Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mickey Rooney Blogathon – How to Stuff a Wild Bikini

What do Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Brian Donlevy, Vincent Price, Elsa Lanchester, Boris Karloff, Dorothy Lamour, and Peter Lorre all have in common? Okay, what if I throw in Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and The Kingsmen? Obviously, if you read the title of this post, you already know the answer. These are all people who had cameo roles in American International Pictures series of beach party movies.

Now, even by beach movie standards, if there is such a thing, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is pretty bad. Then you don't watch a beach movies expecting high art. You watch them for the kitsch of the Hollywood squeaky clean take on 60s surf culture. You watch for stupid, but at times, genuinely funny gags. You watch for cool 60s stuff like hot rods, motorcycles, and well, surfing. You watch for musical numbers, from Frankie and Annette to the likes of Little Stevie Wonder, The Animals, and Nancy Sinatra. You also watch for the cameos, from the top comics of the era, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, Morey Amsterdam, and old guard Hollywood stars like Basil Rathbone and Francis X. Bushman. And of course, you watch for half naked girls in bikinis.

Mickey Rooney in what's safe to say is
something less than his finest hour
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini has all of this, but still doesn't hold up to the other films. Why. Well, a lot of reasons. Frankie is pretty much missing. He's only in for about 6 minutes in a handful of shots throughout the picture (they explain he's in the South Pacific serving in the Navy Reserves). I've seen two explanations for this online. One that he was busy filming another movie, Sergeant Deadhead, and another that he wanted more money. My guess is that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Both How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sergeant Deadhead were made by the same company, so I'm guessing they couldn't afford to have Frankie star in both. 

Next, Annette was pregnant during the filming. Not that Annette ever showed that much skin in the Beach movies. Because she was under contract to Disney, they didn't even want her wearing a bikini. But in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, she's wearing loose clothing or sitting with knees up or hiding behind a prop to hide the pregnancy. So effectively, both Frankie and Annette are only halfway there.

Another thing was that rather than having the musical numbers be stand-alone performance numbers, the gang goes into a malt shop, and The Supremes are performing. In How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, most of the musical numbers are the cast singing hokey songs to advance the story. The only real musical act in the film, The Kingsmen, perform only two numbers of the dozen or so songs in the film. Oh, and by the way, neither of the two songs is, Louie Louie. Yes, you do get to see Mickey Rooney sing a couple of numbers, but still.

Surfing or lack there of. I honestly, don't think there is any surfing in the film. I would have to go back and watch it a second time to say for sure, and I'm not going to (you can't make me). They show surfboards, standing up in the sand. They drop one on I think Mickey Rooney's foot, but nobody ever rides on one. There's nobody pretending to balance on a sound stage in front of a rear projection of a wave, intercut with a top vintage surfer like Mickey Dora actually surfing. Me, I missed it.

I'm sure I could come up with more reasons, but that would sort of be like kicking a movie when it's down. Face it, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini was not a high water mark in anyone's career. I've read that Buster Keaton was unhappy, feeling that no one on the set appreciated his role in movie history. I'm sure he had a point. There was conflict between Mickey Rooney and the male lead actor, Dwayne Hickman, over Rooney try to coach Hickman on acting and Hickman not wanting to be coached.

So was it worth watching? Well, yeah. Again you get what you get in a beach movie, only in lesser degrees. The cameos were good. Brian Donlevy plays a businessman, Mickey Rooney's boss, B.D. "Big Deal" MacPherson. There's a very brief appearance by Elizabeth Montgomery during her Bewitched heyday (she did it as a favor to her husband, director of the film, William Asher). Finally, it's always a pleasure to see Buster Keaton, and this was one of his last film roles. As a bonus, the opening credits were clay animation done, by none other than Gumby creator Art Clokey. That was kind of cool.

I won't call Mickey Rooney's performance a cameo. It was more than that. He's on screen a fair amount of time. Rooney plays J. Peachmont Keane, Peachy Keene. It's a beach movie, people, what do you expect, subtle? Despite this being such a bad movie, his performance is not. Rooney made the movie for $5000 for a week's work, less than his going rate, but he needed the money to pay off a debt to the IRS. Despite this, he's pretty good in the two songs he sings. His musical numbers he sings are by far the least annoying of the bunch. Still, I'd be overstating if I tried say it was a great performance. The first time he appears onscreen, he very noticeably touches one of the bikini girl's boob while gesturing. Accident? I don't think so. I rewound and watched two or three times, and no matter how I look at it, seems to me he was copping a feel on a woman half his age.

I guess you could criticize the beach movies for the demeaning roles they gave to old Hollywood greats, but me, I don't. I feel that if older actors could pay some bills, for a week or two of work, more power to them. The entertainment industry has never had a stellar record with performers past their prime. Given the choice between a bad beach movie and today's equivalent, Celebrity Rehab. I'll take the bad beach movie any day of the week.


This post is part of The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September.  Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries.

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  1. I admit, spotting the older stars in these beach party movies is about the only thing that makes them tolerable for me. BEACH BLANKET BINGO was the first time I ever heard Buster Keaton's voice.

    1. I know Buster Keaton died within a year of making How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. I would much rather hear that he was working, even bad degrading work than find he died penniless in a dirty hotel room.

  2. I cannot resist these BEACH movies (even this one) so I was thrilled to see you'd chosen this as your topic for the blogathon. You did it justice! The write-up is as enjoyable as the movie. Thanks so much, Chris for contributing to this event!


    1. Me neither. I loved these movies as a kid, so the nostalgia is usually enough to make me watch. But now, I see the old Golden Age Hollywood people, and it's like, bonus.

  3. I LOVED these old "Beach" movies so much as a kid. I definitely remember all the campy fun of this one in particular. I still enjoy these silly flicks whenever they come on. It brings me back to those carefree days of summer as a kid, like a comfy worn-in tee shirt. Wonderful write-up, Chris! Thanks for joining us! (And I agree with you on the point regarding the dignity of these classic veteran actors working in their golden years...)

  4. Thanks, glad to jump in on these things.