Gidget (1959): Surfing Movie, Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson, James Darren, Kicking Off Beach Party Genre (Gender, Tomboy)

The story of a teenage girl’ initiation into the surf sub-culture, Gidget was a popular and influential film which catapulted Sandra Dee into major stardom, a position she would occupy for the next five years.

Gidget 1959 poster.jpg

1959 Theatrical Poster

Directed by Paul Wendkos, Gidget was the first film with the character created by Hollywood writer Frederick Kohner in a 1957 novel, based on his own daughter.

The screenplay was actually written by Gabrielle Upton (pseudonym for Gillian Houghton).

Sandra Dee plays Frances Lawrence, age 17, on her summer break between junior and senior years of high school. She resists peer-group pressure to go “manhunting,” lamenting the times when girls had fun without boys. Frances also rejects her parents’ wish to fix her up on a date with Jeffrey Matthews, the educated son of a family friend.

The gang dubs their female mate “Gidget,” a nickname based on ‘girl’ and ‘midget.’ On a jaunt to the beach, the tomboyish Gidget meets surfer Moondoggie (James Darren), and quickly becomes infatuated, but he shows no romantic interest.

Russ and Dorothy Lawrence (Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche) grant their daughter’s request ($25 for used surfboard) as early birthday present.

She associates with an all-male surfer gang led by beach bum, The Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), a Korean War vet, who dropped out of society.  Moondoggie admires Kahuna and wants to join him surfing in Peru at summer’s end instead of going to college.

Gidget challenges Kahuna’s lifestyle, wondering how he can survive, let alone enjoy, an aimless and lonely existence without a job.  And Kahuna reflects on Gidget’s questioning, when his only friend, the pet bird, dies.

Gidget hires another surfer to be her date to a beach party, but her plan backfires when the surfer pawns the job off on Moondoggie, unaware that Gidget just wanted to make him jealous.

Wishing to lose her virginity, Gidget tries to seduce Kahuna, but he pretends not to be attracted to her.  He asks her to leave just as Moondoggie arrives. The two men argue and the cops are called to break up the fight.

Gidget, stranded with a flat tire, without her driver’s license, is taken to the police station. As a result, her parents take over her social life: Gidget’s father forbids her to see the surfer gang again, and her mother lectures with the help of grandmother’s tapestry, which reads “A Real Woman brings out the best in a Man.”

Gidget’s father arranges a date with Jeffrey, which she grudgingly accepts.  Surprisingly, Jeffrey turns out to be Moondoggie.  Upon return to the beach, Kahuna tells them that he’s taken a job as pilot, and Moondoggie asks Gidget to wear his class pin.

The mainstreaming of the tomboy into an ordinary girl seeking domesticity is reflected in the movie’s popular theme song: “Although she’s not king-sized, her fingers are ring-sized. Gidget is the girl for me.”

Impact and Recycling

Gidget inspired various sequels, a TV series, TV films, and is credited with launching the “beach party” genre of the early 1960s. 


Sandra Dee as Francie Lawrence aka Gidget
James Darren as Jeffrey Matthews aka Moondoggie
Cliff Robertson as Burt Vail aka The Big Kahuna
Arthur O’Connell as Russell Lawrence
The Four Preps as Band at Beach
Mary LaRoche as Mrs. Dorothy Lawrence
Joby Baker as Stinky
Tom Laughlin as Lover Boy
Sue George as Betty Louise aka B.L.
Robert Ellis as Hot Shot


Directed by Paul Wendkos
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Screenplay by Gabrielle Upton, based on Frederick Kohner novel
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Edited by William A. Lyon
Color process ColumbiaColor

Production and distribution company: Columbia Pictures

Release date: April 10, 1959

Running time: 95 minutes
Box office $1.5 million (est. US rentals)