Presenting Mr. Keaton…
Although he’s best known for his silent films, Buster Keaton had an extensive film career after talkies came in, right up until his death. One of his last films was 1965’s How To Stuff A Wild Bikini. We’ve been here before, but this time we’re going to take a closer look, if that’s possible, because there’s not much to see. It’s camp, camp, and more camp. Anyone who’s seen a Frankie and Annette movie will know exactly what to expect.
Frankie (Frankie Avalon) is stationed with the Naval Reserve on the Goona-Goona Islands (read: Tahiti), and he’s not exactly idle, as he’s spending his free time with an island beauty (Irene Tsu). Funnily enough, while laying his head in her lap, he starts to worry that Dee Dee’s being unfaithful to him. Native Fling Girl (seriously, she has no name) suggests Frankie go to see Bwana, the best witch doctor on the island.
Our little heel doesn’t waste any time hotfooting it over to Bwana’s hut. No one’s there, but then there’s an explosion and a puff of smoke, revealing…Buster Keaton, right down to the porkpie hat. Yes, he’s Bwana, and yes, he’ll help Frankie spy on Dee Dee. For a pint of torpedo juice a day. He has a daughter who’s the best witch on the island. Bwana disappears into the back room and comes out with a leopard-print bikini. “Daughter do it again,” he says. “We send out decoy.”
Yeah, he talks like a stereotypical Native American. In Trinidad.
Well, boys who see a leopard-print bikini floating down the beach sure aren’t going to have eyes for anyone else. When they see the Witch Doctor’s daughter’s decoy, Cassandra (Beverly Adams) inside the bikini, they’re dead gone, and cluster around like bees at the proverbial honey pot.
In the midst of this little love-fest rolls Mickey Rooney (literally–he’s on a motorcycle), who plays some kind of ad executive, J. Peachman “Peachy” Keane. He and his assistant, Ricky (Dwayne Hickman) are casting around for the All-American Girl and Boy to tour the country and want to clean up biker culture for some reason. Naturally, he only has eyes for Cassandra, to which the other girls take great offense.
Ricky is a different story, though. Sitting serenely on a towel a few yards away is Dee Dee, who watches the spectacle with one eye on the book she’s reading. Ricky tries to pick her up, but Dee Dee is adamant: She’s got a fella. She’s also got a pelican hanging around who’s unusually attentive.
But never mind all that. Peachy’s gotta pitch Cassandra to his boss, B.D. “Big Deal” McPherson and his gang of yes men. If Cassandra’s effect on the beach boys is any indication, she’ll go over like gangbusters with the guys in suits. Suffice it to say, B.D. doesn’t need a hard sell, especially when Peachy and the yes men are singing his praises.
Dee Dee takes Ricky up on his offer for a date, and while they’re sitting by the fire eating popcorn he tells her about the big plan to all-Americanize bikers. She thinks it’s a bit nutty (Ricky hasn’t met Eric von Zipper yet, but he will). Meanwhile, the pelican continues to hang around, making the two of them nervous.
Ricky offers to show Dee Dee how clean-cut guys can be bikers, so he takes her on a joyride around the lake. It’s probably the only way they can get privacy, because their dear little avian friend is nowhere to be seen. He returns just in time for their big date to a nightclub and then back to Ricky’s Japanese-themed pad, though. It’s a good thing for Frankie that Bwana’s pelican is so determined, because Ricky is a lothario under his clean-cut exterior.
Meanwhile, back on the island, Bwana gives his daily report on Dee Dee as soon as Ricky’s fling hands him the torpedo juice. “Daughter blew it with decoy,” he says. “Mix up important ingredients. Use one ounce dove’s blood instead of one ounce gazelle blood. Dove blood make love, gazelle blood make graceful. Boy come along, jar her giblets, now all we have is lovesick stumblebum. And that’s all the plot you’re gonna get out of me.”
Mmmmkay. Way to break the fourth wall, Mr. Keaton.
That’s basically how the rest of the movie goes. Bwana gets his torpedo juice, the pelican hangs around Dee Dee and Ricky, and there’s a big bike race. Cassandra’s also not as perfect as she seems, managing to spill an entire bottle of ink on Peachy. Oh, and Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) makes an appearance. He’s the type of biker Peachy is trying to shine up, and to his gang’s horror, von Zipper tries on a Peachy-esque gray suit. Will it take? Who knows.
Besides that, the movie trots out a lot of the well-worn tropes used in past installments. A Frankie and Annette movie can’t exist without swimwear clad starlets doing the twist on the beach or Eric von Zipper giving himself the finger. The only difference is that no one surfs this time.
Bikini is a strangely bad movie and not afraid to say so. It doesn’t have a plot to speak of, which is why the characters stop every five minutes for a song. It’s also pretty dated–Bwana’s definitive articles are noticeably absent. So was Frankie Avalon, who was only onscreen for a few minutes, and it doesn’t leave Annette Funicello with much to do except flirt with Ricky and make faces at her faithful pelican. This may have been about her limit, though, as she was pregnant during filming and the director of photography, Floyd Crosby went to great lengths to obscure Annette’s growing belly. She was sitting down or shot from the chest up in most of her scenes, usually hiding her tummy behind something.
Still, it has some fun points. It was cool seeing Mickey Rooney in the midst of the film’s bathing beauties, and he plays a good toadie. He’s somehow dwarfed by Brian Donlevy, who was only about six inches taller than Rooney’s five-feet-two. According to TCM, Rooney played Peachy because he had the IRS on his tail.
Buster Keaton is hilarious. Except for the definitive article thing, he plays himself–the straightest of comics with impeccable delivery. His characteristic deadpan works to great effect here. Ricky and his island girlfriend, as well as Bwana’s lovely assistant Kola Koku (Bobbi Shaw Chance) seem awed to be in the same room with him. Keaton didn’t seem to see this, however–TCM says Keaton thought the kids in the movie had no idea about his history and isolated himself onset. Like Rooney, Keaton was broke during the making of Bikini. He was also suffering from lung cancer, and would pass away in 1966.
It might be dumb and dated, but How To Stuff A Wild Bikini is a good example of what happens when a franchise has run its course and people get desperate.
For more of the great Buster Keaton, please visit Silent-ology. Thanks for hosting, Lea–this was great! As usual, thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for our second Reading Rarity.
How To Stuff A Wild Bikini is available on DVD from Amazon.