Saturday, May 14, 2011

Annette Funicello

annette funicello

CALIFORNIA has fallen on grim economic times, but there was a period not long ago when, in popular culture at least, the Golden State seemed like the best idea America had ever had. In the 1950s and ’60s, even with the Gold Rush a century past, California still had its sand and its sun and its surf to beckon the hopeful westward, and of course it had the movies too, on screens as big — and sometimes as loud — as giant waves. After the gloom and horror of the Second World War and in the midst of the cold war’s nagging anxieties, all those bright blue skies and that warm Pacific water and that clean, soft, shimmery sand looked mighty inviting. “Catch a wave,” the Beach Boys sang, “and you’re be sittin’ on top of the world.” They sounded as if they meant it.

By 1963, when “Catch a Wave” was recorded, the image of California as a paradise of leisure, especially for the young, had reached a kind of peak. Or perhaps a nadir, because that was the very year in which American International Pictures, an independent studio that specialized in low-budget exploitation fare for drive-ins, kicked off a series of California beach-party movies starring Frankie Avalon, a second-tier teen idol from South Philadelphia, and Annette Funicello, a buxom young songstress who had made her pop-culture bones as the cutest, perkiest cast member of “The Mickey Mouse Club.” The first of these films, directed by William Asher and called, imaginatively, “Beach Party,” featured a handful of terrible songs, some excruciatingly broad comedy (mostly supplied by veteran television comics like Robert Cummings, Morey Amsterdam and Harvey Lembeck) and a few truly risible surfing sequences, in which Frankie and his pals grin and bob in close-up in front of rear-projected waves.

It was awful, and its sequels — “Muscle Beach Party” (1964), “Bikini Beach” (1964), “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965), all directed by Mr. Asher — were, if anything, worse. In the last two, the comic relief is provided by the great Buster Keaton, whose characteristically melancholy expression seems, in this context, fully justified. He’s a trouper, but it’s impossible to watch his antics with any pleasure unless you’re totally unaware of who he is. The filmmakers’ assumption, of course, is that their youthful audience will in fact be blissfully ignorant of Keaton’s place in film history. And, cynical though that calculation may be, it is also weirdly appropriate, because ignorance of history was, after all, part of the idea of California too.

California was, in those days, where you went to be free of the past: for grown-ups, a place to start again, and for the young, a place to begin life unencumbered by the responsibilities and expectations of previous generations. The air on the beach was fresh and clear and new, the sand was pillowy, the waves broke endlessly, invitingly, and the bathing suits were skimpy. (Among the most powerful attractions of the ’60s beach party movies was that they were able to put a lot of flesh up on the screen without seeming, you know, Swedish.) Frankie and Annette and their crew looked happy, day and night, and their freedom from the cares and twitchy neuroses of cold war America appeared to be a direct consequence of where they lived, this sun-drenched Neverland of fun, fun, fun — at least till Daddy took the T-Bird away.

In the American International beach party cycle, though, Daddy isn’t much in evidence, and neither is Mommy. Presumably Frankie, Annette and their cronies have parents — they don’t appear to be from what were then called “broken homes”— but by this point the appeal of the California idyll more or less depended on the absence of adult supervision. In the first teen surf movie, Paul Wendkos’s “Gidget” (1959), parents were very much in the picture, fretting about whether their wave-crazed sons and daughters would paddle farther and farther away from them or come out of the water at last and settle down on the safe shores of college, career and family. After a certain amount of turbulence, and blessedly sparse music, Gidget (Sandra Dee) and her boyfriend, Moondoggie (James Darren), do finally hang up their boards; even their slightly grizzled guru, a self-proclaimed “surf bum” called Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), takes a job in the end.

By the time Frankie and Annette invaded the beach, though, the lessons in grown-up responsibility were no longer desirable, or even, perhaps, necessary: their carefree (and extremely chaste) hedonism couldn’t strike even the most fretful parent as an especially threatening sort of rebellion. The kids weren’t wearing leather, riding motorcycles, carrying switchblades, sniffing glue, getting into rumbles or entertaining peculiar political ideas. Who needed any of that, really, in this West Coast paradise?

But there was a restlessness built into surf culture, as there is in any lifestyle whose core principle is the constant repetition of a particular pleasure. The waves keep breaking, and the surfers keep paddling out to ride them, one after the other, hoping always for a larger swell, a more exhilarating glide to shore, some deeper joy.

Chasing that sort of dream is, in its own way, hard work. In 1966 the surfer-filmmaker Bruce Brown, who had been shooting documentary footage about the sport for years, had a surprising hit with a film called, beautifully, “The Endless Summer,” which traced the travels of a couple of Southern California surf fanatics circling the world in search of perfect waves. They trek to out-of-the-way beaches in Africa and Australia before winding up, inevitably, in Hawaii. And although Mr. Brown’s tone is light and jocular, and the cinematography is ravishing, there’s something a little sad about the picture too, a persistent air of mild disappointment: no waves ever quite measure up to the ones in the surf pilgrims’ heads.

In retrospect what’s remarkable about “The Endless Summer” is the extent to which the peripatetic surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, seem to carry California with them wherever they go. They’re perennially surprised by how different other places are, how odd the customs and mores of the people of, say, Ghana and Nigeria. And everywhere, Mr. August and Mr. Hynson try to teach the natives how to surf, so they can at least imagine themselves as Californians too. (They’re like a two-man Peace Corps of surfing.) Their students are game, but they do look a bit puzzled.

It couldn’t last, this sweet, hopeful California idea. By the time John Milius made his sprawling, tortured surf epic “Big Wednesday” in 1978, the skies had darkened considerably, and though the waves looked bigger than ever, the actual lives of the young Californians obsessed with seeking them out looked smaller and smaller. Just a few years later the era of the Beach Boys, Frankie and Annette and “The Endless Summer” already seemed like a golden age, an occasion of nostalgia — which is the beginning of the end of living. When Frankie and Annette returned as a middle-aged married couple to their old stomping grounds in “Back to the Beach” (1987), all they could do, in their uncomfortable adult incarnations, was parody themselves. (And not amusingly enough: self-consciousness doesn’t become them.)

Annette Funicello
Former Disney Mouseketeer Annette Funicello suffered smoke inhalation after a fire at her Encino, Calif., home Thursday. The 68-year-old actress, who has multiple sclerosis, was not seriously injured.

According to fire spokesman Erik Scott, two women--one in a wheelchair--and a man were taken to the hospital and treated for possible smoke inhalation. Funicello's ex-husband says the actress, her husband and a nurse were at home.

Funicello was America's sweetheart in the 1950s and '60s. Along with Frankie Avalon, she starred in series of popular 'beach party' moves including 'Beach Blanket Bingo' and 'How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.'

Photos from Thursday's fire reveal singed movie posters on the walls and burned holes in the roof. Investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire.

Beach party movies are gone, but surf documentaries still come out from time to time — one of the best, “Step Into Liquid” (2003), was directed by Bruce Brown’s son Dana Brown — and new technology makes the surfers’ feats seem even more awe-inspiring. (No rear projection for them.) But their quest appears increasingly quixotic. Although the ocean’s waves are cyclic, recurring, endless, and summers, when they’re over, always come back again in another year, Golden Ages somehow never do, except in the eternal, pounding breakers of the imagination. California may never be what it once was, or mean what it once meant. But wouldn’t it be nice?

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