Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ride the Wild Surf (Columbia, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie I hoped would be considerably more entertaining than it turned out to be; Ride the Wild Surf, a 1964 attempt by a major studio (Columbia) to do their own version of a beach party movie. It’s a pretty straightforwardly plotted film about a trio of continental U.S. surfers who fly to Hawai’i to surf the big waves at Waimea Bay, supposedly the all-time primo surf site in the world (even though the bay, or what we see of it, doesn’t look like much more than a small cove): Jody Wallis (Fabian, top-billed), Chase Colton (Peter Brown) and Steamer Lane (Tab Hunter). Jody is the proverbial (straight) guy who doesn’t want to be tied down; Chase is the heir of a major Hawai’ian family who wants to go to college in the continental U.S. instead of face the ribbing he’d have to deal with at a school formed by and named for his family; and Steamer loves the surfing life but also wants to find the right girl (odd, given that one of Hollywood’s legendary real-life Gays is playing him!) and settle down.

There’s supposedly a sort of official-unofficial surf contest at Waimea every year — the person who’s able to ride the big waves the longest gets a specially made surfboard as a prize — and of course Our Heroes enter it and also attract the attentions of some of the girls who hang out at the beach. (I was hoping for a female character who would actually enter the contest á la Gidget, but no such luck.) Ride the Wild Surf suffers from a peculiar in-between status, an attempt to combine a straight surfing documentary like Bruce Brown’s legendary The Endless Summer (released two years later but filmed over a 10-year period) with a plotted beach movie — down to the necessity to clad the stars in exactly the same swimwear as the stunt surfers in the action scenes (Pat ‘Sonny’ Gleason, Phil Sauers, Mickey Dora, Greg Noll and Dick Ziker), including giving Fabian a nice two-toned red-and-yellow number that showed off his ass very well. (Aside from Tab Hunter, who was getting a bit long in the tooth for these sorts of roles, none of the males in this movie are all that hot; they’re easy enough on the eyes but this is not the sort of movie that is going to give straight women or Gay men much in the way of sexual thrills.)

The long-shot footage of the professional surfers is by far the most exciting element in the movie; the problem is it’s not matched all that well to the main action — in the newly shot footage both sky and ocean are a far more azure sort of blue than they are in the real deal, and the scenes of the actors posed in front of process-screen images of waves that are supposed to make them look like they’re actually surfing are as obvious as anything American International came up with. Nor are the romantic intrigues all that interesting — Steamer’s story arc (he falls in love with local rich girl Lily Kilua — her last name is pronounced “Kahlua” and one wonders why she’s named after a drink — played by Susan Hart, and hires on as a ranch hand to help the Kiluas take care of their horses, appropriate because that was Tab Hunter’s favorite avocation in real life; but her mom, played by Catherine McLeod in an authoritative, fervent, powerful manner that’s the only real piece of acting in the movie, is against their match because Lily’s dad was also a beach bum and he left them three years earlier for Bora Bora) is hackneyed but at least interesting, while the other two (Chase gets dared to do a dangerous dive into a lagoon by his girlfriend, kooky martial-arts student Augie Poole — played by Barbara Eden in what was probably one of her more embarrassing credits — suggesting that writer-producers Jo and Art Napoleon had seen A Damsel in Distress; and Jody and Shelley Fabares as Bree Matthews — quite a contrast with Jane Fonda’s call-girl role in Klute, the only other film character I can think of named “Bree”! — have a relatively carefree relationship that goes off the rails only briefly when Jody drains most of the gunpowder out of a spectacular fireworks rocket she wanted to set off in his honor on New Year’s Eve) are just dull.

It also doesn’t help that, unlike the American International beach parties, Ride the Wild Surf is not a musical; virtually all the music we hear is underscoring in the instrumental version of “surf music,” by a studio band led by guitarist Tommy Tedesco, a perfectly fine player but several ticks down from Dick Dale in the excitement department. The Napoleons even commissioned a title song from Jan and Dean (Jan Berry wrote it with Brian Wilson and Roger Christian) but stupidly didn’t use it until the closing credits — had it opened the film as well, it would at least have started things with more of a bang and benefited the film artistically and commercially. Ride the Wild Surf simply isn’t as fun as the movies that were its model — as schlocky as the American International beach-fests were, with their over-the-hill actors playing disapproving adults and their campy villains contrasting oddly with the dewy-eyed innocence of Annette Funicello (who was under contract to Walt Disney, who as a condition of loaning her out stipulated that she could not wear a bikini — so there she is in a one-piece all-over swimsuit while the other girls in the movie are showing off midriffs), they’re a good deal more fun than this earnest but rather plodding attempt to wed surf documentary and beach movie.