sex,” and a way for landlocked kids to enjoy a fantasy life in the sun and escape from the reality of urban concerns and rotten weather.
The third part of the book is a collection of 23 biographies (most with interviews) of the main beach movie players, people including but not limited to: Frankie Avalon, Peter Brown, James Darren, Sandra Dee, Shelley Fabares, Annette Funicello, Aron Kincaid, Tommy Kirk, Jody McCrea, Yvette Mimieux, Chris Noel, Quinn O’Hara, Bart Patton, Pamela Tiffin, and William Wellman Jr. Kincaid wrote a nice foreword describing his career path and experience as one of the Beach Party “gang” (along with Mary Hughes and Salli Sachse, profiled in other Lisante books) who were mobbed by adoring fans during press tours. He provides a nice testimony to the popularity of the genre’s biggest hits as well as the rewards of being part of that scene. As if all those actor bios weren’t enough, there are also ones of superstar surfers Mickey Dora and Johnny Fain, who appeared in the films as themselves and/or stunt doubles.
I learned a lot reading this book, and recommend it not only for fans of this genre and these stars but to any movie buff interested in seeing how an idea becomes a story or bestseller, and then a pop culture phenomenon and national craze. You see how these movies exponentially increased participation in surfing, launched hit songs and new (to the masses) sounds and bands to the top of the charts, and how the lives of the players were affected. On the business side, it was fascinating to read about the unconventional path taken by a movie like THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966), which found distributors though a couple showings that generated tons of buzz. You get to follow how the studios making these movies responded to the successes and failures of each variation on the genre, branching into hybrid forms or stretching the plots to stray from beaches and push surfing to the background. From drag racing in BIKINI BEACH (1964), to horror in THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964) to the snowbound SKI PARTY (1965), some of these experiments worked and some, judging by audience reaction, took one too many steps away from the sand.
Lisanti explores the surf documentaries that existed since 1953 and then shows how the culture entered the mainstream when screenwriter Frederick Kohner, Oscar-nominated for Deanna Durbin’s MAD ABOUT MUSIC (1938), wrote a book about his daughter Kathy’s adventures as she learned to surf. Kohner turned her journal into a bestseller which became the movie GIDGET (1957) and the basis for the franchise and series that followed (Lisanti includes some fun and conflicting opinions on the existence of the real Moondoggie). By the time BEACH PARTY (1963) came out, the formula was set: swimsuits, music, dancing, surfing and romance, plus aging stars as comic relief or villains. Stars were created and teen moviegoers hooked, but real surfers were somewhat unimpressed with the influx of newcomers to their sport and their favourite spots, and what some of them saw as a silly misinterpretation of their lifestyle. This book tells you if they felt better about RIDE THE WILD SURF (1964) or THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966).
You’ll also learn about the big musical acts that appeared, the daring subtext and material some of these movies managed to introduce, and how the sun set on the genre and was replaced by the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The youth in a time of war, social unrest and drugs, found the innocence of the carefree beach life hopelessly passe. For many movie buffs this kind of light fun is always welcome, and far from being irrelevant, these films ended up having a big impact on pop culture. Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 is a very entertaining and informative read, a valuable reference guide and a fine companion for your next visit to the 60s cinema of sand and surf.
This review is part of the BEACH MOVIE BLOGATHON hosted by Silver Screenings & yours truly, Speakeasy.
This review is also part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past