Surf’s Up!

West Coast surfers in the late fifties knew Bruce Brown as a fellow surfer who started filming his surfing exploits with his buddies before Gidget became a best-selling novel in 1957. Hollywood bought the rights and turned it into a hit movie in 1959 starring Sandra Dee. For most movie audiences, it was their first exposure to the popular sport of surfing but Brown was already well known among California surfers before that due to his own surfing movies. He would shoot them without sound and travel around showing them to fellow surfers while narrating the footage in person; occasionally a yet-to-be-famous band called The Beach Boys provided musical accompaniment.. His first documentary effort Slippery When Wet appeared in 1958 and he followed it up with six more surfing features over the next seven years. It was in 1965 when Brown became a household name after the release of The Endless Summer, a surprise box office hit that inspired a whole new generation of surfers and ended up on the top ten list of many major film critics. In 2010 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress which solidified its reputation as the holy grail of surfing documentaries.

The third movie in his series of surfing documentaries, Barefoot Adventure (1960) follows the successful formula that filmmaker Brown established in his first feature, Slippery When Wet (1958): beautifully photographed surfing footage, a globe-spanning array of unspoiled beaches, a playful voice-over narration, goofy sight gags and a cast featuring some of the most fearless surfers in the world. You can also see that Brown had become a more accomplished cinematographer/editor/director by this third film and he would only get better.

Filmmaker/surfer Bruce Brown in action

One of the most pleasurable things about viewing Barefoot Adventure today is seeing so many pristine, undeveloped beaches. There’s not a condo in sight nor any other sign of encroaching development. Even at the more popular beaches at Waikiki, Laguna, Yokohama, and Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, there’s still a sense of unspoiled beauty. Just as striking is Brown’s cinematography which captures surfers in action like Del Cannon, Ricky Gray and Henry Priest as they brave killer waves and deadly undertows.

Bruce Brown and his surfer pals search for the perfect wave in BAREFOOT ADVENTURE (1960).

Though little more than a glorified home movie, Barefoot Adventure is easily accessible to moviegoers with little interest in surfing due to Brown’s quirky sense of humor. Interspersed with the traditional surfboarding footage are toe wrestling matches, slime sliding on algae-covered rocks, hula lessons for elderly tourists and visual jokes like Del trying to create his own foam board (he ends up with huge foam feet).

Filmmaker/surfer Bruce Brown sets up a shot for this 1960 documentary BAREFOOT ADVENTURE.

The film is also educational; you’ll learn the meaning of “goin’ over the falls,” “hero waves,” and “big guns” while marveling at Brown’s red vintage Studebaker Lark or his collection of the ten worst wipeouts of the year.

One aspect that distinguishes Barefoot Adventure from other surfing movies is the ultra cool West Coast jazz score by saxophonist Bud Shank. A former member of the Lighthouse All Stars from 1953-56, Shank later started his own quartet and became a prominent figure in the West Coast jazz scene (along with Chet Baker and Shelly Manne) in the late fifties/early sixties. Although Shank’s score perfectly expresses the free-wheeling nature of the surfer lifestyle, it was guitarist Dick Dale who would become forever linked with the California beach scene, thanks to his numerous appearances in the American-International Beach Party series, films that appropriated and exploited the surfing craze that was first glimpsed in Bruce Brown’s charming, unpretentious features.

Surfer Del Cannon is prominently featured in BAREFOOT ADVENTURE (1960), directed by surfer/filmmaker Bruce Brown.

In his liner notes for the video release of this film, Brown wrote, “Like my other surf movies, the original elements of Barefoot Adventure – film, narration, music – lay in bits and pieces in my attic. Most of the film had been taken apart for use in other projects. Weeks were spent opening unmarked film cans and viewing old surfing footage in search of missing shots. The shots, once found, were often held together by paper tape which, after 30 years, had turned to rock and fossilized onto the film. Removing the tape meant soaking the end of each shot in film cleaner for ten to twenty-five minutes until the tape softened from granite to mud and could be easily scraped off. I figure it took sixty hours of sitting in a darkened room, getting goofy from the fumes, just to remove the tape. I held up well under the strain, mainly because my son, Dana, did most of the work. Looking at Barefoot Adventure I am still amazed how good Del Cannon was as an amateur actor. Dana refers to Del as the “Sir Lawrence Olivier of surf films” which hits the nail on the head and shows that film cleaner fumes don’t cause brain damage.”

Brown would follow Barefoot Adventure with two more surfing documentaries – Surfing Hollow Days (1961) and Water-Logged (1962) – before he hit the big time with The Endless Summer (1965). He continued to introduce audiences to other trends in sports such as his 1966 documentary short about the skateboard craze, America’s Newest Sport, while becoming more interested in more extreme outdoor sports. For example, he received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature for On Any Sunday in 1972, which explored the world of motorcycle racing with Steve McQueen as one of the more famous competitors. Brown died in 2017 at age 80 but his son, Dana, carries on the family tradition of editing, directing and producing sport documentaries. His filmography includes the 2003 surfing travelogue Step into Liquid featuring Laird Hamilton and other surf legends as well as the 2020 tribute to his father, A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story.

Barefoot Adventure has been released on VHS and DVD over the years but is currently unavailable as a single release. However, you can still find new or used copies from online sellers of The Ultimate Summer: Bruce Brown Surf Collection on DVD, which was released in Nov. 2010 and includes all seven of his surfing documentaries (1958-1965) plus the 1994 sequel, The Endless Summer 2.

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Legendary surfer Peter Cole in featured in BAREFOOT ADVENTURE (1960).

Other websites of interest:

https://surfsimply.com/surf-culture/a-final-conversation-with-bruce-brown/

https://variety.com/2017/film/obituaries-people-news/bruce-brown-dies-dead-endless-summer-1202636238/

https://spectrumlocalnews.com/hi/hawaii/surfing/2022/02/22/big-wave-surfer-peter-cole-dies-at-age-91

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