I won’t make any pretense that The Boatniks is a great movie by any means but surely it speaks to some favorable quality when you enjoy something for its sheer goofiness, a certain sense of nostalgia, and the overall familiarity that pervades the material.
Yes, it’s a long sitcom episode but in this case, I have no qualms with such light and fluffy fare because so many good friends from my childhood came aboard for the ride. Norman Tokar, a prolific figure behind Leave it to Beaver directs with a script worked on by among other people Arthur Julian of Hogan’s Heroes, one of my dearest childhood favorites.
The cast has all sorts of sitcom mainstays of the 60s including Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko), Bob Hastings (McHale’s Navy), Joey Foreman (Get Smart guest star), Al Lewis (Car 54 Where Are You?, The Munster), Joe E. Ross (Car 54 Where are You?), Shaaron Claridge (Adam-12), and last but certainly not least Vitto Scotti, arguably the most prolific sitcom actor of all time. If you don’t know who he is, it’s all too obvious you haven’t seen enough of the classics.
The Boatniks (a not so clever play on Beatniks) wears its goofball wonkiness on its sleeve. We have a hapless hero who must come out from under the shadow of his prestigious father to take over command of the local Coast Guard in Balboa Bay.
Ensign Garland (Robert Morse) doesn’t start off too successfully as he lands a plethora of citations and winds up instigating a traffic accident all on his way to the docks. Then, at the docks, he clumsily splatters a sun-soaked Boat Rental and Sailing Instructor (Stefanie Powers) with yellow paint much to her chagrin. Everything is going just dandy only to get better.
He subsequently bumbles his way through his duty, first getting beached on a rock and having to be towed by the smug instructor, followed by any number of issues from a husband locked in a cabin to a pretty girl whose skirt got caught in her boat’s controls. A Mayday goes out on both accounts. Despite handling some of these problems about as successfully as possible given the circumstances, Garland’s commanding officer (Don Ameche) is far from impressed by the compromising situations he always seems to be in but at least the girl starts to like him.
Simultaneously, three thieves led by, of all people, Phil Silvers, have absconded with a payload of priceless jewels. Their car is the one that gets rear-ended by the same awkward Ensign and with roadblocks dotting the coast, all the way from Orange County to San Diego, their only chance is to head for the sea which they do despite having no nautical knowledge whatsoever. For those who didn’t gather already, it does not bode well.
They lose their priceless picnic basket into the great wild blue yonder and in an attempt to recover their spoils the trio trawls for everything in the bay except what they’re looking for. First, they snag a gigantic sea bass that sends their boat reeling. Then, they go deep-sea diving. It’s all to no avail and flustered by a shark attack, the commodore picks up the phone and makes a long-distance call to his buddy in Tokyo for leads on pearl divers. A young Japanese woman arrives and the failure to communicate is used to great and awkward comic effect even as Phil Silvers tries to use Spanish to speak with a pretty diver (Midori). Of course, when it counts she knows how to speak the language.
The Bay is also inhabited by an assortment of other weirdos including Wally Cox and his floating harem La Dolce Vita; it’s a constant party at his place that never leaves the docks. One oddball sailor does his best to practice lashing himself to the mast in preparation for his trip around the world, conveniently leaving his wife and children behind. Another bungling seaman nervously huffs before he performs his daily ritual of bouncing his boat off the dock. It has no bearing on the plot but each is good for a few stray laughs of sheer corniness.
The scenery remains another point of interest for me because the fact is the film was all but shot in my backyard or at least quite close to where I grew up (albeit a few years before I lived there). We grew up hearing stories of John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Buddy Ebsen, and Joey Bishop only a few of the prominent figures who resided in the area at one time or another.
We have brief views of Balboa Island and seafront homes visible in the background as the buffoonery takes center stage. Boatniks would precede the Columbo episode “Dead Weight” starring Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette with Peter Falk’s title character, making use of the same scenery. Except Boatniks is a great deal lighter.
In the modern age of Disney as a mega-conglomerate, these are the kind of family-friendly movies that I dearly miss. It feels like part It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and some of McHale’s Navy sprinkled in with dashes of so many other things. I enjoyed it far more than I probably had any right to but why shouldn’t I? It’s unabashed, quality fun for the whole family.