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5 Essential Annette Funicello Movies (And They’re Not All At The Beach)

5 Essential Annette Funicello Movies (And They're Not All At The Beach)

Within the past few days or so, we have heard about the deaths of Roger Ebert and “Queen of Prep” Lilly Pulitzer.
Following the rule of threes, we have also lost one of America’s sweethearts. Original
Disney teen sensation and “Beach Party
star Annette Funicello passed away yesterday, due to complications from multiple sclerosis. Discovered at the
age of 12 by Walt Disney, Funicello
went on to be unarguably the most popular Mouseketeer (6,000 fan letters a week) in the newly formed “Mickey Mouse Club“ and to
appear in such Disney classics as “The
Shaggy Dog
.” By this time, Funicello was also releasing pop hits left
and right, including “Tall Paul,” “First Name Initial,” and “Pineapple
Princess.” After outgrowing her Mouseketeer sweater, to the notice of young boys around the country, she moved onto the series of films she is
probably most famous for, the “Beach Party” movies. 

With the smash hit “Beach
Party,” Funicello and onscreen love interest Frankie Avalon became instant ’60s icons and spawned a whole genre
of party films that mixed sand and surf. Playing the fun-loving albeit wholesome Dee Dee, girls wanted to be her friend and boys wanted to go steady with her. In this role, Annette set the trends in America for two-piece bathing suits
(eventually donning the scandalous bikini) and immovable big hair (thanks to
cans and cans of hairspray). If you’re not that familiar with the films (and
you should be after reading this), you may be with the parodies that poked fun
at Funicello’s “wholesome teenager” image, including a Princess Leia Beach Party
sketch on SNL
, a line in the “Grease” song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” (“Keep your filthy paws off my silky draws, would
you pull that crap with Annette?”), and if you look closely enough, her picture appears in
both “Hairspray

After the surf craze hit its peak, Funicello and Avalon
toured the country as a singing act and re-teamed onscreen for the self-parodying
1987 “Back to the Beach.” Shortly
after, Funicello’s health began to fail and she announced in 1992 that she was
suffering from multiple sclerosis. Taking this in stride and with her signature can-do attitude, Funicello started the Annette
Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Disorders
and sought to aid the
search of a cure for multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases.

Whether she was your first crush as a peppy Mouseketeer or you remember her fondly as a spokeswoman for Skippy peanut butter, she will be sorely missed and will continue
to be beloved as an Americana icon. Below are the general overviews of five Annette Funicello movies that will live on….   

Babes in Toyland” (1961)
Every holiday season, this film can be found on some cable
network and is usually shown a few too many times. Originally a box-office
failure, “Babes in Toyland“ has
become a Christmas classic. Beginning with a talking goose named Sylvester (clearly a hand puppet), it’s a yarn about two
nursery rhyme characters who are about to get married, although the local
miser tries to sabotage the impending nuptials at every turn. Annette Funicello plays the
darling bride-to-be, Mary Contrary, and object of evil Barnaby’s desire (played by post-Oz Ray Bolger), who goes as far to send two goons to steal her family’s sheep and get rid
of her groom, Tom Piper (Tommy Sands).
Musical numbers include a puzzled Annette singing in “I Can’t Do The Sum,” a
duet between her and Tommy in “Just A Toy,” and Annette
singing and dancing with a creepy Bolger in “Castle in Spain.” While
this film definitely does not gain points for female empowerment (see the songs
just mentioned), it can still be fun for kids with toy soldiers coming to life,
a shrinking machine and a multitude of Mother Goose characters, including
Little Bo-Peep and Willie Winkie. Reportedly, this was Annette Funicello’s favorite of all
her films and a must-see for any Annette fan.

Beach Party” (1963)
Meant to be merely a low-budget imitation
of Elvis Presley’s musical movies popular at the time, “Beach Party” took on a life of its own as the first in a wave of
decade-defining beach party movies. The plot concerns a middle-aged
anthropology professor (Robert Cummings)
who finds his next case study at the beach – “the wild mating habits” of teenagers.
His subjects include Dolores aka Dee Dee (Annette Funicello) and Frankie aka
The Big Kahuna (Frankie Avalon) along with local biker gang leader Eric Von
Zipper (Harvey Lembeck, who would have been pushing 40) and other
surfing teenagers. After the professor knocks Von Zipper out cold, Dolores
develops a crush on him that makes Frankie retaliate by flirting with a
Hungarian waitress (Eva Six). Don’t
worry, Dolores and Frankie end up together, the professor finds a mate (Dorothy Malone), and there are four more films in the official series, all following a similar formula. Contrary to popular belief that she was not allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit, Funicello
does wear a pink one in this film and helped bring the fashion to American shores. Tunes include the theme “Beach Party Tonight,” Annette singing to herself in a mirror in “Treat Him Nicely,” and “Promise Me Anything (But Give Me Love).” Keep your eyes peeled for Vincent Price playing Big Daddy and listen for his line, “Bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swinging!”

Bikini Beach (1964)
Originally written for The
, the third “Beach Party” movie Bikini Beach  was reconstructed to fit the “Annette and Frankie” mold and sees another adult puzzling over these beach bum
kids and their habits – “imagine… boys and girls sleeping on the beach
side-by-side, unchaperoned. Now what kind of society is it that would allow
such a thing?” This time, it’s a millionaire with the ridiculous name of Harvey
Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn,
son of Ed Wynn) who believes that
his pet chimpanzee named Clyde is smarter than the whole lot of them. He may
have a point as Clyde can surf, drive, and watusi. Along the way, we are
introduced to Avalon’s personal acting range as he plays not only lovable Frankie but also
Peter Royce Bentley aka “The Potato Bug” (a spoof of The Beatles and the Brits
in general) who races cars and rocks hard (at least by the standard of these
films). As you’d expect when Frankie acts a little commitment-phobic, Dee Dee
turns to “The Potato Bug” and causes a jealous Frankie to challenge him to a
drag race. It all culminates in a massive brawl (including the gang, the ape,
and the millionaire) at Big Drag’s Pit Stop (Don Rickles‘ bar) and ends with a performance by Little Stevie Wonder playing the film out.
Other tunes include Annette sweetly singing “This
Time It’s Love”
 and a darling duet between Annette and Frankie in “Because
You’re You.”
 Keep your eyes open for Boris
in a brief cameo as an art dealer (a reference to Vincent Price’s
commercials for Sears – “the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art”).
Also, listen for Elizabeth Montgomery
(Samantha on “Bewitched“) as the
voice of Yvonne, the Lady Bug.  

Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965)
The fourth “Beach Party” film, “Beach Blanket Bingo” marks Frankie Avalon’s final full appearance
in a “Beach Party” movie and is considered by many the pinnacle of its genre, although I think it stands as a testament to how bizarre studio execs thought teenagers were in the ’60s. The
plot involves a singer named Sugar Kane (Linda
) whose manager (the incomparable Paul
) is desperate to create a buzz and the regular Frankie and Dee Dee
relationship drama ensues. Kane gets kidnapped and its up to the beach gang to save
her. Along the way, Beach Party regular Bonehead (Jody McCrea, son of Joel
) falls in love with a mermaid (Marta
), as much sense as that makes. Oh, and did I mention there’s
skydiving? Yes, after Sugar Kane’s manager organizes a skydiving stunt, Frankie
takes it up as a hobby and a jealous Dee Dee follows. Keep your eyes open for Don Rickles again and
silent film star Buster Keaton. Tunes
include the theme “Beach Blanket
 and another great duet with Annette and Frankie in “I Think
You Think.”

Back to the Beach
In her last starring role, Annette Funicello plays her
onscreen ’60s persona all grown-up, married to Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and
settled out in Ohio. “Back to the Beach” brings the duo back to the surf, sand, and sun when they visit their daughter
Sandi (Lori Loughlin – yes, that’s Rebecca
from “Full House“) who is shacked up
with an unapproved surfer boyfriend (Tommy Hinkley). As Annette and Frankie try to make the beach fun
again rather than seedy, Frankie is challenged to prove his status as The Big
Kahuna by younger surfers and Connie
threatens his marriage to Annette. Don’t worry – true to form, his
title and the duo are safe. The film’s myriad cameos include Bob Denver (Gilligan), O.J. Simpson, and Pee-wee
. Tunes include “Jamaica
 with Annette Funicello paired with the against-type alternative rock band Fishbone and “We’ll
Go On Forever”
 with the cast and ending the film. Although it may not be anybody’s favorite beach movie in lieu of others on this list, “Back to the Beach” was a pleasant albeit nostalgic update that kept the spirit of the original “Beach Party” movies and acted a peppy introduction to the genre for a younger generation of Annette and Frankie fans.  

Any fond memories of Annette Funicello from TV or the movies you’d like to share? Any personal faves that deserve a shout out? Share your thoughts below.

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