by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday November 28, 2017


It's hard to look at something as corn-fed and blue-eyed innocent as the original surf 'n' sun movie, "Gidget," as being a precursor to panting teen comedies like "Porky's" and "American Pie," but that's probably just because movies devoted to the teen saga of losing one's virginity is typically told from a male perspective. Pay close attention, though, and that's what "Gidget" is all about; what do you think the title character, played by Sandra Dee, is referring to when she complains to her mother about the prospect of ending the summer and entering senior year in high school without having "taken the step?"

"Gidget" started out as a series of books by Frederick Kohler, a Czechoslovakian Jew who had fled Nazi persecution. Kohler based the books' main character on the surfing exploits (and nickname) of his own daughter, Kathy. The first book, published in 1957, prompted the 1959 film version, which -- like the books -- spawned a series of sequels.

Blu-ray re-release purveyor Twilight Time has read our minds in that we could use a dose of sunshine these days -- nostalgic, "Father Knows Best," pre-'60s sunshine, that is. "Gidget" challenges the imposition of gender boundaries by presenting a lead character who is interested in boys but unwilling to parade and preen for their gratification; she's also interested in surfing for the same reason the guys are: It's "the ultimate" athletic rush.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Gidget falls in with a pack of half a dozen beach bums, among them Moondoggie (James Darren), a rich kid looking to drop out and live the life he sees his buddy Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) enjoying. Big Kahuna is the leader of the pack, an older man who has been to Korea and back and, having survived the war, opted for a life "without chains." For him, zipping along on a surfboard isn't just an athletic escape; it's a means of putting the past behind him, with no worries given to the future.

Gidget tries hard to catch Moondoggie's eye, and Moondoggie, despite his intention to live a freewheeling life without attachments, can't help but surrender -- not that he lets on to her. The result is predictable, with romantic entanglements swiftly knotting up into farcical confusion, but it's all good clean fun... as long, that is, as you don't look too closely at the goings-on in the background, such as the luau scene in which a young man throws a young woman over his shoulder, runs into a nearby beach shack with her, then briefly emerges in the doorway to grab a second young woman and pull her into his den of iniquity. As Gidget's supportive -- but far from feminist -- mother (Mary LaRoche) might exclaim (and does, in a moment of horror), "Beach shack?!"

Ah, but a wholesome (if ridiculously sexist) morale awaits at the movie's end, when we find out -- via granny's sampler, no less -- that a woman's worth, virtue, and indeed her very identity, is tied up with the fulfillment of a man.

Luckily, the movie's got enough retro charm that you can more or less overlook its exasperating absurdities (sexism being only the most obvious). Julie Kirgo, in her (as always) well-written booklet essay, goes so far as to hail the film as feminist, after a fashion, and she's not wrong. It's also so very square, even in the portrayal of its putative young rebels. Yes, "Gidget" is vanilla, and yes, you can laugh at it for the wrong reasons, but sometimes vanilla is exactly the flavor you want. Why pretend it's a guilty pleasure when, in fact, it can be something of a relief?

If nothing else, the film looks wonderful on this hi-def Blu-ray, with vibrant colors and a cheerful, cleansing light that speaks to youth and summer. Director Paul Wendkos went on to helm two of the ensuing sequels, but it has to be said he got it just right the first time.




Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.