I was 21, and had just returned from my second trip to California, in which I'd visited all the wrong places and done all the wrong things. The trip had been like an incredibly rotten first date -- a bad idea at a bad time, the lamentable result of an underfed imagination -- and I retreated to my parents' basement to lick my wounds and sneer at midnight television.
Gidget was one such offering. I tuned in about 10 minutes after it had started. Frances / "Gidget" / Sandra Dee (and really, which one of these monikers signified the real deal?) pined for her own surf-board, while her gray-haired, pipe-smoking father rolled his eyes and tried to pacify his hysterical wife. Everything had that bright primary color look of early "Technicolor" films, and when I saw this California Candy Store laid out before me, I belted out a cynical "bwa-HAW!", and readied myself to pounce all over it the way one's grandfather pounces all over a car advertisement 20 years after he traded in that lemon for a reliable Buick.
There was just one problem: I got hooked. Sandra Dee, for one thing, was impossibly cute -- even at her dizziest, she was incredibly desirable. She projected that precise killer combo of innocent wonder and adventurous "let's see what happens when I do this" attitude that summons and commands every iota of the Alpha Male inside the depths of any hetero male within eyesight and earshot -- even a bookish nerd who already resembled her pipe-smoking father (yours truly).
Still, I had come on board for the cheese -- and I was not disappointed. The "best before" date on those nicknames ("Moondoggie" "Big Kahuna") didn't exceed the 60s, providing instant irony. The beach bums jump, howl and hoot like typical 60s Hollywood hep-cats. They surf on swells that don't reach higher than their armpits. They wear tight, high-waisted trunks, and sing to the primly single-suited heroine while the unseen orchestra swells in the background. And during the final end-of-summer luau, there are bongos galore and electric guitars plugged into nothing.
The luau sets itself up as bacchanalia "lite", with bonfires and beer drinkers, and everyone in their bathing suits chasing each other in the sand and behind the bushes, like some Sergio Aragonés cartoon between the frames of MAD Magazine. But despite this clothed-yet-utterly-without-nuance setting -- or, more likely because of it -- the scene is an effectively horny set-piece for Gidget to play out her Shakespearean hi-jinx: persuading Moondoggie to kiss her in the pretense of raising Kahuna's jealousy, then turning tables to further stoke Moondoggie's desire. It backfires terribly, of course, and Gidget finds herself in a nasty state of anxiety and expectation, awaiting (in a white dress on a red couch, fer cryin' out loud!) the older, jaded Kahuna's liquored-up attention.
The movie plays like a 50s paean to middle-class values: you are to the suburbs born, and shall pursue the affections of a potential mate within the same income-bracket. When seen on that level alone, the movie's happy ending -- a defeated Gidget finally agreeing to meet the son of her parents' friends, only to discover this young up-and-comer is her beloved Moondoggie -- is pretty dreary.
But couldn't it also suggest something deeper? Think of those heady, crazy days when the two of you were so insanely in love, you were convinced you weren't just beating the odds but breaking the law. This, too, must pass, but for the truly fortunate, there comes another state, where you no longer see the other as just your gorgeous outlaw, but as your lover and incomparable friend. The enterprise of your conjoined hearts settles, and it becomes something every loving parent wants for their child. And if your kids roll their eyes at your nicknames for each other, well -- you can only hope their time is gonna come.
Film Fave #12