A crowd-pleaser if there ever were one — not to mention leagues more charismatic than the beach party movies it would spawn — Paul Wendkos’ Gidget offers beautiful photography and a litany of engaging performances, although none more vivacious than Sandra Dee.
At merely 17-years-old, and on loan to Columbia Pictures from Paramount, Dee stars as Francis Lawrence, the pariah of her statuesque, boy-crazy friend group. Her diminutive stature earns her the nickname “Gidget” (a portmanteau of “girl” and “midget”) from a group of hunky, horny surfer dudes, unofficially led by The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson). Following his stint in the Korean War, Kahuna — who is twice the age of the other boys — has left society in favor of catching the next wave and being the de-facto father figure for young men just as aimless as himself.
When Gidget ditches her friends to go swimming and nearly drowns, she’s rescued by “Moondoggie” (James Darren) on his surfboard. The thrill of riding a lengthy curl-wave all the way to shore excites her. She begs her parents (Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche) for the remaining $21.50 to purchase a refurbished, $25 board, and soon enough, she’s off soaking up the Southern California sun. It isn’t so easy, however. Gidget is subject to some cruel “initiation” at the hands of the boys. They see her as a plaything more than an autonomous gal. That said, she takes a lot of the initial apprehension, rejection, and belittling in stride; her friends would never.
Gidget is a spirited little frolic; lighthearted entertainment with enough fledgling hormones and sexual innuendoes to suggest a new dawn for teen cinema and American culture was on the horizon. The film was based on Frederick Kohner’s 1957 novel of the same name. He modeled Gidget after his own teenage daughter, Kathy, who apparently had little interest in boys as a teen and would’ve rather spent her days surfing. It’s been said that when Columbia bought the rights to his novel for $50,000, Kohner gave a substantial amount to his daughter.
Gidget then became a film franchise, spawning two theatrical sequels, three TV movies, a 1965 ABC TV series (starring Sally Field) that lasted a season, and a rebooted series in 1986. With Dee not reprising the role in any of the later installments, I can’t believe they harbor the same kind of charm. The liberation of the story is deeply felt thanks to her instant likability, and screenwriter Gabrielle Upton does fine work in never letting Moondoggie usurp Gidget as the focal point. This is a sweet little treat; a perfect excuse to stay inside when the mercury rises above 90.
One other note; a scene I won’t soon forget. There’s a terrific little moment when the camera cuts to Gidget’s bedroom, where he friend is coaching her as she performs an odd chest exercise. Gidget’s friend tells her to stop and then pulls out a soft tape measure. “They might’ve grown,” she says encouragingly. “Oh, forget it,” Gidget replies.
NOTE: As of this writing, Gidget is streaming on Spectrum and Watch TCM.
Starring: Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson, Mary LaRoche, Arthur O’Connell, and The Four Preps. Directed by: Paul Wendkos.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!