There is an interesting article in the March 2021 issue of Vanity Fair that mentions an eighty-year-old woman who was at the beach one day and expressed admiration for a guy’s surfboard. “I love your surfboard,” the woman said to a young man who asked in turn, “Did you used to surf?” to which the woman replied, “Yeah, I surfed in the ‘50s.”
The woman on the beach that day was Kathy Kohner Zuckerman whose father, Frederick Kohner, authored a novel she inspired, Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas, released in 1957 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Mr. Kohner wrote his first novel based on his daughter’s exploits on surf boards in Malibu where she rode her first wave at the age of fifteen. Kathy Zuckerman explained that the name ‘Gidget’ was given to her by one of the legendary surfers she spent time with who simply shouted, “See you around, Gidget!” one day and it stuck. (Surfer Today) The name, which comes from a combination of ‘Girl Midget’ was due to Zuckerman’s small frame.
Frederick Kohner’s novel was a hit so naturally Hollywood came calling. He sold the rights to Columbia Pictures for $50,000 and they made their first Gidget movie in 1959.
The star of the original Gidget movie, Sandra Dee, is considered by most the perfect screen incarnation of the character. Everyone, including Columbia Pictures, wanted Dee to reprise the Gidget role for the next movie but she was under contract to Universal who did not release her. I admit Dee is great as Gidget, but the first movie is bland for my taste. It does, however, aptly set the stage for all pertinent background information about the character.
In Gidget, directed by Paul Wendkos as are all three films, we learn how Francie Lawrence gets her famous moniker, how she learns to surf, and how she meets her boyfriend Jeff ‘Moondoggie’ Matthews played in all three films by James Darren. This fan does enjoy a few of the other rewards offered by the 1959 movie, namely the forms of Cliff Robertson, Tom Laughlin, and Doug McClure who play beach bums who become friends of Gidget’s. Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche do a fine job as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence who love and support Francie in all things. Popular opinion aside, however, I prefer the first sequel, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), which many view as the worst in the series. But this gal thinks it is the more enjoyable movie, which is why Gidget Goes Hawaiian is my choice for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fun in the Sun! Blogathon.
Gidget Goes Hawaiian picks up where Gidget left off. Gidget, now played by Deborah Walley in her film debut, agrees to wear Moondoggie’s pin and the two are officially going steady. You can just imagine how over the moon our Gidget is…until she gets home and her parents tell her they are going on vacation to Hawaii. The news would thrill most teenagers but with Moondoggie having only two weeks left before he leaves for school, the timing could not have been more dire. Making matters worse, when Gidget goes crying to Moondoggie with the news of her parent’s plans, he reacts by being excited for her opportunity to go to Hawaii where the waves are legendary. To Gidget, however, that only means Moondoggie does not love her. Miffed, the Gidget leaves for Hawaii in a deep depression.
Eventually, with the help of her parents and new best friend, Abbey Stewart (Vicki Trickett), Gidget snaps out of her funk and starts having a fantastic time in Hawaii. That includes dancing center stage and, of course, fun in the sun impressing everyone with her surfing skills. As you would expect, Gidget becomes the most popular girl on the island. She even has the most popular guy, famous dancer Eddie Horner (Michael Callan) in love with her. It is during the scene where Eddie is professing his love for Gidget with an enthusiastic kiss in the sand that Moondoggie shows up. It turns out that in a desperate move to snap Gidget out of her depression, her father paid for Moondoggie to fly to Hawaii. Moondoggie and Gidget are now mad at each other, which prompts him to starts dating Abbey, who turns into Gidget’s hateful rival. Abbey is so jealous of Gidget’s popularity, in fact, that she starts spreading a rumor that Gidget has been with several boys. Lots of heartbreak ensues and the Lawrences’ trust for Gidget is tested, but in the end, all is well for our favorite surfing couple who reunite after misunderstandings are cleared up.
Gidget Goes Hawaiian is fun thanks in part to finger-snapping tunes, like the title song sung by James Darren and in part due to its cast. Especially of the parental variety. Playing Gidget’s parents, Russ, and Dorothy Lawrence are Carl Reiner and Jeff Donnell both of whom seem to have a blast in these roles. Playing Abbey Stewart’s parents are Peggy Cass and Eddie Foy, Jr. who even gets the opportunity to show off his vaudeville moves. The Lawrences and the Stewarts become good friends, which means those entertainment veterans get plenty of screen time, which is fine by this fan. They are what makes Gidget Goes Hawaiian the wittier of the Gidget outings for me.
As Gidget, Deborah Walley is fun and energetic, just the kind of girl who can do everything well. She is very athletic and although Walley did not do her own surfing in Gidget Goes Hawaiian, she does many of the stunts and the surfing scenes are a bit more realistic than those in the 1959 movie. The beach antics here are satisfying with the comic relief of the elders previously mentioned helping the story along at a clip. Deborah Walley is comfortable dressed for a party and on the beach, where Gidget got her name and stellar reputation. Walley is not Sandra Dee, she does not exhibit the tenderness Dee does in the more dramatic first movie, but for this fan Walley makes an enjoyable Gidget.
Some sources note that Deborah Walley did not want to take on the part of Gidget and Gidget Goes Hawaiian got her stuck in beach party movies for most of her screen career. But I really like Walley, and the public liked her too as she was voted Photoplay’s Most Popular Actress of 1961. Aside from Gidget Goes Hawaiian, I know Deborah best from Norman Taurog’s Spinout (1966) opposite Elvis Presley and as Eve Arden’s daughter in the TV series The Mothers-In-Law, which I have watched several times in recent years. Despite the comedies in which she appeared with Gidget Goes Hawaiian being her most famous role, Deborah Walley began acting as a teenager in summer stock and studied at New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Gidget Goes Hawaiian also serves beautiful Hawaiian scenery, which for some reason reminds me of cold New York afternoons after school when these movies played as part of The 4:30 Movie. Each week served a different theme. It seems to me ‘Gidget Week’ happened often. I was introduced to many classics with pieces cut out for commercials thanks to The 4:30 Movie.
With its 1961 release, one can say that Gidget Goes Hawaiian ushered in the era of beach party shenanigans on screen. Even though it did not have the impact of the original it did well enough to warrant another sequel with Cindy Carol replacing Walley for the third and final original installment, Gidget Goes to Rome in 1963. The Gidget craze did not stop there, however.
Frederick Kohner, who was a prolific screenwriter in addition to being an author, followed his 1957 novel with five other Gidget books: Cher Papa (1959), The Affairs of Gidget (1963), Gidget in Love (1965), Gidget Goes Parisienne (1966), and Gidget Goes New York (1968). The small screen followed suit with a 1965 TV series starring Sally Field as Gidget, and a 1969 TV movie, Gidget Grows Up with Karen Valentine in the title role. In 1972 Monie Ellis played the role in Gidget Gets Married, in 1985, Gidget’s Summer Reunion starred Caryn Richman, and a TV series reboot happened in 1986 also starring Richman, The New Gidget. The character even inspired a couple of songs, Too Big for Gidget by The Brunettes and Gidget Goes to Hell by the Suburban Lawns. The later sounds like it would contrast with the Gidget movies which are good clean fun, sanitized to infinity compared to movies today, but still, they are of an era where some kids could relate to fun in the sun sans screens in their hands. That is where Gidget shines brightest, surfing, showing girls can do anything boys can do. She rides waves with the best of ‘em and, according to Surfer Today, she “Changed the course of surfing and made it mainstream.” That is something.
For more Fun in the Sun be sure to visit the Classic Movie Blog Association’s blogathon. It is the perfect way to get your head off your troubles and into sunbathing on a beach.