In 1963, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” peaked on the charts at No. 3, and “Beach Party” became American International Picture’s highest grossing film and created the “beach party” film genre.
The 1960s is called “The Golden Age of Surfing” as Malibu brimmed with people, and the now-popular sport was working its way into music, fashion, cars and films.
From 1963 to 1968, stars like Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon caught waves up on the silver screen.
These films weren’t academy award winners. Movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo” or “Muscle Beach Party” mainly focused on silly gags, a non-threatening antagonist, and romantic mishaps and fights (everyone ends up together in the end).
In these films, there is also lots and lots of songs and dancing, so some of them are generally considered musicals, though it focuses more on rock n’ roll music styles of the time.
Larger studios released their answers to beach films but with more established stars, like Elvis in “Blue Hawaii” or Tab Hunter in “Ride the Wild Surf.” These still were filled with romance, but sometimes had a serious rivalry to overcome or a surf contest.
These movies even spun off into ski party films so we could have the sex and song in the winter season as well!
And all of these movies rode in on the wave of success from the film that is regarded as the best surf film: Gidget (1959).
For three summers (from 2015 to 2017), I explored every Gidget adaptation following that first film with Sandra Dee, as Gidget decided she wanted to surf instead of chase boys like her friends. Now, I want to turn my attention to the non-Gidget films that followed because of the surf craze Gidget created.
Malibu was home to surfers before the release of Gidget (1959), but surfing wasn’t a mainstream sport. Even when the film came out, the local surfers knew their world and sport would change.
“A bunch of us went to see the movie in Hollywood and Tubesteak (the surfer Kahuanna is based on) said ‘This is the beginning of the end. Which is was,’” said early Malibu surfer, Tom Powell in the documentary ‘Accidental Icon.’
The last Gidget feature film released was Gidget Goes to Rome in 1963, the same year the new brand of beach and surf part party movies.
These films were a bit different too. Gidget films were generally moral and sweet, while the following surf films catered more to teen audiences, focusing on sex and popular music, using taglines like “When 10,000 biceps go around 5,000 bikinis.”
Walt Disney star Annette Funicello and singer Frankie Avalon were cast together in eight American International Picture films together from Beach Party (1963) to Fireball 500 (1966).
Similar to how John Ford has his usual group of actors in films, so did American International Picture beach films: Donna Loren, Candy Johnson, Jody McCrea, or Harvey Lembeck, just to name a few.
In the midst of the teenage stars, we would also see some familiar faces like Vincent Price, Buster Keaton, Kenan Wynn, Mickey Rooney, Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone. The musical acts would be performed by Frankie and Annette, and other singers performed like “Little” Stevie Wonder or Donna Loren.
Throughout the remainder of this summer and summers to come, I’m going to look at the surfing films and their evolution past Gidget. When and why they ended: Once the 1970s came along, the surfing films were no longer popular.
Would these films have been made without Gidget? Perhaps. But the books and films may have helped bring them to the screen a bit sooner.