Film: California Dreaming (1979)

September 2, 2015 | By


CaliforniaDreaming1979_poster_sFilm: Weak

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Synopsis: An east coast hipster journeys to California, and attempts to settle into a small surfing community.

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While California Dreaming may have its fans – it features nicely photographed surfing sequences, and was filmed in the beach town of Avila prior to a major upgrade that mandated razing substantial beachfront area contaminated by petroleum seepage – time hasn’t been exactly kind to this extremely odd beach comedy / dramady / coming-of-age tale that features a unique cast of veteran and up-and-coming faces.

Part of the problem lies in Ned Wynn’s script, which is an obvious attempt by the former actor to revisit the wacky hijinks beach films of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff. Wynn had small roles in Bikini Beach (1964), Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and apparently re-teamed with the co-owner of American International Pictures (AIP) for what may have been planned as a deliberate effort to add some low-cost variety to AIP’s efforts as it strove to evolve from drive-in exploitation producer to a mini-major, alongside costlier productions such as The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), The Amityville Horror (1979), and the epic stinker Meteor (1979).

Variety may be the spice of life (and help leverage upscale productions), but Wynn’s script  injects goofball antics circa 1964 into a more serious story in which T.T. (extremely annoying Dennis Christopher) lugs his dead brother’s trumpet, records, and paraphernalia to California, a land the musician never lived to visit and perform. Within minutes he’s found room and board in the personal home of bar owner Duke (Seymour Cassel), a  tall tale raconteur and former Olympic swimming champ who juggles fatherhood with daughter Corky (Glynnis O’Connor) and a teasing relationship with ex-wife Fay (Dorothy Tristan).

T.T. can’t play the trumpet, but he hangs out at the peripherals of the beach’s in-crowd, absorbing coolness and potential musical dexterity by osmosis, bumbling through awkward social situations yet somehow becoming friends with the top surfers and getting a few admirers of his own. (Christopher’s physical transformation from flat and greasy haired hipster to air-dried lanky twerp helps us track his evolution towards a lesser nerd.)

Eventually his interest in Corky can no longer be tempered, and the pair lock up in what’s designed as a comically awkward seduction but plays like a Punch & Judy show, with groping rewarded by face smacks and grimaces as Corky – who never liked the twerp in the first place – succumbs to his minimal animal magnetism. When Duke finds them in bed the next morning, he’s thinks it’s just swell.



The script’s concluding dramatic swerve is comprised of two movements: T.T.’s tearing into Duke as a fake Olympic hero, sending the former athlete to the volleyball court where he plays the greatest game of his life before dropping dead from a heart attack; and wealthy gal Stephanie (future Charlie’s Angel and Bond girl Tanya Roberts) finally dumping surfing triple-timer Rick (veteran character actor John Calvin).  At the film’s end, Duke’s ex travels to Hawaii where the reunited couple had planned to sail in the boat he’s been restoring for a decade, and T.T. (who never managed to learn the trumpet) holds hands with Corky as guilt is expunged by her apparently masochistic love and understanding.



Wynn’s ‘vintage’ humour includes surfer Mike (James / Jimmy Van Patten) getting jealous and drunk at the local cinema, redirecting his rage at his head in a bathroom stall and head slaps; and Wynn appearing as Earl, a mechanic who accepts a dare to remain locked in his Pontiac in a bet to win both a girl and a vintage cherry red Corvette roadster.

A lot of time is devoted to Wynn’s character, and the goofball antics soon go against the grain of the increasingly serious Duke storyline, but Earl’s predicament is also kind of insane. He’s literally trapped in a metal cage on wheels for a month and a half, yet drives around town stalking his love whom he realizes is two-timing him with the Corvette’s owner. Earl’s Mexican buddy rides on top of the Pontiac and feeds / tosses him food through a newly carved sunroof, but presumably gives him space and privacy when Earl has to relieve himself from all the beer he guzzles while driving.

The surfing scenes mostly consist of show slo-mo footage, and the film is larded with songs much in the way the original beach films were packed with tunes featuring new acts, some of which appeared on the mandatory soundtrack album. One reason the film may remain unavailable on home video lies in the use of the song “California Dreaming,” composed by John and Michelle Phillips and sung by America, but apparently never cleared for use.

Fans have reported subsequent TV and VHS releases in which the song was replaced by music featuring Burton Cummings (who already has a few songs in the film). The version currently on YouTube featured what seems like original theatrical mix, but the first bars of the America song is silenced until there’s dialogue in a cinema sequence; and most of the music is garbled when it’s reprised in the End Credits.

The score by Fred Karlin (who also scored AIP’s Futureworld) includes a few songs and a sappy jazz piece T.T. plays repeatedly until Corky screams ‘enough of the stupid song.’ Bobby Byrne’s cinematography is nice, and the authentic locations provide a great backdrop to a fairly mediocre story.

One suspects director John Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Bang the Drum Slowly) was attracted to the films’ coming-of-age story rather than the comedic elements, which also include raunchy bits designed to make the film more palatable to younger audiences, offering franker language, bikini butt shots, and O’Connor topless.

Cassell’s Duke is the film’s most believable and compelling character because the actor doesn’t treat him like a cartoon; he’s a genre archetype – the sage old veteran, benevolent father figure – but his literal finale is ultimately at odds with the comedic chunks designed to appeal to classic beach films, surf-themed dramas, and contemporary youth comedies.

Wynn’s sparse writing credits include the very creepy (but dramatically wonky) TV movie Don’t Go to Sleep (1982), and Hancock would soon move into episodic TV, although he later directed the feature film Weeds (1987), written by Dorothy Tristan.

Glynnis O’Connor, who co-starred in Hancock’s Baby Blue Marine (1976) would appear with Burton Cummings (his lone acting role) in Melanie (1982). Dennis Christopher would pedal his gawky persona to more believable heights in the superior coming-of-age comedy-drama Breaking Away (1979). Tanya Roberts would co-star in the last season of Charlie’s Angels (1980-1981) and appear in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1984) and the lesser Bond film A View to a Kill (1985).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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