Gidget: Bringing the Surf Culture to Mainstream

When I first started getting interested in classic films, my mom would get excited about movies she wanted to introduce to me. “Gidget” (1959) was one that she could hardly wait to show me.

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from "Gidget."

Views of Sandra Dee in some of my favorite swimsuits and dresses from “Gidget.”

Sitting there on a Sunday night at age 14, I fell in love with this film. It’s an explosion of color on the gorgeous backdrop of Malibu beach. It features awesome surfing shots and has excellent cast filled with one-liners that are real gems. It’s the perfect fun-in-the-sun Southern California travelogue. To date, it also has one of my favorite film wardrobes.

The movie was pivotal in my film love and got me further entrenched in 1960s pop culture. I read up on famous surfers, researched surfer lingo, listened to the Beach Boys, plastered 1960s surf images around my room and hunted for bathing suits that gave off a 1960s vibe. Of course, I wanted to learn how to surf, which has still never happened since I live four hours away from the beach on the east coast.

“Gidget” is the story of a teenage tomboy, Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee), who isn’t interested on going on “man-hunts” with her shapely female friends. Up until this summer, her extracurricular activities involved playing the cello and making straight A’s in school. Her dismay with her one-track-minded friends leads to joining a group of male surfers, much to their chagrin. Once they realize she’s interested in surfing and can hold her own in their group, Francie becomes their mascot and is nicknamed “Gidget”- the girl midget. Most of the boys live for surfing and some are “surf bums,” living on the beach all summer with the Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) as their leader. Of course, Gidget’s summer doesn’t come without romance, as she is smitten with Moondoggie (James Darren).

"Gidget" film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

“Gidget” film poster featuring Cliff Robertson, Sandra Dee, James Darren.

On the surface, this is a teen beach romance. However, the film is also exploring if should Gidget follow the mainstream and chase boys with her friends or if she should do what she loves as one of the few females surfing in Malibu. Gidget’s loving but concerned parents (Arthur O’Connell, Mary LaRoche) support their daughter in her new outdoor activity but are still concerned about the type of people she is hanging around.

While “Gidget” may seem like a piece of fluff, this film was not only influential in the life of an impressionable 14 year old, but also in American culture. The first film started a popular franchise of “Gidget” sequels and television shows. But outside of the sequels, it also spawned a film subgenre of beach party films. These mainly low budget teenage beach films featured attractive teens in bathing suits, surfing, slapstick comedy and performances from popular 1960s musicians.

Every surfing film from “Beach Blanket Bingo” to “The Endless Summer” was a result of “Gidget,” though “Gidget” remains to be one of the better beach films. But it didn’t stop at movies; the popularity of beach music such as Dick Dale, The Ventures or the Beach Boys was also a direct correlation.

However, “Gidget” wasn’t just a story that started a popular franchise and culture. It was all based off a southern California teenager who wanted to write a story about her summer.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter's surf adventures.

Cover of the 1956 by Frederick Kohner- featuring Kathy Kohner- about his daughter’s surf adventures.

The film is based off the 1956 book “Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas” by Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner. Kohner’s 15-year-old daughter, Kathy, started surfing one summer and would share her beach stories with her father. When Kathy wanted to write a story about her adventures as the mascot “Gidget,” Kohner offered to write it for her. It took Kohner six weeks to write the book which involved reading excerpts from her diary, listening in on phone calls (both with her permission) and conversations with his daughter. Kathy shared the nicknames of the surfers and the surfer slang, from “kuks” to “bitchin’” to “shootin’ the curl.” The book became a bestseller and spawned the film.

The real Gidget was fairly amused by the film, writing in her dairy, “Saw Gidget today, it was funny.” Kathy said in “Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave” by Thomas Lisant that she had never heard of Sandra Dee, but when they met she was very sweet. The sweet, innocent Sandra Dee character was a far cry from her experiences at the beach. In the book, Gidget talks about wearing a particular sweater to make her breasts look perky, smoked cigarettes or frequently uses the word “bitchin’” to describe the waves.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

Sandra Dee as Gidget with the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner in 1959.

“It was quite funny seeing Sandra Dee and these other people acting in a movie that some of us lived,” Kathy said in Lisant’s book. “I think Miss Dee did an outstanding, memorable job and captured a moment in time…I am a real person. I’m shorter than Dee and have dark hair. I was a bit tenacious and bit fearless…Certainly I had a different personality but of all the actress that played Gidget, Sandra Dee came the closest in capturing my experiences from surfing to wishing my breasts would grow bigger to my relationship with my parents.”

As the surfing subculture reached mainstream, the once calm Malibu were overcrowded. The number of surfboards in the water seemed dangers to Kathy, according to Lisant. Once the film was released, Kathy was in college at Oregon State, but the real Gidget stopped surfing in 1960. The beaches were over populated with the craze that she unintentionally began.

Photos below from an Oct. 28, 1957, LIFE photo spread on Kathy Kohner and her father: 

Kathy2 Kathy and surfers Kathy and Fredrick Kathy 1957 life Kathy 1956 16 year old kathy


What is your favorite beach film? Which Gidget is your favorite? 

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“Merry Christmas, Mama”: Christmas scenes in non-Christmas films

For me, it’s always a treat when there is a Christmas scene in a film that isn’t considered a holiday film.

Not only is it because I’m a lover of Christmas, but usually something important or climatic happens during Christmas related scenes.

Below are a few non-Christmas films with important holiday scenes:

1. Battleground (1949): “Battleground,” starring a plethora of stars such as Van Johnson, John Hodiak and George Murphy, is a World War II film set during the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne. The Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16 to Jan. 25) is when the Allies were surrounded by the Germans and were unable to get airborne assistance due to heavy fog and snow.

During one scene, a Lutheran Chaplain played by Leon Ames delivers a Christmas sermon for the men. It is a particularly moving scene, because he describes the importance of why they are fighting this war. It’s my favorite scene in the whole movie and still holds meaning today.

2. A Summer Place (1959): “Summer Place” is a stereotypical late-1950s sleezy melodrama. Already married Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy Malone) and Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan) were teenage sweet hearts and rekindle their romance one summer when their families meet on vacation in Maine. This breaks up their marriages with Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) and Helen Jorgenson (Constance Ford). To complicate things further, Sylvia’s son Johnny (Troy Donahue) and Ken’s daughter Molly (Sandra Dee) fall in love.

While over-bearing Helen is decorating their Christmas tree, she discovers her daughter Molly has been writing and meeting up with Johnny.

In a rage, Helen slaps her daughter and sends her hurtling into their plastic Christmas tree which she earlier described as “solid plastic” and that it should “last for 10 years.”

Helen Jorgensen angrily slaps her daughter Molly in "A Summer Place" sending her into their plastic Christmas tree- Screen capped by Hollywood Comet

Helen Jorgensen angrily slaps her daughter Molly in “A Summer Place” sending her into their plastic Christmas tree- Screen capped by Hollywood Comet

In this unintentionally hilarious scene, Molly looks up from behind the strewn Christmas tree branches, tinsel and ornaments and says, “Merry Christmas, Mama.”

Helen looks at 18 stockings in "Yours, Mine and Ours"

Helen looks at 18 stockings in “Yours, Mine and Ours”

3. Yours, Mine and Ours (1968):  Frank (Henry Fonda), who has 10 children, marries Helen (Lucille Ball), who has 8 children, putting entirely too many people into one home.

The comedy follows the adventures of how a family that large serves breakfast, gets to school and how the older children accept their new parents.

Christmas also gets complicated. Frank is up all night playing Santa trying to put toys together and is still working when the children get up in the morning. Christmas morning is chaos with one daughter eating candy canes off the Christmas tree and a bicycle breaking as a child rides it around the house.

But the real climax comes when Helen finds out that she is pregnant again…with their 19th child.

4. Since You Went Away (1944): A film that is my all-time favorite movie, “Since You Went Away” follows Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) and her two daughters Bridget (Shirley Temple) and Jane (Jennifer Jones) as they adjust to life on the home front during World War II. Though this film gets shown frequently during the Christmas season, it really isn’t a Christmas movie.

It begins when Anne’s husband leaves for war and goes through fall, summer, spring and ends at Christmas.

The last 20 minutes of the movie is Christmas making you laugh and cry. Jane has transformed from a selfish young teenager to a young lady, who has lost her boyfriend to the war and is now working as a nurse. Anne has come to terms that her husband is lost in action and is trying to have a normal Christmas with her family.

Christmas party scene in "Since You Went Away" with everyone playing charades. -screencapped by the Hollywood Comet

Christmas party scene in “Since You Went Away” with everyone playing charades. -screencapped by the Hollywood Comet

The Hiltons throw a Christmas party with a woman Anne met through her war work, a soldier Jane helped nurse, a family friend Lt. Tony Willet (Joseph Cotton) and his friend (Keenan Wynn) and their boarder Col. Smollett (Monty Woolley).

The party scene is fun and happy, but after all the guests leave Anne sees their servant Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel) putting presents under the tree that Tim sent her both he was reported missing.

Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) receiving the cable gram that her husband is home safe. -screen capped by the Hollywood Comet

Anne Hilton (Claudette Colbert) receiving the cable gram that her husband is home safe. -screen capped by the Hollywood Comet

Anne opens her gift from her husband, a musical powder box that plays their song, and starts to cry. Then the phone rings and it’s a cable gram saying Tim has been found and is coming home.

The movie ends with happy tears, hugging and excitement.

What are some of your favorite non-Christmas movie holiday scenes? Share them below!

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Fashion in Films blogathon: I guess I’m easily influenced

Old movies have influenced my life in many ways, fashion is one of them.

When my classic film love started to really kick up in the middle school, I noticed fashion the most in the movies.  I always looked for the fashion designers during the credits and became familiar with Givenchy, Edith Head, Helen Rose, Walter Plunkett and Irene.

I even went through a period of time where I drew clothing for paper dolls based off costumes that Rosemary Clooney wore in “White Christmas” or Elizabeth Taylor wore in “Father of the Bride.”

All throughout high school I always wanted to buy vintage clothing, but my mom said it was too risky, “What if it doesn’t fit/is dirty/torn?”

Once I got to college and became VERY friendly with Ebay and started spending a lot of my free time…and money searching and bidding on vintage clothing. My constant Ebay purchases even became a bit of a joke with my friends.

All of my vintage clothing buys have been dictated by fashions I’ve seen in film.  Below are a few photos of some of my vintage clothing buys along with what inspired them: 

Donna Reed in peasant style clothing from LIFE.

Peasant Style: In the 1940s, Latin style outfits were all the rage as a result of the Good Neighbor Policy that the United States had with South American countries.  I’ve always been a big fan of the fashion during this era.  Actresses like Hedy Lamarr in “Tortilla Flat”, Jane Powell “Holiday in Mexico”, Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones in “Since You Went Away” and Rita Hayworth in “The Loves of Carmen” (just to name a few) can all be spotted wearing peasant blouses and espadrilles.  I bought this outfit over the summer-its taken a long time to find an affordable set-so I could try to resemble some of my favorite 1940s stars.

Barbara Stanwyck in a plaid coat

Masculine Plaid Coats: Another style I’ve spotted alot in 1940s films are women in masculine-like plaid coats.  I first was drawn to this style when I saw Esther Williams in a red and green plaid coat looking beautiful and bright in Technicolor.  Last Christmas I found a Pendleton Wool jacket on Vintage Vixen and wanted it so I could look like Esther Williams.  Other actresses who wore masculine, outdoors coats like this are Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers or Margaret Sullivan.

Jane Powell in a formal.

Teenage Formals: I doubt I’m the only one who drools of the formals actresses wear in films.  I love all the evening gowns that actresses wear, but I have a certain fondness for teen formals in films. I love the dress that Elizabeth Taylor tromps through the mud in at the end of “Cynthia”, the adorable white and blue dress Jane Powell sings “It’s a Most Unusual Day” in during “Date with Judy” or the formals Ann Rutherford wears as Polly Benedict in Andy Hardy films.  Unfortunately, in today’s fashion culture, there aren’t many opportunities to wear formal gowns like they did in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.  But I couldn’t resist this yellow satin gown on Ebay. I’ll admit, I’ve only worn it for posing in photos, but maybe one day I can wear it out.

Sandra Dee in a see-through frothy cocktail dress.

Chiffon Cocktail dress: Chiffon, ruffled cocktail dresses seemed to be all the rage in the 1960s. I have seen Ann-Margret, Deborah Kerr, Eleanor Parker, Dina Merrill and Kim Novak in this style of gown-unfortunately I couldn’t find photos of any of these.  Sandra Dee’s dress is similar to mine but doesnt have a V-ruffled neck line. I was looking for a dress on Ebay to wear to my cousin’s wedding last September and found this Lili Diamond dress from the 1960s. This usually isn’t my style (if you can’t tell I really like 1940s fashions) but it was a good price so I bought it. It’s ended up being one of my best Ebay buys and I’ve worn it several times. It’s light, comfortable and flattering.

Hedy Lamarr in “Algiers” (1938) wearing a turban

 Turbans: It seems like every actress in the 1940s can be spotted wearing a turban at least once. Lana Turner in “Post Man Always Rings Twice”, Ginger Rogers “Tales of Manhattan” and Gloria Swanson are just a few.  In Hedy Lamarr’s autobiography “Ecstasy and Me” she credits herself with making turbans a fad. Her character in “Algiers” called for an exotic, aloof style so she and the costume designer thought of this look for her. After this, turbans became all the rage, according to Lamarr’s book.  Though several of my family members and friends think I’m nuts, I’ve always been a BIG fan of turbans. I have even worn this out in public several times (along with a vintage mink hat I own). It’s really unfortunate that hats aren’t part of every day wear anymore, but don’t let that stop you from wearing them!

Hedy Lamarr in “White Cargo” (1942)

Tribal: This isn’t a vintage dress, but I’ll admit that I bought it to look like Tondelayo in “White Cargo.” Hedy Lamarr said she felt ridiculous in the role of an over-sexed half cast, according to her autobiography. Regardless, Hedy looks amazing and so I wanted to buy a dress that had that same look.

Espadrilles and Spectator pumps

 Shoes:  I actually don’t have a large variety of shoes-it pretty much consists of 4 different colors of the same pair of flats. But I bought these spectator pumps after seeing so many of favorite actresses wearing them. When Teresa Wright flees Joseph Cotton in “Shadow of the Doubt” and gets cornered in a pub, her shoes are the first thing I noticed. I also love Espadrilles popular during the 1940s-I was fortunate that Old Navy decided to sell this style in Spring 2011.

When it comes to dressing like your favorite stars, beware. Ebay is my drug of vintage clothing choice, but I’m cheap and don’t like to spend more than $30 or $40 dollars. Be careful of people claiming something is 1940s, but is really a 1980s replica. Another great vintage clothing resource is Vintage Vixen. They are friendly, have quick shipping and the most reasonably priced vintage clothing website.

**Thanks to my mom for being patient and helping me take all of these photos today :) **

This blog post is a contribution to Hollywood Revue’s Fashion in Film Blogathon!

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Guilty Film Pleasures: A Summer Place (1959)

Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee in “A Summer Place” (1959)

I have three main guilty pleasures: ridiculous, flashy clothes; Krispy Kreme doughnuts and trashy classic films.

I love pre-code 1930s films because of their quick witted lines, snappy pace and how down trodden women somehow pull themselves out of horrible situations-whether  they are adjusting to life after Sing Sing or secretly bringing up an illegitimate child.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, not many movies were as delightfully dirty as these pre-code films. There were a few salacious films, but viewers have to sometimes read between the lines to pick up on scandal.

 But then the late 1950s happened. Actors like Connie Stevens, Sandra Dee, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue emerged and were perfect to play teens that constantly got into trouble.

“Susan Slade”, “Parrish”, “Rome Adventure” are just a few deliciously trashy films that came out during the late 1950s and late 1960s.

However, one of my all time favorite trashy 1950s films is “A Summer Place” (1959).

Family dinner at Pine Island. Cut the awkwardness with a knife.

The film revolves around two families: the Hunters and the Jorgenson’s.

Sylvia and Bart Hunter (played by Dorothy McGuire and Arthur Kennedy) own a summer resort on Pine Island in Maine. They live there year round with their son Johnny (Troy Donahue). The Pine Island home was owned by Bart’s family, but once he took over it fell into shambles. Bart is an alcoholic but Sylvia sticks by him in the interest of their son.

This particular summer Ken Jorgensen (Richard Egan) returns to Pine Island with his wife and daughter (Constance Ford and Sandra Dee). Ken was a lifeguard at Pine Island when he, Bart and Sylvia were teenagers. We soon find out that Ken and Sylvia were romantically involved during those summers but she married Bart because he was wealthier.

Ken and Sylvia start to secretly meet and rekindle their romance…and their children begin to follow this suite.

 Midnight meetings in the boat house, nosey old women, divorce on the grounds of adultery and teen pregnancy are sprinkled throughout the film.

This may sound like a run-of-the-mill 1950s trash fest, but there are so many things that make it very special:

Troy Donahue: Troy was a big star in the 1950s but he wasn’t running on much more than his looks. His emotions usually run from A to A. But I do feel that in “Summer Place” we get the special treat more emotion from Troy, including a tear running down his face.

Beulah Bondi: She doesn’t have a large role but she is wonderful as the busy body, but understanding aunt of Bart. My favorite line of her’s is when she first sees Sandra Dee, “Hardly proper to be so pretty. Seems all the nice girls I know have bad skin, are too fat, too thin or have thick ankles.”

•I love Constance Ford’s role as Helen Jorgenson. She does a wonderful job making you hate her. I love how she does ridiculous things like trying to strap down her daughter with a bra and de-sexing clothes. At one point Richard Egan gives a powerful speech about Helen and her prejudices. During the film’s screening at Radio City Music Hall, the audience gave a standing ovation at this part of the film, according to IMDB.

•There are so many great scenes.

            -Molly’s bra floating in the water after her dad throws it out the window.

            -Johnny awkwardly holding up Molly’s skirt after she is cut by a thorn.

            -Helen examining Molly to make sure she is still a “good girl” after having to spend the night on the beach with Johnny due to a boating accident.

            -Molly telling Johnny the plot of “King Kong” right before he um…deflowers her.

            -And my favorite part: Helen pushing Molly into a plastic Christmas tree. While still on the floor Molly looks up and says, “Merry Christmas Mama.”

Wait for it….

 “Summer Place” is also a special movie to me, because I have had the good fortune to be able to read the book written by Sloan Wilson the film was based off. It is a great read and one of my favorites and gives more insight of why the different characters are why they are.

The book explains that Helen and Ken married out of loneliness. After being jilted by Sylvia, Ken worked to be rich and successful to spite her. Helen’s father is Ken’s business partner and goes home with him for dinner where he meets Helen. They are both lonely and decide to get married. Helen is very sheltered and taught by her parents that sex is dirty-it’s a wonder Molly was ever born.

We learn that Sylvia liked Bart and was more of a tease to Ken. She married Bart because her recently wealthy father had gone bankrupt. The night they were engaged, Bart’s grandfather found out they had also lost all of their money too. Not only do Bart and Sylvia have a son, Johnny, they also have a daughter in the book.

Bart is an alcoholic because he has an inferiority complex. He is one of the idle rich who has little purpose in life. He marries a woman who he knows doesn’t love him which only makes matters worse. The book describes the only time Bart felt he had any purpose in life was when he was a commander of a ship during World War II. After the war, his alcoholism increased.

Lastly, in the film Molly wants Johnny to protect and help her when she finds out she is pregnant. In the book, Molly is more pissed than anything. She likes him still but is mad about the situation. At the end when the two stay on Pine Island together to start their life, you get the feeling that Johnny loves Molly more than she loves him.

Excited about their life of unplanned parenting!

Before I watched this movie to review, my dad had never had the pleasure of seeing it. I would like to leave you with some of his reactions I wrote down during the movie:

– “Whatever you do that woman shoots dogs, I wouldn’t trust her!” –Referring to Dorothy McGuire’s role in “Old Yeller”

-“My god, a bunch of crabby people!”-referring to the people in the Pine Island resort

-“Now I know why they don’t sleep together, surprised they have any kids!” (after Mr. and Mrs. Jorgenson fight about sex and race)

-“They’re going to do a pelvic exam?? Oh my god!”

– “Probably mom’s out hanging from her heels spying in a tree.”-While Molly and Johnny meet

-Dad making Psycho music noises about mother waiting for Molly to come home.

-Movie: “Frank Llyod Wright designed our house.” Dad: “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” (seriously)

-“I may never like that music again. It gets on my nerves after awhile”-referring to the ‘Summer Place’ theme

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