I hadn’t watched Gidget in almost a decade, but I remember thinking it was mediocre. Just popcorn entertainment intended to get teenage butts in the seats back in 1959. I decided to revisit the movie during my journey through the “beach films” fad of the ’50s and ’60s, since this, along with Hot Rod Gang, helped inspire the Beach Party series/craze just a few years later. And I’m glad I did, since I wasn’t able to fully appreciate this movie all those years ago.
Sandra Dee plays Gidget, a 17-year-old who’d rather be friends with boys than attract their attention. She’s not necessarily a tomboy, but she just relishes the days when she and her friends could have fun without worrying about boys. I suppose she’s just a little young for her age. Her parents are concerned about her nonchalant attitude towards courting a boy, even going as far as trying to set her up with the son of a family friend, which she immediately refuses.
One day while joining her girlfriends on a trip to the beach as they go “manhunting”, Gidget spots a group of male surfers. She instantly falls in love with the sport and is determined to purchase a board of her own. When she returns to the beach to ask the surfers for lessons, they laugh at her because she’s a girl.
The group of guys are led by The Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), who’s a glorified beach bum, free to do as he pleases, following the surf around the world full-time. He’s an Air Force vet who couldn’t handle the structure of military life, so one day he decided he only wanted to report to himself. When Gidget comes into the picture, she makes him start to regret his life choices. Or rather start to listen to his regret instead of suppressing it.
On the flip side, there’s Moondoggie (James Darren), an aspiring beach bum, excited about the freedom that lies ahead of him after he plans to reject his parent’s money and education opportunities in order to travel the world and surf. He sees the Kahuna as a hero.
Scenarios cut pretty deep about 2/3 of the way into the movie when everything comes to a head and we get a much needed turning point in the plot, opening up our characters. Gidget’s parents are totally clueless to the genuinely unruly world their daughter has immersed herself in, as well as the extent which she goes to become accepted. A simple scene at home where we learn the psyche behind Gidget’s actions may be a little on-the-nose, but that exposition provides the sincerity we had been looking for.
The movie has a very slow start, setting up characters and establishing their motives with odd, contrived plot points. We don’t need that much time spent on these things, but the filmmakers decided we did anyway. Fortunately the amazing 3rd act makes up for this.
Gidget gives us such a slice of life of the late 1950s. A Cleaver facade filled with progressive characters who challenge expectations amidst the generation gap between them and their parents. None of this could have been intentional, or even conscious, but in the pursuit of creating a sweet film about an aspiring surfer, I think the filmmakers discovered they had a nice little gem on their hands.