***/**** Image F Sound C
starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, James Darren, Arthur O'Connell
screenplay by Gabrielle Upton, based on the novel by Frederick Kohner
directed by Paul Wendkos
GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961)
*/**** Image D+ Sound C
starring James Darren, Michael Callan, Deborah Walley, Carl Reiner
screenplay by Ruth Brooks Flippen
directed by Paul Wendkos
GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1961)
**/**** Image D+ Sound C
starring James Darren, Jessie Royce Landis, Cesare Danova, Danielle De Metz
screenplay by Ruth Brooks Flippen, Katherine and Dale Eunson
directed by Paul Wendkos
by Walter Chaw Breaking the cresting wave of surf films that ran as counter-programming to the medium-cool cinema of the early Sixties, 1959's Gidget, despite finding itself as the bane of the real surf counterculture, is a surprisingly dark-hued entry into the evolution of generational rebellion that heralded the new-real of the coming decade. It works as a sunnier mirror to the next year's West Side Story, likewise spinning off from a tomboy's infiltration of an insular boys' club to examine some of the friction that exists between the staged artificiality of Old Hollywood and the grittier verisimilitude of the American new wave. As grizzled beach bum The Big Kahuna, for instance, Cliff Robertson has a thousand-yard stare, a couple of tours in Korea under his belt, and a disturbing rape/pedophilia moment wherein he realizes that his life of retreat is all of glittering sun-kissed surfaces and carefully-waxed emptiness. Kahuna's surrender to the bourgeois is more The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause than it is Psycho and Hud, but therein lies the embryonic hint of the theme that drives Sixties films: acceding to Mrs. Bates makes you a psycho.
Frances (yummy Sandra Dee) tags along on a "manhunt" with her man-eating pals, throwing a ball at a group of surf bums only to have it greeted with exclamations of "jailbait" and robbing the nursery. Gidget is sixteen--old enough to browse the buffet, not really old enough to get a plate--and the boys seem to get it. But the newly-dubbed Gidget ("girl plus midget equals gidget") is particularly resolute after getting herself tangled in seaweed, necessitating a rescue by Byronic Moondoggie (James Darren) and introducing her to a surf culture that values freedom while cherishing, like every other institution in the United States, the money that buys freedom. Financial transactions form the basis of each of the Gidget films: bribes, mainly (the lubricant that oils the capitalist machine), but it's only the earliest Gidget that recognizes the hypocrisy at the root of its rebels without causes. Once grudgingly accepted (leader Big Kahuna cynically consents to Gidget's presence because of the cash infusion she brings the starving hedonists), Gidget gets initiated in an appalling rite that washes out as something as unsavoury as a ritualized gang rape: getting repeatedly dunked by her manly-love until, again, she finds herself dangerously entangled in seaweed. It seems there's something in the underneath of Gidget, something sticky and hungry.
From the moment Moondoggie throws the unconscious Gidget prostrate on his board as he rides a gentle swell to Fred Karger and Stanley Styne's rapturous love theme, Gidget's sexual underbelly establishes itself as obsessed with a child's violent induction into the world of carnal night. Motifs of drowning, devouring, consumption, and calculated violation run riot through the piece: Big Kahuna smoking a giant stogie while riding his longboard; another bum's attempt to "seduce" Gidget under the guise of teaching her how to surf (and then promptly burying his face in her rear); even Gidget's disturbing admission to her mother of her failure to lose her virginity. ("After all those hours of concentrated effort, I come home pure as the driven snow.") Gidget is thick with violent love subtext that's only leavened once Big Kahuna mourns (a little hysterically) over his dead bird, Fly Boy. The film's shifts in tone are facilitated mainly by the interference of the clueless parents (Arthur O'Connell and Mary LaRoche), providing that Golden Age of Television anchor to the piece that, pitched at comfort, actually rings disquieting in the face of all the real wolves their Gidget is facing alone in the pathless wood. Such is the pleasant schizophrenia of Gidget, a Hollywood picture through-and-through that, in trying to appease the way the wind was blowing, ended up incorporating a lot disquiet in its blinding Pollyannaism.
Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) recasts Gidget (Deborah Walley) and her parents (Carl Reiner and Jeff Donnell) but retains the same Moondoggie. Mounting a case for itself as the real progenitor of the Frankie and Annette 'beach blanket bingo' cycle (which began in 1963), the first sequel is obsessed with the outside world's fascination with money while dealing internally with what critic Ethan Mordden properly defines as the "everything is nothing" mentality. Breezy in the face of all manner of sweet nothings, Gidget Goes Hawaiian swaps its predecessor's dark sexual undertow for an almost complete whitewash of controversy. Here Gidget throws a tantrum when her parents decide to take her to Hawaii, throws another one when Moondoggie is supportive of their vacation plans, and then proceeds to throw a number of them over any minor apocalypse that erupts around her idyllic life. She romances an inane stud, gets caught by the repentant Moondoggie (repentant of what? Just another contrivance of the sitcom generation), then spends the rest of the film trying to justify herself to a guy who frankly deserves better. The exchange of pins is of primary importance (ending the first movie, it's recreated--erroneously--in flashback in the second but still in a loaded fashion)--a thing about pricks and penetration being the Gidget trilogy's only throughline besides Darren's Moondoggie. Think of it as the Wedge Antilles of the Gidget-verse.
It's tempting to say that Gidget Goes to Rome (better and more consistent if it were "Gidget Goes Roman") from two years later is the worst of the three just because it's the hardest to sit through, but the truth is that a party at the midway point and its skewed homage to La Dolce Vita echo the NEW YORKER-esque party of Breakfast at Tiffany's, all while predicting the warped drug-operas that would end the decade in popular film (Myra Breckinridge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). It's nightmarish and absurd in equal portion, locating Gidget on the verge of marriage to Moondoggie, indulging her in one last fling with a man her father's age (indeed, he's been hired to follow her around by her father), and raising the unrestful spectre of both incest and the series' lynchpin of pedophilia. The pin exchange (she gives it back, she accepts it back) shares the proscenium with a further fixation on money (this time a lucky gold coin), reminding at once of Mark Twain's portrayal of Negro spirituals and mythology as corrupted by commerce in the New World and of the fact that the Gidget franchise became a desperate throwback to the shiny, indifferent commerciality of studio product that died, for a while at least, with Louis B. Meyer. Further proof of its concession to the mainstream of a generation previous is a series of flashbacks to the old spectacles: Gidget as a Christian martyr preparing for sacrifice to a lion in the coliseum, and Gidget as Cleopatra. The horror.
But what's most disappointing is Columbia TriStar's decision to release all three Gidget films on DVD in abhorrent fullscreen transfers, cropping Gidget proper, a CinemaScope production, by almost half. In shoehorning a 2.35:1 image into 1.33:1 dimensions, you create this abominable-looking piece of masticated crap wherein ham-handed telecine operators decide that seeing somebody's nose talking to somebody else's nose is a good job of a bad situation. It's not only fatally compromised, it's a dreadful job of panning-and-scanning, too. When not hearing the characters chatting offscreen or trying to imagine the daggers that Sandra Dee is shooting at surprise end-of-film paramour Moondoggie from across the room, it's the height of distraction to consider exactly how stuffed and uncomfortable everything feels. Gidget is not a great film, but it's not an unimportant one, either, and let's face it: the only people who would bother are interested in the films as they should be, not as they've been archived for the pleasure of the Saturday afternoon television crowd. (As the other two films were framed for 1.85:1 projection (and with much less flair, in any case), the mutilation of Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Gidget Goes to Rome isn't as noticeable.) Meanwhile, the across-the-board DD 2.0 audio presents the films in a monaural fashion. My suspicion is that at least the original was recorded in some kind of multi-channel configuration, so, again, really f'in disappointing. The sound is pretty tinny at that.
Overexposed colours and lines creasing the picture like green and purple rain further mar Gidget's picture. Grain? More than an Iowa cornfield. The sequels fare better, but only marginally (a good half-hour of Gidget Goes to Rome is afflicted with the same green lines), causing one to wonder whether so much as a perfunctory effort was made to find the best elements or if expediency and sloth were the order of the day from start to finish. Moiré effects are bad, too... It's all bad. Tell me this: how can there be compression artifacts on a disc containing a film of ordinary length, no extras, and no anamorphic encoding? 2004 is not the dawn of the technology, but you wouldn't know it from "The Complete Gidget Collection." Sony is taking the Artisan torch of dumbing-down the medium at the cost of its own good name and the viability of its enviable library. A hard sell to convince anyone that the Gidget films aren't just a waste of time, the way that they're offered in "The Complete Gidget Collection" goes a long way towards consigning them once and for all to the bottom of the cut-out bin. Trios of trailers comprise the only special features on either of this 2-disc set's three sides: 13 Going on 30, Something's Gotta Give, and Mona Lisa Smile; 50 First Dates, 13 Going on 30 (again), and Dogtown and Z-Boys; and Bye Bye Birdie, Respiro, and Bread & Tulips. The previews, incidentally, are preserved in their original aspect ratios. You tell me. Originally published: November 19, 2004.