Wednesday, December 13, 2017

GIDGET: Blu-ray (Columbia 1959) Twilight Time

“If you’re in doubt about angels being real…” Oops – sorry. Wrong Gidget. Or rather, right Gidget…the mother of all Gidgets, in fact. Widely regarded as the movie to have kicked off the ‘beach blanket’ badinage that would later follow it, not to mention the legitimate Gidget sequels and short-lived TV series starring Sally Fields, director Paul Wendkos’ Gidget (1959) is fluffy, good-natured, wholesome fun; the quintessential ‘coming of age’/teen romance drive-in flick for which ‘the sound of youth’ (later, spoofed in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, 1961) was invented. Based on author, Frederick Kohner’s series of novels, begun with 1957’s Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas, Gidget, the movie is a sun-kissed frolic that today, very much warms our hearts as a quaint reminder of the way things used to be. It’s the ‘oh by gosh and golly’ magic of it all that remains so…well, ‘gosh darn’ invigorating nearly 60 years later. 60 years?!?! Kowabunga, dude. Where has the time gone? This latter reference is, of course, a nod to the picture’s surf-themed misadventures of our Gidg’; surfing then, an alien experience, tinged with an air of exoticism for anyone not of the Californian or Hawaiian persuasion. The term ‘gidget’ is actually an abbreviation for ‘girl midget’ that today’s political correctness would likely lengthen to “g’little people”. Whatever.
For anyone growing up in the early 1970’s, my opening reference will remind them, either fondly or ‘un’, of mid-summer television reruns from that other short-lived series starring Sally Fields, its bouncy tune, ‘Wait’ll You See My Gidget’ penned by Messer’s Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller, rather fetchingly warbled (after the pilot episode) by Johnny Tillotson (sounding uncannily like Bobby Rydell). This movie has another, as catchy title tune written by Patti Washington and Fred Karger, harmonized by The Four Preps, and later, reprised as a partial love ballad sung by the movie’s co-star, James Darren, who acquits himself rather nicely of the more upbeat, ‘The Next Best Thing to Love’ – serenading our star, Sandra Dee with lyrics by Stanley Styne, perfectly married to another set of neatly arranged notes composed by Karger. The outstanding ‘musical’ highlight of the picture remains ‘Cinderella’ – sung by The Four Preps (a California quartet sounding – and dressing – very much like The Beach Boys), performing their smash single, made exclusively possible through a licensing agreement with Capitol Records.  
Formed, as a good many ‘boy bands’ were back then, not by overly-processed/prepackaged hype, but a chance meeting between four high school buddies, fairly to knock the socks off a Capitol Records scout at their 1956 Hollywood High talent show; from then on, the boys were off and running with no less than 13 chart-grabbing hits – the mega-million seller 26 Miles, earning them a gold record. As with most groups swamped by the mid-60’s British invasion of pop singers, in the wake of the tsunami known as The Beatles’, the Preps’ popularity went into steep decline. After several changes, they officially disbanded in 1969. Yet, one has to sincerely admire the fifties for its wide-eyed optimism, typified by groups like The Four Preps and movies like Gidget. In a decade overrun by changing tastes, oft taken to cliché in the socially-repressed Eisenhower era (America’s heavily distilled impressions of itself, both as a world super power and buttoned down ultra-conservative nation of do-gooders, riding the crest of their newfound post-WWII economic prosperity), the allure of that mythology, in suggesting nothing bad could or would ever happen ‘from sea to shining sea’ was just too good to be true or indefinitely last. It also appears deceptively ‘normal’ for the fifties. But the engineering gone into such a lithe and optimistic flick like Gidget is – at least today – less of a foregone and effortless conclusion than the exemplar of carefully orchestrated Sport n’ Shave Ken-dolls meet Suzie-Cream-Cheeses from the suburbs: a propaganda puff piece, shamelessly meant to promote an American ideal that never actually existed, as universally accepted and culturally – ‘the norm’ (as our Gidg’ puts it) in ‘total awesomeness’. It’s just plain silly to fight it. The fifties were fabulous…for some.
Gidget made a household name of Sandra Dee (born, Alexandra Ruck of Russian-Orthodox faith). Depending on the source consulted, Dee’s meteoric rise is ascribed to producer, Ross Hunter. Long before she was cast in his glossy remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Dee had been the reigning gamin of New York fashion; earning an impressive $75,000 annually as a model at the age of twelve. She also suffered from a horrendous crash diet to maintain her lithesome, flat-chested frame; her slavish devotion almost costing Dee her life. At one point, Dee’s anorexia made her unable to properly digest food. She had to learn how to eat all over again. Better things were in store, however. In 1957, the same year Kohner published his first Gidget novel, Dee made the transition to Hollywood, appearing in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail. Her looks and talent, touted by gossip maven Louella Parsons as the new Shirley Temple, quickly earned Dee the right to be cast as the lead in Vincente Minnelli’s frothy comedy of errors, The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Signing a multi-picture deal with Universal gave the studio the option to loan her out for several pictures, including Gidget (produced at Columbia). Immediately following Gidget’s box office success the studio would have liked nothing better than to include Dee in a pair of sequels. Regrettably – at least for Columbia, Universal had more prescient plans; Dee appearing in two more loan outs, including the iconic ‘A Summer Place’ over at Warner Bros. (all three made and released in 1959); Dee earning the respect of her peers and a rank as the 16th most popular star in the land. By 1960 it would jump to #7!
Stardom alas, and more often than not, is a very double-edged sword, and after Dee’s frenzied marriage to hip-swiveling pop sensation, Bobby Darin (the two were wed in 1960 and divorced barely 7 years later), she steadily retreated from the spotlight, appearing sporadically in movies and on television, succumbing to bouts of alcoholism, depression and chronically plagued by anorexia. When Darin tragically died at the age of 37 in 1973, Dee elected to retire from the national consciousness; briefly revived in lyrics to a song from the movie, Grease (1978). Describing herself as “a has been who never was”, Dee would live long enough to know the indignation of seemingly being forgotten, her death at the age of 62 in 2005 brought on by complications from kidney disease. It’s hard, if not impossible to reconcile this image of the ‘washed up’ celeb with that goody-goody wallflower Dee presents to us in Gidget as Francie Lawrence; the apple of her parents’ eye - the ever-understanding Dorothy (Mary LaRoche) and easily flustered, Russell (Arthur O’Connell). Dee is such an innocent here, decidedly wet behind the ears in the ways of amour (with the right boy, of course!) and just not able to wrap her head around the art of ‘man-chasing’. Remember, it is 1959. The best any girl can hope for is a man who will ‘take care of her’ (a phrase of varied interpretations).
Yet, how can our Gidg’ be sure it’s the right man? Mercifully, Gabrielle Upton’s screenplay gives Francie some options…well alright – two; the much older, Kahuna (a.k.a. Burt Vail, and played with affecting sweetness and charm by Cliff Robertson) and ‘Moondoggie’ (a.k.a. Jeffrey Matthews, less effectively realized by James Darren – physically, a knock-off of John Aston, with whom Dee had great chemistry in the aforementioned Minnelli picture). Alas, Dee and Darren never quite hit it off for at least two-thirds of this movie; his myopic exultation of Kahuna’s devil-may-care ‘beach bum’ lifestyle (that Jeff will unsuccessfully seek to emulate – if only for this one eventful summer) and Jeff’s equally as narrow-minded view Gidget is ‘a child’ rather than a girl of his temperament teetering on the cusp of womanhood, leaves our projected lovers at cross-purposes for far too long. It also leaves Gidget feeling frazzled. Today, we’d call it ‘sexual frustration’. One of the most winsome aspects of the picture is Dee’s potential to clear-cut through all the male preening going on around her. Thirty minutes into Gidget, Dee’s tomboy already knows Moondoggie is the only fellow for her. It will take him until seven minutes before the final fade out to come to a similar epiphany. Somewhere between truth and romance we get humorous vignettes devoted either to homespun mother/daughter advice or some truly laughable blue-screen inserts of our tomboyish Gidg’ assimilating as ‘just one of the boys’ as she takes up and masters the leisurely ‘all-male’ pursuit of surfing.
Miraculously, it’s her pert and pint-sized self-reflection that proves the catalyst for so much change; Kahuna, protective of his charge – old enough to drive daddy’s Caddy but hopelessly lacking the social wherewithal to acknowledge an obvious – and even more unwanted, pass made by another member of the troop - ‘Lover Boy’ (Tom Laughlin). Gidget may not know her way around raging hormones, but she certainly has her way with these guys. Kahuna’s boys begin by reluctantly acknowledging her presence as a minor nuisance; then, as their mascot, and finally, as the right girl at the right time, primed for the picking – if only harvest time did not involve so many anxious farmhands in search of this one vine-ripened tomato. I have read several feminist treatises, citing Gidget as a catalyst for the dawning of a new cinematic representation of the all-American woman. Oh, please…let’s not go overboard! Dee’s bright-eyed and book-read babe in the woods is refreshingly not ‘with it’. Were that she could figure out the machinations to mimic her enterprising cohorts I have no doubt she would succumb and succeed in turning on the facet and the charm in tandem to achieve that holiest of holy ‘primal objectives’ for the fifties female: to land a quality hunk of man-flesh. That Gidg’ goes about it all wrong, or rather backwards and sideways (and still manages to hook the biggest catch of the day) is undeniably the crux of this movie’s time-capsule/fairy tale lure; also, its’ foregone conclusion.
After a bouncy main title, we settle in on a day in the life of our Frances Lawrence; a close-up of a decidedly juvenile one-piece bathing suit drying on the clothes line, dissolving to a shot of Frances, all of seventeen and lamenting to a crop-haired Betty Louis (Sue George) she is quite hopeless when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. Frances’ gal pals, Mary Lou (Jo Morrow), Nan (Yvonne Craig) and Patti (Patti Kane) all want to troll the beaches for available red-blooded men. Alas, Frances has yet to feel the hormonal twinge. Despite her father’s best-laid plans to inveigle Frances with Jeffrey Matthews, the son of a business associate, she has other ideas about how best to spend her summer holidays.  Arriving at the beach, the girls are immediately attracted to a group of shirtless, tanned fellas lying around a makeshift hut, waxing their surfboards. But even their more obvious effects fail to catch on. Nevertheless, Frances meets Kahuna and Moondoggie, becoming fascinated by the surfboard. Frances begs Russell to loan her $25 for a used board. Contented their daughter’s interests are aligned with ‘some nice boys’ she has met at the beach, Dorothy convinces Russ to let his little girl have the money.
While Kahuna and the other fellas are impressed by Frances’ resolve to partake of their male-dominated past time, Moondoggie finds virtually nothing redeemable about Gidg’. The boys unofficially take Frances for their mascot and nickname her ‘Gidget’, a portmanteau word derived from 'girl' and 'midget'. Unable to see this as a playful putdown, Gidget believes she has made inroads to a likely détente with Moondoggie. Briefly, Gidget becomes enamored with Kahuna; a Korean War vet twice her the age who has since written off the rules of what society expects of him to become a full-time beach bum. Moondoggie admires Kahuna so much he has decided to delay his own college plans in the fall to accompany his mentor on a freighter bound for Peru at summer’s end.  Of all the boys, Kahuna genuinely enjoys Gidget’s company. Without prying into his affairs, she sincerely questions whether if he knew then what he knows now he would still make the same lifestyle choices…uh…mistakes. It takes some time for those words to sink in, but sometime later, Kahuna takes Gidget’s philosophy to heart, electing to rejoin the human race by getting a real job and hang up his wanderer’s shoes.
Meanwhile, desperate to fit in with the guys – and one in particular – Frances lies to everyone about securing some premium steaks and refreshments for the planned ‘end of summer’ luau. Gidget’s rise to prominence as a ‘surfer girl’ is also delayed when, after being initiated by the fellas, repeatedly dunked in a tangle of kelp, she nearly drowns, developing an acute case of tonsillitis that leaves her bedridden for weeks. Not one to waste any time, Gidg’ practices her surfing technique by balancing her board across her bed. Fully recuperated, she takes to the waves with the boys, impressing even Kahuna and Moondoggie with her impeccable balance. At every attempt to catch Moondoggie’s eye, Gidget’s plans turn either sour or moot. Moondoggie isn’t interested in her. Everyone – even Kahuna – can see that. So Gidget hires one of the other surfers to play the part of her date for the luau. Too bad this plan backfires when the date passes off his sworn duty on Moondoggie, who still has no idea he is the object of Gidget’s affections. Lying to Moondoggie she is out to impress Kahuna instead, Moondoggie and Gidg’ remain at odds until he implies she is just a child, much too young to be interested in a man of Kahuna’s years. Storming off in her convertible, Gidget pursues Kahuna to a nearby ‘love shack’ he has borrowed for the evening from a friend.
Meanwhile, having discovered their daughter’s stormy alliance may not play out in Gidget’s best interests, Dorothy and Russell elect to go see exactly what is happening down at the beach. They arrive too late to find Gidget but are informed by another surfer of the ‘love shack’ and Gidget’s departure to chase after Kahuna. Well ahead of the game, Gidget arrives at the love shack and valiantly pitches herself to be ‘taken advantage of’ without actually knowing what this means. Kahuna is willing to oblige…up to a point. But even he can see Gidget does not really mean what she is saying. As a noble gesture, he sends her away. Too bad a nosy neighbor (Cheerio Meredith) has been all too eager to telephone the police. Now, Moondoggie turns up, demanding to know from Kahuna what has transpired at the shack. Before he can answer for his actions (or lack thereof), Kahuna and Moondoggie get into a brawl. The police break things up. Next, they find Gidget standing by her car down the road. She has suffered a flat tire. Unable to show proof of her license or registration for the family car, Gidget is taken by the officers to the station house. She is humiliated to find Dorothy and Russell already there, desperate for information on her whereabouts. Russell makes both the police and his family a promise: nothing like this will ever happen again. Dorothy reminds her daughter of grandma’s old saying, “A good woman brings out the best in every man.”
In an attempt to realign his daughter’s discernment between nice guys and bums, the next day Russell arranges for Gidget to meet Jeffrey Matthews, the son of his business associate. Both she and Jeff are startled to realize they already know each other much too well. You see, Jeff is Moondoggie! Not wanting to upset her parents any further, Gidget agrees to go on a date with him. Despite her linger affections for Jeff, almost immediately the two begin to quarrel as he drives back to the beach for, as he puts it, ‘one last (nostalgic) look around the place’. The couple discover Kahuna dismantling his makeshift beach shack. Ironically, he too has decided being a beach bum is no way to live. Having accepted a job as a flyer for a local airline, Kahuna and Moondoggie part as friends. Gidget and Moondoggie embrace. He offers her his fraternity pin – the ultimate fifties pledge of long-distance fidelity - while he is away at school. Gidget is over the moon with joy. Her dreams have come true – at least, for the time being.
Gidget takes some time to get going, but once it does its spirit of youthful optimism is as irresistible as ever. Watching Dee’s book-read but clumsy young Miss put herself through the grueling paces of an intellectualized determination to solve a problem where the heart should be leading the way instead, performing ‘breast-enhancement’ exercises in the hopes of amplifying her cleavage before the luau, leaves a palpable sincerity to linger about the hopefulness as well as the helplessness of young people desperate to become adults. But ‘mama’ was right. Being young is the best part of life, filled with new discoveries about one’s self, friendship and love affairs meant to last a lifetime – if only as lingering memories, neatly tucked into the faded pages of a yearbook or old Christmas card. I’ll admit this much; with its summer-themed festivities, releasing a Blu-ray of Gidget just before the pending Christmas holidays seems rather idiotic, or just poor timing to capitalize on its oodles of charm. Whatever the season, Gidget’s passion for life proves the magic elixir to warm our hearts. Sandra Dee was not a great actress. She was, however, a fairly fetching presence on the screen, able to be genuine and play solid comedy. Herein she illustrates not only the potential, but the emotional/mental resources to have achieved far better in a career cut short by inner demons and the inevitable sad decline of her screen popularity by the late 1960’s as she too grew into womanhood, leaving naiveté, along with those school girl days far behind.
In Columbia’s subsequent sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), a more mature Gidg’ would be fleshed out by Deborah Walley and Cindy Carol respectively – neither able to recreate Sandra Dee’s bushy-tailed buoyancy. Gidget may not be high art, but it hardly matters. It is a movie to remind of a simpler time in that fictionally woven tapestry of Americana; when to be a virgin was hardly taboo, young love did not necessarily equate to leaving your knickers in a ball on the backseat of someone else’s car, and the prospect of finding true love the first time around – even while in high school, contained a sincere promise made through due diligence to find happiness on one’s own terms; free love, diaphragms, STD’s, and, the pill be damned! We don’t make movies like Gidget today, not even as retro-fitted homage, mainly because our present age has vulgarized the fragility of youth all out of proportion. In music, movies, TV programs and ads promoting hyper-sexualization as ‘the cultural norm’; we live in a pop culture where if you haven’t lost your virginity by sixteen and traded up a partner or two in the interim you might just as well consider yourself washed up. The movies have since confused finding love with getting laid, or rather, made it appear as though the latter is the only gateway to discovering the former. Refreshingly, our Gidget feels the same way – although, she equates ‘making it with a boy’ to friendly hand-holding, a tender kiss on the lips, and storybook daydreams of marrying to start a family. So, the end game really has not changed since 1959. Regrettably, the approach has. So, to paraphrase: “If you’re still in doubt about angels being real. I can arrange to change any doubts you feel. Wait'll you see this Gidget… you'll want her for your Valentine. You're gonna say she's all that you adore. Step right this way. Our Gidg is spoken for. You're gonna find, this Gidget is simply divine!”
Gidget arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time. Basically, another quality release from Sony, cribbing from restored and remastered elements in their archive a la Grover Crisp and his minions, who implicitly understand only one route to deep catalog releases from their Columbia Studios’ archives: polished with class and dedication to every last detail. We readily applaud Mr. Crisp and Sony on this blog. Once again, the kudos and accolades are well worth it. Gidget was shot in Cinemascope and ColumbiaColor – the studio-sanctioned derivation of Eastmancolor. Neither is a great process; ‘scope’s peripheral warping of the image wed to muddier than anticipated hues of this monopack color negative. The image can hardly hold a candle to Technicolor or Technirama. Less expensive though, folks; and, in the cost-cutting fifties, keeping the budget in check oft’ meant more than maintaining an overall integrity to any print master for generations that…let’s face it… were still three decades removed from the home video revolution. Movies then, as movies now, were made as disposable mass market entertainment. Unlike now however, then, conservation/preservation (even basic longevity of the product itself) was not considered a priority. Once a movie had its first run theatrically it was rarely shown in its entirety – perhaps, on late night TV, or unless it proved a blockbuster rife for multiple reissues.
Gidget in 1080p looks very nice indeed. There is some marginal fading and the image can occasionally look thick rather than refined. But this is Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, folks; not the fault of this meticulous remastering effort. Age-related artifacts have been completely eradicated. There’s a patina of naturally realized film grain too. Honestly, nothing to complain about here. The DTS audio is 1.0 mono. I am uncertain if Gidget was originally recorded in 4 or 6 track-stereo. Certainly, ‘scope’ was capable of stereo, though a good many original sound mixes were gassed and reused back in the day, leaving only mono mixes behind. Oh well, and again, it is what it is – nicely balanced with clean, crisp dialogue and no strident spots. We also get the score and three songs in stereo, isolated on a separate track. We love Twilight Time for including classic film scores as a supplement when rights permit, although I would sincerely champion all future TT releases of musicals like Doctor Dolittle include not only orchestrations but also vocal tracks. But I digress. Gidget is a charmer on Blu-ray. If you are still in doubt about angels being real, get this one today and be very glad you did. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

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