My only experience with actress Sandra Dee‘s film career was Rizzo singing “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” in Grease. I’ve read a few books about Dee’s life, specifically with her marriage to Bobby Darrin, and I figured now was a good time to actually see Sandra Dee: actress! So what better way then to watch the wholesome, sweet, harmless beach movie Gidget! I mean Gidget is cited as the predecessor to all those Frankie and Annette movies (Beach Blanket Bingo is on tap for this blog too) so how bad can it be? Apparently no one felt the need to tell me Gidget deals with some heady stuff, most prominently a loss of virginity! There’s a few cringe-inducing moments that are just creepy. I almost wondered if Gidget wasn’t a Lifetime original movie. The movie’s sweet and bouncy sure, but near the end there’s a distinct turning point that I never expected.
Francie Lawrence (Dee) is different from her friends in that she’s not interested in finding a boyfriend over the summer. Forced into taking a trip to the beach Francie falls in with a group of male surfers and she desperately wants to learn how to surf herself. The boys don’t take her seriously and bestow the name Gidget on her (“girl, midget, Gidget!”). As Francie becomes more skilled at surfing she starts to fall for surfer boy Moondoggie (James Darren) and also develops a mentoring relationship with the mysterious Kahuna (Cliff Robertson).
I expected to hate this movie and in the beginning I did. It’s cheesy, it’s blatantly obvious no one’s surfing (no matter how much you move from side to side it never looks realistic), and it does set up the tropes that are now played for laughs when spoofing the beach movie genre. Gidget is based on the 1950s book of the same name and the transition did result in some changes, specifically in the character of Gidget. According to Ben Mankiewicz the original character was brunette and Jewish, obviously not Sandra Dee. In the various sequels and television show the actresses were all different and played up different elements of Gidget’s appearance and personality.
In terms of Sandra Dee’s acting I thought she was adorable. Her friends think she’s weird because she’s not focused on “making it” before summer’s end so they take her on a “manhunt.” In watching these establishing moments I identified a lot with Gidget (I know her name is Francie but I’ll be using her name as identified with the title of the film from here on out) and wished she found a better class of friend. When they arrive at the beach Gidget is not buxom or curvy like her friends or any of the other girls on the beach (sad to see though if you’re aware that Dee battled an eating disorder her entire life). The audience focuses so much on her difference in appearance that it’s easy to forget how amazing of a character she is. Gidget is smart, reads books, doesn’t think a boyfriend is the culmination of her life, and openly finds her friends annoying. Despite the clichés, she’s a normal girl, something that’s missing from modern film. Obviously the movie doesn’t follow this through and does give her a happy ending involving a boyfriend but I’ll take it for 1959. Dee herself brings a sweet personality to the character. She’s bubbly, socially awkward and a chatterbox to be sure but when she needs something she can be a smartass, sarcastic, or manipulative. It’s a well-rounded performance that I didn’t expect.
The film’s plot is stereotypical of the beach movies as a genre. In fact this was the first so all subsequent movies were copying this. There’s no real surfers in the leading roles so any surfing sequences are shown in long shot. If there is a close-up it’s obvious it’s a screen and the characters are moving side to side. When Gidget is drowning at one point it’s a man in a wig according to Mankiewicz. It also possesses my favorite beach movie cliché, that of a totally random character passing by to give a one-liner. Of course I didn’t write said one-liner down but you’ll know it when you see it.
What surprised me the most is how risqué Gidget as a film is. It would be awhile before the teen sex film of the 1980s arrives but this movie certainly pushed some boundaries I didn’t expect. Gidget is completely unaware of how to act in front of boys, and therefore how boys are supposed to act around her. When she goes to surf for the first time one of the guys attempts to “teach her” by practically molesting her! He’s grabbing at her and at one point while Gidget is lying on her stomach on the board, this guy lays down on top of her! When Moondoggie shows up to save Gidget the guy casually says “We were about to go in deeper.” Seriously! And what’s weirder is that Gidget isn’t fazed by this! She moves on and tells her mom they’re all “really nice guys.” One of the underlying themes of this movie seems to be losing one’s virginity with surfing as a mask but this is a really creepy moment.
The creepiness doesn’t subside though, it actually ramps up as the introduction of the love triangle happens. See, Gidget loves Moondoggie, but Moondoggie likes someone else and then there’s Kahuna. We’re introduced to Kahuna as he’s undressing in front of Gidget. Yeah, it’s not weird at all! Let me diverge a second and say “Helloooooo Cliff Robertson!” I know Robertson passed away last year and I’m sad to admit when I heard it…I had no idea who he was so when I started watching this I didn’t register the two. Let’s just say Robertson was a highly attractive guy and in this he’s the Matthew McConaughey of beach movies! I don’t recall a single scene where guy wears a shirt…and that’s fine with me. Kahuna is a charmer bar none and while his relationship with Gidget is…disturbing is really the only word I can use, he’s a likeable guy. I certainly liked him more than the dull James Darren who plays Moondoggie. I don’t understand why Moondoggie is the only character who sings but the whole musical element never geled with the rest of the narrative.
Back to the plot. So Gidget likes Moondoggie and thinks that because his girlfriend is busty that he’ll like her if she develops breasts; so we get a hilarious scene of Gidget doing those “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret” bust exercises. Mind you all this time Kahuna seems to be the one most interested in Gidget (I know Gidget is supposed to be like 15…so is Kahuna supposed to be like 30? Robertson himself was 36 at the time!). As the narrative goes along I became increasingly unsure of how far the film was going to push this Kahuna/Gidget plotline. They’re incredibly touchy-feely with each other and I know Robertson is a hot guy without a shirt but this is 1959 for crying out loud (although I’d have gone for him legality be damned!). The film comes together when Gidget tries to make Moondoggie jealous by seducing Kahuna….yeah I actually typed that. The seduction sequence is the epitome of the cringe-worthy moments because Dee is lying in Robertson’s lap and I just didn’t know how this would end. Would this be a melodrama with the two going through with it? Nope, Kahuna does realize he’s about to cross a line and good on him for that! Although it’s followed by Gidget going home to her mother and saying she’s “as pure as the driven snow” in a sad voice.
Of course the film ends happily with Gidget and Moondoggie together (how sad for Gidget) and Kahuna going on to be hot somewhere else. In the end Gidget is a cute movie but it’s incredibly surprising! I had no idea the movie would go where it went and I guess this is a great example of having no knowledge of a movie (or at least the wrong preconceived notions). It’s fun, and I’d say harmless but that depends on your definition. I’d watch it again, if only because Cliff Robertson is gorgeous and I’m interested in comparing it to Beach Blanket Bingo.