Saturday, July 22, 2017

#2,389. Muscle Beach Party (1964)

Directed By: William Asher

Starring: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Luciana Paluzzi

Tagline: "10,000 Biceps Meet 5,000 Bikinis..."

Trivia: Marked the screen debut of music prodigy "Little" Stevie Wonder, who receives an "introducing" credit

Back in the day, my father used to watch the Frankie Avalon / Annette Funicello “Beach” movies on TV, but I myself never cared enough to join him (after a scene or two I usually got up and left the room). So this 1964 film marked the first time I’ve seen one from start to finish, and while I wouldn’t say I made a mistake skipping this sort of fare, Muscle Beach Party is an occasionally humorous slice of mindless fun, and features one hell of a supporting cast.

It is Easter vacation, and everyone’s favorite surfing couple, Frankie (Avalon) and DeeDee (Funicello), along with a few dozen of their closest friends, are spending it on the beach, where they’ll ride waves, carouse, and dance the night away. The house they rent is right next door to a bodybuilding center owned and operated by Jack Fanny (Don Rickles), who tells the kids, in no uncertain terms, to keep away from his muscle-bound goons.

Into this picture of near-tranquility comes the Countess Juliana (Luicana Paluzzi), whose yacht is anchored offshore. With the help of her business manager S.Z. (Buddy Hackett) and attorney Theodore (Peter Turgeon), the Countess hopes to land yet another husband: “Mr. Galaxy” himself, Flex Martian (Rock Stevens), who, coincidentally, happens to be Jack Fanny’s star attraction. While S.Z. and Theodore negotiate to buy Flex’s contract, the Countess spends the day getting to know her new boyfriend.

But moments after Jack Fanny signs the agreement, the Countess spots Frankie on the beach, singing a sad song (he and DeeDee just had an argument). All at once, the Countess has a change of heart, and decides she doesn’t want Flex anymore; she wants Frankie! She tells Frankie she’ll make him a recording star, and together they’ll sail around the world. But is Frankie ready to abandon his carefree life, not to mention his relationship with DeeDee, to become the plaything of a beautiful heiress?

Muscle Beach Party is actually the second in what would be a series of twelve movies produced by Samuel Arkoff’s AIP between 1963 and 1968. Seeing as it’s a sequel, Muscle Beach Party does, on occasion, reference the previous film, 1963’s Beach Party; Morey Amsterdam (of TV’s Dick Van Dyke Show) reprises his role as Cappy, owner of a beachside nightclub that the kids frequent, and every so often he talks about “what happened the last time” Frankie and company hung out at his place.

Still, the fact that I haven’t seen Beach Party didn’t ruin Muscle Beach Party for me in the least, and I couldn’t believe the supporting cast they assembled for this film. Along with its trio of comedy legends (Hackett, Rickles, and Amsterdam), this 1964 sequel featured the screen debut of “Little” Stevie Wonder (though only 13 at the time, Wonder brings the house down with the song “Happy Street”, which he performs on-stage at Cappy’s). Also along for the ride are Dick Dale (the “King of Surf Guitar”) and his Del Tones, who perform a few tunes (including the title number), and keep an eye out as well for a Hollywood horror icon, who makes a cameo appearance towards the end.

Muscle Beach Party does have its flaws, chief among them the movie’s female lead, Annette Funicello, who has zero charisma (along with her bad acting, Funicello clearly couldn’t sing. Her brief rendition of “A Girl Needs a Boy” is so heavily processed that it sounds like she was in a tunnel when she performed it). In addition, the early surf scenes are a distraction: footage of actual surfers in the water is spliced together with shots of Funicello, Avalon, and the rest standing in front of a terrible rear projection (to make it look as if they’re the ones actually riding the waves).

These issues aside, Muscle Beach Party was a passable comedy / musical, and while it hasn’t exactly inspired me to rush out and watch the other films in the series, I enjoyed it while it lasted.

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