Bye Bye Birdie

BYE BYE BIRDIE first hooted hello as a Broadway hit in 1960, a satire of the hoopla from a few years before when, at the height of his fan craze, Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. Veteran director George Sidney steered the audience-pleasing 1963 movie adaptation, with Irving Brecher (Meet Me In St.Louis) writing the screenplay. It was a hit, #11 that year, grossing $17,100,000, goosing several careers and surging one into stardom. Vintage period piece from the JFK days is still lots of fun.

Swaggering rock idol ‘Conrad Birdie’ is called to play soldier for Uncle Sam. Songwriter ‘Albert Peterson’ (Dick Van Dyke) and his long-suffering girlfriend ‘Rosie DeLeon’ (Janet Leigh) conceive a promotion gimmick for Birdie to have his most fervent female fan kiss him goodbye on national TV (The Ed Sullivan Show). The lucky girl-next-door chosen is ‘Kim McAfee’ (Ann-Margret) from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Her high-school sweetheart ‘Hugo Peabody’ (Bobby Rydell) isn’t nuts about swivel-hipped Birdie playing tonsil hockey with Kim, and her dad (Paul Lynde) is beside himself over pretty much everything.

Ample laughs throughout, and the pep-infused songs include “Put On A Happy Face” “Lot of Livin'” and the title tune, belted out by Ann-Margret. Hardly a slouch, Leigh gets a hot number, sashaying tabletop, twirling some fez’s in “The Shriner’s Ballet” The scoring was Oscar-nominated, as was the work from the Sound team. Rydell, 20 in his movie debut, shows a bright acting knack: we Ancient Ones recall him as one of the era’s chart-topping quartet of pop-Bobby’s, splitting hits with Darin, Vinton and Vee. Maureen Stapleton camps it up as Van Dyke’s suffocating mama (she was only six months older than him), and Jesse Pearson plays Birdie to the hilt. Lynde nails the best gags.

At 21, Ann-Margret steals the show. She’d been the only one to emerge with any credit from the previous year’s tepid remake of State Fair: her effervescence and energy, sweetness mixed with sexual volatility off the Richter scale. As ‘Life Magazine’ put it, her “torrid dancing almost replaces the central heating in the theater.” Her showcase in this movie and following up with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas cinched stardom. *

With Mary LaRoche, Robert Paige, Bryan Russell, Ed Sullivan, Frank Albertson, Trudi Ames, Milton Frome, John Daly, Jerry Orbach, Elaine Joyce, Linda Kaye Henning, Melody Patterson and Melinda Marx (Groucho’s daughter). Another of the un-named screaming teens is Kim Darby, 15, in her first part, six years before revealing she had True Grit. 112 minutes.

 * Jesse Pearson is fine here, but his acting career never hit stride: he did have success narrating LPs, notably with Rod McKuen. Pearson, Van Dyke and Lynde had been in the stage production. At 37, this was Van Dyke’s film debut: his hit TV series was in its second year. Dick, Paul and Janet Leigh expressed sour grapes over script changes from director Sidney that reduced their characters in favor of boosting Ann-Margret’s, but he knew gold when it glittered.

Sidney on Ann-Margret: “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.” Among those who noticed was JFK:  she was invited to sing “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home” at a private birthday party for the President, taking the lead from Marilyn Monroe’s earlier “Happy Birthday” rendition. Nixon got Perry Como.

Your grateful correspondent can attest to Ann-Margret’s electricity, having sat up front at one of her live shows in the 70s. 

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