Friday, August 13, 2021

Sandra Dee Rides the Wave to Stardom as Gidget

            As the jumping-off point for a slate of genre pictures to come in the 1960’s featuring sand, surf, music and romantic interludes, 1959’s Gidget provides a nostalgic look back at coming-of-age in a more innocent era (at least on-screen), including a generation gap theme much milder than the adolescent/parental conflicts found in such fare as Rebel Without a Cause or a couple of star Sandra Dee’s other 1959 offerings. Based on Frederick Kohner’s same-name novel, whose title character was influenced by Kohner’s daughter Kathy’s experiences as she strove to be accepted among the surfing set, Gidget handles both dramatic and comedic elements in an enjoyably straightforward manner, maximizing its appeal to audiences in the process, who must have found the charmingly uncomplicated Gidget a refreshing change-of-pace from the more disturbing, complicated themes highlighted in most teen-age dramas of the period. Gidget does flirt with a few adult topics, such as a possible May-December romance for the young heroine, but director Paul Wendkos and screenwriter Gabrielle Upton adeptly keep the film’s tone genial throughout, while also managing to detail Gidget’s many escapades on-and-off the beach in admirably compelling fashion.

                1959 proved to be a banner year for Sandra Dee, with three major offerings to her credit, including the classic tear-jerker Imitation of Life and one of the more memorable melodramas of the period, the florid A Summer Place. Although Dee showed dramatic prowess starting with her fine film debut (after years as a top child model) in 1957’s Until the Sail, wherein she handles a New Zealand accent with impressive aplomb at about 13 or 15 years old, depending on which biographical data one follows, and in some riveting dramatic moments in showdowns with Lana Turner in Life and Generation-Gap-Mother-from-Hell Constance Ford in Place, more typically Dee found herself playing wholesome young ladies offering less opportunities to show real dimension, leading to Dee being sent-up (and immortalized) in this Goody-Two-Shoes mode post-career by Stockard Channing in 1978’s Grease (even if it’s hard to believe Channing’s Rizzo would know much about what Troy Donahue wanted to do, with his star-making A Summer Place coming out later in 1959, sometime after those crazy Rydell High 20 (or 30)-something kids would have graduated and experienced Grease’s happy “We Go Together” finale).

                Although Gidget may serve as the blueprint for Dee’s sweetness-and-light image, this “Girl-Midget” at the crossroads between adolescence and young adulthood offers more facets than most ingénues and, as well as physically matching the requirements for the gawky (then blossoming) heroine, Dee is pitch-perfect throughout in displaying the character’s intelligence, independent mindedness and romantic longings. It’s nice to see a screen teen actually played by someone of the same age; Dee has no problem conveying a great deal of energy and spirit in a charming, unforced manner, possibly because she doesn’t appear to be performing traits that would be natural for a 17-year-old. Dee does show considerable acting ability and professional verve throughout the film though, working hard to stay present in each scene- she’s onscreen nearly every moment and remains endearingly earnest and positive, without becoming belabored or cutesy. Many other Gidgets would come, but this is a case wherein the original model is hard to improve upon.

                After a few years working his way up at Columbia Pictures, the ideally-cast James Darren scored a breakthrough as the clean-cut “Moondoogie,” spending a pivotal summer weighing the advantages of college in the fall over ditching convention for the seemingly idyllic life of a beach bum. Darren does a nice job displaying the calm, rational demeanor behind an often-brooding nature that indicates what a responsible, fitting mate Moondoggie would be for the smitten heroine enraptured by his considerable charms. Adding hugely to this is the fact that, in both in temperament and physical stature, Darren and Dee are a match made in cinematic Heaven, and when Darren smoothly sings the title song and later, a love ballad to his receptive costar, or shows a protective instinct when his pert intended appears to be coming dangerously close to adulthood (as in “a fate worse than death” lingo), the ultimate in wholesome 1950’s teen-age romance results. Launching off his success in Gidget, Darren would go on to quite a career after Gidget, with outside-of-Moondoggie highlights including 1961’s The Guns of Navarone, a wealth of success on television, and one of the catchiest pop hits ever, “Goodbye Cruel World.”

Cliff Robertson brings some welcome dramatic grit and maturity to the proceedings as Kahuna, the elder statesman among the surfers. Robertson admirably never plays down to his character in a condescending manner, fully committing to the part to depict Kahuna, an anti-establishment Korea War veteran who’s turned to a life on the beach with little responsibility for refuge, as a compassionate, conflicted soul trying to guide the younger surfing set who idolize him on the right path, as he tries to resolve his own destiny. Honing his craft at the Actor’s Studio, Robertson was soon thereafter on the path to major stardom following his debut in 1955’s smash film version of William Inge’s Picnic and his terrific work on television in Days of Wine and Roses; it’s admirable at a critical career juncture Robertson risked taking a change-of-pace, offbeat role in a movie clearly aimed at the teen-age set, as opposed to opting for a more typical white-collar leading man role that would befit a logical next step for a burgeoning leading man. With Robertson investing his considerable dramatic talent in the part (he particularly does a great job illustrating Kahuna’s strong fraternal instinct towards Gidget), while also allowing himself to loosen up during the character’s more uninhibited moments (catching pseudo-waves with the gang while wearing a perfect, irresistible straw hat, or grooving away at the beach luau), the caught-between-youth-and-adulthood Kahuna comes across as a highly original and refreshing counterpoint to the stoic, responsible male figures leading the way in most movies of the era.

Arthur O’Connell, who was achieving phenomenal success in hit 1950’s films, among them Oscar-nominated roles in Picnic and Anatomy of a Murder, does his patented befuddlement with ease, and his lighter “Dear-Old-Dad” take on fatherhood is in sync with the film’s overall jovial tone. Mary LaRoche, a prime example of the well-groomed, practical housewife during the era (see also Bye, Bye Birdie), has an uncanny ability to project warm understatement in her idealized mother role, and has several touching mother-daughter interactions with Dee. It’s wonderful to see two parents not portrayed as monsters because they don’t always agree with their offspring’s actions; although not always in accord with Gidget’s ideas to gain acceptance by her peers, these understanding elders actually listen to their daughter’s concerns and works with her to resolve problems relating to adolescent strife, instead of doing everything they can to wield authority and remain in control in bulldozer fashion. The film is as close to an anti-generation-gap movie as anything outside of Disney’s family-friendly output during the period, and O’Connell and LaRoche do fine work in illustrating the benevolence and love central to their characters’ parental nature.

Among the surfer dudes who razz Gidget before adopting her into their sector are Doug McClure, a far cry from his The Virginian stardom a few years later and Tom Laughlin, a galaxy away from his career-defining work as Billy Jack. Pertaining to Gidget’s girlfriends who try to catch the boys’ eyes less successfully than the waves manage to, Yvonne Craig represents the chief on-the-cusp of greater fame starlet, with several years to go before teaming up with Elvis in a couple of his lighter fares then, iconically, with Batman and Robin on television. Joby Baker also makes an endearing impression as Stinky, who runs a surfboard business in between hitting the water with the gang; in general, all the young cast and extras maintain a sense of light-hearted fun and appear to be enjoying the ride on-and-off the surf.

The popularity of Gidget spawned a franchise as the spry, knowing teen went on to travel to Hawaii and Rome in the 1960’s with Darren/Moondoggie in tow but, alas, without Dee, who was tied up with home studio Universal as one of its top players after her smash 1959 cinematic year suddenly turned her into one of the top-ten box office stars for several years. The influence of the film had much to do with the iconic 1963 introduction of Frankie and Annette in American-International’s Beach Party, which likewise resulted in franchise success, while Gidget moved on to television in 1965, providing Sally Field a career lift-off in the process, with many Gidget t.v. offerings to follow. However, the initial screen incarnation of this enduring and endearingly optimistic, action-oriented teen offers a perfectly blended mixture of exceptionally-cast leads performing with charm and dedication, an entertaining and compelling character-driven script and smart, efficient direction that places the 1959 Gidget in a class by itself.


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