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" movies.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!"