Bye Bye Birdie
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In terms of pop culture significance, the induction of Elvis Presley into the army in 1958 was a major event - not just in the way it was handled by the media but how it later became the demarcation point between the groundbreaking music Presley produced prior to being drafted and his post-army career when his focus eventually shifted to Las Vegas extravagance. For playwright Michael Stewart, however, Elvis's induction became the inspiration for the smash Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie in which a famous rock 'n roll star named Conrad Birdie gets drafted, causing mass hysteria among his fans, and gives a farewell performance on The Ed Sullivan Show where he bestows a final goodbye kiss to Kim McAfee, a loyal fan from Sweet Apple, Ohio. The title character was clearly a parody of Presley but also referenced another popular singer - Conway Twitty ("It's Only Make Believe") - who was a formidable rockabilly star before settling into the more traditional country-western genre.
For the film version of Bye Bye Birdie (1963), directed by George Sidney, three of the original starring cast members were retained - Jesse Pearson as the swaggering, sneering rock idol; Paul Lynde as Harry McAfee, whose daughter's obsession with Birdie keeps him in a state of nervous agitation; Dick Van Dyke as Albert Peterson, a struggling songwriter with a domineering mother. (Dick Van Dyke would enjoy a greater musical success the following year in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins opposite Julie Andrews). Instead of Chita Rivera as Rosie, Albert's loyal secretary and fiancée, Janet Leigh was cast in the part and Birdie's adoring fan Kim was played by screen newcomer Ann-Margret (who played a flashy showgirl the previous year in the 1962 remake of State Fair). Teen idol Bobby Rydell, replacing Michael J. Pollard from the stage show, co-starred as Kim's jealous boyfriend Hugo, Maureen Stapleton made Mama Peterson a suitably nightmarish caricature of motherhood just as Kay Medford had on the stage, and Ed Sullivan played himself in an amusing cameo.
In the Ed Sullivan biography, Always on Sunday by Michael David Harris, the television host recalled his first reaction to seeing the Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie: "We'd heard something to the effect that there was a song about me, but we didn't pay too much attention." The number was a comic hymn to Sullivan sung by Paul Lynde and a chorus. All eyes in the theatre focused on Ed and Sylvia Sullivan as the tune reached its deadpan climax with the declaration, "Ed, we love you!" "Sylvia and I sat there with our friends staring at us. I only wanted the floor to open up and swallow us both." The homage was affectionate, not mean-spirited, but Sullivan obviously had trouble accepting the fact that he was a revered television icon. After all, he did introduce Elvis Presley to mainstream America on his Sunday night show and other rock legends would follow - from the Beatles to Janis Joplin. As for the famous goodbye kiss Birdie prepares to give Kim in the film, that actually happened on The Ed Sullivan Show when Gary Lewis and the Playboys performed prior to Gary being drafted and the singer gave a farewell kiss to a female fan as part of a publicity stunt.
Most of the advance press coverage of the making of Bye Bye Birdie focused on the 22-year-old Ann-Margret who had so completely captivated director George Sidney that he restructured the musical around her character, reducing Janet Leigh's part as Rosie to a supporting character and deleting her key musical number, "Spanish Rose," from the film. Ann-Margret, on the other hand, ended up performing five songs as opposed to her original two. Among these were a prologue and epilogue created in post-production through Sidney's insistence in which the young actress performs the theme song while advancing and retreating against a blue screen background. In a Look magazine article, he stated, 'We certainly didn't know that we were going to get the greatest potential musical star this business will ever have....we really built up her part. I've been in this business 30 years and seen no one with her fire. When she goes, it's electric.' The article added, "It was this high-voltage quality that first attracted her shrewd co-managers, Pierre Cosette and Bobby Roberts. 'Ann-Margret is every little girl who closes a bedroom door, looks into a full-length mirror and becomes someone great,' says Cosette. 'She is a sort of little animal.' 'What she has is a great mysterious quality,' adds George Sidney. 'She makes you wonder whether to give her a stick of gum or a bracelet.'" Sidney's infatuation with his star would continue through two more films, Viva Las Vegas (1964) in which Ann-Margret was paired with the real Conrad Birdie - Elvis Presley - and The Swinger (1966).
For Janet Leigh, however, Bye Bye Birdie would be a major disappointment, coming at a difficult time in her life (she was in the process of a marital split from Tony Curtis). In her earlier days at MGM, Sidney had been a great friend to her, effectively showcasing her talents in The Red Danube (1949) and Scaramouche (1952) but that was when the studio system was at its height. The movie business was in transition and every studio was affected including Columbia where Bye Bye Birdie was produced. In her autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood, Leigh remarked, "Columbia had changed since Harry Cohn died in 1958. I missed his central force, that focus toward a goal, whatever guises he used to achieve it. He was sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but his singlemindedness had created undiffused motion pictures. 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. But in its place other support structures grew. Dick Van Dyke and his wife Margie, Onna [White, the choreographer]...Paul Lynde, Maureen Stapleton, and I developed a bond, a union, that helped cushion my rocky road."
One famous behind-the-scenes Bye Bye Birdie anecdote that continues to circulate today is Maureen Stapleton's legendary comment at the film's wrap party. After the producer, the director and Dick Van Dyke all made speeches and personally singled out Ann-Margret for individual praise, Ms. Stapleton allegedly stood up and said, "Well, it looks like I'm the only one on this picture who didn't try to f**k Ann-Margret." In her autobiography Hell of a Life, Stapleton sets the record straight once and for all: "I hate to disillusion anyone, but that's not what happened. Actually, we were at a party at somebody's home, and I noticed that Ann-Margret was sitting on a couch surrounded by a bunch of guys coming on to her. About an hour later she was in the same place. I was on my way to the buffet table and called over to her. "Annie, why don't you come and sit with me? I'm the only one here who doesn't want to f**k you." That's the true story, and I wouldn't care how it was told except that I like Ann-Margret and the first version makes it sound like I was putting her down."
When Bye Bye Birdie opened theatrically, the reviews were decidedly mixed with many critics comparing the film unfavorably against the Broadway production. Saturday Review mentioned its "blatant, eye-damaging color" and noted that "the cheerful satire of the original has given way to some bloated production numbers and long stretches of cornball dialogue." Newsweek proclaimed the film "silly even for a musical comedy" and stated that "the songs are undistinguished." Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote that Bye Bye Birdie "sounds like a good movie idea, but the central character (played by Jesse Pearson) has been softened, the sit-com plotting is tedious, and the film aims for cornball zest rather than wit. Ann-Margret playing a brassy 16-year-old with a hyperactive rear end, takes over the picture; slick, enamelled, and appalling as she is, she's an undeniable presence." Most critics agreed with Ms. Kael's assessment of Ann-Margret but not younger audiences, particularly high school and college-aged males who found the Swedish sex kitten mesmerizing.
Subtlety might not be Bye Bye Birdie's strongest virtue but rock guitarist Marshall Crenshaw wrote in the book, Hollywood Rock, "If a 1962 issue of Mad magazine had been made into a movie, this would have been it. The Cold War, middle-American sensibilities, families, love, TV, and rock 'n roll are all held up as targets for goofy satire." Critic DJ Joseph in the TimeOut Film Guide also champions the film calling it "one of the more unsung '60s musicals...Released just months before Kennedy's assassination, this enjoyable timepiece is notable today for its peppy score, energetic dancing, and for having made a star of the extremely nubile Ann-Margret...her fresh, wholesome eroticism fairly bursts off the screen." Best of all, Bye Bye Birdie really captures the irresistible appeal of rock 'n roll, particularly with Conrad Birdie's first appearance in the film which Marshall Crenshaw calls "one of the all-time classic movie entrances: hauling ass on a motorcycle flanked by his two lieutenants, each with a candy-apple-red Fender Jazz Bass strapped to his back. The three of them screech to a halt as the two sidemen dismount and raise their Jazz Basses over their heads to form an Arc de Triomphe through which Conrad slowly walks. Wow!"
Among the standout musical numbers are Jesse Pearson's performances of "Honestly Sincere," complete with scores of squealing, swooning women, and "One Last Kiss"; the kaleidoscopic presentation of "The Telephone Hour," "Got a Lot of Livin' to Do," an energetic ensemble number by the younger cast members, and "Put On a Happy Face," performed by Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh, and probably the most famous of the songs. During the 1963 Oscar® race, the film only managed to garner two nominations - for Best Sound (it lost to How the West Was Won) and Best Scoring of Music-Adaptation (it lost to Irma La Douce.
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Michael Stewart (play), Irving Brecher
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Film Editing: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: Paul Groesse
Music: Charles Strouse
Cast: Janet Leigh (Rosie DeLeon), Dick Van Dyke (Albert F. Peterson), Ann-Margret (Kim McAfee), Maureen Stapleton (Mae Peterson), Bobby Rydell (Hugo Peabody), Jesse Pearson (Conrad Birdie).
by Jeff Stafford