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In 1961, young actress Deborah Walley would rather get cancer than be Gidget. Or, more specifically, she would rather have Columbia Pictures believe she had leukemia, via a forged doctor's note, just so she could wriggle out of her agreement to portray the iconic surfer girl in the sequel Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961). It's not that Walley wasn't qualified - even though she'd never surfed before, she was a naturally athletic dancer who'd also learned to ice skate from her Ice Capades performer parents Nathan and Edith Walley. She was also sufficiently talented as an actress to perform in Chekhov plays off-Broadway, where she was spotted by talent agent Joyce Selznick (the niece of David O. whose previous claim to fame was discovering Tony Curtis.) Plus, although Walley was 20 years old, she was still girlish enough to play the surfer girl first portrayed by genuine teenager Sandra Dee in Gidget (1959). (Newlywed Dee was under contract to Universal for Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and wouldn't be released to Columbia to reprise her role.) Knowing she had beaten out 150 other actresses for the coveted role was cold comfort to Walley. "I was this kind of snobby New York actress," she recalled, "involved with the Actor's Studio, and I felt all my friends would think I was selling out."
Gidget the character wasn't quite as corny as the bikini-ed airheads who'd populate later beach party movies like Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) (also starring Walley) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). She was based on a real person, novelist Frederick Kohner's petite, surf-crazy teenage daughter Kathy (her nickname was a portmanteau of "girl" and "midget") whose fearless tackling of the biggest waves made her one of the first female surfers. The first Gidget movie based on Kohner's 1957 novel about his daughter's escapades did so well that Columbia immediately bought up rights to Kohner's second Gidget novel, inspired by the Kohner family's trip to Hawaii in 1959.
This time around, Gidget (Walley) and longtime boyfriend Moondoggie (James Darren, reprising his role from the first film) are finally going steady, when her dad (Carl Reiner) surprises the family with tickets to a Hawaiian vacation, separating the lovebirds for the summer. Appalled, Gidget refuses to go, until a fight with Moondoggie changes her mind. She's heartbroken, but not so much that she can't make friends with brunette Abby (former Miss Omaha Vicki Trickett) and conceited dancer Eddie Horner (Michael Callan, who'd appeared as Riff in the original Broadway run of West Side Story) on the flight to Hawaii. Hijinks ensue, both among the teenagers and between their befuddled parents, with a jealous Abby upping the ante by spreading a rumor that Gidget has "unfortunate experience" (beach party code talk for not being a virgin). As Darren sings in the theme song "You hear the native boys all sighing/Down on Mona Loa bay/Cause when the Gidget goes Hawaiian/She goes Hawaiian all the way".
Once Walley overcame her reluctance to play Gidget, she threw herself into the role, arriving on location in Waikiki two weeks before the rest of the cast to practice surfing. She ended up doing most of her own surfing stunts, the only member of the cast to do so. (Unlike Walley, Michael Callan's dance experience did not translate over to surfing. Even more ironically, James Darren, the only actor to star in all three Gidget movies, didn't even know how to swim.) Gidget's trickier surfing shots were doubled by multi-US Championship winning surf prodigy Linda Benson. (Significantly, Elvis Presley was also in Waikiki shooting Blue Hawaii (1961) but he and Walley didn't cross paths until both were cast in Spinout (1966), the start of a lasting, platonic friendship to which Walley credited her spiritual awakening.)
Gidget Goes Hawaiian grossed $2.2 million, more than the original, but few critics took it seriously, with Variety admitting it was a "slickly produced but only sporadically amusing sequel . . . those who may have been surf-bored by the Sandra Dee starrer of a few years back will find even less to cheer about in this follow-up." Howard Thompson in the New York Times declared, "Frankly, we'll take Miss Dee's direct sweetness to Miss Walley's squealing, calliope innocence any day," but the Los Angeles Times prophesied "Miss Walley, as the cutest scatterbrain alive, seems definitely here to stay".
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Even though Walley was chosen "Most Popular Actress" by Photoplay magazine in 1961, she got pregnant (she had recently wed fellow beach party movie fixture John Ashley) and the title role in the sequel Gidget Goes to Rome (1963) went to sitcom actress Cindy Carol. Still, playing Gidget was a career-making, eye-opening experience for Walley. "I realized that all Hollywood actors hadn't sold out," she reflected. "There were really some good actors and it was just a totally different medium that was new to me."
Producer: Jerry Bresler
Director: Paul Wendkos
Screenplay: Ruth Brooks Flippen, Frederick Kohner
Cinematography: Robert J. Bronner
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: William A. Lyon
Cast: James Darren (Moondoggie, Jeffrey Matthews), Michael Callan (Eddie Horner), Deborah Walley (Gidget, Frances Lawrence), Carl Reiner (Russ Lawrence), Peggy Cass (Mitzi Stewart), Eddie Foy, Jr. (Monty Stewart), Jeff Donnell (Dorothy Lawrence), Vicki Trickett (Abby Stewart), Joby Baker (Judge Hamilton), Don Edmonds (Larry Neal).
C-102m. Closed Captioning.
by Violet LeVoit
Fingerett, Andrew. "First female Malibu surfer is real-life Gidget." Daily Sundial, September 29th, 2008
Peacocke, Sharyn. "Fan Fare" http://peacockepress.com/SharynPeacocke/FanFare.html
Thompson, Howard. "Screen: Strange Mates:Sequel to 'Gidget' and 'Historical' Film Open" New York Times, August 10, 1961
"Gidget Goes Hawaiian" Variety, May 31 1961
Lisanti, Tom. Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 (McFarland & Co.)