American International Pictures and The Rise of New Hollywood Part 4

by Phillip López Jiménez

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Continued from Part 3

The 60’s started out with a bang

The success of director Roger Corman’s CinemaScope fright fest ‘House of Usher’ brought a new respect from the press. They were no longer seen as Hollywood bottom feeders but as players to be reckoned with. The film would win a Golden Globe for co-star Mark Damon a most promising newcomer. Damon would go on to make countless Spaghetti Westerns before calling it quits to become a legendary independent film producer and distributor. (His list of credits is incredible) The film would also make star Vincent Price a horror film icon.

 

Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff, and James H. Nicholson quickly spit out another Poe picture ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’. It would go on to use pretty much the same creative team as ‘House of Usher’; script by Richard Matheson, Production design by Daniel Haller, camera work by Floyd Crosby, and star the mighty Vincent Price.

Barbara Steele and Vincent Price

It also starred another icon of horror Barbara Steele (from the 1960 film Black Sunday, see part 3) and AIP stalwart Luana Anders (mother of indie filmmaker Allison Anders). ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ would go on to surpass ‘House of Usher’ at the box office. Roger Corman then began working on more Poe films and even one H.P. Lovecraft film called ‘The Haunted Palace’ based on the novel ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’.

Meanwhile Arkoff and Nicholson started on a new cycle of pictures…

Let’s go to the beach!

The Beach Party films had their origins in an earlier hot Rod picture AIP had made the 1959 ‘Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow’. The formula was there, a group of teens in their own world of hot rods, café’s, and get togethers. Adults are played for laughs and inside jokes featuring other AIP characters. It was written by Sam Arkoffs brother in-law Lou Rusoff. Sam thought the beach would be a wonderful setting for the film and sent Lou out to observe the beaches of LA and write a picture. Which is pretty much the plot of Beach Party. An older professor, Bob Cummings, is studying the “mating rituals” of young people at the beach. Just like with ‘Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow’, the young people have their own world without adults, and instead of hot rodding culture, it’s surfing!

By 1963 former Disney Mouseketeer and pop singer Annette Funicello’s star was fading but her looks were blossoming. She was signed to play the female lead, Dolores. Walt Disney, her former employer, was none too happy that his once little girl was now going to be wearing, of all things, a bikini! “Little Girl? She’s twenty years old!” Exclaimed Sam. Annette went on to do the picture and Disney, sadly, never did use her for anything again.

In this 1963 file photo, singer Frankie Avalon and actress Annette Funicello are seen on Malibu Beach during filming of “Beauty Party,” in California in 1963. Photo: Associated Press

AIP paired her with former 50s, teen crooner Frankie Avalon, who had already stared in other AIP pictures, ‘The Apocalyptic Panic In The Year Zero’ and ‘Operation Bikini’.

Dick Dale

Beach Party was directed by I Love Lucy director William Asher on a 350,000 budget. Despite the Poe films doing well Arkoff and Nicholson were quite nervous about this one as they weren’t quite sure how a beach film would go over in the Midwest. AIP had Frankie and Annette do a huge publicity tour, making appearances on TV talk shows, pool parties and even theater lobbies. Surf guitar legend Dick Dale, who’s also in the picture, made appearances at drive-ins as well playing his guitar on the roofs of concession stands.

‘Beach Party’ was nowhere near as critically embraced as Corman’s Poe pictures but were a huge hit both financially and culturally. The film spawned a new cycle for AIP and the ‘Surf Craze’ was in the air. Dick Dale had a couple of hits in 60′ and 61′ with “Let’s Go Trippin’” and “Miserlou”, and just four months before the release of ‘Beach Party’ The Beach Boys scored a hit with ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’.

AIP’s beach pictures are for the most part “wholesome fun”, though if you look closely you can spot Frankie smoking a joint (00:53) at the local hang out run by comedian Morey Amsterdam. The films are just dumb fun, but I do love these films very much. I used to look forward to watching these films on the ‘3:30 movie’ when I was a kid. The comedy in each film would get sillier and sillier but they did continue to feature some great bands over the years. Besides Dale in the first film, there was ‘The Pyramids’, ‘Little Stevie Wonder’, ‘The Hondells’, and ‘Nancy Sinatra’.

Some “bitchin’ rods” like Ed Roth’s ‘Surfite’ featured in Beach Blanket Bingo, and George Barris’ custom Plymouth ‘cuda in Fireball 500.

They also featured a lot of cameos from stars of the past like Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Elsa Lanchester, Mickey Rooney and a great performance from eccentric character actor Timothy Carey in Bikini Beach! Even Comedians Don Rickles, Paul Lynde and AIP cult favorites Salli Sachese and Mary Hughes.

There was a total of 12 Frankie and or Annette pictures between 1963 and 1967 the bulk of them being made between ’63 and ’65. The two were in all the beach films up to ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’. Annette got pregnant with her first child shortly before shooting ‘How To Stuff A Wild Bikini’, which is why she covered up most of the time and Frankie wanted more money so Arkoff wrote his character down to a cameo. Frankie came back in the film ‘Sergeant Deadhead’, I’ve never seen this one or an official DVD release. Frankie is an astronaut whose brains get switched with a monkey?! Frankie later starred along with Vincent Price in ‘Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine’, these were spy spoofs that obviously influenced ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’. I lump them in with the beach films as it as the same slapstick humor and formula. The opening credits were created by Gumby creator Art Cloakey!

Two Dr. Goldfoot pictures were made, the sequel Dr. Goldfoot and The Girl Bombs was directed in Italy by maestro Mario Bava with 50s teen idol Fabian taking over for Frankie Avalon. Fireball 500 would mark the return of Frankie and Annette reuniting with director William Asher, Harvey Lembeck and future Sienfeld Uncle Leo, Len Lesser! The beach is replaced with a cross country race but the enthusiasm is no longer there though it is still a fun picture. ‘Thunder Alley’ was the somewhat sequel and the final picture Annette Funicello would make for AIP. Though ‘Thunder Alley’ is a pretty good film, it was clear the cycle was over and AIP was about to turn another corner unfortunately for the worst.

-Phillip López Jiménez

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