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Complete Gidget Collection, The

Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // August 3, 2004
List Price: $27.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 23, 2004 | E-mail the Author
First the bad news: There's been a good deal of confusion about Columbia TriStar's The Complete Gidget Collection, much of it generated by the studio, in statements that seem to contradict themselves. As this review was going online, Sony's own website was continuing to tell its visitors that its DVD of Gidget (1959) is "presented in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio for the first time in 45 years."

This, simply, is false.

Gidget is in 4:3 full frame only, meaning that nearly 50% of the original image is lost through panning-and-scanning. Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963) are also 4:3 full frame only, though as those films were shot open matte for 1.85:1 release, the damage isn't quite as severe.

But the fact remains Columbia TriStar, once the best of the Big Studio labels, is fast becoming one of the worst. That Sony would continue to state that Gidget is in its "original...aspect ratio" long after the title has been authored, duplicated and review copies sent to the media suggests, at best, incompetent management of their website. [Sony deleted all references to this on July 23, 2004, the day after this review was posted.]

DVD consumers, on forums across the Internet, are angry and confused, and with good reason. Earlier this month DVD Savant rightly fanned the flames of outrage with his review of their pan-and-scan-only release of Castle Keep (1969). Other full frame titles continue to pour out of the studio with no apparent rhyme or reason: The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, 84 Charing Cross Road, Annie -- and now this.

No one is accusing the Gidget movies of being great art, but they can be a lot of fun. Gidget is chiefly responsible for kicking off the beach party genre that kicked into high gear with AIP's Beach Party movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. These are the kinds of movies that appeal to film buffs wanting to see them in their original aspect ratios, not full screen curmudgeons who aren't likely to buy or rent a set of films like this anyway, full screen or no.


The first Gidget movie, adapted from Frederick Kohner's novel, is still the best of the three. It's one of the very few surf-and-sand movies not only to tell its story from a teenager's point of view, its one that really understands the emotions of teenagers and how they really interact. Sandra Dee stars as diminutive Frances Lawrence, a teenager "pushing seventeen" and nicknamed "Gidget" because of her small frame ("girl" plus "midget"). Gidget isn't much interested in joining her man-hunting girlfriends, but longs to be accepted by the surfers she admires. She buys a surfboard, and through sheer tenacity and undying cheerfulness eventually wins over the beach bums. Snorkeling, Gidget gets tangled in some seaweed, and is rescued by surfer Moondoggie (James Darren), and quickly falls head-over-heels in love.

Though it's still very much a Hollywood movie, Gidget captures very well the hopes and disappointments of teenage life. In the Frankie & Annette AIP movies the beach is where all the action is, but for Gidget that stretch of sand is her entire universe. Winning the beach bums over, becoming one of the gang means everything to her. Moondoggie, a high school grad ready to forsake college for a life free of responsibilities like that enjoyed by The Big Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), is surprisingly real, as is his relationship with the less-mature Gidget.

Robertson's character is a real surprise, predicting Paul Le Mat's John Milner character in American Graffiti more than a decade later. All the surfers look up to him, admiring the Korean War veteran for his apparent freedom and responsibility to no one. Gidget's presence opens his eyes to the ultimate emptiness of his kind of life, and he in turn quietly steers Moondoggie away from a similar fate.

Dee and Darren are both excellent. She's a little fireball of energy, perky but endearingly so. Darren is especially good, both as an actor and as a singer; it's really a shame Columbia frittered away his talent on a string of mostly inconsequential films. A generation earlier he probably would have been a huge star. (Happily, Darren has enjoyed something of a comeback in recent years, on TV shows like Melrose Place and especially Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)

Gidget's relationship with her parents is more conventional and idealized. Her father (Arthur O'Connell) is a standard movie dad, while Gidget's mother (Mary LaRoche) is too good to be true. The supporting cast has several surprises. Beyond up-and-comers and contract players like Jo Morrow (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver), Yvonne ("Batgirl") Craig, Tom ("Billy Jack") Laughlin, and Doug McClure, future television producers Burt Metcalfe (M*A*S*H) and Glen A. Larson (Battlestar Gallactica) appear in small roles as a surfer and musician, respectively.


Gidget Goes Hawaiian

The two Gidget sequels (not counting the two TV series and various TV movies) are more conventional entertainments, this being the weaker of the two. Third-billed Deborah Walley (The Bubble, Spinout) makes her film debut as Gidget, replacing Sanda Dee. Indeed, except for James Darren and Joby Baker (in a different role), the cast is entirely new. This time Gidget's parents (Carl Reiner and the unfortunately-named Jeff Donnell) surprise their daughter with a trip to Hawaii, but this only makes her upset, as this will separate her from her beloved Moondoogie (Darren). But when he encourages her to go, she's annoyed and depressed by his apparent apathy. Gidget's father eventually convinces Moondoggie to fly to Hawaii to join them, but Gidget's jealously drives him to the arms of scheming Abby Stewart (Vicki Trickett), and her to teen heartthrob Eddie Horner (Michael Callan).

Gidget Goes Hawaiian is a real disappointment. Where Gidget in the first film was cheery and eager to please, in the sequel she's mostly jealous and whiny. The script, by Ruth Brooks Flippen (wife of character actor Jay C.), is like a glum sitcom, taking moviegoers on a exotic vacation with a main character that's unhappy for virtually the entire film. Walley, much better in subsequent films, is a poor substitute for Dee, though she really does surf in the film and dances the Mambo impressively with co-star Callen. (Callen, another Columbia contractee -- he played Herbert Brown in Mysterious Island -- has a knock-out dance solo. Who'd have thought it?)

Mostly though, Gidget Goes Hawaiian is routine comedy of errors fare, with far too much emphasis on Gidget's parents, and their problems with another vacationing couple, played by Peggy Cass and Eddie Foy, Jr. The film was shot, in part, in Hawaii, mostly at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, but makes poor use of its locations. Much of the film is set indoors, in hotel rooms, the hotel's lobby and its lounge, all of which were shot on cramped sets in Hollywood. Outside, the film rarely ventures beyond the hotel grounds.


Gidget Goes to Rome

The third and final Gidget movie (before the franchise moved to TV, in a series starring Sally Field) is an improvement over Gidget Goes Hawaiian, though not by much. This time Gidget (now played by Cindy Carol, ludicrously reduced to fifth billing) and Moondoggie (Darren) join friends Judge (Joby Baker), Libby (Trudi Ames), Lucy (Noreen Corcoran), and Clay (Peter Brooks) on a trip to Rome, chaperoned by Judge's eccentric Aunt Albertina (Jesse Royce Landis). Out of concern for his daughter's welfare, Gidget's father (Don Porter, who reprised the role in the TV show) asks wartime buddy Paolo Cellini (Cesare Danova) to look after his little girl. Unaware of the Paolo's friendship with her father, Gidget falls madly in love with the worldly Italian, while Moondoggie becomes smitten with their French-Italian tour guide (Danielle De Metz).

Gidget Goes to Rome was shot extensively on location, and at least half the film uses real Roman settings, not studio sets, a big plus. (The film must have been shot in wintertime -- despite the glamourous setting, the actors' breath is visible in many shots.) The film's basic conceit, that of Gidget falling for a suave, sophisticated Italian, would have been believable with a Marcello Mastroianni, but this being a Columbia programmer we get Cesare Danova (Valley of the Dragons), who's too old to be believed.

Like Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget Goes to Rome is too conventional and Gidget only acts like a real teen near the end, when she says her goodbyes to Paolo. Cindy Carol is more like a real, ordinary teenager than either Dee or Walley, but lacks their charisma. Columbia really goofed with all its cast changes from film-to-film, making it difficult for receptive audiences to latch onto the series, and in failing to understand what made the first film work so well.


Video & Audio

Gidget's opening titles are letterboxed, but that's only a tease. The rest of the film is a blurry, incoherent mess. In one of the very first shots, Gidget's voice is heard but the actress is completely offscreen because of the panning-and-scanning. One shot finds Gidget in the center of the frame talking with her parents on either side, but thanks to the poor Telecine work, all we see of them are two noses and half of one profile. At the 20-minute mark, numerous thin purple lines invade the film for several minutes, and the color only seems to get worse reel-by-reel, with California's sky blue coastline an ugly yellow-brown. Gidget Goes Hawaiian and Gidget Goes to Rome are in better shape, though both are in need of digital clean up. Goes to Rome, for instance, has ugly green lines running through much of its first reel. All three films have mono sound, including Gidget, which may have originally been released in four-track magnetic or Perspecta stereo. Another sign of Columbia TriStar cutting corners is the complete absence of alternate audio tracks or subtitles of any kind. Even the menu screens look unusually cheap.

Extra Features

The only extras are Previews, trailers that cannot be selected individually, but play one after another when the "Play Previews" option is selected. Adding insult to injury, most of the nine trailers spread over the three discs are 16:9 enhanced. Most are new releases, and none of the Gidget movies are included.

Parting Thoughts

Thanks possibly to some grouchy Wal-Mart executive, and to Columbia TriStar's false claims, what might have been a nice set of escapist movies into something most DVD buyers won't even want to rent, much less buy.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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