February 28, 2013

"Cold Cash & Legs of Lamb: Shooting the Shame Curl with Gidget" by Jennifer L. Knox

Most people think I’m talking about the Sally Field Gidget, which was actually a TV show from 1965. I’m referring to the 1959 film starring Sandra Dee, James Darren and Cliff Robertson. The only people I know who’ve have seen the original are in their 60s, or they grew up near Los Angeles, as I did, where Gidget was always on TV—along with Abbot and Costello, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road pics, and Gumby.

The screenplay was written by Frederick Kohner, based on his book, Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas, about the experiences of his own daughter. I find it creepy: a grown man making money off his daughter’s puberty.

Gidget launched the beach movie genre. Where the Boys Are followed in 1960, and Blue Hawaii in 1961. Being the first of its kind, they weren't sure how Gidget was supposed to act in 1959. Dee's tenacious Gidget lies and steals, and loathes herself. But by the time Sally Field took on the character in 1965, the themes of the genre were well-established, as were the parameters of ingenue’s role within it. Field's Gidget is clever with brief moments of hubris (recalling Austen's Emma), chaste below the waist, and not nearly as sporty as Gidget 1959—Sally's more often near her surfboard than on it. 

By 1965, the advertising industry had learned how to sell all manner of crap to teenage girls. Gidget 1959 used the same tampons that her mom did. Actually, they probably used maxi pads—giant ones—as big as lawn chairs. Gidget 1965 had her own teen tampon (teenpon!), engineered for tiny virgin vaginas. There was far more money to be made from Gidget 1965. So what was Gidget 1959 selling?

Left: 1959 tampon ad: the women look 35. The message: tampons are small. 
Right: 1965 tampon ad: the girls are 21 and under. The message: tampons won't pop your cherry.


You need a synopsis.

Sixteen year-old Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee) is an upper-middle class, cello-playing, sexually immature straight-A student whose girlfriends decide she needs to “make it” before her senior year in high school, or face social exile. They drag her to the beach on a “man hunt” where they find some hot surfers, but Francie’s earnestness gets in the way of her girlfriends’ slutty scheme, so they ditch her. She says, “Screw it,” goes swimming, gets tangled in a kelp bed, and is rescued by Moondoggie (James Darren), one of the surfers, who rides her (oh yeah) back to shore on the tip of his board (unh-huh). Back on dry land, the surfers talk about how small her tits are.

Moondoggie tells Francie, “Go on back to mama,” but she’s already hooked. She begs her dad for money to buy a surfboard and returns to the beach, where she meets the leader of the pack—the Great Kahuna (Cliff Robertson)—a former Korean War pilot who lives in a corrugated metal shack on the beach with a mynah bird named Flyboy. Kahuna is self-declared “surf bum” who likes Francie’s money. “If you’re gonna be a full-time surf bum like me, you gotta learn to take what you can get.” Kahuna decrees: Francie stays. Moondoggie is incredulous, “That gidget?”—a mashup of girl and midget.

Gidget learns how to surf, falls in love with Moondoggie, and “works like a dog” to “make it” with him. She pays another surfer to make Moondoggie jealous at an orgiastic end-of-the-summer luau, almost “makes it” with Kahuna (“Hey, you are sweet…”) and is returned—rejected and dejected—in a police car to her upper-middle class parents with her hymen intact. “Oh mom, I could perish—just perish with shame! After months of concentrated effort, I come home as pure as the driven snow.”


I remember watching it on the black and white set in my parents' bedroom, where my mom would shut me in after preschool. I wanted to look like Sandra Dee which was/is/always will be totally impossible. I've always been tall and big—Fred Flintstone hands and feet. As a kid, I was both fat and gawky (“fawky”?) with loads of freckles, a chipped front tooth, and (oof) a perm.

Throughout the film, Gidget’s told she's physically unsuited for sex. Whenever there’s a reference to her breasts, the movie plays that “wanh-wanh” sound. She tells Moondoggie, “I’m the same as them…” gesturing to the bodacious bikini bunnies, then looks down at her chest “…except one thing…”

“Understatement of the year,” Moondoggie says.

Like Gidget, my teenage body underwhelmed. I skipped a grade, so I was younger than all the girls in my class, but a whole head taller, and a late bloomer to boot. The Mexican girls called me Baby Huey—which strikes me now as very clever. Baby Huey was fawky defined. Most of my friends had started their periods around age twelve, had big boobs, and burly 1970’s bushes. I didn’t have any pubic hair until I was 14. The girls in my gym class who weren’t calling me Baby Huey called me Baldy. My kingdom for a merkin. Gidget’s man-hunting girlfriends had asses like Clydesdales, and DD tits overwhelming their conical bikini tops.



Beatniks: look, but don't touch!

The movie is a tug-of-war between the restrictive roles of the 1950s white American middle class and the budding beatnik counterculture. Kahuna has turned his back on working for the man. When he tells Gidget, “That’s right, I’m a surf bum,” she responds as if he'd said, "That's right, I'm a necrophiliac."

When Gidget takes up surfing in lieu of man hunting, she turns her back on traditional gender roles and signs up for the counterculture. As she masters the sport, she blossoms sexually, and pursues Moondoggie with surprisingly unladylike vigor—she’s downright frothing. Her mom tells her, “One of the advantages of being a young lady is that it’s not up to you. It’s up to the young man.” Gidget knows that’s bullshit, so she harnesses her straight-A smarts to develop “a plan of attack” requiring self-debasement, cold cash, and stolen food.

If you were a teenager watching Gidget, you would’ve known Gidget’s parents were totally square. But wouldn't it be nice if they'd been right? Because like Gidget, what sex entailed for me was rejection, so I hurled myself at boys like a baseball from a pitching machine, propelled by a drink my girlfriends and I invented called an Open Grave: frozen concentrated limeade, 7-Up, grenadine and 151 rum. Sex was something I powered through
, anesthetized, to the other side where vulnerability faded like a far-off set of headlights into the dark desert.


The surfers’ lack of chivalry is also a kind of escape from the traditional male role of the 1950s (in juxtaposition to Gidget’s bewildered, almost feminine dad, à la Jim Bacchus in Rebel without a Cause). These surfers want to fuck girls, with huge asses, now. They don’t want to meet your daddy, they just want you in their caddywhich isn't technically theirs...they borrowed it...from a friend...without asking.

Their cruelty rings far truer than their lifeguard heroics. In the initiation scene, Moondoggie shoves Gidget’s head under water, telling her, “Go down and cut some kelp.” Gidget tries to be a good sport: “Gee, fellas, this great fun!” He sadistically shoves her under again, snickering, “I’m glad you like it!” The surfers laugh until she doesn’t come back up, and Moondoggie has to rescue her again from a kelp bed. That’s twice with the kelp beds.

I propose we make “kelp cutter” code for a terrible date, i.e. “How was your OK Cupid date?” “A total kelp cutter—I got crabs.”

As Moondoggie tends to Gidget in Kahuna’s hut, tucking a wool blanket around her, singing her theme song, I always thought, “What a nice guy." The other surfers stand vigil by the door. There are seven surfers, by the way—a’ la Snow White (fairy tale references abound).

A flustered Kahuna bursts in, “How’s our mascot?”

Oh, she’ll live,” Moondoggie mutters and bolts out the door for a date with JoAnne who’s stacked like pancakes. I know how he felt. Nothing gets me worked up for a hot date like a near-drowning. 

I know guys like that—and far fewer who have pulled me out of kelp beds. But maybe that's because I wouldn't let them.


I think (can't remember exactly) I had my first date when I was 21 with a guy named Todd—my college roommate’s friend. He liked me, which freaked me out. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to go on a date when we could've simply had sex. Why buy the cow when you can have the cow for free?  My romantic life up until then had consisted of many one-night stands and three year-long stands that felt a lot like one-nighters, somehow—never gaining intimate traction and too easy to leave—maybe I didn't know how to tell the truth. I met one of my "boyfriends" when he crawled into my bedroom window. I woke up, we had sex, and "dated" for six months! WTF!? I am just remembering this! And you know what I thought when I woke up and saw him standing there like Michael Meyers minus the hockey mask? “He likes me!” God fucking dammit! ARGH!

[Sigh] OK, back to Todd. We ate somewhere, and drank Cokes instead of beer. I think he tried to pay but I wouldn’t let him. Todd was a quiet guy. I was so nervous. I either talked too much or not at all. We didn’t kiss at the end of it. We never went on another date. About a month later, he had a new girlfriend. I remember she was skinnier than me.


There’s a scene when Gidget’s wearing a purple bathing suit that shows off her tiny waist and makes her boobs look bigger—having ditched the sexless red one piece after the first scene. Her back is to the camera: her shoulder blades jut out like a chicken carcass. Sandra Dee was anorexic all her life. Her mother would mash up foods in one bowl that didn’t belong together—oatmeal, chicken, eggs, milk, canned vegetables—and force feed it to her. Meanwhile, her stepfather told her she was fat at the same time he was molesting her. How’s that for a double whammy? All the magazines wrote about her angelic face, and her pink round cheeks, which were the result of abusing Epson salts as a diuretic. In Dream Lover, Dodd Darin’s book about his mother and father (Bobby Darin of "Beyond the Sea," "Mack the Knife" and "Splish Splash"), Dodd wrote that his mother only ate one lettuce leaf a day, with lemon juice on top, kept under a cake bell, because she believed that germs had calories. And bottles and bottles of booze. A life lived in hell.

Sandra Dee wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn. I wonder who Audrey Hepburn wanted to look like.


While the film has a ball strolling through beatnik culture, the inescapable obligations of money and class hang over the carefree beach cove like an invisible net. Moondoggie wants to follow Kahuna around the planet, chase the sun and surf, no strings attached. But it turns out he’s really trying to escape the shadow of his rich, successful father.

I love that part about his dad being afraid of the water. So weird and sad. Moondoggie doesn’t want freedom for freedom’s sake. He wants to be a big shot—like his father, or his surrogate father, Kahuna. But in the end, Moondoggie returns to his real father’s money and shadow.

Throughout the movie, Gidget shirks off her dad’s attempts to set her up with Jeffery Matthews, his buddy’s son—“a college boy”—read: of their class. After she bombs out at the luau, Gidget relents, and finds that Jeffery Mathews is Moondoggie. Class and the money unites them in end. Jeffery and his dad even have the same name.

Maybe this is what 1959 Gidget was selling: the prison that was white, capitalist American society. The counterculture—so tempting with its bongos, Van Dyke beards, beat poetry, feminism and sexual freedoms—had to be portrayed as doomed to fail, a pipe dream, lest we lose our young consumers to surfing, traveling the world, and banging each other's brains out. Like Kahuna’s mynah bird, Flyboy (a Peter Pan-y name), who lives and dies in the beach hut—the film's temple to Bohemianism—no one escapes the cage. In the end, Kahuna rips the lie apart with his bare hands, and rejoins mainstream society.

The cautionary message of Cotton Mathers’ Indian captivity narratives was, “Attention white people: you're starving, and those native people over there may be eating, and that might look real nice, but they will buttfuck you with some kind of crazy barbed fire stick with hallucinogenic juice on the tip of it, so don’t even think about it." Substitute beatniks for Indians, and fun for food, and you've got Gidget.

In the end, Kahuna takes a job as an airline pilot (his real name’s Burt Vail), Moondoggie/Jeffrey Mathews goes back to college, and after spending “months of concentrated effort” trying to “make it," Gidget/Francie Lawrence gets Jeffery Matthews’ fraternity pin. And a hug. 

Fuck. You. Movie.


Paul Anka ≠ James Darren
My friend's mom, an ex-hippie, grew up near the beach in So. Cal. When I told her I was writing about Gidget, she rewatched it. This is our email exchange.

MOM: Watched it and laughed so hard. The surf scenes especially had me roaring. So fake and silly. I still love Cliff Robertson though. He was the one I had a crush on. Paul Anka was just silly and annoying.

ME: Of course you loved Cliff. You've followed in the footsteps of Kahuna when everyone was too scared to. The way that the movie punishes free spirits is criminal. Gidget doesn't even get to make out with Moondoggie at the end when he pins her—they HUG!!!!! Bah!!!! And that's James Darren, btw. Paul Anka looks like something out of Lord of the Rings.

MOM: Oops...James Darren. Right. What an insipid little twerp. I look back on those days and society seems like a great bunch of shit to wade through. No wonder the '60s knocked them on their asses.

The final scene of Gidget undoes everything that comes before it, if you let it, which I don't. 

The end of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler takes place in a library where a Greek chorus muses on the nature of books and stories. My favorite speaker says, it's not where the story goes, it's all the places it doesn't go—untaken roads unfurling at every word.

So for me, it's where Gidget doesn't actually go that the film ends: 
It starts as a gag: in front of a roaring fireplace, Gidget's head in his lap, her pearly blond hair spilling everywhere. Suddenly he sees—she's beautiful, vibrant, sexual, and he doesn't tell her to get lost—he loves her, in a nice way, and she lets him, and it feels good.

Jennifer L. Knox
is the author of three books of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Drunk by Noon, and A Gringo Like Me, all available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review and four times in the Best American Poetry series. She is at work on her first novel.


Drew P. said...

I love when the mom says, "There. You look prettier without tears."

Peter Roberts said...

Great read Jen, I really enjoyed that!

Jim Sims said...

What an excellent piece. It's one thing to see just how hypersexualized American adolescence was in the 50s but another to contemplate the fact that it has only gotten worse since.