Back in the 1960s, the beach movie was all the rage for teenagers. Sun, surf, and music abounded in these fun flicks that almost always took place on the warm coast of California. There’s nothing like a beach movie to get you in the mood to throw on a suit of your own and hit the waves. If you’re looking for something to get pumped for a beach vacation –– or trying to drown out rainy weather with the sound of waves –– check out these movies.
Before we hop into the recommendations, it’s safe to say that a lot of kids might not even know what a beach movie is. After all, while the genre experienced a huge peak in the 60s, it fizzled out after. Let’s take a quick look at what contributed to the popularity of these movies, and what made them so appealing in the first place.
The History of Beach Movies
Before the teen film genre as we know it today really took off, there were a string of popular films in the 1960s known as beach movies. Before this, most teen films of the 1950s centered around juvenile delinquency, like the famous Rebel Without a Cause. In contrast to those, beach movies were a much more fun and clean approach to adolescent life.
Escape From Social and Political Turmoil
In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, there were a lot of anxieties and turmoil present in US society in the early and mid-1960s. It seemed the US was moving from one world war to the next.
In contrast to this, beach movies provided pure escapist fantasies. Most of them were comedic romps featuring popular music, romance, slapstick, and celebrity cameos. Even though a lot of them feature a non-stop party, they excluded drinking, drugs, and any overtly sexual behavior.
Revolutions and Youth Culture
Almost half of Americans in the 1960s were under 18 because of the post-war baby boom. During this time, young people were increasingly carving out their own space in society. Revolutionary movements such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Sexual Revolution saw many teenagers engaging in social matters and rebelling against convention, as well as against their parents.
Young people felt more open-minded and craved independence. Many adults pushed back, causing a rift between the adult and teen world that would define American society for decades to come.
1960s Teen Pop Culture
In the early 1960s, the biggest stars of the 1950s, like Elvis Presley and Marylin Monroe, were fading away. New musical artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles became the music of a generation.
The Beach Boys were also rising in prominence, paralleling the popularity of surf culture that was partially responsible for the beach movie. Along with social upheaval, this shift in popular culture caused the emergence of teens as their own demographic. Beach movies were some of the first firms that were marketed solely to teenagers.
1960s Beach Movies To Watch
Enough with the history lesson! Let’s move on to the most defining movies of this genre and why they’re a blast to see on TV. From precursors like Gidget to genre-benders like Ride the Wild Surf and the contemporary Teen Beach Movie, here’s a list of beach movies you don’t want to miss.
Right at the dawn of the 1960s, Gidget was perhaps the first of the beach movie subgenre. It’s based on real-life surfer girl Kathy Kohner, whose father Frederick Kohner wrote a novel about her called “Gidget (The Little Girl With Big Ideas).” He sold the film rights to Columbia Pictures, which made not one but three movies based on the popular book, as well as a TV show.
The Plot: Francine –– nicknamed Gidget, played by Sandra Dee –– is on summer vacation with her girlfriends, but laments that all they want to do is chase boys. During her excursions to the beach, Gidget finds a love for surfing, develops a friendship with beach bum The Big Kahuna, and falls for a young surfer herself.
What’s To Love: Gidget (both the character and its real-life muse) is often credited with bringing surfing into popular teenage culture. The movie that sparked the phenomenon is a must-watch! It might just inspire you and your grandkids to don your bathing suits and hit the beach yourselves.
Beach Party (1963)
Starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, this is the movie that really kicked off the popularity of the beach movie genre. It spawned several sequels that all achieved popularity in their own right. This movie was also responsible for a spike in sales for bikinis and surfboards.
The Plot: Frankie and Dolores are two teens enjoying themselves on a Southern California beach with their friends, and who are occasionally bothered by a motorcycle gang who plot against them. Romance and jealousy are in the air with the arrival of a professor with whom Dolores becomes infatuated.
What’s To Love: You can’t go wrong with the original! This is the quintessential beach movie, complete with dancing, cheesy fights, and lots of surfing. If you’re planning on watching this movie’s many sequels, you don’t wanna miss out on what started it all!
Muscle Beach Party (1964)
This is the first sequel to the famous Beach Party movie. Though it follows a similar formula as the first, it ups the ante in a lot of ways.
The Plot: Frankie and Dee Dee (known as Dolores in the first film) are excited about more beach party fun, but a group of buff bodybuilders causes all kinds of trouble for them. The introduction of a spoiled young rich woman causes a further rift between the teen couple along the way.
What’s To Love: This sequel features more music and celebrity cameos than the last one. Even little ones might recognize the voice of Don Rickles from Toy Story, or a young Stevie Wonder in this flick.
Bikini Beach (1964)
Bikini Beach is the third in the Beach Party franchise. This movie has the same catchy tunes and romantic rivalries as the other two, all the while nodding to the timeless musical sensation of The Beatles.
The Plot: Frankie and Dee Dee’s favorite beach vacation is threatened when a land developer plans to turn their beloved beach into a retirement home. To top it all off, Frankie gets jealous when British rock star “the Potato Bug” tries to get friendly with Dee Dee.
What’s To Love: Apart from the fun in the sun central to all the Beach Party movies, viewers will get a kick out of Frankie Avalon’s dual role here as a John Lennon knockoff. Some excitement is also in-store with a climactic drag race.
Pajama Party (1964)
This film sees Frankie Avalon’s presence replaced by that of an alien played by young Tommy Kirk –– a bizarre premise, sure, but a welcome twist on the genre. This movie also sees the return of motorcycle gang member –– and beach party antagonist –– Eric von Zipper.
The Plot: Teenage Martian Go Go comes to Earth to prepare for a Martian Invasion, where he meets a friendly yet eccentric widow whose fortune is threatened by her shady neighbor. His plans to invade Earth are complicated by his infatuation for the beach and Earthling girl Connie.
What’s To Love: Old movie buffs will be able to spot comedy legend Buster Keaton in the role of Chief Rotten Eagle! That’s enough to guarantee a good time.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Frankie Avalon returns to his starring role in this addition to the Beach Party franchise. Despite not being the first of its kind, many consider Beach Blanket Bingo to be the shining pinnacle of beach movies, so this one is not to be missed.
The Plot: At the behest of singing sensation Sugar Kane’s agent, Frankie, Dee Dee and their friends prepare for a skydiving stunt. Of course, Eric von Zipper and his biker gang are back again to stir up trouble. Romance and jealousy abound as things get tricky on all sides.
What’s To Love: This movie has a ton of great comedic bits, slapstick humor, and some of the best songs of the genre. For the fantasy fans out there, this flick also features a lovely mermaid who has a romance of her own.
How To Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
This is the last of the Beach Party films to star Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon (who spends very little time on the screen). It’s a bit more mature than the last few, feeling with the growth and longevity of their relationship. The setting itself is more sophisticated, too, as a cruise ship is added to the mix.
The Plot: While Frankie is off on Naval Reserve duty, he frets that Dee Dee might not stay loyal to him. He enlists the help of a witch doctor, who inadvertently causes the beach to turn upside down at the arrival of a new beach beauty.
What’s To Love: Enjoy this send-off of Frankie and Dee Dee’s characters along with the comedic talents of Buster Keaton. Mickey Rooney adds to the fun in his guest-starring role as a campy ad executive.
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966)
Many consider this the last of the beach party films, though it is decidedly different from the rest in a lot of its elements. Instead of a beach, we get a pool, and instead of surfer boys and girls, we get a ghost! In classic Beach Party fashion, we do get an appearance by Eric von Zipper and his biker gang.
The Plot: Hiram Stokely (played by film legend Boris Karloff) is a ghost who has one day to perform a good deed to ensure his passage to heaven. With the help of his deceased girlfriend Cecily, Hiram must stop a scheming lawyer from getting control of his fortune. All the while, the true heirs to Hiram’s fortune throw a pool party at his mansion, with plenty of hijinks ahead.
What’s To Love: Fans of the genre will welcome this spooky twist to the usual daytime delights. But not to worry –– while there is some ghostly haunting involved, the movie is far from scary. It’s perfect to throw on as summer transitions into Halloween season.
Ride the Wild Surf (1964)
In contrast to most other films of the genre, Ride the Wild Surf was actually more of a drama than a comedy. For this reason, many critics hailed it as being on another level entirely than its campier counterparts.
The Plot: Three college pals excitedly head to Hawaii, gearing up for the annual surfing competition. While intent on beating the reigning champion, they happen to meet and fall in love with three lovely girls along the way.
What’s To Love: This film takes itself a bit more seriously, foregoing several musical numbers for romantic drama as well as impressive shots of waves and surfing stunts. If you’re a lover of sports movies, this is a sure bet.
Catalina Caper (1967)
One of the few beach party movies not distributed by American International Pictures, this flick takes a crime twist on the genre. Tommy Kirk returns to the beach genre after having starred in Pajama Party just a few years prior.
The Plot: Teenager Don Pringle spends half his time dancing on cruises and beaches with his surfer friends, but that changes when an ancient Chinese scroll is stolen. Pringle and his gang try to solve this heist and get back the scroll, but not without some music and romance along the way.
What’s To Love: The plot in this movie takes a backseat to the groovy tunes of rock legend Little Richard, as well as the Cascades and Carol Connors. For kids who crave some action and adventure, this is a go-to.
Teen Beach Movie (2013)
This 2013 Disney Channel original isn’t technically a movie from the 1960s, but it pays homage to those classic flicks we know and love. Besides, your grandkids might appreciate you taking the time to indulge in something from their generation. It’s the best of both worlds!
The Plot: Two lovestruck teenagers on the verge of a breakup are transported into a cheesy beach musical from the 60s. When they end up messing with the plot, they have to mend the relationships of the movie’s characters, as well as their own.
What’s To Love: This movie is complete with everything kids love in a musical: big cheesy dance numbers, a few goofy laughs, a sweet romance, and tons of fun in the sun! Equal parts homage and satire, it blends the old and the new to create a great time.
Teen Beach 2 (2015)
The sequel to the Disney Channel hit Teen Beach Movie brings back beloved characters for another loving send-up of the beach movie genre. This is a great flick to round off a 1960s movie marathon as it plays with the tropes we know and love.
The Plot: Summer lovebirds Brady and Mack return to school to find that, amongst the stress of classes and scrutiny of their friends, their romance has new hurdles to face. On top of that, they must become mentors when the main characters from their favorite beach musical West Side Story suddenly appear in the real world. Back in Wet Side Story, the film world is in turmoil from their absence.
What’s To Love: Similar to the first Teen Beach Movie, this flick features over-the-top fun musical numbers, an endearing romance, and hilarious laughs that kids are sure to get a kick out of. Just be sure to watch the original first –– you don’t want to get stuck in sequel confusion!
The End of the Beach Movie Era
By the late 1960s, the beach movie era was quickly coming to a close. A lot of the stars of these movies had grown up and moved on –– and so had the audience. The last of the beach movies were released to little box office success, and so the subgenre was largely abandoned by Hollywood. However, we still have a ton of these movies to look back on and enjoy today!
Pro Tip: Why not enjoy these movies on the beach? Throw on that beach cover-up, rent a projector, gather up a few picnic blankets, and enjoy!