The world was changing in the late-1960s.
The anti-authority, anti-capitalism, anti-war and free-love movements brought a shift in popular culture.
The surf culture that erupted after Fredrick Kohner’s book “Gidget” hit the shelves was starting to fade with dissatisfaction of establishment. This caused a shift in pop culture, and films and music focused more on social movements and issues rather than wanting to hold hands or surf the USA. There no longer was a place for Technicolor fluff films focusing on beach parties, surfing and wahinis in wild bikinis.
So how does Frances “Gidget” Lawrence, the surfing “girl midget” who first appeared in 1957, fit in a changing world?
She goes to work at the United Nations.
After three feature “Gidget” films and a 1965 television show that lasted one season, the 1969 television film “Gidget Grows Up” places Gidget in New York City. She’s ready to change the world at the United Nations (UN), which she describes as “one of humanity’s noblest achievements.”
Gidget (Karen Valentine) returns home from two years of studying abroad in Italy and Paris to find that her boyfriend Jeff “Moondoggie” Griffith (Paul Peterson) has moved on, joined the Air Force and is about to ship out to Greenland. While she was away, Gidget wrote him racy letters about how men were chasing her, hoping it would make Jeff still love her if he saw that other men found her desirable. This backfired…of course.
Despondent, Gidget turns to her father (Robert Cummings) for advice on what she should do with her life. He tells her that she should get involved with something she feels is a worthy cause. After Gidget sees an ambassador’s speech on TV calling for volunteers, she decides this is what she needs to do so she drops out of school and heads to New York.
Gidget becomes a UN guide and makes friends with fellow UN guides, Diana Otessa (Susan Batson) and Minnie Chan (Helen Funai). The three become roommates in Greenwich Village in a boarding house owned by former child actor and independent filmmaker Louis B. Latimer (Paul Lynde), who is stuck in the 1930s. Gidget also catches the eye of Australian agronomist Alex (Edward Mulhare), who attempts to court Gidget.
In a subplot, Diana, who is from Uganda, is friends with Lee Basumba (Hal Frederick). Lee is struggling at the UN for his new country of Bukumbu to be recognized. When Lee’s opponents plan to show a propaganda film to the UN leaders, Gidget disposes of the film and switches it with Louis B.’s independent movie that consists only of people laughing and smiling.
Though Gidget is suspended from work for two weeks, she is triumphant because the movie leads the United Nations to recognize Bukumbu. Her suspension drives her to the arms of Alex. Gidget’s dad comes to visit and meets Alex. Mr. Lawrence feels strongly that Gidget and Jeff should be together. So strongly, that he flies to Greenland to help bring Jeff and Gidget back together.
Showing the love generation what it’s about
Coming 10 years after the first “Gidget” film starring Sandra Dee, “Gidget Grows Up” is very different from the first story. However, I find this TV film worlds better than the two “Gidget” feature film follow-ups, “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) and “Gidget Goes to Rome” (1963).
This isn’t a beach film, so if you are looking for a surfing extravaganza, this isn’t the right movie. There is only one obligatory beach scene at the very beginning, which shows Gidget returning home from her overseas studies, greeting her friends and being jilted by Jeff.
The film aired on Dec. 30, 1969, on ABC during their “Movie of the Week” series. The film is based on Fredrick Kohner’s 1968 book “Gidget Goes to New York,” which details her adventures at the United Nations.
“Gidget goes to the big city—and shows the love generation what it’s really all about,” touts the book’s tagline. Gidget joining the United Nations and caring about international issues isn’t too far off from the real Gidget, Kathy Kohner-Zukerman, who signed up for the Peace Corp after college.
Deborah Walley as Gidget is whiny and shrill and Cindy Carol is adequate but a little too syrupy sweet. While none of the Gidget actresses measure up to Sandra Dee, I think Karen Valentine is the second best Gidget. “Gidget Grows Up” was only Valentine’s third appearance on the big or small screen and the first time she received top billing.
Valentine is cute, pretty and stylish, but also seems caring about the world and her friends. The Gidget written in the script meddles but means well. The only aggravating thing is that she constantly creates lies to make Jeff jealous and love her more, but they unsurprisingly backfire. Gidget’s feelings are then hurt and she acts like Jeff is the problem. That’s just annoying.
James Darren is the best Moondoggie, but Paul Peterson also does a good job. He is attractive and it’s fun to see him as an adult, since many know him best from “The Donna Reed Show.”
Gidget’s other love interest—Alex played by Edward Mulhare—is nice looking and a pleasant character…but he’s also 24 years her senior. No wonder Gidget’s dad flew to Greenland.
What I think is most interesting about this TV movie is that it throws Gidget into adult, real world problems—including race and international relations. It’s also interesting because it depicts multiculturalism and internationalism as normal, which wasn’t a reality in 1969 or even now. The movie aired a year after the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Keeping that in mind, it’s interesting to see Gidget and her friends of various races and backgrounds laughing, hugging, crying and working together, knowing it wasn’t the norm in 1969.
“She (Gidget) thinks nothing of having a Chinese-American and a Ugandan as roommates…and their landlord is more interested in being flattered about his history as a child film star than in the race of his prospective tenants,” said M. Alleyne in the book Global Lies?: Propaganda, the UN and World Order.
To me, the best part of this movie to me is Paul Lynde’s character as the landlord and former child star who is stuck in the 1930s. The girl’s apartment is decorated with photos of 1930s stars such as Winnie Lightner, William J. MacDonald and Jean Harlow, and he goes about spouting gems such as:
• “Hollywood hasn’t given us any good films since World War II”
• “I’m going to a Louise Fazenda film festival”
• Calls Helen Twelvetrees “the queen” and “even her name is poetry”
• Does an impression of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in “The Champ”
His character is hilarious and any classic film lover would eat it up.
I love having the opportunity to see Robert Cummings as Gidget’s father. It’s not a large role, but he plays it well and it’s a pleasure to see him in any film. Nina Foch also has a small role as the tough United Nations guide coach. She gets to sport some very late-1960s fashions (that to me are workplace questionable).
“Gidget Grows Up” is silly and a bit ridiculous, but really enjoyable. It’s very stylistic of late-1960s TV including a romantic montage of Gidget and Alex having fun and an inspirational theme called “Growing Up” performed by Jean King.
I had a lot of fun watching it and laughed aloud multiple times. It’s a brisk watch at only 75 minutes. No, it doesn’t have sandy beaches, surf boards, the Big Kahuna or the Four Preps singing, but this isn’t a Gidget you should dismiss.
Read more about the three Gidget feature films and our interview with Kathy Kohner:
- “Gidget” (1959) starring Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson
- “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” (1961) starring Deborah Walley, James Darren
- “Gidget Goes to Rome” (1963) starring Cindy Carol, James Darren, Jessie Royce Landis
- An Interview with Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, the real Gidget