Joseph Strick at Muscle Beach

Imagine you are hanging out on the beach in the summertime. You see bronzed bodies working out on parallel bars, paired rings and a trampoline — a human cavalcade twisting, flipping in the air and landing in the sand, even as seagulls course in editing crosscuts above their heads.

Down closer to the tidal ebb, very young kids frolic at water’s edge, no parents in sight. All is in motion.

A sign for Khoury’s Café is on the other side of the beach walkway. Sno Cones, candied apples and cotton candy each cost 10 cents, and a jumbo malt costs a quarter.

Welcome to Santa Monica Beach in the late 1940s as seen in Muscle Beach, an early documentary short film by Irving Lerner and Joseph Strick that extols, through Strick’s cinematography and Earl Robinson’s music, the languorous pleasures of a day at the beach.

Running less than 10 minutes, this thin cinematic slice of Southern California life in 1948 was recently restored by the Academy Film Archive and will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival this month. On May 19, it will be screened for Academy members at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, along with Thor Heyerdahl’s Oscar-winning feature documentary, Kon-Tiki (1950).

If you were a child in Los Angeles in those lean years right after World War II, like I was, you would remember that a drive to the beach was one of the few ways to escape the heat in that pre-air-conditioning era. Pleasures were simpler then as well — no iPhones, no video games, not even a transistor radio. Racing against the incoming tide, building sand castles or, at the original Muscle Beach just below the Santa Monica Pier, watching the showboating athletics and exhibitionism of local denizens seemed to be enough. 

It was several decades later that the surrounding area became an unsavory hangout for homeless, druggies and malcontents. The immediate postwar period was also a time when working-class families were drawn to several dance ballrooms on the pier and the nearby Pacific Ocean Park rides and midway.

Many cinema historians recall Joseph Strick as the ambitious but knight-errant high-tone director who tried to tilt at enormous (even un-filmable) literary windmills such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the dark and nihilistic pages of Jean Genet’s The Balcony. But earlier in his career, Strick partnered with fellow director Irving Lerner to shoot this 35mm black-and-white non-sync-sound miniature masterpiece celebrating the small pleasures of daily life. Muscle Beach became an influential classic, anticipating the next decade’s more ambitious cinéma-vérité documentary features.

In its own casual and quiet way, Muscle Beach reveals much about the zeitgeist of a more innocent time, before the recent peace from global war was sucked up into the Korean War and then the Cold War, which dominated societal consciousness for the next four decades with the specter of nuclear holocaust.

The film’s montage of casual imagery is made even more innocent by the seemingly improvised, Pete Seeger-esque talking blues performed by Earl Robinson, with lyrics by Edwin Rolfe.

So, as we approach the cusp of summer, kick back and surrender yourself to this gentle love song:

Next:

Be Natural: Alice Guy-Blaché and Pamela B. Green at Cannes

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