Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"The Graduate" and SoCal’s Endless Summer

 If you’ve watched The Graduate over and over – as I have, preparing for the publication of my Seduced by Mrs. Robinson in November – you know that most of the film seems to take place during an endless summer. All of the movie’s daytime SoCal scenes are filled with such summer obligatories as backyard barbecues and dips in the pool. One of the film’s great touches is that when Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson shrugs off all her clothing to entice Benjamin, the tan lines of her bathing suit are clearly visible. (Director Mike Nichols, a pasty-faced New Yorker himself, issued sun lamps to his cast so that they’d all have the requisite bronzed glow.)

I bring this up now because I just heard an interview with writer D.J. Waldie, who recently published in the Los Angeles Times an op-ed titled “How Angelenos Invented the L.A. Summer—In the Beginning Was the Barbecue.” Waldie, an expert on Southern California history and culture, begins by explaining how the Mexican custom of cooking outdoors rather than inside stuffy adobe-walled kitchens was ultimately promoted by magazines like Sunset as a lifestyle choice well suited to L.A.’s warm, comfortable climate.

Then there’s the whole matter of tanning. Into the 1920s ocean bathers across the U.S. were fully covered up, with both men and women hiding their bare skin as much as possible. In SoCal, there were laws on the books to enforce public modesty. Says Waldie, “The Long Beach City Council determined the legal distance between swimsuit and knee in 1916. Santa Monica police still were arresting topless (male) sun bathers as late as 1929. Laguna Beach didn’t repeal its modesty law until 1940.” In the end, though, comfort won out over yards of soggy fabric. A new SoCal concept of beauty and propriety moved in; in typical SoCal fashion, exposure to the sun was promoted as benefitting one’s health.

 Hollywood, of course, participated in this sell-job. In the 1930s and thereafter, pin-up photos of movie queens and their golden-brown male counterparts were everywhere. (Classic film buff Raquel Stecher of @QuelleLove has recently been celebrating summer by tweeting a whole raft of poolside shots of  Hollywood lovelies, who make the outdoor life seem awfully enticing.)  Then in 1959 Sandra Dee in Gidget transported teenagers across America to the beach for surfing and (mostly) innocent merriment. (I remember being startled by some then-surprising dialogue about the difference between a good girl – who goes home and goes to bed – and a nice girl, who does things in reverse order.)

By the early 1960s, summer SoCal style was a hit across the nation. American International Pictures reinforced the concept with its fun-in-the-sun teen movies, starting with Beach Party in 1963. Beach Party was quickly followed by such deathless classics as Muscle Beach Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. In these films, the bland young love of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello was played off against surfside hijinks, as everyone baked in the sun.

This was the era of surf music and Coppertone ads (dating from 1959) that exhorted the public, “Don’t be a paleface.” The rambunctious parodies of the little-girl-on-the beach ad campaign are still with us. But we’ve since learned about the dangers of skin cancer, and even Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris has given up on his career as a competitive tanner. Today UV protection is the watchword,  and the sunbaked Benjamin Braddock is probably running to his dermatologist at this very moment, worried about a small patch of skin that may mean big trouble.

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