Melodramas, neo-Westerns, proto-indies, social commentary and all are fun, but I couldn't leave the 1950s behind without touching on that decade's single most lasting contribution, not just to movies but to Western civilisation generally. The '50s, you see, were the decade when Teen Culture truly came into existence, not just in the sense of teenagers existing and having interests and social codes unlike their parents, but of teenagers being a major force in the pop culture landscape, maybe even the major force, especially as far as music was concerned. We could have picked any movie from any number of years in the wake of WWII (when the perfect storm of economic expansion that permitted widespread adolescent leisure time first took place) for our case study, but where we currently sit in 1959, we'll be going with Gidget, the film that made an icon of Sandra Dee and put surfing and California beach life on the pop culture map.

The fact that Sandra Dee is a name more associated with a concept than a flesh-and-blood human, and California beach life now tends to register as the province of aging hippies more than young bucks points us to one of the main characteristics of Gidget and most other teen movies besides it: they don't last. When actual artistry happens to them, it is almost on accident, either because a great filmmaker somehow managed to wander into to the genre's path (and then you get Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause) , or because the culture of that exact moment is itself so vibrant and image-driven that even functioning as a simple document of that time offers considerable stylistic appeal (and then you get many films from the middle and late 1960s). Otherwise, they tend to be dumped in the laps of journeyman filmmakers who'd rather make a living than an artistic statement, and mostly act as shepherds for the material than shapers of it (and then you get goddamn near everything else, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf right on down to Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars).

What they lack as cinema, though, teen audience films tend to make up for in being some of the most astonishing time capsules that have ever been produced in the medium. Precisely for the reason that they're quick attempts to make stories for Young People Today, who pointedly and willfully reject the past and have an underdeveloped ability to conceptualise the future, they capture moments and Zeitgeists and the very texture of what everyday life looks like better than almost anything else out there. And so it is with Gidget, which has its very meager charms as a story and all, but is mostly compelling, and I might even say "vital" in a particularly generous mood, as a small container of the mores of the late '50s as pertained to teenage sexual development and peer pressure. Which is probably only interesting in a very limited way for a self-selecting audience, but sociology is sociology, and I am pleased to think that the garbage of one generation is the fascination of another, and that some day, a half a century from now, some future film geek who won't be born for another 20 years or so might find the same value in Twilight.

So the point of this is, anyway, that Gidget is shockingly smutty, for a film from '59, and definitely for a film that the biggish studio of Columbia was pitching at a youth audience, and especially for a a film that was those things and whose star and reputation are both yoked for the rest of time to a concept of freakishly over-scrubbed purity. The basic scenario of Gabrielle Upton's script, adapted from novel that Frederick Kohner based on his own daughter, is about a 16-going-on-17 girl named Frances Lawrence (Sandra Dee née Alexandra Zuck) who is so lousy with virginity that her girlfriends decide to get her laid. And not, like, in a Code-era way where subtlety and innuendo are employed to give audiences in the know a hint about what's going on. The word "sex" comes right out and brandishes itself, something that always throws me a little bit in films from before about '64 or so. But Francie has no interest in anything so unpleasant as being pawed at and slobbered on by teen boys; as she discovers upon going to the beach on a man-hunt - she in a sleek one-piece that de-emphasises her chest, naturally - she'd much rather learn to surf than learn to give furtive, sweaty blow-jobs in the back of some high schooler's dad's T-Bird, or whatever sexually active teenagers did in '59. But of course, as she studies under the all-grown-up surf bum Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), a sort of Zen master to a bunch of younger boys, she finds her falling for the one member of Kahuna's clique who seems most irritated by her presence, Moondoggie (James Darren). And in the process, she is given the nickname "Gidget", meaning "girl midget", despite it not being at all apparent from the way director Paul Wendkos and cinematographer Burnett Guffey frame her that Dee is meaningfully short compared to the rest of the female cast.

The open, frank acknowledgement that teenagers have needs, and those needs involving humping each other, is easily the most interesting thing about Gidget, which thus manages in a very plain, unexploitative way (compared to the randy AIP beach movies of the '60s, this is largely denuded of actual libido) to up-end the expectations one has in looking at the Eisenhower Era, popularly assumed to be a time when teens were being prodded to have good clean fun at the sock hop before sharing a milkshake at a brightly-lit soda fountain, regardless of what they were actually up to. In Gidget, teens are worldly enough that even the ultra-chaste Francie isn't caught off guard in the slightest when she ends up at Kahuna's rape cave (and indeed, she rather leans on him to invite her there). And it's good that something in Gidget is interesting, because as a movie in and of itself, it's frankly not very good. The best thing about it is opening credits, designed in a kind of deco, Saul Bass-ish manner, with large, irregular blocks of bright color gliding and popping around, and the whole thing is only slightly spoiled by a theme song whose message appears to be that you can't look too much like an innocent little girl for the singer not to still harbor fantasies of boning you.

The movie itself is, kind of... well, "frivolous" is hardly a criticism of a beach movie and teen sex comedy, more of a description. But is awfully frivolous, and Robertson is alone in the entire cast in seeming to have given enough thought to his character to avoid floating off the screen entirely. The legendary Ms. Dee is, herself, a bit tiresome, with her shrill shriek of joy at everyfuckingthing that happens over the course of the movie's incident-light 95 minutes, and her way of making late-'50s teen slang sound even more garish and dippy than it already is on its own. If I ever hear someone describe something as "just, the ultimate!" again - and thankfully, since it is the 2010s and '50s nostalgia happened back in the early '80s, I probably won't - I'll put my fist through a wall.

And needless to say, Gidget is no kind of masterpiece of craft; it's the definition of something pushed out with as little fuss and effort as possible. The stock footage of surfing is fun to look at, though not typically as impressive as the beach movies of five years later; the quantity of location shooting is appealing, as well, giving the film a bright, open, clean look. But it's pretty uninspired and workmanlike, with absolutely no attempt to fill up the anamorphic widescreen frame. At it's worst, it's not even that: there's some seriously "don't give a fuck" sound editing in a lot of scenes, with lines clipping off abruptly and ambient noise failing to match up from shot to shot, like the thing only had about ten hours in post-production.

That would be the other thing about time capsules: they often have nothing to offer beyond the window the give into another period in history. Honestly, very little about Gidget "works": it's interesting in how very dated it has become, but all of that interest is extra-textual. Still, this is basically living history, and rewarding solely for the reason that it showcases the way that living has evolved: the teens in Gidget are recognisable in their essentials from any subsequent point in American history, even if the way they express themselves is so wildly different that it feels at times like watching an artifact from an alien planet.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1959
-Envelope pusher Otto Preminger makes his sauciest movie yet - with filthy words like "rape" and "panties" - the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder
-Disney releases the costly but exquisitely beautiful Super Technirama animated feature Sleeping Beauty
-B-movie impresario William Castle creates the legendary marketing gimmicks "Emergo" and "Percepto" for House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, respectively

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1959
-The French New Wave is more or less officially inaugurated by François Truffaut's The 400 Blows
-Carry On Nurse is released, the second of the 31 films in the British Carry On series; I mention it now only out of frustration that I missed when it started in '58
-Political shit-stirrer Gillo Pontecorvo has his first major success with the Italian-French co-production Kapó, shot in the surprisingly burgeoning film haven of Yugoslavia