News of Annette Funicello’s death after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis was announced yesterday. I first knew “Annette,” as she was commonly known, from her tenure on “The Mickey Mouse Club” on TV when I was a child in the late 1950s. However, I didn’t come to appreciate her fully until I was a little older and saw BEACH PARTY when it opened in the Bronx in October 1963 (50 years ago this fall) on a double bill with Roger Corman’s race-car drama, THE YOUNG RACERS. Annette was absolutely beautiful in the film and even though I’d have to count Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY, first seen earlier that year, as my first movie star crush (and the one that directly influenced, consciously or subconsciously, my future choice of mate), I have to say Annette imprinted herself on my consciousness that day as the ideal woman, particularly in the scene where her mirror image sings back to her, “Treat Him Nicely.”
What drew a kid from the Bronx at the age of ten to a musical about surfing in Southern California? Part of it, I think, is that the film’s stars, Annette and Frankie Avalon, both looked less like California beach types than like teens from my own neighborhood, which still had a large Italian contingent at that point. In fact, most of my early childhood crushes, pre-WEST SIDE STORY, involved Italian-American girls at school and in the neighborhood. And the Deluxe Theater, where I saw BEACH PARTY, was on Belmont Avenue, home street of the famous Belmonts of Dion and the Belmonts fame. Also, my musical tastes were still being formed back then. I was only just discovering contemporary pop music at the time and was interested in seeing any and all kinds of pop music displayed onscreen. (I’d even gone to see HOOTENANNY HOOT, on a double bill with the comedy A TICKLISH AFFAIR, a week earlier at the Loew’s Paradise. It featured such performers as Johnny Cash, Sheb Wooley and the Brothers Four, along with several more obscure acts.) I did like the songs in BEACH PARTY back then, although I never noticed the soundtrack for sale in record stores in the area, and have found that I like them every time I watch the movie, the most recent time being last night after getting home from work, where I’d learned the sad news of Annette’s passing.
Frankie and Annette sing the title song together in a charming sequence as they drive in an old convertible to the beach house where they’re planning to spend the summer. Frankie later sings “Don’t Stop Now” in a dance number at Big Daddy’s, the beatnik-influenced bar and coffeehouse where the kids congregate to dance and drink beer and listen to the surf music group, Dick Dale and the Del Tones, who perform “Secret Surfin’ Spot” on the beach and “Swingin’ and a-Surfin’” at Big Daddy’s. In addition to “Treat Him Nicely,” Annette is also heard singing “Promise Me Anything (Give Me Love),” although it comes off a record played on a phonograph in one scene.
One of the great things about the Beach Party movies is that although they served as a showcase for teen culture of the time (at least as it was viewed through the prism of American International Pictures), they also had plenty of adult character actors and one-time Hollywood stars, which also interested this budding young film buff. The top-billed cast member was none other than Robert Cummings, billed as Bob Cummings, a star whose career went back to 1933 and who we knew from his sitcom, “The Bob Cummings Show,” aka “Love That Bob” (1955-59), which was still being seen in reruns at this point. Cummings played Professor R.O. Sutwell, an anthropologist studying the mating rituals of the surfer culture. Second-billed Dorothy Malone played his research assistant. I’d seen Malone in the western THE LAST SUNSET (1961) the previous summer, on a triple bill with CARTHAGE IN FLAMES (1960) and THE BIG SHOW (1961). Comic relief was provided by Morey Amsterdam (as “Cappy” Kaplan, proprietor of Big Daddy’s, where Dick Dale and the Del Tones perform in the film), who we knew from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and Harvey Lembeck as motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper, a takeoff on Marlon Brando’s character from THE WILD ONE, a reference that went over my head at the time but delighted the audience anyway since he was the funniest thing in the film. (Two years later I’d see Lembeck in a reissue of STALAG 17.) Best of all, Big Daddy, an old beatnik constantly asleep in a corner of Big Daddy’s, is revealed at the end to be none other than Vincent Price, then the star of American International’s Edgar Allan Poe series (with THE HAUNTED PALACE touted in an onscreen announcement at the very end of the film). His one line? “The Pit. Bring me my pendulum, kiddies. I feel like swinging.”
Annette’s role in the film (and in the subsequent Beach Party films) was to be the good girl, the girl-next-door type, the one who’s saving herself for marriage (despite being on vacation at the beach with other teens of both sexes without any parental supervision), and the one to whom Frankie has to prove his love. Other girls in the film took on the role of being “sexy,” which made for interesting dance numbers and the occasional makeout scene, but the fact remained that despite Candy Johnson’s and the other girls’ gyrating, Annette was, indeed, the sexiest and most gorgeous of them all (although Dorothy Malone wasn’t bad). But Annette was also warm, sweet, and giving. She also displays some curiosity about the professor’s work, which definitely sets her apart from the rest of her peers.
Not long after this, I found an ad in a fan magazine for various movie star fan clubs, so I sent in 50 cents for membership in the Annette fan club. I got a membership card with a rubber stamped signature from the fan club president, Trish-something, a pair of faded black-and-white stills from Annette’s Disney days, and a thick pile of ads for other fan clubs. I was somewhat disillusioned. Where were the fan activities? Who occupied the organization hierarchy needed to organize an AIP festival in the Bronx with personal appearances by Annette and Samuel Z. Arkoff? My dreams were dashed.
Well, at least Walt Disney, Annette’s true corporate boss, delivered. On Friday, March 27, 1964, Annette toured a series of Bronx theaters showing her Disney film, THE MISADVENTURES OF MERLIN JONES, and I noted in the newspaper ad the one closest to me, the 167th Street Theater on Jerome Avenue (and visible from the #4 elevated train for years after it closed), so I went by myself to see the movie, on a double bill with the Disney nature short, ARIZONA SHEEPDOG (which I can’t find on IMDB), and await Annette’s appearance after the movie. (It was evidently a school holiday, probably part of Easter Week.) What I took away most from that afternoon at the movies was the showing of trailers for a reissue double bill of two English color horror movies, HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), with Christopher Lee, and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959), with Michael Gough. These were quite bloody, with a scene in the DRACULA trailer showing Dracula with blood dripping from his mouth and a scene in BLACK MUSEUM showing a woman using a pair of binoculars which releases spikes into the user’s eyes! We see the woman look through the binoculars and turn the focus knob which releases the spikes, hear her scream, and see the binoculars with the bloody spikes hit the floor. A pretty gruesome image, in the pre-ratings era, to show with a Disney double feature, wouldn’t you think?
In any event, the theater was a rather cramped, dingy affair with no stage at all, only a small space in front of the screen to stand, and only one or two dim lights to shine at the front of the theater. Not exactly the worthiest venue for my beloved Annette. When the movies were over, she came out, led by the theater’s manager (in a dark suit) and accompanied by Disney personality Candy Candido, who performed the M.C. duties. The place wasn’t all that crowded, so I went up to the second row and sat in the middle, leaning on the back of the seat in front of me so I could stare right at her. She offered some pleasant greetings and answered a few questions from Candido (I don’t recall what they were) and was then ushered out up the side aisle (there was no center aisle) led by the manager and accompanied by a police officer as audience members rushed to get close. She had a tight schedule that afternoon, as evidenced by the times listed in the newspaper ad, which I located on microfilm decades later. I believe she had fifteen minutes for each appearance—including travel time to the next theater! As far as I can recall, that was my first exposure to a movie star. I would see MERLIN JONES again in a couple of weeks when it played at a theater closer to home on a double bill with the Jerry Lewis movie, WHO’S MINDING THE STORE? This time I went with some siblings.
I would see the second Beach Party movie, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, early that summer (1964) on a double bill with Raoul Walsh’s last movie, A DISTANT TRUMPET, a tough cavalry western starring Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette. I was much more impressed with the western and chose it as the subject of my very first film review, written to fulfill the requirements of the Journalism Merit Badge for the Boy Scouts. (I never finished the other requirements so I never got the badge.) MUSCLE BEACH PARTY had Little Stevie Wonder as a musical attraction, but its muscleman plot and emphasis on voluptuous Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi (who would later appear on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and star in THUNDERBALL and THE GREEN SLIME) tended to overshadow Frankie and Annette and the whole enterprise disappointed me. One good thing about it, though, was the guest appearance of Peter Lorre, whom I’d already seen in FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON two years earlier. Lorre had died two days before MUSCLE BEACH PARTY’S U.S. release date, a couple of months before I saw the movie.
Besides, by this point, the Beatles had successfully conquered the U.S. record charts and their first movie, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, would be the very next movie I’d see in a theater that summer. (I’d see their second movie, HELP!, the following year.) MUSCLE BEACH PARTY would be the last Beach Party movie I’d see on the big screen.
I eventually caught up with the other Beach Party movies on television and, while none are as good as BEACH PARTY, they each had elements I would have enjoyed seeing on the big screen, including Buster Keaton’s appearances in several of them, including BEACH BLANKET BINGO, HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and PAJAMA PARTY, Boris Karloff’s appearance in BIKINI BEACH, Don Rickles’ stand-up routine in BEACH BLANKET BINGO and various other guest stars including Basil Rathbone, Dorothy Lamour, Eve Arden, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and some of the usual cast of characters, including Eric Von Zipper.
I reviewed the Frankie & Annette box set on Amazon.com and here are excerpts from my review:
BEACH PARTY, the oldest film here, is the only one of the eight that truly holds up well. It’s got the strongest plot, some interesting adult characters in an anthropologist and his pretty assistant, played by Hollywood veterans Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone, and the best music and song score of any of these films. The other Beach Party films don’t age well at all. The comedy isn’t terribly funny anymore and the songs are generally awful. The only pleasures come from some of the guest stars, particularly silent comedy great Buster Keaton, who appears here in BEACH BLANKET BINGO and HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. Don Rickles is in three of the films, but he’s only allowed to be funny in BEACH BLANKET BINGO, in a scene where he does his classic insult routine. There are random musical guest stars who pop up out of nowhere, do a quick song, and disappear again, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Lesley Gore, and the Kingsmen. There are also surprise closing cameos in the first three Beach films provided by horror stars then appearing in AIP’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. And I must give a special shout-out to gorgeous Irene Tsu, who plays Frankie’s native girlfriend during his stint with the Naval Reserve in the South Pacific in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI and has a bigger part than he does.
The racing films need to be judged a little differently. The weaker of the two, FIREBALL 500, with Frankie, Annette, Fabian, and Harvey Lembeck, is set in deep south moonshine country and not one of these actors belongs there. THUNDER ALLEY, on the other hand, is actually kind of interesting and is easily the most watchable film in the set after BEACH PARTY. Directed by Richard Rush, it has a good feel for its stock car/stunt driving milieu, is a bit edgier than the other seven films, and throws in a love triangle involving Fabian, Annette, and sexy Diane McBain. Both of these films would actually have been better served as Elvis Presley vehicles and would have been better than Elvis’ own films of the era. THUNDER ALLEY, in fact, features two of the cast, McBain and Warren Berlinger, from SPINOUT (1966), Elvis’ own car racing film of the year before. Put Elvis in the Fabian role and give him a few songs, and put in Deborah Walley, also from SPINOUT (and Frankie’s girl in SKI PARTY), who would have been more suitable in the Annette role, and we would have had a perfect Elvis movie. (I can’t help but wonder, though, what an Elvis-and-Annette pairing would have been like.)
And I reviewed THUNDER ALLEY, a race-car drama in the set, on IMDB. It’s short so I’ll paste the whole thing here:
THUNDER ALLEY is a 1967 stock car racing drama set in the south and starring onetime teen idols Fabian and Annette Funicello along with Warren Berlinger and Diane McBain. What struck me as I watched it is how similar it is to an Elvis Presley movie. In fact, two of the cast, Berlinger and McBain, had appeared with Elvis a year earlier in SPINOUT, which also had a racing theme. If you put Deborah Walley (also from SPINOUT) in Annette’s role of stunt driver (a role better suited to the spunkier Walley anyway) and put Elvis in Fabian’s role and gave the character a few songs, you would have had a near perfect Elvis vehicle. And if they’d allowed THUNDER ALLEY’s Richard Rush to direct it (instead of one of the old studio workhorses like Norman Taurog who pounded out nine Elvis vehicles in the 1960s) and kept the edge to it, including a hot bedroom scene Fabian has with a very sexy Diane McBain, it might possibly have taken Elvis in a new direction away from all the SPEEDWAY, TICKLE ME and DOUBLE TROUBLE-type films he was doing at the time. Oh well, we can dream, can’t we?
(Not that an Elvis-Annette pairing would have been a bad thing either, mind you.)
Regarding the Elvis connection, I heard on the radio last night, during a segment on Annette’s death, an assertion by a talk show host that Elvis hated the Beach Party movies and sought to avoid making that kind of movie, although CLAMBAKE would indicate he didn’t quite succeed. I do insist that an Elvis-and-Annette pairing onscreen could have been something magical. But then, I wish Elvis had paired onscreen more often with female musical stars of his caliber. One of his best movies is VIVA LAS VEGAS precisely because Ann-Margret is treated as a musical star of equal status with Elvis. If only Elvis had paired with Petula Clark. Or Julie Andrews. Or Diana Ross. Or Barbra Streisand. Or, dare I say it, Doris Day?
Anyway, back to Annette. She and Frankie Avalon got together some 20 years after their last onscreen pairing to recreate the milieu of the Beach Party movies with BACK TO THE BEACH (1987), where, this time, they’re parents, a character type completely missing from the Beach Party series. Whereas the guest stars in the earlier films represented Old Hollywood, the guest stars in BACK TO THE BEACH represented classic television (Alan Hale from “Gilligan’s Island,” Edd Byrnes from “77 Sunset Strip,” Don Adams from “Get Smart” and the cast of “Leave It to Beaver”), so there was a different kind of tone to it. I saw it on television over 20 years ago and I remember liking it but don’t recall it in much detail. Although I will say I thought Annette looked as great as ever.
Finally, Annette made a TV movie called “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story,” which aired on CBS on her 53rd birthday, October 22, 1995. Actresses played her younger self while she played her 1995 self in framing segments. I located my copy and watched it today for the first time. It’s sad and depressing and I have extremely mixed feelings about it. I don’t wonder why I waited till this moment to watch it. Too much information, particularly about her illness and the dilemma of when she should tell people about it. Three actresses play Annette in her younger years, one as a small child, one in the Mickey Mouse Club era, and one as a teen-to-adult. The Mouseketeer one, Andrea Nemeth, doesn’t look like Annette at all but is a good actress. The adult one, Eva La Rue, is both very pretty and a good actress and may not look enough like Annette to suit me but she captures something of her spirit and character. The actors they got to play Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Dick Clark and Shelley Fabares in the early scenes don’t look like them at all and are not particularly good actors either. The scene where they shoot a sequence from BEACH PARTY looks like it was shot on the cheap, completely unlike BEACH PARTY. Later on, in the 1980s scenes, Avalon plays himself in several scenes with La Rue as Annette and Clark and Fabares also suddenly play themselves in the 1980s scenes. In each case, I found the effect quite jarring. Annette plays herself in framing sequences taking place just before her daughter’s wedding in which she tells her life story to several children. At the end, during the wedding, all the real members of Annette’s family, including her parents, suddenly take over the parts played by actors. It was a bit much for me. I will say, though, that Linda Lavin, who plays Annette’s mother, is extremely good throughout.
The film also deals with Annette’s relationship with Paul Anka and the strains it put on their romance when he went off to Europe to shoot THE LONGEST DAY. Until I read the obituaries yesterday I never knew Annette and Anka had been sweethearts. Ironically, I first saw THE LONGEST DAY three weeks after seeing BEACH PARTY.
Now to send a check Annette’s Multiple Sclerosis charity. I found this on the web:
P.S. Here’s a link to a reminiscence by Stan Brooks, producer of the aforementioned TV movie: