I approached the new Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries limited edition Blu-Ray of the 1959 fave GIDGET with some trepidation. First off, I hadn’t seen the picture in decades, always avoiding the CinemaScope show’s pan-and-scan TV presentations, and I didn’t know if I could handle the diabetic repercussion side effects.
Well, no need to worry on either front. GIDGET turned out to be quite a surprise. Is it a youth-defining classic along the lines of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause or even Minnelli’s Home from the Hill? Admittedly, no. But neither is it the harmless fluff I expected. Adding the scenario’s built-in “the summer-beckoning” appeal didn’t hurt either, so let’s catch some rays.
The movie is an amusing coming-of-age picture that carries some of the genuine true-life frightening changes every teen experiences. Frances Lawrence (nicknamed Gidget, due in part to her diminutive size – a hybrid of girl and midget) is (as she tells us in the opening narration) in her sixteenth year. And it’s summer. She is a late bloomer, and doesn’t quite comprehend the changes in her BFFs. They all seem boy-crazy, up to borderline slutty shenanigans apparently rivaled only by Amsterdam hookers. Worse, they’re starting to shun Francie, favoring staking out their territory, jiggling, giggling and wiggling in bikinis, overthrowing volleyballs in the general direction of testosterone, slathering on makeup and trash-talkin’. The boys, some already crossing over into the adult male category, are fairly beguiled by the nubile lasses, but would rather check out the older, experienced versions – that is, when not obsessing on their other and predominant July-August fantasy: surfing.
Everyone seems to ignore Francie, who has only her parents and best BF, Betty-Louise (who, in a rather eyebrow-raising twist for a 1959 teen dramedy, might be gay) to confide in. Pop is a bit thick (but not as much as I originally thought – it’s amazing how, as I get older, dumbass parents become magically more reasonable). Therefore, it’s mom who lays the groundwork for the hormonal change that could attack at any moment, and thus changes the teen’s opinion of boys and rivalry.
It’s then Frances discovers the pleasures of the board – not trodding it, as in acting, but riding it, as it chasing waves. An A-student and accomplished cellist (items eschewed from the later installments), Ms. Lawrence gives 110% to her new number-one pastime, and soon becomes the guys’ mascot (ergo the Gidget moniker), much to the concern of her former girlfriends, whose jealousy rears its ugly head en masse.
Key in the group of grunting Neanderthals is Moondoggie, who helps show her the surfing ropes, and later saves her from a near-drowning mishap. Before you can say “Catcher in the Rye,” them hormones kick in like an erupting volcano.
GIDGET was based upon a novel by Frederick Kohner, who reportedly used his daughter in part as inspiration (his other movie works included Deanna Durbin and Jane Powell vehicles). It therefore warrants comparison to another enormously popular teen movie culled from a literary source, Glendon Swarthout’s Where the Boys Are, released in theaters a year later. Boys, truly more in the fluff slot than GIDGET (albeit entertainingly so), was watered down to the max for its movie morphing. The book was extremely dark and hovered around sexual predators. GIDGET, perceived as lightweight screen fare, cleverly hides its baptism-through-fire message, but amazingly also carries a rapey sidebar. In the movie, Gidget is offered “special” surfing lessons by a take-no-prisoners surfer, appropriately named Lover Boy. Later, another thoroughly creepy subplot surrounding an overaged beach bum (dubbed The Big Kahoona) maneuvers the underaged girl into his lair, and almost exposes her to that age-old fate-worse-than-death. The script by Gabrielle Upton neatly handles this volatile situation (and one that could have had the pic banned in several states), by having the pure intelligence and curiosity of its female protagonist give the Kahoona a revealing look at himself, mercifully before his swim-trunk string is loosened. The Kahoona’s salvation through Gidget is like a personified acne version of Dean Martin’s character’s regeneration in Rio Bravo (the latter’s, via a bottle of rejected booze); interestingly, both movies were released the same year.
GIDGET‘s success is due not only to the elements indicated above, but to the human forces that propelled them, the cast and the director. GIDGET‘s director is the underrated Paul Wendkos, who first attracted Columbia’s attention with his superb 1957 indie noir The Burglar. One would think that he was mammothly unsuited for a beach-bunny movie, but his masterful handling of its insidious adult themes (especially when viewed through my now aged adult peepers) vindicates his participation admirably. Wendkos, in fact, ended up helming every Gidget big-screen pic, which, I guess, pegged him as a Hollywood adolescent expert. But one cannot forget his noir routes. Wendkos’ 1985 TV remake of The Bad Seed freaked me out.
Certainly, each succeeding Gidget lowered the bar from ever being taken seriously. Like Menudo, all Gidgets and Gidget parents changed from sequel to sequel. Only Moondoggie’s thesp remained unchanged. While to many, Gidget conjures up the syrupy 1965 TV series that “made” Sally Field, the name itself instantly laser focuses movie fans to the image of Sandra Dee, the first (and for millions of Gidget fans) and only Frances Lawrence.
Dee, born Alexandria Zuck, is quite terrific in her impersonation as a naïve teen who gets that first nudge of womanhood. Her wonder and subsequent excitement are expertly played. For Dee, 1959 was her year. No less than three blockbuster movies featuring the blonde starlet hit the hardtop and drive-in screens: this pic, Imitation of Life and A Summer Place. She became an overnight superstar headlining youth flicks well into the mid-1960s. She would never get another project like any of these three, and lived off 1959 until the descent into AIP horror shockingly revealed a topless Dee in 1969’s The Dunwich Horror. It wasn’t until Grease‘s homage in song that her name became once more iconic. She is now forever Gidget, Lana Turner’s daughter and the unwed teen drifting through a Technicolored world dominated by a Percy Faith pimply pop tune.
Supporting Dee is the strongest Gidget cast ever. James Darren plays Moondoggie, the college drop-out who aspires to be Mini-Kahoona. Dare we say, he owns the role, as much as Dee owns hers. His even sings the bubble-gum sticky title tune that cements their connection although the real Dee’s affection went to another singing Darin. The aforementioned Kahoona is aced by a rather disturbing appearance by Cliff Robertson. Gidget’s parents are Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche. Her girlfriends are Yvonne Craig, Jo Morrow, and Sue George (as her aforementioned thoroughly butch bestie); the horndog beach bums include Joby Baker, Doug McClure and Tom Laughlin.
GIDGET was filmed in washed-out Eastman Color by Pathe (then hyped as ColumbiaColor) by the wonderful d.p. Burnett Guffey. As mentioned earlier, the inventive CinemaScope compositions were lost on millions of Boomer TV viewers by the awful pan-and-scan prints that dominated the airwaves for nearly thirty years. An atrocious Columbia Gidget DVD Box in the early 2000s missed the correct aspect ratio memo, and released the set full-frame.
The terrific Twilight Time Blu-Ray of GIDGET corrects all these aberrations. It’s in letter-perfect, crystal-clear 2.35:1, and boasts a beautiful color palette. Interior lighting is especially ominously atmospheric, particularly in the sequence where Robertson contemplates deflowering the gullible Dee. A tantalizing trailer covers all bases, comparing the blossoming nymphet to her more grown-up Euro counterparts (“Gidget rhymes with Brigitte”), and offers up a wacky play on words that take their cue from the less frothy culture sources as Kerouac and The Blackboard Jungle (heralding the movie as being about The Beach Generation and announcing “a teenager can be juvenile without being delinquent”).
The music score, like all Twilight Time titles, is accessible as an IST, and features a number of standard Columbia stock riffs, as boom-boomed by Morris Stoloff, but also embryonic orchestrations by John Williams. The Four Preps’ rock ‘n’ roll/folk vibe, alas, is laughable. They come off like a Republican barbershop quartet at an EMILY’s List rally. That said, this is sort of apt, considering the overall charm/point of this “where do I fit in?” sweet curio of the horrors of growing up.
GIDGET. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TWILIGHT-305 BR. SRP: $29.95.