AIP takes a break from the beach with Ski Party, a stepchild of sorts to the Beach Party franchise. Most of the gang is missing, and those who do show up – Frankie Avalon, Deborah Walley, and Bobbi Shaw, plus Annette Funicello in a cheeky cameo – play all-new characters. It’s a chance for the studio to capitalize on the series’ name while trying something a little different.
Well, not too different. We still get a handful of musical numbers, the cartoon chaos (while dialed down) is still in play, and, of course, the whole thing ends with the Hondells shredding some tunes on the beach. But for the most part, AIP bucks the Frankie and Annette formula, replacing it with something a little more sitcommy.
That style comes mainly from director Alan Rafkin and screenwriter Robert Kaufman, both veterans of television comedy making their feature debuts here. Both would go on to bigger things (Rafkin with several Don Knotts features such as The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Kaufman with Freebie and the Bean), but for now, it’s their small screen sensibility that sets the tone. Despite the widescreen photography, the scale is modest, even cramped at times, and only once, in a smart bit of cross-cutting that allows the opening scene to take place across various settings, does the movie attempt to get adventurous with its format. The rest plays wholly mid-60s small screen, right down to the use of the Dom Casual font in the credits.
The story kicks off at college, where Todd (Avalon) and Craig (Dwayne Hickman, fresh off Dobie Gillis) obsess over why their romantic rival, the dashing Freddie (Aron Kincaid), is so successful with the ladies while they’re barely able to land a second double date with Linda (Walley) and Barbara (Yvonne Craig, rowr). Their curiosity compels them to join Freddie as he leads the school’s ski club on a vacation to a resort up north; it doesn’t hurt that Linda and Barbara – and a half dozen or so other gals – are also taking the trip. Once there, the boys (apparently ditching the idea of studying Freddie) disguise themselves as English girls “Jane” and “Nora” in order to get closer to, and get a better understanding of, the fairer sex.
That’s right: it’s a Some Like It Hot rip-off so brazen, the screenplay name-checks it a couple times. It’s hardly as clever as Billy Wilder’s classic, especially when aping some familiar story beats, including the bit where Freddie falls for “Nora.” For the most part, none of this goes anywhere, and it plays out with the sort of broad, lame sense of humor you’d expect to be accompanied by a laugh track.
Except… well, some of it really, really works. There are moments in the middle of all of this lamebrainery that we get the true Beach Party spirit, and things perk up. Freddie’s obsession over “Nora” is taken to an absurd degree, as if Rafkin and Kaufman, realizing they could never match the sublime dryness of Joe E. Brown and “Nobody’s perfect,” opted to go 180 degrees the other way, into the realm of bold, loud, outrageous.
Then there’s the bit where Todd and Craig find themselves locked in the girls’ bedroom after hours. A fourth wall-breaking discussion occurs regarding the movie’s target audience, whose average age determines the appropriate course of action for the horny yet well-behaved boys. (And that’s just one of the many ingenious nods to the camera sprinkled throughout.)
And so on. For every scene where Avalon looks bored playing Todd, we get a scene where he’s obviously having a ball playing “Jane,” in the same sense playing Potato Bug in Bikini Beach freed him to loosen up. For every clumsy set piece like the one involving an airborne Todd in an over-inflated snowsuit (don’t ask), we get a silly (and entirely unexplained) running gag in which a polar bear (or a guy in a polar bear suit, maybe? Like I said: unexplained) wanders into frame, often yodeling, sometimes whistling at the ladies. For every middling sequence where Todd fumbles while pitching woo with the Swedish ski instructor (Shaw), we get a demented Robert Q. Lewis as the lodge manager who devolves into full-out crazy. Lewis goes for broke with his character’s breakdown, lifting these bits up from their limp set-up (the guys discover he’s in therapy and prank him to quicken his insanity, har har) with a much needed energy and commitment to the gags.
Not only does all of this keep the movie from getting stale, it also helps it from getting bogged down by its rather questionable gender issues. After all, the main message of Ski Party seems to be “guys can’t keep it in their pants, and ain’t that a hoot?” There’s an uncomfortable early sequence where Todd is practically molesting Linda, who won’t put out while they’re parking, and it’s played as a goof. Another early scene has Freddie fighting off a horned-up co-ed, the implied joke being “ha ha, it’s usually the girl who says no!” Later, the gals sing “We’ll Never Change Them,” a bouncy tune about girls getting used to boys being boys. And by the end of the film, rather than get furious over the various levels of deceit, the ladies apologize to the guys for not being so understanding about their needs.
Granted, everyone remains virginal throughout – remember, we have the average age of the target audience to consider – and that helps dilute the stickiness of the dated gender politics. But still, Ski Party has sex on its mind far more than any Frankie and/or Annette film since the first Beach Party. Despite some awkward workarounds in the script to keep things kid-friendly (e.g., the college trip is chaperoned and gender-segregated with the intensity of a junior high dance), this is ultimately a movie about guys trying to get laid, which we haven’t really seen in the series, not even with Beach Party’s “sex study” storyline. Rafkin and Kaufman strain themselves at times to find the balance between sex romp and clean fun.
Maybe that’s how we got a movie where Lesley Gore sings “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” and James Brown wails “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Ski Party wants to have the attitude of both songs, raucous yet wholesome, wild yet innocent. It doesn’t quite find the middle ground it seeks, but it’s silly enough in the right spots for us not to mind too much.