Part One: “Gidget”
James Darren said he often reminds his friend Frankie how much better “Gidget” (1959) was than all those beach movies starring the squeaky clean Avalon/Funicello duo.
A brief retro-review of two films, “Gidget” and the more edgy “Big Wednesday” (1978), suggests that not all films in this genre should be dismissed as nothing more than summer eye-candy.
Back in the Midwest, in a car full of teenagers, I first saw the perky, brown-eyed blonde Sandra Dee with James Darren and Cliff Robertson in “Gidget,” the film that made the world aware of Southern California surf culture.
It had an explosive effect on surfer life itself, and by the time I got my own jams and headed for Malibu’s fabled Surfrider Beach, the scene was changing in tone and tint. Gremmies (rookie surfers), hodads (non-surfing beach habitués), and even shamefully undertanned middle-aged tourists had begun to cram the beaches, while veteran surfers both lamented and benefited from the burgeoning commercialism “Gidget” brought to the old bohemian beach paradise of the 1950s.
In 1956, the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner, 15-year-old daughter of Hollywood screenwriter Fred Kohner, wandered out of the L. A. suburbs and began to immerse herself in the culture of “The ‘Bu” where she became a kind of mini-mascot to a group of local riders. She gave her father permission (hard to believe) to read her diary and morph it into a pop novel and eventually a screenplay.
Kohner still appears at surfing events where, though never a pro surfer herself, she is honored for helping make it okay for women not only to surf, but to surf competitively. Feminist critics who have dissed “Gidget” for being mired in sexist values of the 1950s should hear the compliments today’s women athletes pay to Kohner and the film. (See “Accidental Icon” note below.)
The film story is bright and sunny for the most part, but at times dives into deeper waves as when Gidget attempts to “become a woman” by half-heartedly offering herself up for seduction to The Big Kahuna himself, played by Cliff Robertson. The Kahuna is based loosely on Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, a Surfrider father figure (who died last year).
In the movie, Kahuna is a formula surf-bum — in this case, one who is trying to forget his military service in the war by leading a wholly self-absorbed life. He’s an aging Peter Pan surrounded by hotdogging flunkies while he hunts that one magic wave that will make him forget forever all his former troubles and responsibilities.
The surfing scenes are unconvincing except for some footage of Malibu’s classic surfers of the time, including such notables as Miki “Da Cat” Dora and Mickey “The Mongoose” Munoz (who dons a wig to double for Dee). In watching the other awkwardly soundstaged and green-screened scenes, you keep expecting to spot some crewmen sloshing tap water onto Gidget and Moondoggie.
Sandra Dee plays brightly the ingénue who is more intelligent, sympathetic, and athletic than her shallow, man-stalking girlfriends. For contrast, see the weaker portrayals of this character in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) and “Gidget Goes to Rome” (1963). Neither of the actresses who portray these latter-day Gidgets come close to the charm of Dee’s performance, but at least in “Hawaiian,” Deborah Walley does her own surfing.
James Darren’s “Moondoggie” (do you see why folks don’t take surf films seriously?) is a little Kahuna who wants to be a big one. Running away from college and his father’s rich-man’s duties, he initially thinks Gidget is a whiney pest, but after he saves her from a fate worse than kelp-drowning and sings her the title song while gazing into her dewy brown eyes … you see where this is going.
There are really no bad guys or gals in “Gidget,” and everything ends like a perfect summer you might imagine for yourself while trying to survive in a land-locked high school somewhere in mid-America. But the acting and even the plotting, as Darren noted, far exceed that of any of the later surf-and-sing spinoff films.
In my next column, I’ll suggest how another surfing movie, “Big Wednesday,” while it continues with some of the stock characters and situations found in “Gidget,” illustrates startling changes in American culture.
(For more on Kathy Kohner and the influence of “Gidget,” the book and film, see the documentary “Accidental Icon: The Real Gidget Story” , written and directed by Brian Gillogly.)