Movie of the Week Blogathon: Gidget Grows Up
Welcome to the Movie of the Week Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Film and TV Café—and to this site’s feature presentation, Gidget Grows Up, starring Karen Valentine.
Intrigued? Watch the promo below. (Or better yet, watch the full movie here.)
I must confess that I’m not a Gidget expert, so I’ll be discussing this TV movie on its own merits, not in relation to the original films. But here’s some background: Gidget originated with a novel by Frederick Kohner, an Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrant, in 1957. He based the character on his surf-crazy daughter, Kathy, who was called “Gidget,” short for “girl midget.” Kathy Kohner is five-foot-one, which I don’t think is that short, but whatever—someone in Malibu thought so, and the nickname stuck.
Five more novels followed, and three feature films: Gidget (1959), starring Sandra Dee; Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), starring Deborah Walley; and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), starring Cindy Carol. Then followed the TV series starring Sally Field in 1965-66.
I do have a passing familiarity with the TV series, mostly due to its memorable theme song. I could sing the whole thing with the complete lyrics if anyone ever asked me—but nobody ever has. I’m ready, though!
Karen Valentine: Great Casting!
The first thing to know about Gidget Grows Up is that it is very well cast. Karen Valentine, in particular, is a terrific Gidget. She plays the role with a perky enthusiasm that’s very similar to young Sally Field’s. When this film first aired on December 30, 1969, Valentine had just begun her run on Room 222 as bumbling student teacher Alice Johnson, another character known for being perky. (I’m going to have to look up some synonyms for “perky” in the thesaurus to get through this post.)
I’ve always enjoyed how Valentine brings comic relief to Room 222’s opening credits. The original credits are my favorite, because I love seeing Mr. Dixon getting out of his red sports car and Principal Kaufman pulling up into his “Principal Only” space. (The principal is played by Michael Constantine, who later played the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who sprayed Windex on everything.) In this version, Valentine pauses in the doorway of a bus, and the doors close on her. Oh, Karen! In the second version, she clumsily drops a big stack of books she’s carrying while Principal Kaufman, Mr. Dixon, and Miss McIntyre smile and shake their heads at her endearing klutziness. Not one of them helps her pick up the books.
Apparently Valentine is clumsy in real life. According to a 1972 story in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “She was the last of five contestants to try for the role of Alice Johnson. Unlike the other girls, who appeared chic and efficient, Karen fumbled for a chair, dropped her purse, and as she made a grab for it, lost her glasses, which had been perched on top of her head. As she stopped to retrieve them, the script slid off her lap. Producer Reynolds was delighted! ‘You’re exactly what I am looking for,’ he told her.”
Gidget Grows Up is written by John McGreevey. When I hear his name, I picture it in white Times Roman caps with B-roll of mountains behind it. I’ve seen it that way many times, because he wrote many classic episodes of The Waltons, in the early seasons when the show was good. He penned one of my Season 1 favorites, “The Hunt.” That’s the one where John Boy has a crisis about his manhood when he hesitates to shoot a turkey. McGreevey also wrote for series like Family Affair and My Three Sons, as well as the Gidget TV series. So clearly he’s the right man for the job.
Do you love ’60s fashions? Because Valentine wears a different groovy ’60s outfit in nearly every scene. I’ve put together a little fashion show for your viewing pleasure. Sorry I couldn’t get a clear capture of her white go-go boots.
I’m recapping the whole movie, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, you’d better stop reading now. If you don’t want to know about the twist ending where it turns out she was actually a ghost the whole time, go no further. I also wouldn’t want to ruin that pivotal scene where she disrobes and reveals that she has boy parts. But I hope you’ll choose to stay with me and read on.
And Now Our Feature Presentation
The movie starts with footage of that very clean version of Manhattan you see on That Girl and Family Affair, where there is no grime or litter. Then the title comes onscreen, and I squeal with delight over the very 1960s font. Oh, how I love ’60s fonts. The wistful theme song starts, “Growing up, and falling down a lot…” I guess they’ve heard about how clumsy Karen Valentine is. The song continues, and this small dose of it is innocuous, but it becomes very grating when we hear it over and over again later. We’ll get there.
Gidget gets off a bus in New York City. The doors don’t close on her, so already we can tell this is not Alice Johnson from Room 222. She’s wearing a cute plaid dress with some kind of big collar, and she’s carrying luggage in both hands. She looks up in wonder at the United Nations and then addresses us directly in a voiceover, as she will throughout the film.
In a flashback, Gidget explains how she came to be in New York. Here we get the one and only beach scene in the movie, so if you were hoping to see lots of bikini babes, you’re out of luck. In fact, Gidget never takes off the shift that she’s wearing over her bikini. But she does show some cleavage, so if you like that kind of thing, enjoy!
Gidget tells us she’s been an exchange student for the past two years, first in Italy and then in France. But now she’s back home, and as she greets everyone on the beach, we get our first glimpse of this version of Moondoggie. He’s played by Paul Petersen, sometime after his role as Jeff Stone on the Donna Reed Show but before he became an advocate for the protection of child actors through his nonprofit, A Minor Consideration. Since it’s the 1960s, Moondoggie does not have a sculpted bod, and he does have a little patch of chest hair. It’s kind of refreshing. To me he looks too young to be paired with Karen Valentine, but in fact Petersen was 24 and Valentine was 22.
Moondoggie is with another girl, and he looks all petulant and pouty. Why? We soon find out. He angrily approaches Gidget.
“Didn’t you get my letters?” she says.
“You bet your crepes suzette I got ’em.” Crepes suzette? Oh, Moondoggie, this isn’t the Patty Duke Show.
So, apparently Gidget wrote him about all the French guys she was having fun with, and Moondoggie was not amused. He seems particularly incensed by the fact that the guys all have names like Jean-Pierre. I guess he hates the French. After sniping at her some more, Moondoggie tells her he’s going to Greenland with the Air Force.
Next we go to Gidget’s house and meet her father, Russ. Bob Cummings is so natural as her father that I almost thought I remembered him playing Russ in the TV series. (He didn’t; that was Don Porter.) Again, good casting.
Gidget wonders what she’s going to do to keep her mind off Moondoggie, until she sees UN Ambassador John Post on TV recruiting for “peace heroes,” delivering a very JFK-like pitch about making a contribution to world peace. “We need your strong bodies, alert minds, and dedicated hearts to do the greatest job ever attempted by man. The future is in your hands!” Hey, Ambassador, don’t you think you’re overselling something that’s basically an internship?
Now we’re back where we started in front of the UN. If you think Gidget applied and was accepted as a peace hero, you’re wrong. Our Gidget has just impulsively shown up at the UN with her suitcases, looking for Ambassador Post. Somehow she gets someone to tell her that the ambassador is working at home in his suite at the Plaza Hotel, because apparently nobody cares about security. She tries to get a room there, but they’re completely full. However, the desk clerk sings a different tune when Gidget lies that she’s a friend of Ambassador Post and his wife, and he promptly finds her a room on the same floor as the ambassador.
While staking out the ambassador’s suite, Gidget encounters a man named Alex MacLaughlin, played by Edward Mulhare. You may not recognize him without his beard, but Mulhare played Captain Gregg on the sitcom The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. Here he is less nautical than the sea captain but no less dashing. This 1969 movie would have coincided with The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968-70), which makes me wonder whether Captain Gregg’s beard was fake or Mulhare filmed this between seasons and grew the beard back afterward. We’ll never know.
“Yes, the ambassador is in,” MacLaughlin tells the pretty young stalker, “but he’s taking a shower.” He walks away, but don’t worry, we’ll see him again.
A cute hotel waiter named Arnold serves Gidget her room-service burger and fries. He’s played by Michael Lembeck, who later played the husband of Mackenzie Phillips’s character on One Day at a Time. But here he’s all young and fresh-faced. Arnold tells Gidget he gets off duty at eight o’clock and would love to show her the town. Gidget puts him off about that, but she uses his interest in her to get him to tell her when the ambassador leaves his apartment.
Gidget nabs the ambassador by the elevator and rides down with him, babbling about how she wants to offer him her strong body, alert mind, and dedicated heart. But when she mentions that she hasn’t finished her college degree, he isn’t very encouraging about her prospects of working at the UN. She persists, and earns the applause of everyone in the lobby when, after a few trips around the revolving door, the ambassador finally caves and tells her to call Mrs. Willard for an appointment.
That night, Moondoggie calls Gidget at the hotel. He’s wearing an army uniform and has a gigantic photo of Gidget on his desk. He dicks her around, first making it sound like he wants to see her when he’ll be visiting a military base in New Jersey, then saying he knows a girl there. She in turn mentions Arnold in an attempt to make him jealous. Then Moondoggie essentially calls her a whore, saying “Have fun, and enjoy your work at the UN. I’m sure you’re going to be very popular. Especially with the French delegation.” To add insult to injury, she gets a call from the hotel saying that charges for her call to Greenland are $16.40. He called collect? What an asshole.
After what would be a commercial break, we open on a shot of pigeons dispersing in the shadow of the Chrysler building. I mention it only because I’m once again reminded of the Manhattan of That Girl, specifically the Season 1 opening credits where Ann and Donald are feeding pigeons that suddenly fly up into their faces, immediately followed by footage of the UN and the Chrysler building. People, don’t feed pigeons. They’re rats with wings.
Gidget shows up for her appointment with Mrs. Willard at the UN and asks a series of non-English-speaking people, including one wearing a fez, where she can find the Visitors Service. Then who should walk by but Alex MacLaughlin! He flirts with her, insisting he’ll only tell her what she wants to know—the directions—if she tells him what he wants to know—her name. After they go through that, she asks if he’s an ambassador.
“No, I’m agronomist.” She looks puzzled. “In other words, I’m a farmer from South Australia.”
Now I’m the one who’s puzzled, because his accent is not at all Australian—and I should know, because I have Siri’s voice set to Australian on my iPhone. In fact, Mulhare was Irish in real life, and his accent sounds English, much like it did on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. Mulhare’s Captain Gregg was never able to consummate his flirtmance with Mrs. Muir because he didn’t have a physical body. Maybe he’ll have a chance to score this time!
Mrs. Willard turns out to be played by the actress who was the woman in the diner in The Birds who freaked out on Tippi Hedren and called her evil, and then got slapped. Much calmer in this role, she tells Gidget she might be able to be a UN guide, but all recruits need to be approved by Mrs. Crosby. Then Mrs. Crosby enters, looks Gidget up and down, and says rudely, “You’re very small!” (Remember, the origin of “Gidget” is “girl midget.” Karen Valentine, incidentally is five-foot-four.)
“I try harder!” Gidget chirps.
Mrs. Crosby grudgingly tells her to be in the next day at eight sharp.
The next day outside the UN, Gidget literally runs into Alex MacLaughlin. He invites her to have lunch with him later. Inside, she meets her fellow beginners.
“Hi, I’m Minerva Chan! Everyone calls me Minnie!” says a young Asian American woman in a very 1960s polka-dotted blouse. If possible, she is even more bubbly than Gidget. She sounds completely American.
Gidget says, “You speak very good English.” Oh, Gidget, no.
“Why not? I’m from Reading, Pennsylvania,” Minnie says good-naturedly, ignoring Gidget’s microaggression.
“I thought you were Chinese,” Gidget says. Shut up, Gidget!
“I am Chinese… American style!” Minnie laughs.
Minnie then shares the fact that her father has a fortune cookie company in Reading.
Gidget says, “You’re kidding!”
“One jokes only when one is most serious,” Minnie says as if reciting a fortune.
Before Gidget gets the chance to ask Minnie for her ancient Chinese secret to getting shirts so white, Minnie introduces her to a woman named Diana, who is black and has an African-sounding accent.
So naturally, Gidget says “You’re from England!”
“Uganda,” Diana kindly corrects her. “My teachers there were mostly English.”
After discovering that they are all living in hotels, the three quickly decide to look for a place to live together.
“He who decides on his destination has completed half his journey,” Minnie says. Did she memorize every fortune in the cookie factory? Fair warning: This is her shtick throughout the whole movie.
Mrs. Crosby starts the training and makes sure the trainees know she’s tough. “I’ve been called an old biddy in forty-seven different languages,” she says, clearly considering this a badge of honor. She lays down the law about the dress code. Uniforms must be cleaned and pressed. No jewelry. She shames one of the trainees for her shoes, which aren’t plain enough. And finally, she admonishes them to keep their private lives at home, not to look for love at the UN. Gee, I wonder who’s going to fall in love?
After the training, Diana introduces Gidget to her friend Lee Basumba. “Are you from Uganda too?” asks Gidget?
“Bambuto,” he says.
“Bambuto?” says Gidget. “I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of it.” Don’t worry, Gidget, nobody has, because it doesn’t exist in real life.
Diana explains that Bambuto is a new country that has just declared its independence from the Bakumbu Federation (also fictional).
Next, Gidget has her lunch with Alex, who gives her a lead on an apartment in the East Village. The eccentric landlord is none other than Paul Lynde, playing Louis B. Latimer, a former child actor who goes by “Louis B.” (Does he know about Paul Petersen’s child actor foundation?) The building has a marquee on the front of it, and the apartment is full of memorabilia from Louis B’s career. Louis B decides he is going to make a comeback by writing, producing, and directing his own movie called “Smiles,” featuring nothing but smiles. He wants to include Gidget’s, and she is thrilled.
Back at the UN, Lee expresses frustration that the Bakumbu delegration is blocking recognition of Bambuto.
Meanwhile, Gidget notices that she is being followed by a man wearing a keffiyeh, or as Gidget calls him, “an Arab.” Gidget leads her first tour group, consisting of “a cluster of second graders from Nyack” and “the Arab.” The Arab is also there for her subsequent tour, a women’s club from East Orange, N.J. At this point we find out that the Arab’s name is Abdul Ahmed III, and he’s a sheikh from an unspecified “oil-rich near-Eastern country.” He lets Gidget in on his plan—to make her his wife.
Next, Katrina, a more seasoned guide, announces she is throwing a party for “all you greenhorns” and invites Gidget to bring a date. Gidget brings Alex. And then who walks in but—WTF?—it’s Moondoggie! Katrina greets him affectionately as Gidget hides behind Alex. But then Moondoggie sees her, and it’s all very tense. (Remember when I said Paul Petersen looked too young to play Moondoggie? He looks even younger next to Mulhare, who was 46.)
When Moondoggie finds out that Alex is Australian, he decides this would be a good opportunity to slut-shame Gidget some more, saying to her in a pissy way, “Oh, you’ve switched hemispheres.” Are we supposed to be rooting for Moondoggie and Gidget to get back together in the end? Because they are making it difficult. Do you hear me, John McGreevey? I don’t remember Mary Ellen Walton ever having to put up with this kind of abuse.
Moondoggie insists that the foursome all go out for drinks at “a groovy place in the Village” called the Dark Room. I don’t know why anyone agrees to this ill-advised plan. Once there, Gidget and Moondoggie snipe at each other until Alex and Katrina are so uncomfortable, they get up and dance together just to get away from the quarreling pair. Gidget and Moondoggie try to talk, but it doesn’t go well.
“When did you switch from Frenchmen to Australians?” Moondoggie asks. God, I hate him.
“About the same time you switched from generous Eskimos to Katrina,” she shoots back, but then she ruins it by immediately apologizing. She says she wants him to be happy with Katrina, just as she wants all her friends to be happy.
At this point Moondoggie completely loses his cool. “Friends!” he shouts. “Is that what you and I are? Friends?! … I don’t want to be your friend!” She gets up to leave, and he yanks her arm back. “Let go of me!” she says. Wow. So not cool, Moondoggie.
Next we see Gidget with Alex at his house, where she is talking about Moondoggie—“He was always so kind”—until she realizes she should cut it out. “I’m sorry,” she says. “What a goony bird! A knight rescues a damsel in distress, and all she does is rave about the dragon!” But Alex is understanding and says something metaphorical about butterflies. Then Gidget, channeling Alice Johnson from Room 222, spills her drink and knocks over a lamp.
Time goes by. Gidget mopes about Moondoggie. She sees Alex, but just as a friend. Abdul—remember him?—gets Gidget to take him on a private tour of the UN. He again asks her to marry him—and join his other 11 wives, all of whom said yes to his proposal. “I’m sorry, Abdul,” she says. “Number twelve says no.” Seeing his disappointment, she can’t help but try to make him feel better. “Don’t feel bad, Abdul. You can’t win ’em all!”
At home, Gidget and Louie B screen the film he had talked about making, “Smiles.” Gidget says the sight of all those smiles made her laugh, and she wishes it could be shown to every session of Congress and every Cabinet meeting. Louis B says maybe she could introduce it at the UN. “I wish I could,” she says. “I’d feel I was really making a contribution!” Louie B goes out to see a movie.
Then Lee drops by to see Diana. He’s in a state because the Bakumbu Federation is going to be screening a propaganda film for the Council, which might sway the two delegates who are needed to swing the vote. “Whole families in Bambuto have been machine gunned; at the United Nations, the delegates argue. Villages are burned to the ground; the delegates argue.” He had such hopes when he first came to the United Nations, but now he feels jaded and hopeless. “It would be nice, Gidget, if what one person does can matter,” Lee says.
Gidget looks at the reel-to-reel film of Louis B’s “Smiles,” and a lightbulb goes on over her head. “Lee,” she says, “maybe there is something one person can do. Especially if she has the ultimate weapon!”
It’s nice that Gidget wants to help her friend, but has she actually done any research on the Bakumbu-Bambuto situation? She’s only heard Lee’s side—isn’t it possible that Bambuto has done things that are just as bad or worse as what’s been done to them? International conflicts are usually pretty complex. I’m just saying, before you go using a weapon as powerful as a Paul Lynde movie full of smiles, you should make damn sure you’re on the right side of the issue.
Spy intrigue music plays as Gidget switches the films. But we don’t get to see people reacting to the “Smile” film. Instead we cut to the Bakumbu ambassador fingering Gidget as the culprit. “That is the one! She took our film!” he says. “My government demands that this woman be publicly punished for her actions!” Ambassador Post assures the Bakumbu ambassador that appropriate action will be taken.
Alone with Gidget, Ambassador Post rakes her over the coals. “Did you at any time stop to consider that your gratuitous maneuver might destroy our painstaking negotiations? They were headed, after a weekend of day and night session, toward recognition of Bambuto.” Gidget worries that she screwed everything up, but it turns out that the vote has been taken and Bambuto has prevailed. Nevertheless, Gidget is suspended.
Lee thanks Gidget, telling her he saw what the film did to the climate of the room. Well, I’m glad someone got to see it. It seems odd that we didn’t get a scene showing people’s reactions to the “Smile” movie. I would much rather have spent time on that than on certain other things that happen later.
Looking to be comforted about her suspension, Gidget considers calling Moondoggie, and then considers calling her father. But ultimately she decides not to call either one—“No, I’m not a little girl!” she declares. Gidget grows up! Then the theme music plays while Gidget walks around the city looking pensive:
Growing up and falling down a lot
Getting up and kicked around a lot
Growing up and reaching out
What’s it all about?
The movie really could have ended there, and frankly, I think it would have been a better movie if it had. We have closure on the Bambuto plot; Gidget has learned something; and she now realizes she’s independent and grown up. But alas, there are still 19 more minutes, and they are not the best.
The Part They Should Have Cut
Gidget visits Alex, who asks if he can do anything to help. She says he already has, just by being there. Then she says, “Alex, I’m reaching out to you.” Reaching out, just like the lyrics in the song, get it? And then the theme music continues over a montage of Gidget and Alex doing romantic things—walking together through a wheat field, then on a beach. Alex buying Gidget a rose in front of Lincoln Center.
Having one shoulder to cry on
Having one soul to rely upon
Having one someone who cares
Someone who shares
Learning love, love you can lean upon
And leaving love, the love you were weaned upon
Searching out and letting go
Reaching out and starting to grow
Growing up, I should have thought a bit
Knowing up, I should have thought of it
Knowing you, just look at that smile
For all the while, you were growing too.
And then, Moondoggie appears at Louis B. Latimer’s apartment building, looking for Gidget. But she’s not there. Instead he finds Paul Lynde in a bunny suit. This is the one redeeming part of this final bit of the movie.
“No, this is not the Playboy Club,” says Louis B in Paul Lynde’s trademark snarky voice. “I’m off to do my Easter Bunny routine at the Headstart Center.” Louis B fiddles with his rabbit ears and complains there’s too much starch.
Moondoggie goes outside and sees Gidget and Alex walking hand in hand. He walks away before they see him.
Gidget is reinstated at the UN and finds her father there waiting for her. They run into Alex, and Gidget introduces the two men. When Russ realizes what’s going on between Gidget and Alex, you can see on his face he doesn’t approve. Is it because Alex is so much older than Gidget, a fact that no one has remarked upon? (Mulhare was 24 years older than Valentine.) No, it seems that Russ really wants Gidget to be with the jealous, controlling guy who slut-shamed her and yanked her by the arm. To be fair, Russ doesn’t know about any of that. So Russ goes to Greenland to talk sense into Moondoggie.
Back in New York, Alex tells Gidget that he’s going back to Australia. “Frances, I can’t take you with me,” he says.
“Don’t ask, because I’d just have to say no, and that might not be easy,” she says. What? Neither one of them makes any sense. Why can’t he take her? Why wouldn’t she go? Then Alex says some nonsense about “letting go,” once again echoing the theme song.
Moondoggie comes back to Louis B.’s apartment building and this time finds him dressed like Uncle Sam. It’s the Fourth of July. Louis B goes upstairs and tells Gidget that Moondoggie is there, and also tells her about Moondoggie’s previous visit, which he had failed to mention before. Minnie shares another bit of fortune cookie wisdom—groan—and then Gidget runs downstairs.
Moondoggie invites her to dinner, and she accepts. Moondoggie tells here he’s returning from Greenland to California. The two walk past Tiffany’s and look in the window. He asks her which ring she likes best, and when she indicates one, he pulls out a box and shows her that he’s already bought the same one—for her. Then they profess their love for one another.
“I’ve been such a dope,” says Moondoggie.
“Me too,” says Gidget.
Then there are literal fireworks in the sky, because it’s the Fourth of July, and the “Growing up…” theme music (which I now officially hate) plays as the credits roll.
Personally, I would have chosen Arnold the hotel waiter over Moondoggie or Alex.
A Better Theme Song
Lest we end on a sour note, I’ve composed a theme song, which, in my opinion, is much better than that sappy “growing up, reaching out, letting go” thing:
My funny Valentine
Sweet clumsy Valentine
You drop your books on the floor
Your perkiness enchants
Everyone who wears pants
How could I ask for any more?
Do you go out with French guys?
Is that really very wise?
An Australian might be nice
That’s for sure
But Moondoggie’s such an ass
Don’t give that guy a pass
Stay, perky Valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day