August 28, 2012

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Against a backdrop of retina-bursting blue, the 22-year-old Ann-Margret waves goodbye to the classical Hollywood musical in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Director George Sidney seems prescient in expanding Ann-Margret’s role at the expense of intended stars Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke, considering the explosion of the youth market less than a year later, when The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (which also makes an appearance in Bye Bye Birdie), cementing rock band movies/concerts as the musicals of the near-future. Now available in a gorgeous limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (for purchase exclusively at Screen Archives), Bye Bye Birdie is an eye-popping transitional work, with the old and the new Hollywood brushing up against each other with both awkward and thrilling results.

As a Broadway show,  Bye Bye Birdie was a gently satiric take on the gnashing of female teeth caused by Elvis Presley getting drafted into the army, told mainly through an adult’s perspective.  It follows struggling songwriter Albert Peterson and his secretary and sometime girlfriend Rosie Alvarez as they try to get rock heartthrob (and Elvis stand-in) Conrad Birdie to sing their tune on The Ed Sullivan Show. The character of Kim McAfee, the teen girl plucked from Birdie’s fan club to receive his last kiss before he enlists, is a distinctly supporting part.

But when director George Sidney saw Ann-Margret’s ebullient performance, he expanded her role to include five musical numbers (up from two), and cut out Janet Leigh’s big “Spanish Rose” routine. This shifts the perspective to the teenage denizens of Sweet Apple, Ohio.  One of Sidney’s inventions was placing Ann in front of a blue-screen to open and close the picture, a showcase in which she exhibits a faux-naivete (clutching her skirt), only to be replaced by a self-aware come-hither stare, in a performance which, as Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times, is “so charged with erotic energy that you can practically feel a nation’s toes curling. She plays Kim, the head of the Conrad Birdie fan club, and her scenes are supercharged with hormonal energy, including her “How Lovely To Be A Woman” solo, in which her playfully aggressive donning of a sweater dress completely undermines the squeaky clean sexism of the lyrics (“It gives you such a glow just to know/You’re wearing lipstick and heels!”). Kim is fiercely in charge of her own life, especially over her milquetoast boyfriend Hugo (Bobby Rydell), who unfortunately is tasked with trying to one-up her at a dance-off during the “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” number (he loses).

In between all of this, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh valiantly attempt to keep the supposed A plot, that of Peterson and Rosie, percolating. But maybe because Sidney was too enamored of Ann-Margret, their work looks flat in comparison. Leigh was inevitably disappointed with the finished film, writing in her autobiography that, “George had changed as well. I couldn’t exactly define the difference. It might be accredited to the transference of his Svengali attitude from me to the new and young Ann-Margret. He saw, perhaps, an opportunity to mold another budding career. I was ‘old hat’ after the numerous pictures and tests we had made together. His dismissing behavior wreaked havoc with my already precarious stability.” The only relative oldster who comes off with an equal level of energy or verve, is, of course, Paul Lynde, who takes on his stage role of Mr. McAfee, Kim’s befuddled dad. Knocking out a venomous version of “Kids”, Lynde’s particularly nasal wit makes it seem like being an adult is not the bore Peterson and Rosie make it out to be.

One thing that brings all ages together in the film is their desire to be on television. From Peterson to Kim to the mayor, everyone kowtows to Ed Sullivan and his producer, hoping the idiot box will goose their businesses or make them a star. Television, and variety shows like Sullivan’s, was part of the reason for Hollywood’s decline in box office in this period, and spurred their desperate search for what audiences actually wanted. But the film reflects that all people wanted was more TV. The finale, which turns the Sullivan show into an amped up burlesque, thanks to the effective sabotage work of Peterson and Rosie, is an attempt to depict television as, even at this late date, as a kind of rough and tumble Wild West of entertainment. The sequence makes it look like a particularly poor night at a community college’s talent show – as contrasted with the slick musical sequences from earlier in the film.

It is a sparklingly polished film, like a lollipop licked to maximum sheen, the popping primary colors captured in smoothly arcing crane shots. None of the colors register as sharply as Ann-Margret’s personality. A musical star was born, but right at the beginning of the genre’s slow demise. She would co-star with the real Elvis in Viva Las Vegas (1964), but aside from the rock-opera Tommy (1974), wouldn’t star in a full-blown musical again.