Out of print for ages, the 1987 comedy — at once a tribute, a spoof and an unofficial sequel — is back in my life, thanks to Warner Archives throwing it a life preserver. If ever a trivia question arises asking what the first movie I ever rented from the brand-new Blockbuster Video was, answer Back to the Beach, because you’d be correct. I must have watched that thing half a dozen times in the few months that followed.
Nearly a quarter-century later, it remains infinitely watchable.
Never capital-A actors, Avalon and Funicello had charm and presence to make up for limited abilities. Both are extraordinarily game to send up their square, squeaky-clean images while simultaneously embracing them. The idea is that their characters (kinda) from those harmless sand-and-surf films of the ’60s are now married; he’s an overstressed auto dealer with a “hair helmet,” while she’s a housewife with a cabinet full of Skippy peanut butter.
They have two children, the eldest of whom (Lori Loughlin, TV’s 90210 reboot) lives on the pier in Southern California, giving them the perfect excuse to revisit their old stomping grounds. In tow is their teenage son, Bobby (Demian Slade, the paperboy from Better Off Dead who just wants his $2) a juvenile-delinquent wannabe who occasionally talks to the camera about how painfully unhip his parents are. He provides the movie with a majority of its laughs.
It ends with a surfing contest just to give it some semblance of story, but is in no hurry to get there, leisurely singing and dancing from one scene to the next. In one scene, the girls throw a pajama party; in another, Annette joins cult band Fishbone (!) for a ska number. In between, the following five kind of celebs pop up:
• past-their-prime former co-stars, from cougar Connie Stevens to “Kookie” Edd Byrnes;
• notable guitarists, including Stevie Ray Vaughn and Dick Dale, the latter with a hairstyle that’s indefensible;
• washed-up sitcom stars from Get Smart, Gilligan’s Island and Leave It to Beaver;
• Pee-wee Herman, who surfs in to cover The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”; and
• one cold-blooded murderer, in O.J. Simpson.
I do not mean to suggest that Back to the Beach represents smart, highbrow comedy; it is nothing of the sort. But every spirited minute of it radiates from the heart, and none of it is mean. It’s an utterly delightful exercise in nostalgia that’s self-referential without being self-indulgent. It’s also deserving of the wide and adoring audience it unfairly has been denied.
Seeing simultaneous release from Warner Archive is the more obscure Hello Down There. From 1969, it, too, involves a family of four visiting the ocean, with lots of disposable pop tunes and TV personalities.
In this case, the clan is headed by Tony Randall (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Janet Leigh (Psycho). He’s a marine scientist who, in order to avoid unemployment, volunteers his fam to live in the company’s onion-shaped underwater home — accessible only by submarine — for 30 days in order to prove its practicality; she’s an aquaphobe who can’t even swim. In a sign of the times, he wins her over by — brace yourself — showing her the kitchen.
It’s directed by Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon), but bears the stamp of its producer, Ivan Tors (TV’s Flipper and Daktari), which means sequences involving “funny” animals, such as a seal watching the clothes go ’round and ’round in the washing machine. On the human side of things, Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) gets an early role as the daughter’s boyfriend, who always seems to be down there to play rock ’n’ roll songs and utter dated dialogue like “We’ve been zonked, friends.”
But the vehicle belongs to Randall and Leigh, a miscast pair. She’s actually less hip than he is, which is something I thought not possible. Things degenerate into a situation reminiscent of The Money Pit, but with the added danger of drowning. On the whole, Hello Down There is cute, silly and sanitary, but also completely inconsequential. —Rod Lott