In My Defense of Beach Party Movies

This film analysis was written for Scratch Cinema as a leisurely watch during the middle of summer. The original post can be found here.

As the end of July approaches, moviegoers are enjoying the earlier summer blockbusters from May and June while anticipating the ones that are still yet to come. While it is easy to associate the box office of these months with superhero movies, particularly those from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that wasn’t always the case.

Even before Star Wars and Jaws, people were pulling into the drive-in theaters to watch beach party movies. This genre achieved its peak during the mid-to-late 1960s, giving great fame to Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Beach party movies would fall out of mainstream popularity until Disney Channel released Teen Beach Movie in 2013.

But are they still worth watching in the modern age?

Quentin Tarantino’s highly anticipated film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood takes place during the prominence of beach party movies. Much of an interest towards this film involves seeing how Margot Robbie portrays the late actress Sharon Tate during the filming of The Wrecking Crew. During the early years of her career, Tate played a supporting role in a beach party movie called Don’t Make Waves alongside Tony Curtis and Claudia Cardinale. 

While their previous films succeeded under the Production Code, the entertainment industry was experiencing a new era of creativity and Don’t Make Waves can be seen as part of their attempt of fitting in. The script utilizes double innuendos to convey a different kind of meaning and humor. For example, Laura Califatti (Claudia Cardinale) says to Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) that  “tonight, you will sleep here with me.” English-speaking audiences realize the implications of sexual intercourse while Laura, an Italian speaker who frequently forgets her words in English, does not understand beyond the literal meaning of sleeping under the same house.

Beach party movies were created to provide escapism for an audience who are unable to visit the beach or for anybody else who doesn’t want to deal with the problems of sunburn, hot sand, pesky seagulls, and more. Don’t Make Waves also reinforces the American idea that freedom is experienced alongside with the enjoyment of the outdoors. The audience already begins this association during the beginning credits when the movie’s theme song plays the lyrics of “Take a ride out West to find that freedom that you crave / Kick that nine to five, don’t let them make you a slave.”

The beach is thought to be a place of great belonging where everybody can come together and enjoy the water, regardless of where they originate. Don’t Make Waves diversifies its characters beyond surfers who were born and raised in Southern California. Carlo comes to the beach from New York City with a metropolitan attitude that greatly clashes with Laura’s ideals and Italian culture.

The comedy style of Don’t Make Waves is inherently physical and almost borders into slapstick humor. The beauty of the SoCal surroundings frequently contrasts with the absurd and unfixable situations that the characters find themselves within. In the first twenty minutes of the film, Carlo’s car runs backwards towards the bottom of a hill after being attached to Laura’s own, later catching on fire after Laura lights a cigarette and subsequently losing all of his possessions. When the audience is later convinced that Carlo will live out his SoCal dream by getting a job and leasing a beautiful apartment near the beach, a mudslide proves otherwise. 

Beach party movies are meant to be fun; they’re not packed with philosophical questions that make the viewers contemplate their presence within the universe hours after finishing the film. It feels better that beach party movies acknowledge their limited depth rather than trying to be something that they’re not.

Beach party movies do deserve a fair share of criticism, especially towards the scenes with female characters that bathe in the male gaze. Malibu (Sharon Tate) is the main focus of the male gaze for Don’t Make Waves. Her character doesn’t serve much of a purpose besides as a potential love interest of Carlo, which feels frustrating due to Sharon Tate’s obvious talent and her overall short career. The film features a scene dedicated to Malibu jumping on a trampoline that serves no plot importance.. The audience already knows that he feels an attraction to her.

While the future of beach party movies doesn’t look particularly bright, they are still worth a revisit for the sake of feel-good entertainment. Audiences are also able to see an image of the past, that isn’t necessarily accurate, but one that cannot be completely reenacted for the new age.