Monday, May 01, 2006

Gidget Goes to Cinecittà

While taking advantage of a recent Deep Disc Discount "Buy So Many, Get One Free" sale, I decided to add Columbia's THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION to my shopping cart, even though none of the transfers were letterboxed or anamorphic. It was a matter of education for me; I know the BEACH PARTY movies very well, know the various knock-offs (BEACH BALL, THE GIRLS ON THE BEACH, OUT OF SIGHT, etc) pretty well, but I've always been a little weak on the GIDGET series -- GIDGET (1959), GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and GIDGET GOES TO ROME (1963). They started out of the gate a little before my theater-going time, and I didn't warm to the sequels as a kid.

Now, with my memory of all three films duly refreshed, I can see that the GIDGET series was somewhat weak on itself. For some reason, the lead role was one that aspiring young actresses apparently couldn't wait to get away from. A different girl plays Frances "Gidget" Lawrence in all three films, and (I guess appropriately) different actors play her parents in all three, as well. (The mother in the second film, the curiously named Jeff Donnell, plays the same role in the third, opposite a different husband, swapping out bossy Carl Reiner for mellow Don Porter, who would play Gidget's widowed father on the later ABC-TV series starring Sally Field.) Only James Darren as Jeffrey "Moondoggie" Matthews remains constant... on the cast list, anyway; his character's heart is all over the place, and he's seldom written to be much more than handsome, superficial and dedicated to playing the field. We never really learn what makes Moondoggie tick, or what bonds Gidget to him so readily and tenaciously. Darren tries to give the character a depth that isn't really there by smoking and brooding. He also sings the theme songs for all three films. The entire trilogy, if we can use that word for movies like this, were directed by Paul Wendkos, a director who worked predominantly in series television and is probably best remembered today for THE MEPHISTO WALTZ (1971).

GIDGET is by far the best of the three films. It's the ebullient story of a young girl's determination to become part of the beach/surf culture that attracts her -- but the movie also has interesting subtexts concerning the lingering aftermath of WWII on surviving soldiers and the burgeoning spirit of feminism. Sandra Dee gives an endearingly stubborn and spirited performance, but the movie is stolen by Cliff Robertson -- brown as a blue-eyed tobacco leaf -- giving a gritty portrayal as an enigmatic, self-described "beach bum" known as "The Big Kahuna." The nickname has become a cliché over the years, but Robertson's performance is not. Tom Laughlin and Doug McClure are recognizable among the surfers, and Yvonne Craig (not as formidably sexy as she would be in THE GENE KRUPA STORY, but always worth seeing in a bikini) and 13 GHOSTS' Jo Morrow are among Gidget's friends. Watching the movie actually stoked my interest in reading the book on which it's based, a memoir by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman (the real "Gidget," whose nickname was a contraction of "girl midget") and her screenwriter father Frederick Kohner (who wrote 1944's THE LADY AND THE MONSTER).

GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN may have the most famous title of the three films, but it's the broadest, campiest, and (for me) least enjoyable of the series. Too bad, because I think Deborah Walley, of the three Gidget actresses showcased here, inhabits the role most comfortably; I always liked the shadings she brought to Les, her female drummer character in the Elvis vehicle SPINOUT, and it would have been nice to see what she could have done with Gidget story with more adult (or adult-ish) shadings, such as the first one had. When this sequel tries to get adult, it gets unpleasantly snarky or sappy; the primary "situation" of this "situation comedy" results when Gidget's overly romantic, overly dramatic nature gives another girl the impression that she's no longer a virgin, which leads to gossip and a spoiled reputation. As vacations go, this is a bad one, and it's made no more pleasant by Carl Reiner's loud and unlikeable Mr. Lawrence, a far cry from Arthur O'Connell in the original, who had his apoplectic moments but was kindly and a bit dithering even when he was laying down the law. It's easy to understand why the sequel's Mrs. Lawrence drinks a bit more than the first one did.

As a Eurocultist, I was especially interested to see GIDGET GOES TO ROME, which was made in the Eternal City at the very height of not only the Golden Age of Italian Fantasy, but of "la dolce vita" as well. Here, Cindy Carol (real name: Carol Sydes) -- the worst Gidget of all -- convinces her parents to grant her adult independence by allowing her to join a mixed group of friends on a trip to Rome. As would also occur in another Elvis vehicle, GIRL HAPPY, the following year, Gidget's father arranges for a "respectable" male acquaintence (Cesare Danova in this case) to look after his young daughter without her knowing she's under adult supervision, and the close attention results in an unintentional romantic bond. Meanwhile, Jeffrey falls for the party's Italian tour guide, Danielle De Metz -- who is actually French. The movie becomes a HERCULES UNCHAINED-style study in infidelities of the heart, and without a single scene that takes place at the beach, it seems to be a Gidget film in name only. The filmmakers are very aware of a certain side of Italian cinema, making self-conscious references to LA DOLCE VITA (a romp through the Trevi Fountain and a crazy party that verbally references the movie) and throwing in a Biblical peplum daydream sequence for good measure, and Cindy Carol's moony, swoony Gidget is a bit like the character played by Leticia Roman in Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH; her imagination is an ashtray that's collected the butts of all the foreign films she's read about in movie magazines but has never seen. Nevertheless, I was pleased and surprised to have the pain of an otherwise hard-to-endure movie eased by a veritable parade of beloved faces and locations from the annals of Italian genre fare. For instance (and feel free to CLICK on these images to enlarge them)...

Gidget's debonair hotel manager is played by Claudio Gori, later the police chief in DANGER: DIABOLIK.

Cesare Danova's wife (sorry, Gidge... he's married!) is played by the lovely Lisa Gastoni, who, under the name "Jane Fate," appeared in a couple of Antonio Margheriti space operas, including the legendary WILD, WILD PLANET.

The Maitre 'D at the restaurant where Cesare Danova introduces Gidget to the pleasures of Italian bitter aperitifs is played by Umberto Raho, who starred the same year in Riccardo Freda's THE GHOST. He would later be featured in Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

Later in the film, while snooping around backstage at a fashion show, Gidget is mistaken for a model, stripped and redressed by a flurry of dressers. To my astonishment, one of the model dressers (on the right) was none other than my dear, late and much-missed friend Harriet White Medin, familiar from her performances in PAISAN, LA DOLCE VITA, BLACK SABBATH, THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK, THE WHIP AND THE BODY and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. This appearance was completely unknown to me, and it's not included in her IMDb filmography!

As an added kick, James Darren is shown at the end of this sequence brooding and smoking on the lip of the runway, which was evidently the same interior location used for Christiane Haute Couture in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, filmed toward the end of the same year. (Albeit with red curtains, of course.)

Finally, when Gidget and Jeffrey (there's really no reason to call him "Moondoggie" in such a landlocked scenario) seek sanctuary at the American Embassy, there is an appearance by Jim Dolen -- an actor with close-cropped white hair whom you may remember as an undercover cop in THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG -- as an embassy spokesman. And the guard standing a couple of shoulders to his right is none other than Gustavo de Nardo, the actor with whom Mario Bava worked more than any other. He appears in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH (opposite Harriet Medin), THE WHIP AND THE BODY (ditto), BARON BLOOD and RABID DOGS, but almost never accepted screen credit. When Jim Dolen speaks in this movie, perhaps for the only time in his screen career with direct sound recording, I recognized a voice I've known all my life from dubbed movies filmed in Rome. (I've tried in vain to upload the frame grab I took from this sequence, but it refuses to cooperate, so please refer to your own disc or, failing that, your imagination.)

THE COMPLETE GIDGET COLLECTION turned out to be more worthwhile than I expected, transfer-wise, because, of the three films, only the first is really and truly "modified to fit your screen." It's a 2.35:1 film cropped and panned and scanned to give you only half of every single composition -- apart from the opening credits, of course. It deserves to be remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The other two films were shot open aperture and shown theatrically with a soft projection matte; both of these can be zoomed up on a widescreen monitor and look pretty nice.

So. When all is said and done, who was the best Gidget?

No contest, ladies and gentlemen: Sally Field. I don't know how well the series stands up as a whole, but the concept seemed to find its true footing once it became a half-hour situation comedy, and I remember Field's Gidget as likeable and endearing. She knew how to play all of the character's eccentricities in a way that made her seem interesting and upbeat and kooky rather than merely fanciful and meddling, and she was also a deft physical comedienne. I was on the point of asking "Where's the box set?" when I checked and found that one was actually released by Sony last month.

Surf's up, Watchdoggie!

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