December 4, 2017
Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Stars Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, James Darren, Arthur O’Connell.
In terms of recent Twilight Time Blu-ray releases, my eyes have been more naturally gravitating toward Sayonara and Captain From Castile, big-scale productions whose substantial bankrolls easily financed stunner looks — the kind that now, many decades later, have made them ideal choices for high-def treatment. But the weather in my neighborhood is turning cooler — I don’t like it when the temperatures fall lower than 65°F for any reason — and the retro beach-time content of Gidget seems apposite for a stop-off on the way to viewing more ambitious screen projects that I’m much more ravenous to revisit. Besides, confections like Sandra Dee’s career-maker (though two of the other four 1959 releases Dee had the same year further accelerated her brief superstardom) are sometimes more indicative of how a culture is viewing itself. More so than, say, the Alain Resnais Hiroshima Mon Amour likely did — a film that, in any event, didn’t reach the U.S. until spring of ’60.
Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn was a little more than a year deceased when Gidget came out in early spring, but he was still around (and hated) when the project was set in motion. And he was still dead by the time Dee had made a cute impression, fourth-billed, in 1958’s The Reluctant Debutante for Vincente Minnelli (who also served up Gigi and Some Came Running the same year, mercy). Had Cohn seen Dee, he likely would have wondered about the diminutive cutie’s marquee potency after he had spent the entire ’40s and part of the ’50s promoting buxom studio meal ticket Rita Hayworth. Little could he have known that a pair of Dee-less Gidget sequels were also on the horizon, as well as a short-lived TV spinoff with Sally Field in a kind of “Flying Nun” alternative. We should also note that Cheech Marin brings up some lurid fantasy film of his called Gidget Gets Gooey in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, though good luck, archivists, at finding a print of that one under some Yukon ice bed.
To be sure, times were changing and so was recognition of surfing as a sport — which the popularity of Gidget (it alludes to a combo of “girl” and “midget” by a cast of male beachcombers that then Selective Service Director Gen. Lewis Hershey probably yearned to draft) did something to accelerate. The fact that it did hacked off 30-ish oldtimers who resented the tidal invasion by what they perceived as paddling pretenders — though, in truth, the sport is mostly a backdrop here for another antiseptic beach romance. You know: the kind with swigs of Nehi shooters at campfire parties, lovers (clothed) rolling around in the sand and, lo and behold, even a vocal show-up by the Four Preps themselves, who also sing the title tune during the opening credits. For the record, Gidget co-star James Darren had the not-quite chart buster of this that he gets to reprise during the movie — one that hit Billboard’s No. 41 slot on Colpix Records, which was Columbia’s answer to Warner Bros. getting into the vinyl business after Tab Hunter hit it big with “Young Love.” (This is around the time at least one music-oriented publicity campaign tagged Tab as “America’s Favorite Bachelor” — but I digress.)
Darren plays one of Dee’s love interests, and so does Cliff Robertson, who was about 35 (passing for 30) when he made this. Given that wannabe surfer Gidget is 16 and a straight-A student who demonstrates her “who-vs.-whom” capability in one scene, we might have been in line for an icky Roy Moore moment had a) the script not kept it clean; and b) the weakened late-1950s version of the Production Code still not been that weak, despite Columbia’s release of Suddenly, Last Summer a few months later. Of course, a Moore moment is hopefully not something many would have wanted to see, even if Robertson — who, like every other so-called beach bum here, remains clean-shaven — is a nice-looking fellow who presumably wouldn’t ever cruise a mall. As it happens, his character’s big offense of the day is that he doesn’t want to work — though if your moniker were “The Big Kahoona” in 1959, corporate headhunters wouldn’t be chasing you, either.
All of this positively bewilders Gidget’s parents, who despite the movie’s CinemaScope, color and theatrical release, are strictly TV issue. Dad (Arthur O’Connell) is one of those sexless ’50s dads married to a pretty but sexless ’50s blonde (Mary LaRoche), and they’d no doubt be sleeping in separate beds even if the Code hadn’t still mandated it. (LaRoche later played Ann-Margret’s mom — and that gangster-of-love Paul Lynde’s wife — in Columbia’s screen version of Bye Bye Birdie, so she apparently had the market cornered for these roles). One reason Mary Tyler Moore was such a revolutionary TV mom on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” had to do with the easily imagined vision not a few guys had of Dick buying her fishnets for their wedding anniversary and paying the babysitter to take the kids to Donovan’s Reef or some such healthy diversion while mom and dad acted out The Henry Miller Playbook.
As a result, the movie just gets by as a time-killer if (as I did) you missed your beach time this summer; after all, ocean, sand and a 2.35:1 aspect ratio are their own rewards at a time of year when Bing Crosby chestnuts will probably get piped into CVS loud speakers before Shout! Factory gets out its World Series Blu-ray editions. Though the ocean shots mercifully look the best here, Columbia was killing retinas in those days with all forms of processing that weren’t Technicolor, and IMDb.com actually lists the Eastman variation employed for Gidget as something called ColumbiaColor at a time when even Jack Warner had already seen the folly of appalling WarnerColor and knew enough to bail in time to shoot Dee’s year-end smash A Summer Place in real-deal pigments. (Talk about a movie that would be a ripe candidate for Warner Archive Blu-ray treatment). Still, I can’t help but feel at least a tinge of nostalgia for a title tune that contains the lyric, “Although she’s not king size, her finger is ring-size” — even if, in a pinch, I still prefer, “I’ve Got Smog in My Noggin, Ever Since You Made the Scene” from “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb),” which hit Billboard No. 4 almost exactly at the time Gidget came out.
You know: this wasn’t exactly “Freedom Summer” in terms of the youth culture.