“Is it anything like a rattlesnake hunt?”
I find no shame in admitting my love of the AIP Beach Party series. Well, not the whole series. Like, 4 ¾ of the core seven. By the time 1967 had come around the style, less than a decade old if you count the Gidget films, was having its last gasp.
I tend to blame AIP, despite hitting the highest notes of the style with Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo and most of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, the studio really rode the genre into the ground. Going beyond the core, AIP had 12 movies that could be loosely categorized as ‘Beach Party’ formula films released between 1963 and 1967. Aside from the ones I mentioned above, only Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine rates a mention.
The weakness of the formula popped up pretty early in the AIP beach cycle. Pajama Party was 4th of the core 7, and it is abysmal. William Asher wasn’t the director, Don Weis was. Frankie Avalon wasn’t the romantic interest for Annette, it was recently released from Disney Tommy Kirk. While plot is often dismissed in the genre, Pajama Party-which was another money maker for AIP-shows plot does matter to the genre. The movie has some redeeming features: Buster Keaton and Bobbi Shaw make their first appearances, Dorothy Lamour’s Where Did I Go Wrong number is a hoot, and the Von Zipper gang is always worth a few laughs even in a lackluster outing. But the story crosses over several layers of ridiculousness to the point where Elsa Lanchester talking to the ghost of her husband seems fairly routine.
It would be easy to take a shot at Tommy Kirk and put the great deal of the blame on his shoulder, but 1963 Tommy Kirk was still a bankable actor with a future. Even if Frankie had been the lead, and not just a crappy cameo in Pajama Party, this would not be a successful movie. The cast, Tommy Kirk included, is about the only thing AIP got right with Pajama Party.
Flash to Crown International Picture’s 1967 release Catalina Caper (the 3 biker films MST3K riffed were CIP releases, as was Beast of Yucca Flats). Tommy Kirk was no longer a bankable star, just an actor battling drug addiction and getting bad advice from his agent. And still, he is nowhere near the worst thing about the movie. Catalina Caper recycles the AIP formula to the point they could have been sued for plagiarism. There are so many exact parallels between CC and the AIP movies. Tommy is the Frankie. Brian (Charlie Moss) Culter is Jody McRea. Venita (Miss Bunny) Wolf is Deborah Walley. Ulla (Creepy Girl) Stromstedt is Annette. Joe (Larry) Beggs plays the Don Rickles part. Peter (Tad Duval) Duryea is the John Ashley of the group. Heck, Robert (Fingers O’Toole) Donner replaces Buster Keaton for slapstick fun and Carol (singer ‘Book of Love’) Connors is Donna Loren’s movie twin!
But the worst decision made with the movie was the choice of director. A genre about spontaneity and youth was put in the hands of Lee Sholem, a man known for frightening efficiency. He follows the formula perfectly and his dedication to on time and under budget shows. Actors either staring off into space or having their reactions delayed an extra unnatural beat. With the AIP crew, a director could have probably gotten away with letting the old hands direct themselves. This cast, not so much.
There are so many differing levels of commitment in the actors. Joe Beggs and Del Moore go over the top. Tommy Kirk is playing more to the middle of the comedy and mystery angles. I’m not saying a better director could have made a great movie out of Catalina Caper, but someone who wanted to do more than just meet a schedule could have made a better movie out of Catalina Caper.
Odds and Ends
Cut for the SOL: A lot of scuba diving. Like two extended scuba sequences. The fight on the boat at the end for the scrolls was longer in the unriffed version.
Cinematographer Ted Mikels directed MST3K entry The Girl in the Gold Boots and CT riffed The Doll Squad.
Also in 1967, Tommy Kirk appeared in the other ‘last of the beach party films’ It’s a Bikini World. He also was in the first of his two Larry Buchanan films, Mars Needs Women, that year.
Titles considered were: Never Steal Anything Wet and Scuba Party. Both those titles match the songs sung by Mary Wells over the credits and Little Richard hopped up on goofballs.
Watchablity: 2 of 5. I really wanted to like this movie, being a fan of the genre. But it just falls flat in so many ways. Could have been better than Pajama Party or the Ghost and the Invisible Bikini, but the energy needed for this genre isn’t there. The AIP movies always had movement, this movie had standing still. It is the kind of movie I’ll watch with something as part of a double feature, not on its own.
Missing the Riffs: 2 of 5. This was an experiment I avoided for a long time, but I dug it once I gave it a chance. I’d rather do the riffed version.