Summer Cinema: Gidget, 1959
Hit the waves with Moondoggie and the Big Kahuna
The person most responsible for bringing surfing to the mainstream public isn’t George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku or even any of the Beach Boys. It was a fifteen-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner, but everyone called her Gidget.
The story of her entry into Southern California surf culture was immortalized in the 1957 book Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas written by Kathy’s dad, screenwriter Frederick Kohner. A slightly fictionalized version of her summers in Malibu, the book publicized the still pretty regional sport of surfing. Kohner sold the film rights to Columbia Pictures (giving Kathy 5% of his payment), and the film version premiered in April of 1959.
The film is as lighthearted as a day on the beach, but still captures the ups and downs of the teenage years. Sandra Dee is adorable as Gidget, James Darren is suitably dreamy and brooding and Cliff Robertson is one cool surf king with a heart of gold. There’s a little singing – because… well, of course there is – and there’s plenty of surfing. The shots of the main characters surfing was done in a studio, and is just as cheesy as that sounds. But the long shots of surfers are the real deal – including footage of surfing legend Miki Dora (who was a friend of Kathy’s).
Maybe the best thing about the film is knowing the real-life Gidget is still out there surfing. Margie met Kathy (now Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman) a few years ago at an event for the Surfrider Foundation, and said that Kathy was just as adorable and perky in her sixties. She signed Margie’s copy of Gidget and assured her that she still surfs. It’s great when real life gets a “happily ever after” too.
So if you can’t spend all summer hanging out with the beach bums, then this delightful film is just what you need.
Did you know? Filmmakers wanted Elvis Presley for the role of Moondoggie, but he was too expensive. (What a different film that would have been!)