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    Little Girl, Big Ideas, Fullest Width

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    The name of Gidget immediately conjures up the pretty faces and bubbly personalities of the actresses who portrayed the vivacious Southern California girl on the big screen (Sandra Dee, Deborah Walley, Cindy Carol) and on television (Sally Field, Karen Valentine, Caryn Richman). But she was born out of a loving father-daughter relationship and modeled on a real woman. Historian Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing entry on Gidget begins: “Nickname for Kathy Kohner of Brentwood, California, whose lightly fictionalized life as a teenage surfing neophyte at Malibu in the mid-1950s became a durable pop-culture phenomenon branching into books, movies, comics, television and theater. ‘It was Gidget,’ Los Angeles magazine wrote in 1994, ‘along with The Beach Boys, who gave surfing its most memorable turn in the great American youth culture parade.’ Kohner, a five-foot, 95-pound 10th grader, began surfing at Malibu in the summer of 1956, and became, in her words, the ‘group mascot’ to Mickey Dora, Terry ‘Tubesteak’ Tracy, Kemp Aaberg and another half-dozen Malibu regulars who in large part set the tone for California surfing. It was Tracy who said that Kohner looked like a girl-midget – a ‘Gidget.’ Kohner spent her summer days learning to surf and trying her best to fit in with the Malibu crew (in part by distributing a bottomless supply of homemade sandwiches), then went home and relayed all to her parents in long, gushing soliloquies.” Her dad Frederick Kohner’s subsequent novel (written in a brisk six weeks and bearing the come-hither cover subtitle “The Little Girl with Big Ideas”) was published in September 1957, followed by a Life magazine photo spread showing Gidget on her seashore turf, and they introduced her growing-up and growing-wise activities to the world at large, which responded by buying more than a half-million copies. Columbia Pictures responded by saying, “Let’s hit the sand and make a movie,” and the beach party youth movie genre caught its first great wave. 

    The first screen Gidget (1959), aka frisky Francie Lawrence, is portrayed by the attractive and charming Dee, who had already attracted notice in four noteworthy movies – the dramatic Until They Sail (1957, for which she won a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer), The Restless Years and A Stranger in My Arms (both 1958), and the sparkling 1958 comedy The Reluctant Debutante – and would also open the same month as Gidget in the highly regarded remake of Imitation of Life (1959), co-starring Susan Kohner, the niece of Gidget’s author and cousin to Gidget’s inspiration. Her nimble ability to convey a larkish abandon in romantic comedies and compelling fragility in lush tearjerkers would fuel a decent run as a box-office favorite over the succeeding decade. Her male co-stars/romantic options are also no slouches in their on-screen versatility and experience: teen idol James Darren (who croons two of the movie’s three songs) as surfer Moondoggie and the older Cliff Robertson as surf bum Big Kahuna, both of whom, it turns out, have their own issues with commitment and worldly responsibility. Splendidly filmed in Cinemascope on Malibu locations by the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who’d already won an Oscar® making romance in the surf tantalizing in From Here to Eternity), Gidget made no bones about its primary aim to entertain with lighthearted comedy. Yet it also provided for a national moviegoing audience the first, largely family-friendly snapshots of a hip, fun-loving, gently rebellious youth culture not refracted through the angsty dramaturgic lens of a cautionary juvenile delinquent tale. And what’s more, the treatment of the material, as adapted by screenwriter Gabrielle Upton (who’d spent the preceding years in the television worlds of daytime serials and primetime anthology dramas) and the relatively new-to-films director Paul Wendkos, brought an unexpectedly even-handed and grown-up approach to what Sacramento-based pop culture essayist and critic Kristen Lopez called Gidget’s Sexual Awakening Via Surfing in her nostalgically analytical August 15, 2017 Crooked Marquee piece well worth a look here: Along with the always welcome Arthur O’Connell as Francie/Gidget’s often exasperated dad, there’s also a nifty assemblage of future familiar faces, including Jo Morrow (who would step into the Twilight Time titles Our Man in Havana and The 3 Worlds of Gulliver soon afterward), Joby Baker (Good Morning, World), Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack), Yvonne Craig (Batgirl to TV's Batman) and Doug McClure (The Virginian). What makes TT’s disc of Sony’s recently completed 4K restoration transfer of Gidget really well worth a look is that it marks the title’s first home video release in its 2.35 widescreen entirety. Wax your boards for the lady’s hi-def Blu-ray debut November 14. Preorders open November 1.