Service in the Sun came out in early 1957 and gave the Australians just the smallest onscreen taste of modern surfing. A second and far more generous dose of surf cinema arrived later in the year, when California’s Bud Browne sailed over with not one but two of his signature feature-length films: The Big Surf and Surfing in Hawaii. These were the first movies of their kind to be shown in Australia, and Bob Evans, one of the lucky surfers to score a Malibu board from the visiting American surfers a few months earlier, arranged to have The Big Surf debut at Sydney’s Queenscliff Surf Club. It was the boardriders’ biggest social event of the year, with six hundred attendees jammed into the reception hall and spilling out into the warm summer night. As the first movie hit the screen, Evans remembered, “Everybody stood up and yelled. They fell on the floor, jumped up and down—just stoked out of their tiny brains.”
Browne expected no less. In 1953, working loosely from a model created a few years early by ski filmmaker Warren Miller (also an avid Los Angeles area surfer), Browne had put together a 45-minute film he called Hawaiian Surfing Movies. After stapling a few notices on beachfront lightpoles in Santa Monica, he hosted a sold-out, one-night-only, 65¢-admission showing at a nearby middle school. Browne was a high school Phys Ed teacher and a former captain of the University of Southern California swim team, as well as a longtime surfer and lifeguard. He was soft-spoken and reserved, and at 41 he was roughly the same age as his audiences’ parents. Hawaiian Surfing Movies had just one more screening (for a smaller, quieter audience in San Diego County), but Browne nonetheless believed that surf filmmaking, given a full calendar of show dates, could afford him a modest living. He was right; profits were modest—almost nonexistent. Still, Browne enjoyed the moviemaking process—the travel and the freedom, as well as the production—and kept at it. Again copying Miller, he decided to film, produce, and release one movie a year.
By 1958 Browne had three competitors, all from Southern California: boardmaker and big-wave rider Greg Noll; future Endless Summer producer Bruce Brown; and John Severson, who would soon found Surfer magazine. Each filmmaker was a one-man production company, responsible for everything: shooting, editing, scoring, promotions, booking, and accounting. They all used the same model Bell & Howell 16mm camera and shot the same A-list surfers at the same locations. Noll was by far the least tech-savvy of the group. Standing behind their tripods one afternoon in Hawaii, Bruce Brown glanced over at Noll and asked about his f-stop setting. Noll looked blank. Brown hesitated, then gestured to the numbered ring on Noll’s lens and said it adjusted the amount of incoming light. Noll shrugged and said the guy at the store had fixed all that stuff up when he’d bought the camera a few months earlier.
Each film cost about $5,000 to make, was an hour long, give or take, and consisted mainly of a series of two- or three-minute action sequences focusing on a specific rider or break. Lifestyle vignettes and short comedy sketches were included: the gang bombing down a steep mud track in Hawaii after a storm, or a frustrated wave-rider dumping a box of Surf detergent into a flat Makaha lineup to magically bring forth a big swell. The soundtracks were all bootlegged jazz or rock, and the music choices as a rule were excellent. Some of the poster art—especially anything done by Severson—was just as good. Film titles were catchy: 1958’s Slippery When Wet, was followed by Cat on a Hot Foam Board, Barefoot Adventure, Big Wednesday, Sunset Surf Craze, Hot Dog on a Stock, and Spinning Boards.
The movies themselves were more or less all the same. Each went by like a marching band, loud and cheerful, steady and predictable, ride after ride, wave after wave. Bud Browne learned not to trifle with the formula after debuting 1958’s Surf Down Under at a San Diego school auditorium. Because he’d come up a bit light on surf action during his previous year’s visit to Australia, Browne added some travelogue shots of kangaroos and koala bears, a surf carnival sequence, and a long panoramic view of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The crowd at first watched the non-surfing clips in silence, then someone booed, and within seconds the hall was filled with catcalls and shouted insults. “I spent the next day ruthlessly cutting and editing,” Browne recalled. “And I never again misjudged surf film audiences.”
Noll’s films were the roughest, and Severson’s were the best-crafted, but in truth they were all no more than a step or two removed from home movies—which felt just right. Surfing was still very much a DIY pursuit, and a slick, polished 1950s surfing movie likely would have come off as dishonest, or at least distorted. Authenticity mattered. Being there in the audience, drunk and loud and rowdy beneath a lowering haze of cigarette smoke, not watching the film so much as bouncing off it—that mattered even more. Surf movies toured from beach town to beach town, and the filmmaker himself introduced the film, did live narration, and handed out raffled-off door prizes during intermission. Posters and handbills announcing each film were hung on light poles and taped to storefront windows, then stolen by local gremmies as room decorations. Other than that, promotion was mostly word of mouth. Nobody had an advertising budget. There were no reviews. While movie theaters and school auditoriums were preferred, a touring film would just as often be screened at the local Elks Lodge, union hall, or civic center—the kinds of places where the filmmaker had to pay a few extra bucks to have someone set up and put away a couple hundred metal folding chairs.
The surf movie fed the surfer's gnawing hunger for surf media of any kind. There was also the novelty of anything having to do with the sport taking place indoors, at night, off the beach.
But there was something else. Small groups were now the rule in surfing. A road trip, for example, was usually a three-person-or-less affair—for logistical ease and seating comfort, but also as a matter of resource control. Less people equaled more waves per surfer. Crowded lineups had become a top-three surfing complaint, along with flat spells and bad winds. Movies were different. Apart from surfing contests, the surf film was the only event that brought surfers together in meaningful numbers. Two hundred people was about average, but crowds could go up to five hundred, with just enough female attendees at any given show to put a mild sexual charge into the air. (The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium sat three thousand, but that was surf moviedom’s Coliseum.) Rocking down to the local auditorium to see Let There Be Surf, or Going My Wave, or Have Board, Will Travel—it didn’t really matter what was playing—gave surfers a chance, even for just a couple of hours, to check their own strongly-held negative view of crowds. It allowed them a social latitude that was mostly forbidden on the beaches and in the lineup.
True, it was often a crude form of uplift. Firecrackers were lit and rolled across the floor to the next row of seats. Bottlecaps zipped through the air. High-decibel beer-belches rang out. A motorcyclist might blow in through the side door, ride up one aisle and down the other, then gun back out the way he came.
What older surfers invariably describe first when talking about early surf movies is the tearing thunderclap of cheers and whistles and stomping feet that began when the lights dimmed and roared on as the first blue-green image lit up the screen—a noise signifying not just a manic willingness to be entertained, but the pure joy of an otherwise staunchly nonaligned multitude coming together briefly, powerfully, ecstatically as a group.