Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gidget: “How Cute Can One Girl Be?”

Sixteen-year-old straight A-student Francie (Sandra Dee) is coaxed into a beach excursion by her gal pals for some “man hunting.” A group of surfing guys pays little attention to the girls, which is blamed on the tomboyish Francie, who freely admits to disliking “smooching” and all that “pawing” from boys. When Francie takes a dip in the ocean, she’s caught in some kelp and is saved from a potential drowning by Moondoggie (James Darren). The girl’s short ride back to shore atop a surfboard spurs a newfound enthusiasm for surfing. She begs her father for the money to buy a used surfboard.

The next day, Francie returns to the beach and meets surf bum, Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), who lives in a shack on the sandy shore. Well beyond his teens (“He’s an older boy,” Francie tells her mother), Kahuna seems to take an instant liking to Francie, and she soon earns the respect of the other male surfers, who dub her “Gidget,” a merging of girl and midget (though she’s more affectionately called “Gidge”). Francie deftly handles the boys’ initiation and spends the summer honing her surfing skills. But it’s not long before smooching a boy doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, and the Gidge has her eyes set on Moondoggie.

Gidget (1959), helmed by TV/film director Paul Wendkos, was based on Frederick Kohner’s novel, Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas (although more commonly known by the condensed title). The film not only popularized surfing (and surf culture in general, particularly surf rock groups) but was also a forerunner for the Beach Party films in the ‘60s.

While the Beach Party movies include crowds of guys ogling the girls in bikinis, the surfers in Gidget are a different breed. They care more for catching waves and even mock Francie’s friends when the girls “accidentally” hit a ball their way so that the boys will acknowledge them. Moondoggie and the others are there for the ocean, not the girls, one of whom is played by Yvonne Craig, who would later star as Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) on the cult TV series, Batman, as well as Marta, the green slave girl from Star Trek recognizable even to novices of the show. The surf bum lifestyle that Kahuna lives and Moondoggie desires is a carefree, day-to-day existence. What makes Francie so appealing is that she seems to have the same attitude, unburdened by concern over what others think of her. From the beginning, she’s a surfer without a surfboard, and the surfing boys quickly accept her as one of them. The nickname with which Francie is bestowed seems like ridicule, but in little time, it’s abbreviated to Gidge, a moniker that Francie redefines with her generous nature and perseverance.

At the same time, Francie, in spite of being a tomboy, is still a teenager and prone to corresponding behavior. Francie, for instance, is smart enough to employ the “daddy’s little girl” routine to get what she wants. She asks her father to help her purchase a used surfboard, but he’s more precisely buying it for her, since he’s contributing over 80 percent of the 25-dollar price tag. Likewise, Francie tends to give too much significance to trivial things: she’s convinced that the surfboard is a “guarantee for a summer of sheer happiness,” while an invitation to a luau is something she wants “more than anything else in the whole wide world.” These characteristics are certainly not flaws, but instead make her seem more appropriate. As it happens, Francie is a little too perfect with her squeaky clean family life. She does occasionally argue with her parents, but no one ever seems truly upset or agitated, and there’s a distinct impression that there’s simply nothing wrong with Francie.

Despite its lightheartedness, Gidget is much more serious in overall tone than later films such as Beach Party (1963). Francie’s relationship with Moondoggie seems more meaningful because they began as friends and only later developed romantic feelings. At one point, Francie seems to question if a more shapely body would make boys take note. Though they never explicitly say it, she and her friend contemplate giving her an artificially bigger bust (fortunately the idea is almost immediately squelched). By the time this topic is addressed, Francie is already a surfer and a part of the boys’ clique. Her implication that a girl could so easily and superficially make boys aware of her presence seems highly critical of the male characters. Near the end of the film is a scene that’s more arduously dramatic. Had it been handled with any humor, it would have been far worse, but it remains a somewhat uncomfortable affair and is a relief when it’s over.

One of Francie’s friends, Betty Louise (Sue George), typically called B.L., is more a tomboy than Francie. B.L. is in the film’s first scene, and her short haircut and boyish attire initially make it difficult to determine whether or not she is a boy. More notable is the fact that B.L. never goes scouring for boys at the beach, and, unlike Francie, is apparently not even pressured to do so. She is, however, quite hilarious and a highlight of the movie. In one scene, Francie practices surfing on her bed, with B.L. reading a how-to book and shaking the mattress to replicate waves. When Francie insinuates that she should have spent more time surfing (or engaging in similar activities), B.L. accepts blame for congratulating Francie on her good grades: “I should have belted you one right then!”

The Four Preps performed the title song that plays over the opening credits, and the song later becomes diegetic when played on the radio. The band also performs “Cinderella” onscreen during the luau.

Gidget spawned two theatrical sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Both were directed by Wendkos and featured a reprisal of Darren’s Moondoggie, but alas, Sandra Dee did not return. Deborah Walley, who starred in two of the Beach Party films, was Gidget in the first sequel, while Cindy Carol was the Gidget who went to Rome. Sally Field starred in the 1965-66 TV series, Gidget, while Karen Valentine played a slightly older Gidget in the TV movie, Gidget Grows Up (1969). Gidget really had grown up by the following TV films, Gidget Gets Married (1972), with Monie Ellis, and Gidget’s Summer Reunion (1985), with Caryn Richman. The latter inspired a TV series with Richman, The New Gidget, which lasted two seasons.

Sandra Dee is quite good as Gidget. Though she was sometimes mocked for her wholesome demeanor associated with her performances (see: the musical, Grease, and its 1978 film adaptation), Dee makes Francie a likable character. The title song instantly defines Francie, describing her short stature and her tomboy traits but stressing that she’s an ideal girl, with the refrain, “Gidget is the one for me,” and her “ring-sized” finger an unmistakable reference to marriage. When Francies wonders why she isn’t like her boy-crazy friends, her mom tells her that she is “too genuine.” That’s a perfect word for Francie, and when the opening credits song is praising a girl that the audience has not yet seen, she wins over the audience with minimal effort. Francie vies for attention in the film, but those watching the movie are hardly watching anyone other than the Gidge.


  1. I thought this was a nice review of one of my favorite comedies of of the 1960's. Sandra Dee was a true icon of that decade. I think a lot of people forget that today.

  2. I sometimes watch the Sally Fields TV version of "Gidget", but I had no idea that there was a movie. If you haven't seen the TV show, I'd recommend checking it out; it's a bit corny, but Gidge is adorable :)

  3. Sark, I really liked the movie "Gidget". I was little when it was released, but after seeing it when I became a teenager, I was really jealous of Francie! LOL! Indiana doesn't lend itself to surfing opportunities, though. I thought the movie was very good, light yet with some realism as well. Cliff Robertson was so good in a part that had some real depth to it. I know the scene to which you are referring, and I remember thinking it was a little scary, but incredibly romantic as well. My Dad did try to squelch that reaction from me!

    I did like the song a lot -- The Four Preps were a great singing group (I saw the other day that one of the has died). It was catchy and fun. I hadn't put together the identities of the other girls, and was very interested in your identification of them. that was also an good catch in the role of Gidget's friend Bette, who is the true tomboy. Real tomboys don't look or have the same experiences as a Francie!

    Great review of a really fine little movie. I still think the Robertson/Gidget scene is alluring, to say the least, but I'm certainly old enough now that my Dad can't tell me what to do! LOL!

  4. GIDGET and WHERE THE BOYS ARE started the teen sand-and-surf films of the 1960s, but (as you pointed out) are very different in tone from the fluffier films that followed. While they are inherently lighthearted, each film includes a somewhat incongruous serious scene. It's almost as if the filmmakers felt they needed to address the dangers of the fun-in-the-sun lifestyle even as they spent most of the films celebrating it. I also always felt there something incongruous about Sandra Dee's screen persona: she plays the tomboy well in GIDGET, but she still projects sex appeal. Her combination of innocence and sex appeal doesn't compare with Annette in the BP movies, though. While I've always enjoyed GIDGET, Moondoggie drives me crazy--he clearly doesn't deserve Gidget (just as Frankie doesn't deserve Dee Dee in the BP flicks...what's up with this?). Sark, this was a thought-provoking review of an influential movies that largely gets written off as a nostalgic drive-in flick. As for the other Gidgets--as much as I like Deborah W.--the only Gidge for me is Sandra Dee!

  5. I absolutely adore the original "Gidget." The color is great, Sandra Dee is cute and James Darren is hot. :) It's one of those movies I watch that I'm sad to see end.

    I've actually read the book and it's pretty different, but also really good. Gidget is a little faster and less innocent than Sandra Dee. Alot of it is similar though. I read alot on the real Gidget too and last time I checked, she was still surfing.

    I know this caused a spin off of Gidget movies, shows and specials, as well as all sorts of other Beach Movies.

    I try not to lumpy Gidget and Annette movies too much together because they are pretty different. I will say, "Gidget Goes Hawaiin" is pretty bad. "Gidget Goes to Rome" isn't horrible but doesn't have the same charm. I actually have seen "Gidget Grows Up" with Karen Valentine where she goes to work at the UN (it's on Youtube) it's not the greatest, but kind of cute, but very cheesey. I want to see "Gidget Gets Married" where she and Moondoggie get married-but they didn't get married in real life- but I can't find it anywhere!

    Lol sorry for my long Gidget info. I used to be really really intersted in the 60s surfing culture :)

  6. I too always found the Cliff Robertson/Sandra Dee scene near the end, 'alluring'. In fact, I liked him much more than that Moondoggie - the always incredibly bland James Darren. (Sorry,JN.)

    A fun movie I haven't seen in years and years. I always liked Sandra Dee, it's too bad reality did her in.

  7. Sarkoffagus, I remember watching the original movie GIDGET on TV as a kid and enjoying it a lot. It's still totally winsome today. I especially appreciated your pointing out the contrast between Gidget and her surfer pals vs. the BEACH PARTY crew's antics. Excellent blog post, and a nice blast from the past!

  8. What I remember most about the film Gidget, was the beach, surfing and the sexy beach bums. I thought Sandra Dee, was the perfect teenage girl in the fifties, because of her innocence and her sense of adventure. Great post.. Cowabunga Dude!

    Dawn from N and CF.

  9. Sark, I have been trying to post for several days but have to do so anonymously as blogger won't let me sign in for some reason. I think Sandra Dee is perfect in her young roles including "A Summer Place," "Gidget," and "Tammy Tell Me True" and "Tammy and the Doctor." I loved your perfect tribute to Gidge.


  10. I taped this to see Sandra Dee in a film. I've read a few books about her life (and her relationship with Bobby Darren) now it's time to see her act! Looking forward to get my first taste of the beach movie!

  11. My favourite movie of all times.I loved Sandra Dee the best Gidget to play the part and Gidget was the better of the three.Now James Darren (Moon doggy what can I say.He still makes my heart throb and I get butter flies when I hear him
    sing Theres No such thing as love. Guess i will have to keep on dreaming.
    June 2nd 2012

  12. Sandra Dee is hot in this movie.The movie is pleasing.

  13. What a wonderful review! I absolutely love this movie. we need more Gidgets.

    1. Absolutely (preferably ones played by Sandra Dee!).

  14. I love Sandra Dee! I always thought it was weird & pure Hollywood that Sandra Dee only made the first (and best) Gidget film, only to be replaced by others including the red-headed Deborah Walley (Gidget is ALWAYS blonde!!). THEN Sandra went on to take a role in another film series, Tammy, originated by Debbie Reynolds. I always loved Sandra as Tammy, too, though, even more than Debbie.