Rather than run out of steam this deep into the franchise – especially after the momentum-killing off-shoot Pajama Party – Beach Blanket Bingo reinvigorates the series. This is a lively cinematic party, doubling down on the anarchy of Bikini Beach (like that film, Bingo was written by Leo Townsend and director William Asher) and giving everybody, especially the supporting players, a chance to shine with a wide variety of subplots that miraculously fit together into a tight, cohesive whole.
The only thing missing1, oddly enough, is the surfing. We’re given no reason this time out for the gang’s presence at the beach; they’re simply there, crammed together in a shared house (the girls sleep upstairs, as advertised by a banner reading “Heaven’s above”), and while they spend plenty of time on the beach, they rarely get in the water. Except, that is, when they get involved with a publicity stunt featuring singer Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans, with her voice dubbed by Jackie Ward in two musical numbers), whom Frankie believes has rescued after a skydiving “accident” that’s really just the latest ploy from her scheming manager, the improbably named Bullets (Paul Lynde, at his Paul Lyndiest).
Smartly, the script makes no effort to use Sugar Kane as a wedge between Frankie and Dee Dee. (After all, we’ve already been there.) The singer makes friends with the gang but spends most of the film as the object of Eric Von Zipper’s affection. This leads to a storyline that would be creepy if it weren’t so dang goofy: Von Zipper sneaks into Candy’s house in the middle of the night and kidnaps her, but it turns out she’s cool with it. She actually likes the big stupid! His gang doesn’t take to her, though, and they team up with Von Zipper’s rival South Dakota Slim (Timothy Carey!) to kidnap her again, this time for real, complete with tying her to the saw mill, Perils of Pauline-style.
We know it’s Perils of Pauline-style because the characters name check the title a handful of times. It’s one of the script’s rare hiccups, nudging us too far and overselling the joke. But no matter – the goofball silent film homage that results one-ups the end of Bikini Beach. It darn well two-ups it.
(This series is obsessed with silent comedy, which was enjoying a cultish resurgence at the time. Buster Keaton returns for his second appearance in the franchise, again chasing Bobbi Shaw, and here, the film grants him plenty of leeway for his particular brand of physical humor, set, naturally, to old-timey picture show piano noodling.)
And that’s just one plot thread. Another finds Bonehead (AIP felt “Deadhead” could be a marketable name elsewhere, so they changed Jody McCrea’s character’s name here; his gleeful idiocy remains) falling in love with Lorelai (Marta Kristen), who turns out to be a mermaid. Surprisingly, this subplot isn’t really played for laughs (although there are some clever jokes mixed in); instead, Asher and Townsend aim for sweetness, allowing McCrea to play up Bonehead’s naïve gentleness. The result is great stuff.
Meanwhile, Frankie and Dee Dee decide to take up skydiving – with an assist from Don Rickles as “Big Drop” – which leads the two to bicker a little as Dee Dee insists she prove herself as an independent woman. It’s a nice move up from her days worrying over Frankie; now he can worry over her.
Oh, and then there’s the spat between second banana couple Steve (John Ashley) and Bonnie (Deborah Walley), which leads to some of the film’s weirder moments. (And for this film, that’s saying something.) Bonnie takes a liking to Frankie; Frankie’s not interested; Steve gets jealous anyway; Bonnie goes nuts over the rejection. Her actions toward Frankie are plenty demented, yet the ensuing resolution are rushed through so hastily, I’m tempted to guess Asher was growing tired of the idea of yet another love triangle and just wanted to get back to the nonsense with Don Rickles.
And what nonsense! Here, Rickles is let loose and earns a looooong stretch mid-movie where he does his insult comedy schtick to the cast. It’s great fun to watch as he tears down Avalon (he’s too old!) and Funicello (she’s too dull!) to their faces, and they gotta take it because it’s part of the movie. Funicello looks like she’s loving it; Avalon, not so much – which only makes it funnier.
Throughout all of this, the movie makes time for nine songs, including some of the best in the franchise. Donna Loren nails it with “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” Funicello and Avalon share a lovely duet, The Hondells tear through two tunes, and even Harvey Lembeck gets to churn out an odd yet endearing show tune-esque number with his biker gang.
Asher’s greatest feat in the franchise may very well be getting all of these asides and subplots and throwaway moments to gel. Despite the bedlam, the film is tightly structured and smartly paced, the director spinning an absurd number of plates to great effect. Bingo, arguably the most famous of the franchise, never slows down, never misses a beat, never stops being anything but great, great fun. It’s a perfect party.