Kathryn Ionata last wrote for The Toast about the literary characters she would not invite to a dinner party.
When I think of being a teenager, I think of Gidget. Even though I grew up in Pennsylvania and not California; even though I was in high school forty years after Gidget was; even though I’ve never been on a surfboard in my life, I associate the teenage surfing movie from 1959 with my own coming of age. Maybe it’s the fact that I am, like the character, so much shorter than average that it has unavoidably become a part of my identity. More likely, my connection with the character stems from my own teenage years when I, like Gidget, hung out with packs of loud, fun, unfortunately-nicknamed boys. We’d pile into my cousin’s car and wrap around corners on two wheels down narrow roads on our way to hear bands. I watch Gidget and it takes me back to that time.
The film opens with Gidget (still called Francie at this point) in her bedroom with two girlfriends, pleading with them to keep things as they were last summer. The ponytailed friend is imploring Francie to go on her very first “manhunt,” and the concept fills Francie with dread rather than interest. The cute tomboy in the chair clearly shares Francie’s feelings.
While I can’t pretend to know how the filmmakers intended audiences to perceive Betty Louise, called B.L., they’ve presented her in such a way that it’s difficult to not read her as a lesbian. Using initials for a girl’s name was not common in 1959 by any means. B.L. is not invited to the manhunt; she has short hair several years before the pixie cut would come into style, and in every scene, her clothing is loose, monochromatic, and without frills. Plus, look at her in that chair: legs crossed in a way that takes up as much room as possible, she lets her face slip into an inaudible scoff as she eats an apple noisily. Later, she slides down the banister of the stairs in Francie’s house. Her presence is remarkable in a scene that is supposed to be setting up Francie’s eventual romance.
But wait! See that dot on her shirt? That’s her boyfriend’s fraternity pin. Her serious relationship is the reason she’s not participating in the manhunt!
Yeah, I’m unconvinced too, girls.
Leaving B.L. to miss her boyfriend in peace, Francie allows her three girlfriends to drag her to the beach. Their look of glee here is at the group of shirtless surfers they hope to encounter. The composition of this shot points to how out of place Francie is with her friends. They’re in blues and grays, making them fit in perfectly with their surroundings of the sky and ocean, not to mention the umbrella behind them. Francie sticks out as not belonging in position, physical size, and color. Pink is often associated with baby girls, and that’s exactly what her friends see Francie as at this moment.
Let’s pause to admire the hunks of 1959: from left to right, Moondoggie, Lord Byron, Wakiki, Stinky, Hotshot, and Loverboy, hooting and hollering as the girls walk past. In every way, they as a group are set up in direct contrast to the group of girls. While the girls are passive, lying on beach towels provocatively, the boys are active, playing the bongos, yelling, mimicking, and in general creating a ruckus, and a presence for themselves. Even their descriptive names allude to actions.
What’s interesting is that just as the first scene sets up Francie in opposition to her friends, the same can be said of Moondoggie with his friends.
In this shot, he’s the most relaxed and, if not passive, then one of the least boisterous of this friends. Throughout the film, he frequently exhibits more maturity than the others. He’s different and Francie is different.
Much to Francie’s girlfriends’ dismay, the boys are uninterested in them, calling them “jailbait.” Their lack of interest was an idea I didn’t grasp fully when watching as a teenager. I thought that they didn’t like the girls because of their perceived immaturity, and that they come to accept Francie because she shares their interests. She’s special.
The implication that was lost on me is that while these girls say they’re on a manhunt, they’re really on a boyfriend hunt: they want fraternity pins and dates. The boys, to put it bluntly, want a woman who’ll put out, and they are not about to waste their time on high school girls. Of course, the three actresses playing Francie’s friends are fully developed women ranging from three to ten years older than the teenage Sandra Dee, which somewhat muddles the delineation of girls and women that the surfers are able to see.
After Francie’s friends ditch her (what’s she supposed to do for a ride home? Loyalty is not tantamount in manhunts), she puts on her scuba gear and swims around in the ocean. Ebullient music plays as the boys clamber into the ocean to surf. But Francie has gotten caught in some kind of kelp sea monster, so Moondoggie pulls her out and surfs her back to shore. Francie lights up when she sees him, but he tells her to scoot like a good kid.
As he’s walking away, his head swivels to follow the two ladies walking by, showing us where his interests lie, and also showing us that he may not be wearing anything behind that surfboard.
As he walks away, Francie decides to become a surfer. But it’s not a ploy to get Moondoggie to fall in love with her. Rather, it’s her reaction to the exhilaration she felt on that surfboard. “Can we go again?” she asks right after her rescue, wringing the water out of her ponytail, unperturbed at her near-death experience. This is part of what makes Gidget as a character so compelling to watch. Her desire to have fun supersedes almost everything else, including the cute boy who rescued her.
Back at home, Francie’s father learns of the manhunt and wags his finger at her like any good 1950s television/film father would. If she’s so interested in boys, why doesn’t she go out with his friend Jeffrey Matthews’ son, he wants to know. Francie is having none of this.
The next day, Francie returns to the beach, where she meets the Kahuna, who’s sort of the resident big brother to the gang of surfers. Kahuna flashes his teeth in all his bare-chested, shipwreck survivor attired glory. He and Gidget talk and she offers to make his coffee for him, similar to the previous scene, when she offers to bring her father slippers and a pipe.
Kahuna apparently decides that his open shirt is too constricting, so he removes it altogether. He lives in a shack on the beach with a fake-looking Hitchcock villain bird named Fly Boy. He’s a real, true surf bum, who gets away with holding up a seashell and saying, “The sea left its whisper in there.” Shirtlessness and advanced age aside, there’s nothing overly flirtatious or inappropriate about Kahuna at this point. Gidget’s interest in surfing earns his respect.
In what already feels like surfing montage #10, all half-dozen boys and Kahuna run into the ocean. Kahuna and Moondoggie are the only ones able to remain standing while the others tumble off their boards like dominoes. They seem to be engaging in a secret contest of who is the real man: Kahuna, who’s a genuine surf bum, and Moondoggie, a college dropout who wants to be one. It’s a weird moment of macho posturing that foreshadows events to come later. In this case, Kahuna’s ability to smoke a cigar and keep that fraying mess of a hat on his head means he comes out ahead.
Onshore, Kahuna encourages Francie’s presence and she buys a surfboard. Moondoggie coins her nickname, short for “girl midget,” in this scene. He doesn’t like the fact that Kahuna allows her to stick around and says, “What are we running, a baby farm, here?” Which, in itself, is a weird thing to say.
Gidget picks up food for everyone, which in this case feels less like a gendered action and more like the case of a younger person trying to prove her worth to the cool older kids with whom she wants to make friends. The boys descend like animals on what she brings. Gidget, meanwhile, recoils at the way they tear into the stack of hamburgers like a pack of starving carnivores.
This film often takes care to highlight, and sometimes dismantle, the marked and supposedly inherent differences between males and females. Boys hunt food, girls hunt men. So where does Gidget fit into this? She doesn’t, really: she’s not a man hunter or an animal. Her gender identity is more complicated than that, as is Moondoggie’s: he’s the only one of the boys to not dive for a hamburger. Gidget is by no means an exploration of gender and sexuality, but for 1959, it does a hell of a job in countering the either/or idea of gender dichotomy that is still so prevalent today.
Later that night, Gidget wears her blue frilly pajamas and has an intense discussion about love with Mom, whose hair never moves. “You do like boys, don’t you, darling?” Mom asks evenly. (Somewhere, B.L.’s head is exploding.) Gidget assures her that she does, and Mom waxes rhapsodic about bells and sledgehammers.
Moondoggie teaches Gidge to surf. I don’t care that two people on one surfboard logically don’t have the opportunity to exchange longing glances. The way she’s looking at him, and he at her, gave the teenage me butterflies in the heart. (The adult me has a similar reaction.)
Still, watch those hands, pal.
Lest we begin to think too highly of Moondoggie, he dunks Gidget’s head underwater several times as part of her “initiation” as a fellow surfer. Obviously, this doesn’t go well, and back onshore, the other boys stand outside the surf shack guiltily while Moondoggie wraps Gidget in a blanket and brews her some tea.
We see a hand switch on a radio, and “Gidget is the One For Me,” the song played at the beginning of the movie, comes over the airwaves. At first it’s unclear if only the audience is hearing the song, but then Moondoggie begins to sing! Clearly the director wanted to give James Darren an opportunity to sing, but how is this a song that the characters know? Was there another, more famous Gidget in the world of this film who has already been immortalized in song? It’s very meta, but Darren has a beautiful voice, and the sledgehammer hits, and Gidget decides Moondoggie is the one for her.
Conveniently, B.L. appears shortly after to help Gidget learn some surfing skills in the bedroom.
More surfing montages follow and gradually Gidget is accepted, if not one of the guys, as a lovable mascot. In many ways, she’s the Wendy Darling to this group of lost boys who won’t grow up. Fearing that she’ll compromise the freedom they cherish, they shoot her down in flight or push her underwater, but when they see that she will enrich their group, they put a starfish on her head and crown her queen.
The dream comes crashing down when Moondoggie’s date JoAnne strolls onto Gidget’s turf. She’s condescending and perfectly coiffed and dressed for brunch, and Gidget is five inches shorter, three cup sizes smaller, and covered in salt water and seaweed. It’s an agonizingly recognizable moment for anyone who’s ever seen someone they love with another. Gidget holds her own, though, and sasses JoAnne the hell off her beach.
It should be noted that in the wide screen version of this film, which I’ve only been lucky enough to catch on TV once, Moondoggie’s hands are all over JoAnne’s ass as they exit the scene.
Gidget sees that she must do something more to get Moondoggie’s attention, so B.L. graciously volunteers to help Francie increase the size of her bust.
Soon, summer is almost over (already? I think every time I watch) and the luau, the culminating party at the beach, is fast approaching. Gidget schemes to get Moondoggie’s attention by paying Hotshot to act like her boyfriend at the luau, thinking that he’ll want her more if he sees her with somebody else. But fate throws a wrench in her plan: Hotshot backs out at the last minute and has Moondoggie take over the job for him!
The luau is about as hedonistic as directors could have gotten away with in a 1959 American film about teenagers. In between bonfires and dancing, couples lie in tangles of arms and legs and who knows what else. All of this stands in contrast to Gidget’s innocence and lack of experience and she retreats into shyness, barely able to talk to Moondoggie. When she realizes he has no idea that she has a crush on him, she pretends that Kahuna is the one she has the hots for. Moondoggie is shocked, and points out that he’s twice her age and that he’s a surf bum, like Moondoggie, who won’t settle down for a girl.
But in spite of the unexpected developments, the plan is kind of working: Moondoggie seems to have developed feelings for Gidget. They embrace so Kahuna can see them. Moondoggie closes his eyes and murmurs into her hair, “Is he looking now?” Gidget’s eyes are closed too, and she says, “Mm, I’m sure of it.”
Then he sings again! Two James Darren songs for the price of one! Actually, he’s singing along with a band that’s playing at the other end of the luau. They’re a real band, The Four Preps. I’m beginning to think that the director or writer of this film is a frustrated maker of musicals.
The band happens to be playing “There’s No Such Thing” (“as the next best thing to love,” the lyric continues), and thank goodness. Imagine if they’d been playing “Lipstick on Your Collar,” another hit from 1959.
And because there is no way to resist a beautiful man singing a beautiful song on a beautiful beach, they kiss.
But they’re quickly interrupted! Because it’s after midnight, and the “job” is over.
Moondoggie looks like he’s about to punch this guy for cutting him off mid-kiss. Also, what is it with men in this film and straw hats?
Gidget runs away, and as she’s leaving the beach in a tizzy, guess who asks for a ride home?
Yeah. We knew this was coming from the moment of that surf-off.
To be fair, Kahuna does seem to genuinely only want a ride. Gidget persuades him to let her into his friend’s beach shack (which has four walls, a roof, and a floor, so it’s a real upgrade), knowing it will get back to Moondoggie. Plus, he’s wearing those high-waisted white capris, so who could resist?
Gidget asks for one of his “private parties,” and one wonders if she understands what she’s getting into. It’s an uncomfortable, creepy few minutes during which I focus on the white pants. Before long, Kahuna pushes her away and tells her to leave “before I forget it’s just a game.” It would be fruitless to apply current ideas about age and consent to a different time period, so we’ll just say that this scene is best left unanalyzed.
Meanwhile, Moondoggie has followed Gidget to the house, and as a favor to her, Kahuna musses his hair and undoes his shirt to mislead Moondoggie about what happened between them. It’s a…kind gesture. Magnanimous, even, for him to not worry that the police will come running.
Which they do, but…
It’s for a different reason. Sock it to him, Moondoggie.
Part of the reason that I enjoy Gidget so much is that while on the surface, the plot is nothing but sugar and spice, sun and sand, underneath that, we’re taken to some dark and uncomfortable places. Changing friendships, hazing/initiation, virginity/sexuality, and nefarious or inappropriate relationships. The best part of this balance is that the characters all emerge unscathed. Sometimes we need that.
The next day—seriously, the next day: this film moves fast—Gidget is Francie again, and her shine is visibly gone. She’s Cinderella after the ball, one of Andrew Lang’s Dancing Princesses after her shoes are worn through. She has reluctantly agreed to go on a date with her father’s friend’s son, Jeffrey Matthews, Jr. What does she have to lose? The surfers will soon pack up and move on, and Moondoggie is gone to her forever. Except…
Moondoggie is Jeff Matthews, and we can’t even accuse the writers of pulling a fast one on us: in the previous scene, when police officers come to the beach shack to break up the fight, one of them looks at Moondoggie’s driver’s license and calls him “Matthews.” But it’s extremely easy to miss.
Gidget’s father is an ideal 1950s stock character: man who has no idea what’s going on.
Gidget and Moondoggie go for a walk on the beach. They run into Kahuna and discover that he’s taken a real job. Moondoggie, too, has decided to return to college. But before he goes, he would like very much for Gidget to wear his fraternity pin.
They live happily ever after.
Actually, in my world, Gidget becomes a world-class surfer who is forever associated with Sandra Dee and never replaced in subsequent, lesser films. She and Moondoggie eventually get married, and have two pint-sized, dark-haired children who perfect the art of singing whilst surfing. They live in a pink beach house.
B.L., after giving the boot to her fraternity boyfriend, goes to Smith on a field hockey scholarship and meets the femme of her dreams. They are frequent double daters with Gidget and Moondoggie.
Kathryn Ionata is a writer living outside Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel and blogs about what she's reading here.