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Sex, Rock n' Roll, and Traditional Values on the Beach in Gidget and Beach Party

 

by Catharine Erway

 

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Before there was sunblock, Jaws (1977), and the late sixties, the beach belonged to toe-headed Sandra Dee, blankets were spread annually for Frankie and Annette, and Don Rickles served soda pop at the Tiki Bar.  It was a land claimed by teenagers of the fifties and early sixties, and remains tinted by their nostalgia to this day.  With the hit comedies, Gidget (1959) and Beach Party (1963) leading the way, the empahasis was on the don’t of teenage sex and the do’s of teenage romance.  Targeting young girls across the country with heartthrob actors and "girl next door" leads, these beach films can be classified as "light, breezy, and frankly escapist. They were aimed primarily on the young female trade."  (Dohery, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s).  Their messages at once traditional and stimulating, the films marked a realization in young women that there were more things to learn about growing up and being a wife, such as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1964). 

Released in 1959, Gidget was a low-budget Columbia picture starring Sandra Dee and rising young rock and roll musician Bobby Darin.  Four years later, Beach Party capitalized on the trend of beach movies with a surefire formula that  would spawn sufficient sequels to power drive-in theaters for a generation. The American-International picture was a lavish production made at many times the cost of most teen movies, and included musical numbers with its singing stars, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.  To give an idea of their cultural significance, both Gidget and Beach Party garnered at least two sequels not including television movies, a short-lived television series, and made its young stars legendary sweethearts of cinema.  While the sequels of Gidget - straying from the beach, as in Gidget Goes to Rome - steadily declined in popularity, the Frankie and Annette sequels were kept alive much for its quintessential beach theme (save for a 1965 attempt to change the locale with Ski Party) and its reputable cast including cameos with the likes of Buster Keaton and Vincent Price.

 

 The beach became the prime locale for this golden age of American prosperity.  It was a zone reserved for fun, love, and lounging around, and was the source of inspiration  for music, films, and trends from beachwear to dance crazes.  Gidget and Beach Party catered to the Top 40 pop-chart radio audience of the fifties and early sixties with an excess of musical surfing sequences, tikki-inspired music gatherings, and even a character named Moondoggie (an homage to pioneer pop radio deejay Alan Freed's alias - "Moondog").  In addition to launching the careers of Darin, Funicello, and Avalon, the Beach Party series helped popularize the “surf sound” by featuring groups like Dick Dale and the Del Tones. Yet the beach was also an industry that "encouraged teenagers to compensate for their personal angst about their physical, emotional, and social development by consuming . . . cosmetics to movie tickets."  (Whitney, "Gidget Goes Berserk," 65).  

 

Perhaps at the heart of Beach Party's script is an allusion to the enchantment of the beach for the young people who come to inhabit it in its glorious summer months.  As she and Frankie arrive on the beach in the first scene, Dolores remarks, "There's nothing like the beach at morning--so quiet, peaceful, and mysterious."  "In the film, an acclaimed anthropologist (Robert Cummings) surreptitiously lands upon the California shore to study youth culture as if landing upon some Pacific Island to study its indigenous peoples.  The gyrating, hip-twisting, scantily clad teenagers are so alien to his own generation that a fascinated Cummings draws parallels to the mating rituals of primitive tribes.  While the outcome of his observations is hardly consequential, both beach films dress their scenes with mock-tribal floridness and exoticism.  For instance, the gang refers to evening parties in Gidget as luaus, and the popular hangout in Beach Party is replete with an Eastern European bartender and an owner who is fond of yoga and Chinese dragon masks.   

 

 The surf, a border zone that can be related to characters who literally dwell on the margins of society, provides escapist pleasure for the youthful characters, as well as audience.  Spring or summer break is epitomized in such films as a long stretch of endless party with no other responsibilities expected of teenagers.   

 

            This exotic setting underscores a theme of emerging sexuality in young people, with the newfound freedom of being characterized as "teenagers" - not children, and not yet adults.  In Gidget, Sandra Dee plays a "just in-between age," as the theme song chides. A mousy tomboy who is pressured by her peers to pursue boys, Francie (aka Gidget: "girl-midget") spends her summer vacation in a beach environment dominated by macho surfer boys.  Whitney further notes "the symbolic potential of the beach zone is closely related to the liminal nature of teen identity" (56).  Francie is grappling with a

transformation period; while her girlfriends spend time on the beach solely exhibiting their mature bodies on the sand, Gidget instead races to the water in snorkel gear. "She's more fish than dish," one girlfriend cites.

 

In actuality, the actresses playing the other girls in the film were grown, voluptuous women in their twenties, while Dee was a true teenager.  "Honey, you need a few hormone shots," Francie is told.  Yet despite her efforts and enthusiasm in the masculine sport of surfing, Gidget cannot deny her brink status of womanhood; when claiming she's no dame, a surfer boy eyes her torso and says, "those aren't ears."  Another scene depicts Francie being coached to perform bust-enhancing exercises.  In the film, Francie's mother particularly encourages the maturization of her daughter.  Thus from all directions, Francie is forced to "grow up" seemingly before her time. 

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“The Oedipus Complex and All That”

 

Though the anthropologist shies from studying his affect on the teenage civilization, the question of the older men in these films poses a challenge for the screen teens.  Teenpics in general, according to Doherty, "dutifully abide by the gender protocols of their elder genres" (Doherty, 161).  Both Gidget and Beach Party remain staunchly in favor of traditional feminine roles - the inscription on a patchwork pillow that Francie takes lesson from near the film's conclusion is a throwback to conventional domesticity.  Yet while Dolores and Francie both want to be the girl that serves and stands by their man, their jealousy-inducing flirtations with older men provide challenging insight for the sexual potential of these young female characters.  How much of it is feigned, and what is this potential representative of?  In Beach Party, Dolores enjoys taking walks on the beach with Professor Sutwell and gets a thrill - yet turns techni-green - from a private ride he gives her on his plane.  Gidget’s older “beach bum” Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), takes a willing Francie into his home, but she is dismayed to return back from the incident unfortunately "pure and white as snow."   

 

Conveniently, these older male characters have no real sexual intention towards their young female friends, they are just there to make the girls' true love interests come to their senses, a little adult competition. However, in Gidget, Francie's scheme to go on a date with Kahuna in Moondoggie's presence is foiled when her date promptly turns her over to Moondoggie. Over their subsequent flustered conversation, Francie defends her dating an older man,  "Oh I know, Oedipus and all that - it's called a father complex," she nods convincingly.  Professor Sutwell's motivations are, of course, "pure business" - although his jealous female colleague, played by Dorothy Malone, teases him, "Lolita business." 

 

It may be noted that both Cummings and Robertson play largely Bohemian roles, fringe dwellers thrown into a youthful atmosphere. Cummings' character is a professor who has been involved with cultures from all around the globe, and comically adorns himself with a fusion of dress.  Kahuna is a self-confessed "beach bum" who cannot seem to get himself on track with a life outside of the surf.  They represent the dawning counter-culture’s lonely vanguard, until the conventional endings in which Cummings links up with Malone, and Kahuna takes off with a suitcase and a whole new outlook. Rather than leading the youth to revolution, the kids socialize them back into their generational “proper place.”

 

The Surfboard

 

    Though the surfboard is clearly a macho accoutrement in 1959's Gidget, in Beach Party it appears that nearly just as many girls are grabbing the boards and hitting the waves as boys.  Francie is ostracized by the girls for her masculine inclination to sports.  Whitney writes, "Gidget wants to live through her body, while her friends and mother know that a socially acceptable woman can do no such thing," (Whitney, 60).  However, Francie's interest in surfing is sprung from being saved by a boy on a surfboard when she gets knocked out by a wave and nearly drowns.  It is hard to ignore the sexual implication of the position Gidget and her male savior assume on the surfboard - her legs spread lying flat on her front, while the boy lies behind with his head just above her buttocks.  When Gidget runs home to mom and dad, bubbling with her newfound love of surfing, she jumps on the couch and exclaims it's "the ultimate!"

   

 While the oft-seen image of the surfboard stuck upright in the sand is easily read as a phallic symbol, a vivid construction of the surfboards laid on their sides to provide privacy for lovers on the beach is also present in Beach Party.  This is a nighttime scene in which Frankie tries to tame Eva's lust while they make out lying on the sand.  With comical ferocity, she tousles him, grabs him, and smothers him between two long boards at the bottom of the frame, which resemble encompassing lips shielding the lovers.  Only his body can be seen, tossing in and out of view, as he struggles with the wailing seductress.  Down the beach, Bonehead pokes his head up at a commotion from another cocoon of surfboards, until his blonde pulls him back underneath.

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