Sunday, September 03, 2006

GIDGET (1959)

I am not a big fan of beach movies, despite the potential for studying undraped male pulchritude. Usually, when people talk about such films, they are referencing the series done in the mid-60's by American International, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but I think that many of the widespread beach movie cliches actually came from this film, which was the inspiration for two later movies and two TV series. Sandra Dee plays Frances, a high school girl who finds herself and her hormones running a little behind her boy-crazy pals. While they are looking forward to a summer of flirting with college-age boys, Dee, a little gawkier and less developed than her friends, doesn't understand what the fuss is about. Instead of flirting, she winds up hanging out on the beach with some surf bums who adopt her as a mascot. The leader of the gang is known as the Big Kanuha (Cliff Robertson), a Korean War vetern who has decided to drop out of society and follow the sun. Dee, nicknamed Gidget for "girl midget," admires him but soon falls in love with the handsome, younger Moondoggie (James Darren), son of a rich father, who wants to follow in the Kahuna's footsteps. However, she always seems to get on Moondoggie's nerves, so when the big summer-ending luau rolls around, she sets in action a silly screwball-comedy plan to make Moondoggie jealous by going after Kahuna. Naturally, things don't quite go as planned, lessons are learned by everyone, including Kahuna (who, just a few years before the hippie movment, goes the opposite route and drops back into the rat race), and Gidget and Moondoggie wind up together (at least temporarily) at the end. There is some surprisingly blunt sex talk, or what passed for such in a late-50's movie made for teenagers, but Gidget remains, despite her best efforts, "pure as the driven snow." Dee is likeable, and the surf bum gang (including Joby Baker, Doug McClure, and future Billy Jack actor Tom Laughlin) start out as an interesting bunch, but their characters aren't allowed to develop and they get pushed into the background by the final third. Arthur O'Connell as Dee's dad seems a little too old for the part (he was 50 but looks older). Mary LaRoche is fine as the mother, though she was better a few years later as Ann-Margaret's mom in BYE BYE BIRDIE (and her best role might be as Telly Savalas's passive, cringing wife in the creepy Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll" with the murderous Talking Tina doll). The beach location shooting is nice, although most of the stars do their surfing in front of a rear-projection screen. It's not a musical, but at one point, just as he's getting snuggly with Dee, Darren breaks out unexpectedly in song. I saw this letterboxed on Turner Classic, and I hear the Columbia DVD, which is pan-and-scanned, is practically unwatchable. [TCM]

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