Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Gidget (1959)

Directed by Paul Wendkos
Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Roberston, James Darren
Rated G

"Go ahead, fellas. Initiate me."

There are certain things that women just know about. I don't know if it's prenatal or what. Like dancing. Women know how to dance. They don't have to take classes or consult Wikipedia. Dancing is just in them, somehow. Another thing all women just seem to know about is Gidget. Go ahead, ask one. They've all read the books, seen the movies and the TV show. Girls relate to Gidget the same way boys relate to monsters or superheroes or a trio of numbskulls poking each other in the eyes. Gidget is like Godzilla for girls. And Godzilla, as I'm sure we'd all agree, is fucking awesome. So, is Gidget awesome, too?

Only one way to find out.

First, though, a quick Gidget primer. It all started when Fred Kohner, a screenwriter, emigrated to the US from Germany in the early 1930's to avoid persecution from the Nazis. He settled in Malibu Beach and worked for Columbia Pictures. In 1957, he wrote Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas, a fictional account of his daughter Kathy's experiences learning to integrate into the male-dominated world of surfing. The book's chirpy heroine and theme of feminine empowerment proved a huge hit, and he quickly sold the film rights to Columbia. Three Gidget movies were produced in rapid succession, all starring different girls: Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), starring Deborah Walley, and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), starring Cindy Carol. Kohner also wrote a whopping seven sequels to his original novel. In 1965, Sally Field starred in Gidget the TV series. It only lasted one season, but ran for decades in reruns, and is still fondly remembered by many. There were Gidget TV movies throughout the 70's, and a short-lived TV revival series in the mid 1980's. And that's where the Gidget story ends, presumably because it is now impossible to find a seventeen year old actress without implants or a sex tape to essay the squeaky-clean title role.

Incidentally, the 'real' Gidget, Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, is alive and well, and living on the beach. So that's good.

The original Gidget is generally considered the best of the three films, mostly because of its star. Sandra Dee won a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer the same year she made Gidget. She was seventeen, and just two years into her acting career. Dee presented the sort of pure-as-driven-snow ideal that prevailed in the popular culture of the 50's and 60's. Of course, it was an all an act, and her private life was hobbled with drug and alcohol problems and a history of sexual abuse. None of this showed up on screen, however. Whether it was as Gidget or southern belle Tammy - who she portrayed in two films in the early 60s - Dee was a warm ray of pure sunshine, one of the most unabashedly delightful actresses of the era. She was the very essence of lightness and effervescence. Sandra Dee could make Zooey Deschanel look goth.

She died in 2005, aged 62, by the way. Kidney failure. But she was quite alive in 1959.

Francie (Dee) is almost seventeen. It's the summer, and, as her friends insist, it's time for her first 'manhunt'. Unlike her boy-crazy pals, Francie's never been kissed. She's not even sure she wants to be. A diehard tomboy, Francie would much rather run amuck than spend her days mooning over dudes. But what the hell, a day at the beach is a day at the beach, so she agrees to this 'manhunt' bullshit.

The girls find a spot near a group of surfers and plop themselves down, throwing shapes to attract the boys. But when the guys find their own surfboards more enticing then the ladies, they try distractions, like a purposefully disastrous game of catch, to get things going. Francie finds this whole charade sort of retarded, so she ditches her dopy friends and goes snorkeling instead.

Unfortunately, she quickly gets tangled up in a bunch of seaweed and starts screaming for help. It arrives in the form of a surfer boy named Moondoggie (James Darren), who drags her waterlogged carcass out of the briny deep and slaps it onto his board. And then he majestically "shoots the curl" until they arrive safely on shore. Our plucky heroine found the whole ordeal pretty exhilarating, but when she asks if Moondog will take her for another ride on the waves, she is summarily dismissed as a kooky dame by the surfer dudes, and sent on her way.

As Bugs Bunny would say, this means war. As she stomps her way off the beach, our pint-sized protagonist runs into Stinky (Joby Baker), the resident surfboard salesman. She would like to buy a board of her own, but the oddly-named board pusher informs her that his rock-bottom price is 25 clams. She's only got $4.50. Clearly, some sort of comical scheme to raise the money is in order.

Later that day, dad comes home and is alarmed to hear that his darling daughter has been out on a 'manhunt'. Luckily, she comes home early, showing no signs of ravishment. Dad, by the way, holds some serous sway over his household. As soon as Francie sees him, she offers to get him his slippers and/or pipe, and when he complains of a headache, his wife has him lay his weary head on her lap so that she can massage his temples. 1959 must have been the year of Manly Living.

Dad (Arthur O'Connell, RIP) wants to set Francie up with the son of one his colleagues - "A very serious college boy." Is he nuts, pimping his 17 year old daughter out to some scuzball fratboy? Francie doesn't want to hear about it anyway, since she cannot possibly find enjoyment in anything until she gets the 21 clams to buy a surfboard.

She whines, he caves, she gets the dough. Problem solved. Francie heads to the beach the next morning to buy her board, but Stinky's not around yet. She meets The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), a scruffy older dude who lives on the beach in a hut with a Mynah bird. Francie offers to make him his morning coffee. In exchange, he offers some slacker wisdom ("One thing I don't like: Chains.") Then he puts on his Hawaiian Punch hat, and heads for the water.

The Kahuna is so cool, by the way, that he can smoke a cigar while surfing.

After their run - or whatever you call it - the guys meet up on the beach, and Kahuna introduces Francie to them. One of the dudes calls her "Gidget", which they all think is hilarious. When Francie asks for an explanation, he tells her it's what you get when you mix a girl with a midget. Gidget. Because she's tiny. And thusly is a legend born.

After they make her rustle up some lunch for everybody, Stinky gives Gidget her new board, and Kahuna takes her out for her first lesson. Although he does manage to stop himself before he slaps her on the ass, he cannot help from making a joke about her modest bustline.
"Flat a pancake," he says, as she lies down on top of the board. "Well, almost."

It becomes increasingly clear that Kahuna is actually sorta pervy. Not only does he nuzzle the underage girl's cheek, he climbs right on top of her while she attempts to paddle away on her board and sinks his cheek into pillowy rump. So that's not right. Luckily the slightly younger but still too old Moondoggie shows up to shoo Kahuna away. He tells her she should probably beat it before some kind of gangbang situation develops.

Later that evening, Gidget has a heart to heart with her mom (Mary Laroche, RIP). She asks her if she thinks there might be something wrong with her. After all, all her friends are into 'smooching' and whatnots, and she just wants to be one of the guys.
" like boys, don't you?" Ask mom, momentarily terrified that perhaps her darling daughter is Sapphic-ly inclined.
"Sure," she shrugs, "But I can't stand it when they start smooching and pawing. Level with me mom, doesn't that stuff make your skin crawl?"
Perhaps Gidget should book a holiday in Vermont or somewhere. See what happens. Anyway, mom tells her not to worry, as it will all work out when she finds the right boy and falls in love. And she'll know when that's happening because it'll "Hit her in the head like a sledgehammer."

Well, guess what? The next day, Gidget goes back to the beach. The surfer dudes think it's time for her 'initiation', which, among other things, involves her diving underwater and cutting kelp. Seems stupid, but whatever. She ends up tangled in the stuff yet again, and Moondoggie has to save her. She ends up in Kahuna's shack, trying to recover, while Moondog croons a Sinatra-esque ditty about her. And suddenly, she feels that sledgehammer her mama warned her about.

Unfortunately, it's 1959, so there's nothing she can do about it. Turns out she really did herself in at the beach, and has to stay in bed 'for at least two weeks'. She tries to explain to her mother about how Moondog is her one true love, but mom gives her some weird advice: "One of the advantages of being a young lady is that it's not up to you, it's up to the man." What?

While she's stuck in the house on the mend, Gidget gets a bunch of books on surfing and bones up on the subject. By the time she gets better and hits the beach, she's an ace at it. On her first day back to the beach, she meets Joanne (Shary Lane), Moondog's prissy girlfriend.
"Moondog will tell you I'm not the outdoorsy type," she snips at her.
"Then you better get out of the sun before you melt," says Gidget.

So, there's a big Luau going down in two weeks, and all the surfer creeps are going to be there. Gidget naturally wants to go, but Kahuna and Moondog think she's too young. Determined to get an invite, she goes home and does some bust-enhancing exercises with her lesbian friend Betty Louise (Sue George), but she figures that will take too long, so she hires one of the other surfer dudes, Lover Boy (Billy Jack himself, Tom Laughlin) to pretend that he's into her, so that she can make Moondog jealous. Girls are very complicated creatures.

Anyway, then Kahuna's bird dies. So that's sad.
"I'm sorry, Kahuna," says Gidget. "I know Flyboy was all that you had."

So, the night of the big Luau finally arrives. Gidget gets dolled up and attempts to head out, but dad stops her and asks her why this boy she's so nuts about isn't coming by to pick her up. She starts crying and tears through the house, and then dad finds the leg of lamb she bribed Kahuna with to get into the party. Not surprisingly, dad is concerned. It really does seem like a bad deal, at this point.
"Legs of lamb? What kind of insanity has taken over this family?" He asks.

Gidget tells him she's going to go have sex with Moondog. And then she steals his car.
She goes to the bar where she's supposed to meet her fake date, but he swapped out with Moondog. So now she has to go to the Luau with the dude who she's supposed to be making jealous. What a mix-up. They get to the party and there's bongos and dudes in monster masks and the Four Preps - who have got to the lamest band of 1959 - play a tune called "Cinderella". Moondoggy is so fuckin' dense he still doesn't get that he's the one Gidget's after, so she tells him Kahuna's the guy she wants to make jealous, so at least she can get a little hand-holding action going. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Moondoggy's crooning and Gidget is swooning. But does he get what's really going on here?

No, he does not. Frustrated, Gidget splits with Kahuna to his buddy's beach shack.
"Wow, this is a real den of iniquity", she says when they get there.
Then she guzzles a beer and suggests that they bone.

So that's what they do. They make sweet 1950's love, and then later on, Kahuna leaves her in a ditch.

Just kidding. Everything works out in the end. But not before her crazy mother gives her more horrible advice, by way of grandma's needlepoint:

Ok, so the music is horrible and her mother is deranged, but otherwise, yes, Gidget is indeed awesome. Your girlfriend/wife/sister/mom was right. Frothy and fun, it's impossible not to like, and despite the odd tinges of 50's era chauvinism, the film holds up remarkably well. Sandra Dee is adorable, the surfer-speak is a howl, and the central theme - girls can do guy stuff as well as guys, probably better - is just as relevant and important-to-hear today as it was fifty years ago. As Gidget herself would say, "Honest to goodness, it's the absolute ultimate!"

- Ken McIntyre

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