Starring Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Mary LaRoche, Joby Baker, Tom Laughlin, Yvonne Craig, Doug McClure, Jo Morrow, Burt Metcalfe and the Four Preps. Directed by Paul Wendkos. From Columbia Pictures.
The two best friends of young Francine “Francie” Lawrence (Dee) make an announcement; it’s time they went on a “man hunt”. Francie turns up her nose. Boys are okay as partners in science class but out on a date they come all unglued. She doesn’t see the appeal and couldn’t be bothered but her friends insist. Out they go to Malibu, their local beach, where there are always lots of boys gathered. The girls use their wiles to get the boys to notice them but it is to no avail and Francie grows tired of the nonsense and goes for a swim instead.
While swimming, Francie gets caught in some kelp. The boys have hit the surf by this point and one of them hears her cry for help. Just as local surfer “Moondoggie” (Darren) frees Francie, a big set bears down on them. Moondoggie warns Francie to hang on; “we’re gonna shoot the curl!”. With Francie laying on his board, Moondoggie navigates the breakers and the two arrive safely on shore. Francie is elated! The ride was thrilling and now she wants her own board. The boys tease her and bestow on her a new nickname; “Gidget”, because she is half-girl, half midget. Francie vows to bring money next time to buy a board from “Stinky” (Baker).
Back home, Francie tells her parents (O’Connell and LaRoche) about her day and the thrills to be found in surfing. She pleads with her father for an advance on her allowance so she can buy a board and while her dad is reluctant he appreciates the healthy, outdoorsy nature of the sport and gives Francie the money, calling the board her birthday gift. Francie’s joy is short-lived as Mr. Lawrence tells her that a colleague of his has a son named Jeffrey who would like to take Francie out on a date. This upsets Francie who runs to her room. Her mother talks to her later, assuring her that someday soon she will feel those special feelings about just the right boy.
Next day, Gidget is a hit with the boys at the beach – or her money is. Gidget is presented to the leader of the group, an older boy who is called “The Big Kahuna” (Robertson), and she is declared their mascot and initiated into the group. The initiation involves some underwater work that gets the better of Gidget and she falls ill. The boys rush her back to their beach shack and attempt to nurse her back to health. As Moondoggie cares for her and sings to her, Gidget starts to think that this might be the boy her mother told her about. Gidget ends up with tonsillitis and is out of commission for a few days.
Hanging out at the shack, Moondoggie and Kahuna talk of their plans for the future including following the surf when the summer ends. Kahuna, though, wonders aloud if Moondoggie really has what it takes to chuck everything and be a surf bum. Moondoggie insists that he’s on board but Kahuna wonders – and shows Moondoggie a discarded cheque. Moondoggie reveals its his allowance from his rich old man but vows to be ready to go with Kahuna when the time comes.
Returning to the beach, Gidget ramps up her efforts to win Moondoggie by becoming an accomplished surfer. This she does but Moondoggie still won’t give her a tumble, due in part to her youthful inexperience. Gidget begins to hear about the big luau that is planned but the boys won’t let her come. Gidget is their innocent mascot and the luau – more of an orgy – is no place for her. Gidget is determined, though, and wrangles an invite from Kahuna. Her hope is to make Moondoggie jealous and so she hires a boy to take her to the luau and give her the mad rush. When the boy she hires gives the job to Moondoggie, though, Gidget’s plans are sunk. She then claims to Moondoggie that the boy she wants to get jealous is Kahuna. Moondoggie is surprised and hurt thinking that she was sweet on him.
Things at the luau get out of hand and Gidget ends up alone with Kahuna at a beach shack that is a real den of iniquity. Moondoggie and her parents are hunting for her and Gidget ends up in the hands of the police. In the end, she sees she has made a huge impact on both Moondoggie and Kahuna and she herself has taken a huge step towards womanhood.
I have long had a clutch of films that I love to watch in the summer. I may not get out and about and do much myself anymore and so I enjoy watching the adventures of others. If the action of these films deals with young people navigating the transition from child to adult, all the better as this story element is charming, dramatic and appeals to me greatly. If you add in the style, music, fashions and physical settings of mid-century… These beach films are not only near and dear to me, I suppose they are my absolute favourite sub genre of movies. For charm and dramatic appeal in a beach setting, I don’t think I can recommend any film more highly than I can Gidget.
Austrian-born Frederick Kohner studied in Vienna and then wrote his film thesis, “Film ist Dichtung” (“Film is Poetry”) which lead to his job as a movie correspondent in Hollywood for German newspapers. Somehow, while employed as such, he ended up with a small role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Kohner returned to work in the German film industry, in one instance alongside a young Billy Wilder, and he was able to contribute to films made by his brother, Universal producer Paul Kohner and director Robert Siodmak until work as a Jew in Germany became unsustainable. Moving to the US with his family, Kohner engaged in minor work in Hollywood that included an Oscar nom for Best Original Story for the Deanna Durbin musical Mad About Music (1938). As screenwriting work dried up, Kohner and his wife started a family.
The Czechoslovakian-Jewish Kohners raised their two daughters in America in one of the hubs of American lifestyle, Southern California. Their youngest daughter, Kathy, was drawn to the seaside and to the culture rising up there, particularly at Kathy’s home beach, Malibu. What was fascinating to the Kohner pater was the life at the beach his daughter reported on complete with jargon unintelligible to a European from the older generation. Kohner decided to write a novel based on Kathy’s experiences. In six weeks, he had knocked out the book titled after the nickname his daughter had been given; Gidget.
Kohner sold the rights to Columbia for $50,000 and gave 5% to Kathy. The script was written by soap opera writer Gillian Houghton using the pen name Gabrielle Upton and handed over to producer Lewis J. Rachmil. Now, here’s a name I have a certain affection for. I recognize his name whenever I see it due to his years spent as first art director and later as producer of many Hopalong Cassidy westerns. He also earned an Oscar nomination for the art direction of Our Town (1940) and you’ve seen his name on movies like The Great Rupert and Quicksand both from 1950. Somehow, at the end of his life, 75-year-old Rachmil produced Footloose, a film that wrapped filming in January of 1984; Rachmil passed on February 19th of that year. And I should mention the vibrant photography of this film is the work of Burnett Guffey, a legendary and prolific cinematographer who worked on countless films and actually won Academy Awards for his work before and after our film; he was honoured for From Here to Eternity in 1953 and for Bonnie and Clyde in 1967.
Paul Wendkos – yet another guy from Philadelphia – served during World War II in the Navy before moving to Hollywood where his first feature as director was the 1957 film noir The Burglar. Another noir, The Case Against Brooklyn, and a war film, Tarawa Beachhead, followed before he was given his fourth assignment, Gidget. He would go on to direct Cliff Robertson in Battle of the Coral Sea (1959) and James Darren in Because They’re Young (1960). He would direct all three films in the original Gidget trilogy, helming Gidget Goes Hawaiian in ’61 and Gidget Goes to Rome in 1963. He also shepherded Burt Reynolds through his first film, Angel Baby, in 1961 and then later made something of a name for himself directing action films in the late 1960s and into the 70s. Wendkos would be more prolific as a director of television and only directed 17 features. He is given high standing in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood universe where he is cited as Rick Dalton’s favourite director. Paul Wendkos ended his career with a string of TV movies; he directed 8 of them between 1990 and 1993.
Sandra Dee is perhaps Hollywood’s most beloved and endearing ingénue. Dee’s troubled childhood, her high-profile marriage to Bobby Darin and the struggles of her later life are tales too involved to tell here. Suffice it to say that by the time she was cast as Gidget, she had not yet made her mark in the film world. The success of Gidget certainly put her on the map and she could be seen in theatres later the same year in the melodrama Imitation of Life. She then made a splash in the salacious A Summer Place opposite Troy Donahue. While making Come September in 1960, Dee fell in love with and soon married her co-star, Bobby Darin, and the two would go on to make two other delightful romantic comedies with each other. While she left the role of Gidget behind after one go-’round, Dee picked up a role Debbie Reynolds had discarded after one film. Sandra played the simple country girl in the big city Tammy Tyree in Tammy Tell Me True (1961) with her Imitation of Life co-star, handsome John Gavin and Tammy and the Doctor (1963) with Peter Fonda in an early role. Perhaps Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Dee when her youthful effervescence began to show signs of fading and her career trailed off after a notable turn in the horror film The Dunwich Horror (1970). Sadly, Sandra Dee spent her final years battling alcoholism, mental illness, reclusiveness and anorexia nervosa. She died from kidney disease in 2005. She was 62.
James Darren (born James Ercolani, 1936) qualifies as a legend. Another Vintage Leisure player born in Philly, James wanted to be an actor and studied with Stella Adler. He was discovered by casting director Joyce Selznick and his film career got off to a solid start with appearances in films noir and other work. When he was cast in Gidget, producers had songs ready and asked Darren to lip sync. Jimmy told them he could sing them himself and the rest, as they say… Gidget was a hit and Darren was hustled into the recording studio; the guy who had never claimed to be a singer and who had started out playing Richard Conte’s brother in the gritty The Brothers Rico was now a recording star. Two Top Ten hits quickly followed, “Goodbye Cruel World” and “Her Royal Majesty”.
Darren somehow straddled the line managing to appear as both the Greek with an itchy trigger finger in the classic The Guns of Navarone and as Moondoggie again in the first Gidget sequel, Gidget Goes Hawaiian in the same year, 1961. Again in the same year – 1962 – Darren made the melodrama Diamond Head with Chuck Heston and the third Gidget film, Gidget Goes to Rome. Darren was the only actor (with supporting player Joby Baker) to appear in all three of the principal Gidget films and his portrayal of Moondoggie is the only good one in the history of the Gidget arc.
After another great teen film, this one with gorgeous Pamela Tiffin, For Those Who Think Young (1964) and the striking European film Venus in Furs (1970), Darren moved into television and had starring roles in The Time Tunnel and later with Canadian Bill Shatner in T.J. Hooker. Later, Darren directed on television including episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210. The thing you need to know about James Darren is that he is a dude. Also, for a guy who never wanted to be a singer and who sometimes gets lumped in with the Fabians and Bobby Rydells, James Darren is a fantastic singer and joins Frankie Avalon as two seemingly lightweight Philly boys who really have the pipes.
The careers of Sandra Dee and James Darren are mostly remembered today because of their work in lighter fare like Gidget. Cliff Robertson though is remembered today less for the Big Kahuna and more for an Academy Award-winning career that saw him take on many substantial and adventurous roles. Born the heir of a ranching empire, Cliff was raised by a grandmother in and around La Jolla after his parents split and his mother died of peritonitis at age 21. After spending part of World War II in the Merchant Marine, he went to New York to study at the Actors Studio. He had made only a handful of films – including 1955’s Picnic – when he was tapped to play the leader of the surf bums in Gidget. Immediately following our film, Cliff worked again with director Wendkos in Battle of the Coral Sea, a film that looms large in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood world; Tarantino says the film was based on Cliff Booth’s war exploits and Rick Dalton had a small role in it.
Cliff Robertson shows up in some good films; Underworld, USA (1961), P.T. 109 (1963), in which he played John F. Kennedy, the delightful Sunday in New York (1963) and 633 Squadron (1964). Then he won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Charly (1968), a drama film based on a science fiction short story that had a score by Ravi Shankar. Robertson would go on to have a solid career in Hollywood though he never again scaled the heights. In 1977, Robertson stumbled on a cheque that had been made out to him for $10,000 that included his forged signature that was issued for work he had never done. When he reported this, he triggered an investigation into then-Columbia Pictures head David Begelman who was fired, charged and convicted of embezzlement. Many in Hollywood told Robertson and his wife, heiress and actress Dina Merrill, to keep quiet about it and when he refused he was promptly blacklisted by Hollywood producers.
He returned much later and worked regularly. He played Hugh Hefner in Star 80 (1983), played the president in Escape from L.A. (1996) and wrapped his acting career with some note when he portrayed Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in the three Spider-Man movies released between 2002 and 2007; his voice can be heard also in 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Cliff Robertson was an avid flyer and accomplished pilot. Two days after his 78th birthday – on September 11, 2001 – he was flying his own Beechcraft Baron above New York City. Cliff was directly above the World Trade Center when the first airplane struck one of the towers. Authorities ordered him to land at the nearest airport. All in all, a pretty cool dude, welcomed in any film. California-born, of Texas stock, Robertson spent his final days living in the woods in New York state. Cliff – obituaries hailed him as “Oscar-winning rebel” – died in 2011. He was 88.
Arthur O’Connell had been nominated for an Oscar for his work in Picnic with Robertson in ’55. He had been making films for 20 years by the time he was 51 and playing the father of 16-year-old Gidget. He was uncredited in many early film appearances including as a reporter in Citizen Kane (1941) and in a favourite of mine, Blondie’s Blessed Event, one of 8 films he made in 1942. Still uncredited in noirs The Naked City and Force of Evil – 2 of the 7 he made in ’48 – before getting some love in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Bus Stop (both 1956) and Man of the West in ’58. He would continue on a prolific run that saw him make two films with Elvis Presley and The Silencers in 1966 with Dean Martin. Mary LaRoche was an actress and singer who made only 8 feature films. Aside from Gidget, other notable ones are Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) and two with Annie, Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and The Swinger (1966).
Montreal’s Joby Baker (born 1934) is another of our cast who shows up in Elvis World. In Girl Happy (1965), Baker was part of a cast of buddies for Elvis’ character that looked like they might actually hang out with a guy who looks like Elvis; a rarity in King Movies. Added to this, Joby was married to Elvis’ two-time co-star Joan Blackman. In 1984, Baker married Dory Previn and the two were married until Previn’s death in 2012. Not much for movie acting, Joby Baker was in all three Gidget movies – though not always playing the same character. Baker has had his art exhibited in Los Angeles galleries.
Tom Laughlin and Yvonne Craig are two interesting additions to the cast of Gidget as both went on to notable careers. By 1959, Tom had earned small roles in films like Tea and Sympathy (1956) and after our film he pursued unique avenues in Hollywood. An ambitious and socially-conscious young man, Tom Laughlin deserves more space than I can give him here. Let it suffice to say that he is the creator of the iconic Billy Jack character that appeared in many films and even sought the presidency before passing in 2013 at 82. Trained ballet dancer Yvonne Craig was a prolific TV actress who, after Gidget, appeared on the big screen in the melodrama By Love Possessed (1961) before entering Elvis World with a steamy but brief appearance in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and, the next year, in Kissin’ Cousins. Add American-International‘s Ski Party (1965) and In Like Flint in 1967 and Yvonne Craig appeared in some iconic film series. She may be best known as Batgirl in the Batman television show. Throw in her guest spot on Star Trek and Yvonne could have spent eternity appearing at various conventions throughout the world. She passed in 2015.
Doug McClure would soon land the role for which he is best remembered, that of Trampas for the entire 9-year run of The Virginian. Doug was married five times – which may be why he died at 59. Jo Morrow appeared in Juke Box Rhythm released the same year Gidget was. She co-starred in that film with a young Jack Jones. I know her from her work in Sunday in New York with Cliff Robertson. Jo quit Hollywood after only ten films to care for her daughter who was born deaf. Canadian Burt Metcalfe plays Lord Byron in Gidget. Born in Saskatoon, Burt would go on to work behind the camera; he produced all but 5 of the 256 episodes of M*A*S*H. I was surprised to learn that he died – at 87 – two days after I started writing this article.
Fred Karger composed two of the three songs in Gidget. The title track is delightful with some really clever lyrics – “a regular tomboy but dressed for a prom, boy, how cute can one gal be?” – by Patti Washington and equally as engaging is “The Next Best Thing to Love”. The singing group the Four Preps were called upon to join James Darren in providing the vocal entertainment for the film. The quartet from Hollywood High scored hits with “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” and “Big Man” before they were tapped to appear in our film. The third song in the film, “Cinderella”, was written by two of the four Preps, Bruce Belland and Glen Larson. Interestingly, Larson would become Glen A. Larson (1937 – 2014), TV producer extraordinaire who was responsible for shows like Alias Smith and Jones, Battlestar Galactica, Quincy, M.E., The Fall Guy – the theme for which, “The Unknown Stuntman”, Larson also wrote for star Lee Majors to sing – Magnum, P.I., and Knight Rider. “Gidget” and “The Next Best Thing to Love” are two of the best songs to come out of these beach-themed films.
You can’t blame Gidget. It is commonly accepted that this film signalled the beginning of Hollywood’s fascination with teenagers on the beach and that is true. Gidget was always a stalwart during my family’s “Beach Party Weekends”. When my kids were little, the four of us would pick a weekend in coldest February and flop on a futon mattress on the floor and spend a couple of days watching beach movies. One of the other regulars was an excellent documentary from 2004 called Riding Giants. In the film, the chronology of surf culture is presented with a focus on big-wave surfing and surfers. One of the most significant points of the film is when some of the surfers interviewed point specifically to Gidget as the ruination of their lifestyle. The problem with the movie was many-fold. In the film, actors as opposed to surfers are utilized, naturally. As a result, the way these actors relate to the waves they ride and the manner in which they describe and present the lifestyle was something less than genuine.
Additionally, Gidget and the films that followed made surfing so popular that it ceased being a niche pursuit that only a few die-hards took part in. Suddenly and particularly at Malibu, this core group saw their beach – their turf, their playground – inundated by neophyte “surfers” hoping to emulate Moondoggie and the Big Kahuna. “Posers”. When one arrives at an endeavour or a discipline by contrived means, the more genuine adherents easily and understandably take umbrage. But there are a couple things to consider.
First is the idea that some young men and women may have truly had their eyes opened by Gidget and its progeny. Some landlubbers in the middle of the country may have seen their futures laid out before them. They may have moved westward and finally found their calling in life; or at the very least a hobby that would serve them deeply and well throughout the coming years. And those born and raised in SoCal may never have considered that which was there for the taking in their own backyard. It looked outdoorsy, healthy and fun to them and they bought their first boards. Whatever people’s motivations, surfing soon exploded and beaches on the west coast in particular were soon glutted and overpopulated by both those who had been there from the beginning and those who were trying something new – for heartfelt, serious reasons or just for mindless kicks.
One of the kids who saw her lifestyle being adopted by the new hordes was Gidget herself. Gidget‘s rep as a quality pop culture document comes from Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, Frederick Kohner’s daughter and the subject of his books. Kathy was indeed a tiny 15-year-old girl who caught the surfing bug when it was still a more private pursuit. She attempted to ingratiate herself with the group of surfers who called Malibu their home break. Kathy really did trade food for the chance to be allowed to surf and to receive instruction from the boys on the beach. Additionally the “boys on the beach” included some of the biggest names in surfing’s history. Names like Miki Dora, Mickey Munoz, Dewey Weber and Tom Morey loom large in the sport’s lore and these were her friends. They really did name her “Gidget”.
So we can’t blame Gidget. Not only did it rise organically from a real life girl’s real life adventures but the film itself is more about a young girl’s coming of age than it is a study of the sport of surfing. With this film you get a pleasant family story featuring wonderful photography of not only the ocean and the beach but of the Lawrence home and neighbourhood and some beautiful cars, as well. You get a depiction of life, Francie’s young life as she navigates feelings that are new to her. Perhaps my beloved beach party movies from American-International are much more to blame as they soon followed with little redeeming story value and were more concerned with just including surfing in a pastiche of teenaged lunacy. So maybe we can consider Gidget more of a teen drama that just happens to concern itself with surfing and surfers.
Truth be told, there is a lot more grit to this film than history has bestowed on it in hindsight. The scene at the beach shack is particularly dramatic. Consider that 16-year-old Gidget intends to have Korean War vet Kahuna deflower her. As the older man at first plays along to teach her a lesson, he at one point catches himself becoming enchanted. He pulls the plug almost immediately but the fact that she has deliberately manipulated this scenario is telling and the outcome could have been vastly different.
The beach is depicted idyllically. Filmed at Leo Carillo State Beach, I will say that the large drop off that seems to exist before you get to the water seems odd but otherwise this is a pleasant setting. Dig the long flight of stairs that leads down to the beach which puts me in mind of a similar one in Big Wednesday (1978). At the top of the stairs is a hamburger stand and throughout the film you can spot older couples living the life, sipping Cokes and eating hot dogs. And the idea of constructing a lean-to on the beach in which to chill throughout the summer is enchanting.
In one of my first proper articles on this site, I looked at the phenomenon of Gidget in its entirety see it here). I came to the conclusion that one of the most endearing elements of the character is her strong femininity. At the beginning of the film, Gidget is still a child, happily content to be so and interested not one bit in entering womanhood or exploring boys and dates. But the adventures of one her age leaves her no choice as she joins the gang of boys on the beach. Almost immediately, she has effects on two of them – although I do get a chuckle at how indifferent the guys are when the girls first execute their man hunt. The boys are more concerned with surf and strumming a ukelele.
Cliff’s Kahuna character is interesting. He is a war vet who is sick of taking orders, be they from a commanding officer or a boss. He makes a choice many of us have thought about making; chuck it all and be a surf bum. Another chuckle comes from Gidget’s horror when she learns that Kahuna doesn’t have a job! But aimlessness seems to be eating at Kahuna and Gidget’s gentle prodding have him reconsidering his choices. Perhaps Gidget’s later determination to fling herself at him gives him pause. I could never defile this little girl, bad enough that I’m even here with one so young. Better get back to reality. In fact, Gidget’s relationship with Kahuna – despite there barely being one – is more significant than the one she has with Moondoggie. With the younger boy, it’s simply a crush that turns into love. Kahuna she seems to be determined to help, to fix, and in her gentle way she gives him assurance that playing the game, living life somewhat by the rules, is not giving up or being defeated. It is forging your own path, contributing while still pursuing your dreams and getting your kicks. Gidget’s “pivot point” in life coincides with similar points in the lives of these two guys. Moondoggie, too, decides that he must stick to the plot and head to school back east. This makes me wonder.
Did Hollywood always present surfing as an aimless life, something to grow out of, something to put aside when it was time to enter adulthood? In Gidget, Kahuna goes back to work and Moondoggie goes back to school. In Ride the Wild Surf (1964), Jody’s choice to be a surf bum comes as the result of his wanting to avoid dealing with people and perhaps failure and betrayal in the adult world. And Steamer – always more of a worker – puts an end to his regular pursuit of waves to work on a farm. In Big Wednesday (1978), the three friends reunite to see if the youthful hobby they’ve had to confine to a corner of their lives really had merit. And in Under the Boardwalk (1989), Allie tells Nick “surf all your life – just don’t be a surfer all your life”. Something to think about but this is a topic for another day.
How nice it is when, at the end of our movie, Kahuna makes note of the fact that Gidget is quite a girl. The same goes for this delightful film.