Favorite 50’s-60’s Teen Beach Movies

I love a good fluff film.  And you can’t get much fluffier than 1950s-1960s teen beach movies.  These films are never going to rank on the top of any “Greatest Movie of All Time” list (except for mine probably), but they’re a fun insight into a nicer, gentler time.  A time when teenagers weren’t grinding each other in clubs or at school dances, or doing stupid “challenges” like eating detergent (I’m sorry that’s NOT a challenge, that’s just dumb) but rather are doing “The swim” and goofy dances at beach luaus.  These are films where the biggest worry is whether the surf is good, or whether someone has a date to a luau.  There’s usually a romantic element.  These films have so much charm (and usually a little eye candy), I love them.  The music, the silliness, the dancing, everything that I want in a film.  Not everything needs to be Citizen Kane.

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Gidget and Moondoggie embrace on the beach in 1959’s “Gidget.”

My favorites:

Gidget (1959).  I covered this film earlier when I participated in the “Reel Infatuation” blogathon last summer.  I covered the object of Gidget’s affection–Moondoggie.  To give a short recap, Gidget is the coming of age story of 17-year old Frances “Gidget” Lawrence, portrayed by 50s-60s teen queen, Sandra Dee.  Gidget is at an age where her friends are boy-crazy and want to find boyfriends.  The beginning of the film finds Gidget being coerced into going to the beach to go “man-hunting.”  Gidget is self-conscious (she isn’t as well developed as her friends) and doesn’t feel that urge to partner off with a boy.  At the beach, she befriends a group of surfers and quickly discovers how much she loves surfing.  The surfers, all boys, quickly take Gidget under their wing.

While surfing with the boys, Gidget meets super-hot college student Moondoggie, played by teen idol James Darren.  At first, Moondoggie is indifferent to Gidget and gives her the cold shoulder.  Moondoggie it seems is determined to strike out on his own and get out from under his father’s thumb (and wallet), and decides that he wants to shirk the responsibility of college and take up the occupation of beach bum.  Under the tutelage of older friend Kahuna aka Burt Vail, played by Cliff Robertson, Moondoggie is determined to live life on his own terms.  To him, Gidget seems like some kid who is perpetually in the way.

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James Darren (Moondoggie) and Sandra Dee (Gidget) in “Gidget” (1959).

However, it soon becomes apparent that Moondoggie is putting up a big facade.  He doesn’t really want to be a beach bum (neither does Kahuna either, it turns out).  He also displays a protectiveness toward Gidget (as evidenced by him intervening in Gidget’s “surf lesson” with the handsy surfer “Loverboy”).  Later, he finds himself enamored of her and they have their first kiss at the luau.  At the end of the film, “the Gidg” and “Moondoggie” are going steady, he’s given her his pin!  As Gidget would say, “this [film] is the ultimate!”

Where the Boys Are (1960) This film, while it takes place at the beach and features teenagers, has a different vibe and feel than the typical teen beach movies of the era.  While it has some silly scenes and characters, the film overall has a more serious tone.  Where the Boys Are is the coming of age story for four teenage girls, Merritt (Dolores Hart), Tuttle (Paula Prentiss), Melanie (Yvette Mimieux) and Angie (Connie Francis).

The four girls decide to escape their snowy college campus in the midwest (don’t blame them there) and head to spring break in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  While in Florida, each girl meets a man who indirectly teaches them something about themselves.  Merritt puts up a facade as being sexually progressive, an attitude which she expresses in her relationships class (much to the chagrin of the prudish teacher).  Melanie, inspired by her best friend’s attitude towards sex decides to jump headfirst into dating boys when she gets to Florida.  Tuggle is more traditional and wants marriage and children, in that order.  She’s looking for a man who not only shares her values, but is also taller than her.  She’s 5’10.5″ tall.  Angie is the “plain one” of the group (every teen movie seems to have one) and she’d just be happy to have someone be interested in her.  She is the most down to earth member of the group.

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The ladies in “Where the Boys Are” (1960) from left to right: Dolores Hart (Merritt), Connie Francis (Angie), Yvette Mimieux (Melanie) and Paula Prentiss (Tuggle)

Merritt ends up meeting Ryder Smith (George Hamilton), an older, rich college student who is experienced.  He tries to ply her with alcohol and tries to get her to spend the night, but she refuses.  Ryder soon discovers that Merritt talks a good game, but she’s really a virgin who isn’t ready for sex.  Tuggle meets tall “TV” Thompson (Jim Hutton).  He is goofy, but Tuggle finds that she likes him.  He doesn’t drop her instantly when she tells him that she won’t have sex before marriage.  However, he seems to have a roving eye which casts doubt on him being a suitable, long term partner.  Angie meets the goofy musician, Basil (Frank Gorshin), who she loves.  She’s able to show off her singing abilities in his “dialectic jazz” band.  Finally, Melanie has the worst wake-up call when she meets some Ivy leaguers, namely Franklin and Dill.  She genuinely feels something for Franklin but is taken advantage of by Dill after Franklin gives him the scoop that Melanie will be an easy score.

This film has a great theme song (sung by Connie Francis) and features a great cast.  I love the more realistic storylines and the vibe of the film.  Melanie’s storyline is a bummer, but I think it was needed to balance out the other characters’ storylines.  Unfortunately, Melanie’s situation is all too relatable.  Each girl features a different facet of relationships and I felt that all were portrayed very realistically.

Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961).  I’m not going to lie, this film isn’t nearly as good as Gidget (1959).  In this film, Gidget is portrayed by Deborah Walley.  Sandra Dee unfortunately was under contract to Universal and they wouldn’t release her to reprise her role in this Columbia film.  Gidget’s parents are recast as well.  Carl Reiner and Jeff Donnell portray Gidget’s parents Russell and Dorothy Lawrence.  James Darren, thankfully, reprises his role as Jeffrey “Moondoggie” Matthews.

I’ll admit that when I first saw this film, I didn’t like it.  Deborah Walley got on my nerves.  However, I rewatched it, and now it has kind of grown on me.  While Walley’s Gidget is different than Dee’s, I find her entertaining and it’s a fun take on the Gidget character.  I did like Reiner and Donnell’s portrayal of Gidget’s parents more than Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche’s in the original film.  My criticism with this film is that I wish the costume designers had done service to Walley’s figure.  While Dee was very petite (not necessarily short though, she seems to be of average height), her costumes were flattering and chic.  Walley, while a little more curvy than Dee, but not fat by any means, was outfitted in some very twee looking costumes.  Assuming that the Gidget character is supposed to be at least 18, she’s dressed like she’s 12.  Unfortunately, these costumes gave Walley a short, squatty appearance.

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James Darren (Moondoggie) and Deborah Walley (Gidget) dancing in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961).

Gidget Goes Hawaiian is meant to be a sequel to the original Gidget.  We’ll forget about the fact that every character is portrayed by a different actor except for Moondoggie.  The film even goes as far as to present “flashbacks” from the original film with Walley outfitted in Dee’s costumes and re-creating scenes from the original film.  One error I found however, is that Moondoggie gives Gidget his pin at the beginning of the film.  He gave his pin to Gidget at the end of the first film.  In the second film however, Gidget treats him giving her his pin as an engagement ring, or an “engaged to be engaged” type symbol.

In this film, Moondoggie is home from college for summer vacation. Continuing with the timeline established in the first film, we can assume that Moondoggie has probably just completed his sophomore (maybe junior) year of college and Gidget has graduated high school.  He and Gidget are inseparable.  Their love for one another is continuing to grow, we see a montage of them at the beach, on a date, and dancing closely.  There is a funny scene toward the end of the film where Gidget basically hints at sex, or at least asking Moondoggie if he’s experienced, to which he refuses to supply an answer.  I will presume that Moondoggie has some experience with the ladies prior to Gidget, and why wouldn’t he? He’s a fox!

Russell surprises his wife and daughter with a two week trip to Hawaii.  Dorothy is overjoyed (of course) and Gidget is less so.  Moondoggie will be home from school for only two more weeks.  Gidget refuses to go because she doesn’t want to lose their last two weeks together.  At first Russell is upset, but then he and Dorothy make peace with the idea of a two week romantic Hawaiian vacation sans Gidget.  Gidget tells Moondoggie of this injustice of having to go to Hawaii and he tells her to go, saying that it’s a great opportunity (because duh! it is).  Gidget ridiculously assumes that Moondoggie doesn’t love her anymore.

The remainder of this film involves the Lawrence’s trip to Hawaii, friends that Gidget meets along the way, including a new boy, and a misunderstanding between Gidget and her parents.  It’s ridiculous, dumb at times and doesn’t make any sense.  But I really enjoy this film.  I think it deserves its own post.

For Those Who Think Young (1964).  This film (based on a 1960s Pepsi ad campaign slogan) also features James “Moondoggie” Darren.  In this film, he plays Gardner “Ding” Pruitt III, a rich college boy who is constantly on the prowl for a new flavor of the week.  He keeps a fancy rolodex of his dates with comments about each.  His car has two (!) phones in it.  Bob Denver plays his sidekick, “Kelp.”  Another thing to love about these surfer movies, the absurd nicknames! Anyway, Ding has his sights set on Sandy Palmer, played by Pamela Tiffin. Sandy is the niece of Woody Woodbury, a comic who works at the dive bar, the Silver Palms.  The Silver Palms is located next to the college campus and is well known as an establishment that serves alcohol to minors.  This club also features a burlesque dancer named Topaz McQueen (Tina Louise).

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Pamela Tiffin (Sandy) and James Darren (Ding) in the 1964 COLOR film, “For Those Who Think Young.”

One day, Woody and his comic partner, Sid Hoyt (Paul Lynde) find themselves out of work.  It seems that their act at the Silver Palms is not that great.  Woody, performing the last show, decides to just perform a stand-up routine instead of the usual song.  His stand-up act is a massive success and soon the Silver Palms is rebranded into “Surf’s Up,” a brand-new college hangout that actually cards the patrons and brands them with a black-light stamp that says “No booze for youse” if you’re under 21.

Of course, the neighboring university thinks that nothing but debauchery happens at this club and want it shut down.  The main ringleader behind this movement is Burford Cronin (Robert Middleton) who just happens to be Ding’s grandfather.  The university even goes as far as to send their Professor of Sociology (Ellen Burstyn, billed in this film as “Ellen McRae”) to observe.  She gets drunk on two spiked “fruit juices” but ends up giving her seal of approval to the establishment anyway.

Aside from Surf’s Up, the main conflict in this film is the relationship between Ding and Sandy.  Ding actually finds himself genuinely liking Sandy and Sandy feels the same for him.  However, Ding’s grandfather, Burford, thinks that Sandy is too “low class” for his family.  It seems that his daughter, Ding’s mother, married a man whom Burford thought brought some “bad blood” into the family.  To further anger him, Ding announces that he and Sandy intend to marry when they graduate college.  Of course, Grandpa Cronin is upset, but like how these movies always turn out, his viewpoint does a 180 in 5 minutes and he’s welcoming Sandy into his family and embracing Surf’s Up, the club he wanted to close down 10 minutes ago.

Nancy Sinatra (Frank’s daughter) and Claudia Martin (Dean’s daughter) provide additional support in this film.  There is a bizarre musical number in this film that features Bob Denver’s chin.

Beach Party (1963). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least one of the Frankie and Annette “Beach Party” films.  I’ll admit that I haven’t seen all of them, but I do own the box set.  I’m going to go with the first film in the series.  What I love about these films is that they have the most random co-stars.  Aside from Frankie and Annette, these films often have old Hollywood stars like Robert Cummings, Dorothy Malone, Keenan Wynn, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Mickey Rooney or people like Paul Lynde, Don Rickles, and Stevie Wonder, everyone whom you wouldn’t expect to pop-up in a teen beach movie. These movies usually have a common theme, the main one being that Annette is mad at Frankie and Frankie being too clueless to know what he did.  In Frankie’s defense, sometimes Annette is being ridiculous.

In Beach Party, Robert Cummings stars as an anthropologist who, along with his secretary Dorothy Malone, is studying the sex habits of teenagers.  He comes across a clan of surfer kids, led by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Frankie and Annette aren’t “Frankie and Annette” in this movie, they’re “Frankie and Dolores.”  In most of the films, Frankie is “Frankie.”  Annette usually plays “Dee Dee,” but in Beach Party, she’s Dolores.  In the Beach Party series, Frankie always seems to be frustrated by Annette’s tendency towards being a cold fish.  This film is no different.  Frankie invites Annette aka Dolores, to a beach house for some alone time.  Annette, not trusting herself (or Frankie) with Frankie, has invited everyone to the beach house to chaperone.  Because this is a “Beach Party” movie, Frankie is mad at Annette and she’s mad at him.

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Annette Funicello (Dolores) and Frankie Avalon (Frankie) in “Beach Party” (1963).

In true Frankie and Annette fashion, they spend a bulk of the film jealous of one another.  Annette decides to flirt with Cummings, who is too dense to see what’s going on.  His secretary, Malone, who is in love with him (and closer to his own age), sees exactly what is happening.  Frankie hooks up with some floozy that he meets in an effort to retaliate against Annette.  There’s also a motorcycle gang, led by Eric Von Zipper who terrorizes the gang.

I enjoy these movies because, while they’re pretty dumb at times, the teenagers are cool.  They sing fun songs, wear cool bathing suits and hang out in some pretty neat looking clubs.

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