1000 Great Films
(c) 2009, William L. Sinclair

Bye Bye Birdie

George Sidney, 1963 (7*)
I recently saw this again in widescreen, first time since it bored me as a child. This time I understood it, and the ws format allow you to see the dancers rather than imagine them offscreen! It’s basically a campy satire of bad Elvis musicals, the story is even about every girl’s favorite heartthrob rock star being drafted! (when I was a kid, only girls liked Elvis, at least after his Sun Records rockabilly days). The music is really all over the map, a little rock, even more ‘boogie woogie’, a little jazz, some of that a little bluesy, and some typical Broadway-style songs. In that regard, it loses a star for not having a very cohesive score; after all, it’s a musical comedy.

The ‘not quite rock’ star is Conrad Birdie (Jessie Pearson, in the film’s weakest performance, too bad they didn’t get George Chakiris from W.S. Story) but before going into the army, he’s making a farewell appearance on Ed Sullivan, and giving a good-bye kiss to high schooler Ann-Margret, head of his fan club. Dick Van Dyke, who does some of his typical silly/stiff dancing (a la Mary Poppins), has written a song for Conrad to sing on tv that he hopes will save his sagging composing career, while his lady, Janet Leigh, in a rare musical dance performance, can’t pry Dick away from his mother, Maureen Stapleton, in a hilarious role that also includes singing. Meanwhile, AM’s boyfriend Bobby Rydell, added as the only pop music star of the group, is freaking with jealousy over Conrad getting to kiss his girl on national tv. Some of the songs are worth the fast forward, but the musical play introduced the pop hits “Kids (what’s the matter with kids today?)” and “Put On a Happy Face”, which is done on film with animation overlays. There also ground-breaking special effects in the opening number, “Telephone Song”, in which gossip gets around the whole town in a musical minute.

The real dazzler, however, is the eight-minute “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin to Do” (photo right), which begins with Conrad singing, then slows to a jazz-blues rhythm for Ann-Margret’s section, then goes uptempo into a jazzy boogie-woogie for Rydell’s comeback to her. It all ends with the whole chorus doing an exhuberant yet goofy modern jazz ‘cat dance’ - it looks like Jerome Robbins (West Side Story) meets early Bob Fosse, and was so good that I played it three times in a row. It's also a clever parody of the gym dance from West Side Story, even the lighting!

Her dancing and singing garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress; she kinda steals the movie, but there’s not much musical competition. This works if you don’t expect much, and get into the ‘campiness’ of the take-off on Elvis’ bad musical movies. Ironically, after this, Ann-Margret starred with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas!, and of course, stole that film as well. See my post on her here, at: Film Goddess

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