January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m kind of a sucker for beach party movies. I always have been, even before I started watching old movies in earnest. I should probably clarify, though, that when I say “beach party movies” I don’t actually mean Beach Party movies, the classic AIP series–you know, Frankie and Annette fighting about whether or not they’ll get married via song, while Eric Von Zipper engages in Kooky Capers in the background. The emphasis on Kooky Capers and Wild Hijinks is, actually, what kills that series for me; I can put up with them in small doses, but the AIP series has no sense of restraint. What I really love are the precursors (Where the Boys Are, the Gidget series), the shameless and usually terrible rip-offs (It’s a Bikini World, Girls on the Beach), the imitators who were at least original enough to shift the action elsewhere while still ripping off the plots (Palm Springs Weekend, Get Yourself a College Girl). Some of these blended the frothy bikini-laden plots with drama, some of them simply melded the plot with a sense of humor that dialed back the wackiness just ten percent or so–and either way, for me the result is 90 minutes of pure guilty pleasure.
While watching It’s a Bikini World, I realized exactly why I’ve always loved this genre so much: a beach party movie is essentially an extended episode of Saved by the Bell. Like most kids who came of age in the early ’90s, I literally grew up with Saved by the Bell–two or three hours of episodes were on every day when I came home from school, from age 8 on up. There are episodes I’ve seen–literally–20 or 30, maybe even 40 times. Even now, fifteen years after I’ve watched the show with any regularity, I could still turn on an episode and tell you how the entire plot will unfold after watching about ten seconds. Saved by the Bell has pretty much fused itself to my DNA, predisposing me to like anything that shares enough similarities to it. And the similarities between a beach party movie and a Saved by the Bell episode are many: attractive California teenagers in bikinis, broadly drawn personality “types,” the token nerd friend who’s infiltrated the clan of popular kids, goofy plots often centered around battles of the sexes or elaborate deceptions, a cool hangout where the whole gang congregates, a general lack of parents, maybe one authority figure that makes sporadic appearances, gags that are run into the ground, the occasional musical interlude. Zack Morris even stole Frankie’s gambit of talking directly to the camera! Peter Engel must’ve been a hell of a fan of Muscle Beach Party.
The movie that prompted me to connect the two was It’s a Bikini World. In it, independent Delilah (Deborah Walley) spurns cocky surfer Mike (Tommy Kirk), so he invents a shy, dorky twin brother named Herbert in order to win her affections. (That’s a Saved by the Bell plot if I’ve ever heard one, complete with the only difference between Mike and Herbert being a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.) Delilah spends the rest of the film’s running time competing with Mike in various competitions–skateboarding, boat racing–and wondering why Herbert never comes to support her. Of course, she ultimately figures out that they’re the same person, and Mike must properly atone before they can get together for real. The plot is punctuated with appearances by the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (they also appeared in Get Yourself a College Girl), the Gentrys (best known for “Keep On Dancing,” although they don’t sing it here), the Castaways, and girl group the Toys. My favorite part was the monster mouth-shaped stage the bands performed on, making them look as if they’re about to get swallowed alive, Jonah-style.
The movie’s wikipedia page describes it as a pro-feminist film, probably because of its battle-of-the-sexes plot . . . but “girls consistently losing to boys and ultimately only beating them because they lost on purpose” doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist, even for the ’60s. Maybe the most feminist part of the movie is that it was directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman, in a time where female directors were almost freakishly rare. Rothman, the first female director to gain entrance to the Directors’ Guild of America, eventually became associated with her later exploitation flicks, although she insists that she did them not because she wanted to but because no other paths were open to her as a female director.
I should probably clarify that when I say I prefer movies like this to the real Beach Party flicks, it’s not because they’re better movies. They are, in fact, significantly worse in pretty much all ways that count–the production values are lower, the story is a blatant rip-off, Tommy Kirk is very Disney Teen Star as the leading man. But somehow–at least for me–all that actually works in their favor. The slick packaging of the AIP series always leads me to expect more than they deliver. But in a movie like It’s a Bikini World, I can enjoy the last wacky race sequences as a little bit of goofy fun rather than getting exasperated they’re not dishing out something better, the way I always do with the Beach Party movies. Small blessings, I guess.
January 27, 2012 § 5 Comments
An incomplete list of Elvis movie cliches:
- Beautiful, romantic setting (bonus points for beaches, as they allow for more skin–see below)
- The setting or a local custom is worked into at least one song on the soundtrack
- Elvis drives an awesome car
- Elvis sings in his awesome car, usually serenading a girl or three
- Elvis is or was in the military
- Elvis plays some sort of outsider/rebel/vagabond
- Related: Elvis wants to break free from his family or expectations and become his own man
- Elvis has some kind of unconventional job–if he doesn’t work as a singer, it’ll be along the lines of race car driver/boat captain/water-ski instructor–no 9-to-5 stability for our Elvis (but bonus points if he works as a singer and a race car driver/boat pilot/water-ski instructor)
- Two or more women fight over Elvis
- Girls in bikinis, duh
- A girl loses her bikini top
- No woman over the age of 14 can resist Elvis’s charms
- Elvis punches another man in the face (bonus points if he’s defending a woman or the fight is over a woman)
- Elvis beats a rival in a competition (boat race, cliff diving competition)
- Elvis spends the night in jail
- Car chase or race
- Small, adorable child sings/dances/hams it up with Elvis (bonus points if they’re never seen again after their one turn in the spotlight)
- Unfortunate racial stereotypes (although this is somewhat tempered by the fact that the movies went out of their way to include multiracial cast members in a time period where that wasn’t usually a given-hell, it’s still not)
Blue Hawaii is alternately loved and hated as the movie that solidified all of these cliches into The Elvis Formula that governed most of his mid-career films. A few of his earlier films contain examples of these tropes–something I touched on in my review of Jailhouse Rock–but it wasn’t until Blue Hawaii became a hit that Elvis’s handlers truly paid attention to what the public was responding to and then, unfortunately, made an effort to include every single one of those components in every single film he did. The result was that Elvis’s film career can largely be imagined just by watching this one movie, as most of its follow-ups can essentially be summed up as Blue Mexico, Blue Europe, or Blue Florida.
There’s this idea floating around among the uninitiated that all Elvis Formula films are bad. They aren’t! I hate to disillusion anybody whose sole exposure to Elvis as an actor was Tickle Me, but some of the formula films are actually pretty enjoyable. For most critics, Blue Hawaii falls somewhere near the middle of the pile–not quite as good as Viva Las Vegas or Girl Happy, not quite as bad as Harum Scarum or Spinout. I’d put it a little closer to the top end of the spectrum, which has more to do with its showcase of Hawaii’s beauty than the script itself. The plot is pretty simple: just out of the army, Elvis returns to his Hawaiian home, but has no interest in returning to his place at the family pineapple manufacturing plant. Taking up a job as a tour guide instead, he balances the expectations of his family, his girlfriend, his job–and one particularly unruly client.
Maybe the fact that it’s the dead of winter and I live in Wisconsin, but the movie has enough charms in scenery alone to make up for the fact that the script basically falls to shambles towards the second half. Unlike some of Elvis’s later films, Blue Hawaii was actually shot on location, and those location shots are just the thing to get me through the bitterly cold nights we’ve been having lately. For anybody who is, like me, interested in the historical developments of tourism (I know, there must be thousands of you, right?), Blue Hawaii is a neat look back at Hawaiian vacationing at the dawn of its statehood (and the height of Hawaii mania), including several scenes taking place at the Coco Palms Resort.
The soundtrack, too, is much better than his average movie fare, including “Blue Hawaii” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”–maybe that explains why it became the second best-selling pop album of the entire decade. (It does, however, include the abysmal “Ito Eats,” a song that should turn up on every list of the top ten worst songs Elvis ever sang.) And I’ve always liked Joan Blackman as Elvis’s love interest in this film. She does more with the character than most of her successors would, and the fact that we get half the movie with her before her rival shows up means that we’re a little more invested in her relationship with Elvis than we would be with most of his subsequent movie girlfriends. Mostly, though, it’s the scenery. If I can pretend I’m on a sun-drenched beach overlooking my own private bay, rather than in my apartment with the heat cranked up, a hoodie on and a glass of hot chocolate in hand–well, I’ll take that, even if it’s just for a moment.
May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
When did the east coast versus west coast thing start? During the California gold rush, did moms try to persuade their sons to stay home in the east with arguments like, “Well, sure, the weather’s great and you can get rich out there, but it costs three dollars to buy an egg, an anyway, I hear all the women are shallow gold-diggers and prostitutes”?
I thought of this recently while I was watching Teenage Rebel, which played up the east coast versus west coast tug-of-war in a way that portended The Parent Trap. The Parent Trap, in turn, takes the rivalry almost as seriously as Biggie and Tupac. But these two films are far from the only offenders. (A more modern example: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) When I was growing up, I read a lot of really formulaic girls’ series fiction–and in every single series, there was usually a character meant to stand in for the coast opposite of wherever the story took place. In the Baby-sitters Club books, which are set in Connecticut, the west coast is represented by the transplanted-from-southern-California, beach-loving hippie Dawn, who only eats health food. Invariably, if a character is meant to stand in for the west coast, she is: a) blonde, b) laid-back, c) from California (Washington and Oregon do not exist in series fiction, point blank), and d) a natural beauty. In return, east coast girls are allowed a little more variety in home states (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut are popular, but Vermont and New Hampshire are also allowed, as are the occasional appearances of Philadelphia and D.C.)–but they are consistently brunette and uptight. Alternately, for Sweet Valley High fans, it’s a running joke that if a female character from the east coast shows up, she will be a manipulative dark-haired snob whose entire purpose in the narrative was to ruin the (blonde, Californian, naturally beautiful) Wakefield twins’ lives. As a kid, I wondered where this trope had come from, and blamed it on the Beach Boys. Now I know better: it came from the movies. The Midwest, which had been the default setting for many movies in the 1930s and ’40s, was by the late ’50s being phased out in favor of an east/west culture war. And Hollywood, sick of the east coasters treating them like some backwards cow-town that knew nothing of class or elegance, came down pretty hard in favor of California–and convinced generations of movie-lovers of the certainty of Californian superiority as a result.
“Ohh . . . Boston.”
The Parent Trap is the quintessential realization of this trope. While the twins were, for the sake of the plot, required to have the same hair color, almost all other coastal stereotypes apply. Susan, the California twin, is the laid-back, outdoorsy, “modern” one (as evidenced by her short haircut) who lives with her father on one of the most gorgeous ranches ever committed to screen, where she enjoys activities like camping and horseback riding. Sharon, the Boston twin, is the “proper” one, as evidenced by her old-fashioned dresses and aversion to slang–as well as that fussily decorated Boston brownstone where she lives with her mother (whom you can bet she calls “Mother” rather than “Mom”). And while the point of the story is that the twins eventually rub off on each other and each reach a happy medium–while finagling and scheming to get their parents back together, naturally–it’s no surprise that they ultimately end up one big happy Californian family. (Of course, with that ranch, who can really blame them?)
The Parent Trap‘s California ranch.
That California wins out in most of these bi-coastal dilemmas was not always a given, but a device that coincides with the growth of Los Angeles and the rise of Hollywood itself. Prior to the 1960s, the Midwest was the American ideal. Back then, girls’ serial fiction heroines like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames almost invariably called the Midwest home–as did big-screen serial leads like Andy Hardy. Even all-American beauty Barbie originally hailed from the dairy state. But starting in the 1950s, Midwestern heroine Nancy Drew was replaced with a new ideal: Gidget. In the Gidget films and follow-ups like the beach party movies, teenage culture and California culture are depicted as being virtually synonymous. Old teenage film cliches like the big dance and the malt shop were replaced by the bonfire on the beach and the surfing lesson. California was shown as some sort of latter-day Garden of Eden, and teenagers were its Adam and Eve. Most of this was simply due to laziness: screenwriters wrote what they knew, and there was no reason to head off to Idaho or Iowa to see what teenagers do in locales where surfboards are scarce. But certainly there was an element of self-satisfaction, too.
Unfortunately, this has led to a lack of balance. Midwestern teenage protagonists have all but disappeared from the screen since John Hughes stopped featuring the Brat Pack, and even east coast adolescents have been increasingly marginalized, mostly only popping up in darker teen films like Cruel Intentions where sunny California would ruin the carefully cultivated atmosphere. Your best bet for a non-California setting is one where the movie’s based on source material that dictates otherwise. And even that doesn’t always work–the 2007 Nancy Drew movie relocated the girl sleuth and her father from Midwestern River Heights, where they’d lived for three-quarters of a century, to boring ol’ southern California.
Filmmakers, I’m begging you: bring back the Midwestern heroines! I won’t even complain if you take the lazy way out and use “Midwestern” as shorthand for “naive” or “average” and “east coast” as a synonym for “sophisticated.” Just give us some face time. At this point, I might not even cringe too hard if they’re shown doing nothing more exciting than riding on tractors. Just leave Nancy Drew out of this.
December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.
Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:
- the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
- the sexpot/the flirt
- the ball-buster/the tomboy
- the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to
See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:
- Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
- Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
- Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
- Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex
The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.
To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.
Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.