Judge Paul Corupe says this DVD set positively surpasses every living emotion he's ever had.
She might be pint-sized, but she's quite a woman.
When screenwriter Frederick Kohner wrote Gidget, a book loosely based on his daughter's attempts to join the burgeoning California surf scene, he could hardly have imagined the success of the titular teenage character. Not only was the book adapted into Hollywood's first beach party film, but Gidget herself would live on through much of the 1960s with two sequels, three made-for-TV movies, and a television series. In the 1980s, she was even (unsuccessfully) reinvented as "New Gidget" for a new generation of young fans.
Forty years after the original Gidget "trilogy" finished its theatrical run, I could hardly have imagined that Columbia would compile all three films in The Complete Gidget Collection, a two-disc set that offered beat-up, full frame prints with no special features.
Facts of the Case
In Gidget, a near-drowning finds Francis Lawrence (Sandra Dee, A Summer Place) saved by handsome young surfer Moondoggie (James Darren, Guns of Navarone). Suddenly infatuated with the longboard lifestyle, Francis endears herself to Moondoggie's beach bum friends, including their mentor, the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson, Spider-Man). She learns to surf and earns the nickname "Gidget" (an abbreviated form of "girl midget"), but Moondoggie still isn't interested-in fact, he's planning on dropping out of college to join the Kahuna as a surf-drenched drifter. Tired of being not noticed, Gidget concocts a plan to drive Moondoggie into her arms with jealousy.
Deborah Walley (Benji) takes over the role of the girl surfer in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Gidget's plans to enjoy the summer pounding the waves with Moondoggie are dashed when her father (Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show) books a vacation to Hawaii. After Moondoggie urges her to go because of the great surfing, Gidget assumes their romance is over and reluctantly joins her parents. Abby (Vicki Trickett, The Three Stooges Meet Hercules), another teen Gidget meets on the plane, tries unsuccessfully to bring the teen out of her funk. Hoping to surprise his sulky daughter, Gidget's father wires Moondoggie to join them, but he may have jumped the gun—Gidget is caught kissing a famous dancer named Eddie Horner (Michael Callan, Cat Ballou). Moondoggie retaliates by gravitating towards Abby, who starts to spread vicious rumors about Gidget's reputation. Once again, petty jealousies threaten to ruin the day!
Let's stay with the envy theme, shall we? In Gidget Goes to Rome, the only thing to change—besides almost all the actors—is the location. When Gidget (Cindy Carol, Dear Brigitte) breaks the news of her European trip with Moondoggie and the gang to her father (Don Porter, Desk Set), dear old dad sends a letter to his Italian pal Paolo Cellini (Cesare Danova, Cleopatra), and asks him to watch over his daughter without her knowing. Paolo poses as a magazine writer doing a piece on the American teen's impressions of Rome, but when Gidget catches Moondoggie making time with their beautiful tour guide Daniela (Danielle De Metz, Return of the Fly), she is drawn to the much older man, still unaware that he is nothing more than a parental spy.
While I do like Columbia's basic idea of putting all three of Gidget's feature films together into a two-disc set, the rampant cast changes, including three different Gidgets, works against the packaging of these films as a uniform series. Not that they didn't originally try for some consistency—Gidget Goes Hawaiian even goes so far as to feature "memories" from the first film recreated with the second Gidget, the redheaded Deborah Walley. As Moondoggie, James Darren is the sole member of the main cast that appears in the entire series. The films, which are in no way dependent on each other even in terms of plot, just don't succeed as any kind of a "trilogy."
The first film, easily the best of the series, makes a remarkable attempt to accurately portray surfers in their natural habitat. The vaguely subversive character of the Big Kahuna, a lifelong beach bum who refuses to work and only follows only the sound of crashing waves, is a brave inclusion, especially considering the fluffy comedy territory charted out by the sequels. Because this film is about Gidget and Moondoggie getting together in the first place, and the sophomoric emotional manipulation is kept to a minimum, this is a generally inoffensive romantic comedy. It's easy to find yourself rooting for the characters, and Sandra Dee and James Darren have a genuine chemistry that is believable enough for me to more or less forgive the schmaltzier aspects of the plot.
Despite the addition of Carl Reiner, who is actually given a pretty sizeable role, Gidget Goes Hawaiian pales in comparison. The Hawaiian setting could have proved an interesting backdrop, but the "on location" scenes are short. Most of the action takes place in rather ordinary hotel rooms, lobbies, and restaurants. The script is also a letdown, simply rehashing and expanding the jealousy theme from the first film. We do get a good look at Rome the third time around, but maybe it's just meant as a distraction so the audience won't realize that were basically watching the same story yet again, only with worse jokes and a creepy undertone as Paolo strings his friend's teenage daughter along romantically. It's no surprise that Gidget went to TV after the third film, because the plots were increasingly headed in a sitcom direction.
The character of Gidget is somewhat problematic. While I'm sure she struck a chord with female viewers in the 1960s with her perky tenacity and romantic idealism, there's a mighty fine line between adorable and annoying, and Gidget frequently crosses it. Sandra Dee really defined the character in the first film, and does the best job of keeping the character from grating on the nerves too much. Her Gidget is more of a go-getter, a girl who knows what she wants and goes after it with a passion. Mopey Deborah Walley is the most unintentionally irritating of the Gidgets, despite the fact that she does her own surfing—a skill that no doubt led to parts in the later AIP teen films like Beach Blanket Bingo and Ski Party. By the time we get to the final film, Gidget is at her most obnoxious, twirling and dancing in the street, casting herself as Cleopatra in odd daydream sequences, and even being arrested because of her uncontrollable exuberance. Although my sympathy for the character had pretty much evaporated by this point, I do have to admit that it's a spot-on performance, as Cindy Carol seems to be actively pursuing the most aggravating aspects of the character. Her Gidget is by far the most overdramatic, but she seems so natural that her in-your-face annoying qualities can almost be overlooked.
The music is a letdown, too. Gidget came out several years before the Pyramids and Dick Dale would make reverb-drenched instrumental rock an important part of the beach party genre, and instead, the first film features a barely-swinging jazz score that just feels. wrong. The second film updates the incidental music with a slightly percussive surf beat, but it doesn't get much more interesting than that. Darren croons at least one "Gosh, isn't Gidget swell" song in each picture, but they're all pretty bad, even compared to the saccharine beach ballads that Annette Funicello would later warble.
While I can't say that I enjoyed Gidget and its sequels very much, as light coming-of-age comedies and as precursors to the clearly better AIP beach films, I can see their value. There are certainly worse ways to waste an afternoon than with something as innocuous and innocent as this set, and had Columbia not botched the technical presentation, I probably could have seen my way to recommending this release to fans.
Gidget, the first film in the series and the main reason that most will even consider picking up this set, was originally filmed in 2.35:1 Cinemascope, yet Columbia has presented it here in full screen only. It's a jarring pan and scan print, which completely ruins any semblance of compositional balance and gives the film an unbecoming, cramped look. This is bad enough, but the film itself looks just terrible, with a fine layer of grain and frequent source artifacts, including distracting vertical lines. Not completely unwatchable, but certainly very poor, and not even up to Columbia's customary quality. Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Gidget Goes to Rome fare a little better, at least approaching acceptable DVD standards. Like the first film they are also presented full screen—but this time they are simply unmatted, and aren't prone to the cropping problems that ruin Gidget. The prints also get progressively better. The second film still has those annoying lines popping up, but it is an improvement, and colors seem noticeably brighter and clearer. Gidget Goes to Rome is the best of the lot, but there's still enough speckling to leave a vague feeling of disappointment.
Finally, some consistency: All three films feature a no-frills mono soundtrack and I'm happy to report that Columbia didn't spoil them despite their best efforts. Dialogue is always clear, and although the less-than-bombastic music won't exactly test your speakers, it all sounds quite acceptable. There are no extras on this set.
Ugly full screen transfers and no special features make The Complete Gidget Collection a total gremmy. Head a little further down the beach if you're looking to catch a boss DVD wave.
Guilty. Columbia TriStar should be ashamed of this poor effort.
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