Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine

(1965, 90 min.)

Starring Vincent Price, Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Susan Hart, Jack Mullaney, Fred Clark.

Screenplay by Robert Kaufman and Elwood Ullman, from a story by James H. Nicholson (under the name James Hartford).

Directed by Norman Taurog.

Evil, um, genius, I guess, Dr. Goldfoot (Price), along with his perpetually put upon assistant Igor (Mullaney), has created a small army of fembots whom he sends out into the world to seduce wealthy men and dupe them into signing over their assets to him. Among the victims is gadabout Todd Armstrong (Hickman), who is scheduled to be targeted by Number Eleven, a.k.a. “Diane” (Hart, hammy, but of the honey-glazed variety). For uncertain reasons, Igor, who looks quite good for the reanimated corpse we’re told he is, accidentally sends Diane after Craig Gamble (Avalon), an Agent for Secret Intelligence Command. (As his uncle/boss (Clark) tells him, “You’re a SIC man.” And that’s one of the better lines.) When the mistake is realized, she is redirected to Armstrong, whom she tricks into marrying her by getting him rip-roaring drunk. (Why precisely a robot is necessary to pull off this ruse is better left unexamined, but then the film’s occasional willingness to slough off logic casually actually provides the better part of its small entertainment value.)

Armstrong isn’t very happy that his comely new wife insists on sleeping in a different bed, and seems intent on spending their waking hours making him sign papers instead of making sweet, sweet love. A little later, Gamble encounters Diane on the street and, in a struggle, her hand comes off, confirming his suspicions that there may be something unusual about her. He contacts Armstrong and the two of them try to dig up proof of Goldfoot’s nefarious plot. Sadly, they barely have two brain cells to bash together between them.

This must have seemed boffo on paper at the time. An AIP version of the Eurospy (Goofball Subdivision) genre, complete with the outrageous concepts, nifty gadgets and sexy girls in bathing suits that entails. Avalon, of the popular Beach Party movies as the hero, and Hickman, of Dobie Gillis fame and star of a Beach Party movie himself that same year, as his partner in crimefighting. Helmed by veteran director (and a frequent wrangler of both Elvis and Jerry Lewis) Taurog. And to top it off, longtime AIP collaborator Price as the title villain. Of course, with hindsight, we’re able to say, “Beach Party movies? What are you, fucking kidding me? Get the hell out of here! No, no, go around the side. I just watered the lawn.” But, after all, the Beach Party movies were bizarrely popular at the time, and AIP co-producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson were nothing if not willing to cash in on popularity. Now the standard expected defense from fans of phenomena such as the Beach Party movies is, “What’s the matter with good clean fun?” And the answer is, nothing. I have many degenerate friends who have no use for such things, but I can appreciate them from time to time, which explains why I occasionally settle on a repeat of Diagnosis Murder. But Diagnosis Murder, aside from the benefit of the presence pf Dick Van Dyke, has the added bonus of actually being clever. The hazy memories of Baby Boomers notwithstanding, the Beach Party movies were not clever. In fact, they were quite stupid. As is Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

And therein lies the movie’s fatal flaw. The cast has plenty of energy (Avalon and Hickman are quite well matched, inasmuch as they could pass for the US Olympic Synchronized Moron Team) and we’ve seen what Price can do with campy when the material is there, as in a classic like Theater of Blood, but here the dumb jokes and randomly inserted time-padding slapstick just sink it. There are occasional genuine laughs, and buffs will appreciate the cameos and references (although it’s tempting to suspect they were a big part of the initial pitch as detailed above – “think of the references we can throw in!” – much like San Francisco seems to have been chosen as the setting purely so they could have a chase down the famous Lombard Street), but this never comes off as anything more than what might have resulted had the stars wandered off their own sets and onto that of Get Smart, subsequently repelling any of that show’s subversion in the process. (The most subversive thing here is the way the goddamn theme song by Les Baxter keeps popping back into my head.) Harmless to be sure, but hopelessly dumb. This was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, directed by, of all people, Italo-horror luminary Mario Bava.

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