Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Johnny Deadline: PAJAMA PARTY (1964)

 by JB

From the looks of it, you’d think this was the eighth or ninth entry in the Beach Party franchise. You would be wrong...

Pajama Party (which was NOT released as part of the Frankie and Annette MGM Movie Legends collection boxset in 2007) finally made its appearance on Blu-ray disc last December. Experts disagree on which early Sixties AIP teen movies are actual, bona-fide Beach Party movies and which are not (Ski Party? Yes. Fireball 500? No. Ghost in the Invisible Bikini? Maybe. FIGHT ME.)

Pajama Party, by dint of its storyline, cast, and studio, clearly qualifies. Yet it’s an odd bird—a sandy outlier, if you will.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: Since moving to Southern California 18 months ago, the beach party movies have taken on special significance because most of the beach scenes were filmed in Malibu, just south of my current residence. If they filmed near Point Mugu, they were only a stone’s throw from where Planet of the Apes filmed a few years later. I would love to see the famous final scene of Apes, where a gob-smacked Charlton Heston curses the human race, “Goddamn you! Goddamn you all to hell,” BUT THEN the camera tracks slowly left... and we see the beach party gang playing volleyball farther up the beach.

Given the ragtag nature of the production, the cameo stars appearing out of left field, and a beach-minimum plot, Pajama Party seems like one of the last films in the series: AIP trying to wring a few more dollars from a tired, dated formula. Turns out, it’s only the fourth film in the series; it comes after Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), and Bikini Beach (1964). AIP, never a studio to dawdle, released three beach party movies in one calendar year. I’m only guessing, but could Pajama Party’s diminished box office returns have led to the course correction of the following year’s Beach Blanket Bingo to put the series back on track?

TRIVIA: Bikini Beach was supposed to feature the Beatles, but their mega success after their American debut on the Ed Sullivan show priced them right out of AIP’s orbit.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Rich Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester) has a soft spot in her heart for nephew Lunkhead (Jody McCrea) and all of his teenage friends. She lets them use her pool whenever they want. Meanwhile, a mysterious Martian leader summons Martian Scout Go-Go (Tommy Kirk) to prepare the Earth for a Martian invasion. Gangster J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White, the original lonely Maytag repairman) moves into the mansion next door to Aunt Wendy, hoping to bilk her out of her fortune. Nothing of interest happens. Lunkhead is more interested in volleyball then romancing girlfriend Connie (Annette Funicello) so she falls in love with Go-Go. The kids dance at Aunt Wendy's dress shop so that shopkeeper Dorothy Lamour can perform a musical number about her advancing age... because teens love that kind of thing! Will Aunt Wendy keep her fortune? Will the title slumber party come off without a hitch? Will the Martians invade Southern California?

The structure of Pajama Party seems scrambled. The film’s title song is performed three quarters of the way through the film instead of during the opening credits like the other films in the series. The big chase scene, which typically ends these things, occurs halfway through. Everything is off: Usual love interest Frankie Avalon only appears here in a glorified cameo. Don Rickles, another reliable beach party regular, also appears sporadically, and never interacts with anyone except Avalon. Dorothy Lamour shows up as the film’s required “Older Star Now on the Skids” cameo, but performs a lively and fun musical number. I’m guessing director Don Weis, taking over from king beach party auteur William Asher, was trying to put his own personal stamp on the material. It doesn’t work.

TRIVIA: In previous beach party romps, Don Rickles’ characters were nicknamed “Big Drop” and “Big Drag.” In Pajama Party, his Martian character is called “Big Bang.” That’s a fine example of the film’s hilarious humor... and deep commitment to advancing scientific thought.

Besides the usual motorcycle gang featuring series regular Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper, the film inexplicably includes a SECOND set of villains in Jesse White’s gangster J. Sinister Hulk and his “mob” of racially insensitive caricatures. We have Native American Chief Rotten Eagle (Buster Keaton); Borscht-belt comedian Ben Lessy as “Fleagle;” and Bobbi Shaw as “Helga,” a burlesque-style blonde with a grotesquely overdone Swedish accent. Ya, ya, ya, they’re a motley crew! (How did these four get together? The origin story of Hulk and his cringe crew would make a better movie than Pajama Party.)

Actors and actresses from previous beach party movies have all been renamed: Funicello plays “Connie” and Jody McCrae plays “Lunkhead.” Where did “Annette” and “Deadhead” go? Why is Frankie calling himself “Socum?” Again, for die-hard fans of the series, everything seems skewed.
Oh! I almost forgot. After only singing in previous beach party films, Donna Loren finally gets some dialogue here. At the time, Donna Loren was national spokeswoman for Dr. Pepper. Maybe that is why Pajama Party’s mise-en-scene is inexplicable Pepper-packed. The title number features static cutaways to bottles of the soft drink sitting on patio tables doing nothing... except looking DELICIOUS. It’s like watching mental patients making a movie that features multiple reaction shots from the bottles of soda that tell them to wear tinfoil on their heads. Take a look:

No, that is NOT Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters as Annette’s backing band!

The film is full of interesting actors in the background. Two of the dancers in the film’s big musical numbers are Teri Garr and Toni Basil; they were students in choreographer David Winters’ Hollywood dance classes. They’re listed as “Pajama Girls” in the end credits (though Teri Garr is billed as Teri Hope.)

TRIVIA: My insomnia and the basic cable network Buzzer’s endless reruns have made me very familiar with the original What’s My Line? television program from the Fifties. One of the permanent panelists on that old chestnut was New York newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. She shows up during Pajama Party’s big motorcycle chase scene to utter exactly one line of dialogue: “Hello. I’m Dorothy.” She was on the set because her youngest son, Kerry Kollmar, is featured in the film as a little boy who shows up anytime anyone is kissing to say, “Mush.” That’s another fine example of the film’s hilarious social commentary... and its subtle safe sex messaging.
I am one of the world’s biggest Buster Keaton fans, but it is cringe-city to see him essay the role of Chief Rotten Eagle in brownface. He tries awfully hard to bring some old-fashioned physical comedy to the proceedings, and he became a fixture of the beach party movies until his death in 1966. It’s nice to see a sober Keaton getting work in an industry that had shunned him for decades, but one wishes that this part wasn’t so... insensitive and icky. It was a different time.

So, Pajama Party is a strange one. Pajama Party messes with the formula. Pajama Party features exaggerated and offensive racial stereotypes. Pajama Party is nowhere near as good as all of the other films in the series. Pajama Party has all the notes of a beach party movie, but just doesn’t know the tune. I loved it.

The new Blu-ray looks beautiful, and my only quibble is a lack of bonus features. If this thing sells like hotcakes, might we witness the legitimate home video release of Ghost in the Invisible Bikini... or a Blu-ray boxset of all the beach party and beach-party-adjacent movies? I am hereby volunteering to do the audio commentaries on these hypothetical special editions... and I will do it all for FREE... or for a few cases of delicious, delicious Dr. Pepper.

A moon-doggy can dream.


  1. We need a proper boxset of those beach party movies. They're not that easy to find, but oh so much fun

  2. Yes, the boxset I referenced is DVD only and still fetches $84 at Amazon. The only beach party movies available on Blu-Ray are Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, and Pajama Party. This needs to be corrected!

    1. It's amazing that all those titles have blu-rays, but not the actual Beach Party

  3. It is good to see Johnny's back on the beat.

    Pajama Party is certainly endearingly odd, with, as you aptly point out, the exception of Keaton's redface role. While watching the film a couple of years ago, I wondered how the story was originally pitched to AIP: "A Martian comes to Earth..."

    1. Interesting that you bring that up, according to the Wikipedia machine, animator Joseph Barbera wrote a play in 1951 called The Maid and the Martian. In 1961, AIP announced plans to film it; that film never got made. But could it have provided the “rough draft” for Pajama Party? Barbera isn’t credited anywhere on the film, but Annette sings a song on the soundtrack album titled “The Maid and the Martian.” The plot thickens…