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The early 'sixties were a transitional time for pop culture. With Elvis wasted in weak MGM musicals and the Beatles not yet on the scene, America's radios were alive with novelty songs and holdovers from the fifties. The biggest craze of 1962 was surfing music. Almost none of this pop music had found its way to movies, except in a couple of Chubby Checker 'Twist' musicals and several now-forgotten Connie Francis vehicles. The first Beach Party movie would appear in '63. The Hollywood adaptation of Broadway's Bye Bye Birdie stands entirely apart from this crowd. Initially a rather mild spoof of the Elvis Presley craze, this colorful and energetic musical skates through its family-approved content to sell a new image of swingin' 60s sex appeal, courtesy of a provocative new star almost too hot for the screen: Ann-Margret.
Bye Bye Birdie the movie received a major overhaul, punching up the plotline with a bigger finish and making the character played by its new star Dick Van Dyke a closet biochemist instead of an English teacher. Writer Irving Brecher and veteran director George Sidney stress the sexual possibilities in almost every scene. Top-billed Janet Leigh one-ups her taboo-breaking scene from Psycho by appearing in a brassiere - in bright color. Leigh and especially Dick Van Dyke complained that director Sidney allowed Ann-Margret to run away with the movie, which is a very accurate description of what happened.
The farcical story riffs on the passionate fan hysteria over Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), a rock star phenomenon drafted into the Army. Unpublished songwriter Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) is ready to quit. He'd rather go back to biochemical research but his pushy mother Mama Mae (Maureen Stapleton) insists that he keep trying to crash Tin Pan Alley -- and stay away from marriage. Albert's publicist girlfriend Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh) knows that the only way to get him to the altar is to make him a success. She sells Ed Sullivan (Ed Sullivan) on the idea of giving Conrad Birdie a farewell bit on Sullivan's TV show, bestowing a symbolic kiss on a randomly chosen member of his adoring teen fan club. Albert's song One Last Kiss will get hit-making national exposure.
Out in the Ohio town of Sweet Apple, Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret) is flabbergasted to discover that she will be seen on TV kissing (sigh) Conrad. Her girlfriend Ursula (Trudi Ames, excellent) organizes the fan reception while Kim's crestfallen boyfriend Hugo Peabody (singer Bobby Rydell) sulks in humiliation. Birdie and Co. take Sweet Apple by storm, infuriating Kim's father, fertilizer salesman Harry McAfee (Paul Lynde, wonderful) and transforming the local hangouts into rockin' dance parties. Harry McAfee gets the showbiz bug when he imagines going on TV with his hero Ed Sullivan, but Rosie is infuriated to overhear the doltish Albert promising his clinging Mama that he'll never marry. To get Albert's attention she flirts with the local English teacher, and invades a local Shriner's meeting with her provocative dance. But everybody's dreams may go up in smoke when The Russian Bolshoi Ballet, another act on Sullivan's show, demands more time: Albert's song opportunity instantly vanishes.
Bye Bye Birdie succeeds splendidly in its mission -- all of its songs are keepers, the story is funny and the characters appropriately cartoonish. The changes dull some of the Broadway original's satire, reducing Conrad Birdie to a running gag. The new material for the ending opens up the movie for some big-scale slapstick but also dilutes the proceedings with weak Cold War humor. The business with the Ballet does not provide a contrast with Conrad Birdie's pop hip twisting, and Albert's super speed-up formula gag belongs in a Bowery Boys movie. The new script uses it to make anti-labor quips -- suggesting that American workers need to be 'sped up'.
Dick Van Dyke gets all the lousy sitcom material as a tiresomely passive Mama's boy. It's up to the sexually vibrant Janet Leigh to energize their relationship -- what makes Albert Peterson an attractive mate is anybody's guess. Leigh's Rosie replaces Broadway's Chita Rivera -- a now nearly obscure major talent who also starred in the original production of West Side Story, only to see other actresses take over for the movie versions. What now seems insulting is to see Janet Leigh retain a Latin name and hairstyle, when nothing ethnic remains in the Rosie DeLeon character.
In 1963 Bye Bye Birdie blasted onto the screen with a new image of sexuality. Ann-Margret's newly-liberated appeal was so powerful that last season's cable series Mad Men chose her appearance in this movie to represent a hot new Star of the hour. Kim McAfee is the all-American sex kitten, a figure that was always there (note Lee Remick in Elia Kazan's 1957 A Face in the Crowd). She's a corn-fed innocent yet simultaneously a voracious sex bomb. McAfee talks like a twelve year-old, but then comes on like she's hungry to eat her male companions alive. Confused boyfriend Hugo Peabody (or "Fink") doesn't know which end is up. He eventually shows his true Americanism by striking out with his fists.
If Kim McAfee's calculated teases aren't clear enough, Bye Bye Birdie's electrifying dance scenes enlarge Ann-Margret's sexuality to explosive proportions. In most musicals the leading lady is a demure figure, but Kim McAfee handles the suggestive dance moves that usually go to a secondary character. Dressed in tight Capri slacks and midriff-baring tops, Ann-Margret gyrates like a dervish, tossing her hair, hips and hands in all directions. The dancing is graceful enough but its main purpose is to project a sexual charge too big to be allowed off the dance floor. This is the new woman. No mention is made of birth control (don't be ridiculous) but Ann-Margret serves notice that she's got her own sexual agenda and advertises that prospective mates will be hard pressed to keep up with her pace. Onna White's choreography, adapted from Gower Champion's Broadway work, is a kinetic marvel. I've Got A Lot of Livin' To Do, the best-directed number, really cooks. I suppose that fans capable of analyzing dancing will trace some of its moves and 'attitude' back to numbers in West Side Story.
As if realizing that Ann-Margret was blowing all the other characters off the screen, Janet Leigh's Rosie is also allowed to be more daring than most 'nice' women on 1963 screens. Besides the green bra scene, she models a skimpy baby doll pajama outfit for the boyish Albert. Making the scene safe for the censors is Dick Van Dyke, whose sex quotient is microscopic. When he says he can't wait for their honeymoon, there's no electricity whatsoever.
Leigh and Van Dyke had good reason to be alarmed, as George Sidney purposely augmented Ann-Margret's role. A catchy and suggestive new song was written for the new star to sing over the main and end titles, and filmed at Sidney's personal expense. Ann-Margret shimmies and teases and flirts with the camera like the hottest Saturday night date you never had; she's a cutesy teen with the instincts of a burlesque dancer. Why does she dance over a bright blue background? As seen in the original trailer included on the disc, Ann-Margret's opening 'tease' song was originally meant to be matted over a field of newspaper headlines announcing Conrad Birdie's forced enlistment. Presumably some of the main titles would appear over this shot as well. Sidney apparently decided that all that would distract from Ann-Margret's performance, and decided to let the audience ogle her without visual competition. Good call! 1
The Ballet finish is something of a letdown but most of Bye Bye Birdie is one surprise after another. Dick Van Dyke is charming enough in his Put On a Happy Face number, even though it could be plugged into any generic show, even Sesame Street. Paul Lynde strikes the correct face for Kim's status-conscious father; when he flashes his almost-scary smile he looks like a Halloween pumpkin. Janet Leigh is as poised and elegant as ever, and takes being upstaged quite gracefully. And who would guess that Bobby Rydell can dance? Jesse Pearson perhaps had to be directed to tone down the lechery a bit, but should be wearing a shirt that says "Statuatory Rape". He seems to have gone the way of Li'l Abner's Peter Palmer -- a capable stage talent associated almost exclusively with one movie role. Maureen Stapleton's grasping Mama Mae is the only character that chafes against the movie's new balance toward teen sex -- her comic interference with Albert's love life now seems to belong in a much older show.
The miracle of Bye Bye Birdie is that it is still very entertaining, with fresh-sounding music (credit arranger-orchestrator Johnny Green) and a startlingly non-dated sex appeal. The Beach Party, Chubby Checker and Connie Francis movies are now vaguely embarrassing relics, but this dazzler still delivers. Ann-Margret moved on to perform with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas, but never found a lasting niche in conventional Hollywood fare. She's a special item that needed special handling.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Bye Bye Birdie is a stunning HD transfer overseen by Sony's restoration department. The brightly colored and detailed Panavision image restores the film's original luster, compensating for the sometimes constricted back lot sets. The courthouse square is listed as the Universal backlot but looks a lot like the abbreviated cityscape used three years later in Arthur Penn's Columbia film The Chase. The High School lawn scene may have been filmed on North Bronson Street in Hollywood, a few blocks from the old Columbia studios.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes point out interesting production issues and discuss the meaning of Ann-Margret's game-changing characterization. Sony has contributed an original theatrical trailer and teaser to go with Twilight Time's Isolated Music and Effects track. English subs are also provided, a needed 'extra' that doesn't appear on most TT discs source from Fox.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bye Bye Birdie Blu-ray rates:
1. The actual main title has always confused me, as more than one has been used on home video. I mentioned this about ten years ago in a Savant article about odd title and credit manglings. Since I haven't saved samples of the 'original original' main title shot, I'm no longer certain that what we see here is a later revision. Why? That's a question for Sony/Columbia's legal department. Anyone have the answer?
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T'was Ever Thus.