Tom Lisanti’s Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 is a fabulous read: 32 surf and beach movies are celebrated with detailed analysis, and there’s pics and interviews galore. Browse copies here.
In the meantime, here’s some words from Tom:
To get in a warm weather mood with summer not approaching fast enough, here is a look at Hollywood surf movies from a different and albeit biased perspective. Gay men are always looking for gay subtext in movies and TV, and I am no exception. Am I reading more into these films? Probably—but it was sure a lot of fun doing the research.
The Sixties beach movie craze began with Gidget (1959) starring Sandra Dee and James Darren, a fictionalized look at teenager Kathy Kohner’s surfing escapades in Malibu during the mid-Fifties. It was groundbreaking as the movie contributed to the mass dissention of surfers on the beaches of Malibu and started a series of surf-theme films such as Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Ride the Wild Surf. The surf movie soon morphed into the beach-party film, whose heyday was from 1963 through 1965, where surfing was only used as a backdrop to fanciful teenage beach adventures. Beach Party from AIP starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello launchedMuscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Soon other studios were releasing their own Beach Party rivals such as Surf Party, The Girls on the Beach, and Beach Ball. Some of these films varied from the formula by shifting the locale to a lake (A Swingin’ Summer) or the ski slopes (Ski Party, Winter a-Go-Go, Wild Wild Winter). These movies for the most part followed a successful simple formula—start with attractive swimsuit clad teenagers twisting on the sand, add a dash of surfing (or ski) footage, mix in romantic misunderstandings, stir in popular musical performers, add aging comedians for comic relief, and whisk in villainous bikers or predatory adults.
Gay subtext crept into a few of the beach-party movies giving these films camp appeal today. Discounting the obvious fact that these sand-and-surf epics were titillation for homosexual men of the time, as good looking shirtless movie hunks such as Jody McCrea, Fabian, Aron Kincaid, James Stacy, and Peter Brown frolic on the sand bare-chested in swim trunks and on the slopes in tight ski pants. Or that gay actors such as Tab Hunter, Tommy Kirk, and Paul Lynde appeared in these movies, there were other factors that probably were not obvious back in the Sixties. Either a director or screenwriter may have tried to slip in with a wink and a nudge to the homosexual community in an unassuming way that made it past the oblivious producers and censors.
The most obvious example is Muscle Beach Party (1964) featuring a clean-cut group of surfers versus a cult of bodybuilders headed by Don Rickles’ Jack Fanny. During the Fifties and Sixties, the public automatically associated bodybuilding with homosexuality because muscle men of the time appeared as objects of desire wearing posing briefs or sometimes nothing at all in physique magazines whose readers were mostly gay men. Writing on the subject, film historian Joan Ormond commented, “Homosexuality in this era was regarded as potentially more damaging to society as the wild antics of surfers.” Hence, the bodybuilders of Muscle Beach Party whom seem to enjoy the company of each other rather than any of the bikini girls on the shore are seen as the bad guys along the lines of Eric Von Zipper’s motorcycle gang of Beach Party as they are out to corrupt the youth of America.
Though handsome Fabian, Tab Hunter, and Peter Brown pursue beach babes Shelley Fabares, Susan Hart, and Barbara Eden when not in the water inRide the Wild Surf (1964), there is a strong “homo-erotic undercurrent” throughout. The scenes of these shirtless surfers bonding or comforting each other while tackling the huge waves of Waimea Bay have become gay porn staples. Supposed swinging bachelors Paul Lynde and Woody Woodbury in For Those Who Think Young (1964) come off like two bickering old queens rather than swinging playboys as they frolic on the shore with the surfer crowd headed by James Darren and Pamela Tiffin subbing for Frankie and Annette. They even sneak in a Paul Lynde quip while he’s holding two large-sized hot dogs. Keeping with the wiener symbolism, the scene of boyish surfer boy Mike Nader (later “Dex Dexter” on TV’s “Dynasty”) inserting a frankfurter into the mouth of real life surfer Johnny Fain in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) while Donna Loren sings about an unrequited love is certainly an eyebrow raiser. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini(1965) went a step further with one of the nameless surfers more interested in his books than girls resulting in raised eyebrows and innuendo from the other surfers whenever he makes a comment. Of course, these All-American boys shun him (he is always seen off by himself) because this bookworm obviously rather ride them than his surfboard. And finally in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) while Deborah Wally sleeps alone in a double-size bed, Tommy Kirk willingly shares his with Aron Kincaid.
Winter a-Go-Go (1965), a beach party in the snow, has the obligatory scantily clad ski babes and their horny tight pants wearing boyfriends, which you’d expect to find in this type of film. But what makes the movie especially interesting and an undiscovered camp classic is that it arguably introduces the first major ambiguous gay character to appear in a beach-party type movie. The role of Roger that screenwriter Bob Kanter created for himself is the asexual best friend of socialite Janine (Jill Donohue). Though he travels with her and her friend Dori (Judy Parker) there is no evidence of any current or past romance with either gal. During the course of the film Janine sets her sights on Danny (James Stacy) and Jeff (William Wellman, Jr.) but winds up reuniting with tough guy Burt (Anthony Hayes). Dori makes goo-goo eyes at Frankie (Tom Nardini) throughout the film. Poor Roger—if he is not running to Jeff and Danny for protection from the bullying Burt he just sits there drinking his Cokes making catty comments about the proceedings.
Of course, you couldn’t have a beach movie without putting some of the actors in women’s clothes. Scenes of guys dressed in drag dominated three movies. In The Girls on the Beach (1965), Martin West, Aron Kincaid, and Steve Rogers make glamorous college girls complete with lip-gloss, false eyelashes, and mascara as they don some coeds’ frocks to sneak out of a sorority house. In Beach Ball (1965) Kincaid was back to wearing a dress (though he was not as fabulous looking as in his prior movie) along with Edd Byrnes, Don Edmonds and Robert Logan as they try to avoid the police at a music fair. And best of all Ski Party (1965), a sort of Some Like It Hot for the teenage crowd, had Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman disguise themselves as British lasses “Jane” and “Nora”, respectively, to infiltrate the opposite sex to learn what women are looking for in a man. In the process, suave Aron Kincaid as ladies man Freddie falls for Hickman’s female persona. At first Hickman finds it annoying but when his girlfriend (Yvonne Craig) keeps giving him grief, he decides to turn back into “Nora” and go out with Freddie because he knows “how to treat a girl.” I bet he does.