With its’ thoroughly transparent nod to Elvis Presley – tongue-firmly-in-cheek – and its deliciously obtuse take on the generation gap (kids are letting the world go to hell), George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie (1963) ought to have been a loving and evocative snapshot of the buttoned-down communal angst in post-war America, cleverly reconstituted as just another light and frothy musical entertainment. The Broadway equivalent had debuted in 1960 – just as America was beginning to show its first signs of abandoning the Eisenhower-induced arch conservatism ensconced for nearly a decade (Eisenhower’s presidency set to expire a year later). But trading up for the more laissez fair, ‘let it all hang out, man’ counterculture would come with its own set of unexpected hiccups.
That Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway was a resounding success is no great surprise. After all, Americans love to laugh at themselves – primarily through the expression of their collective arts, but particularly when the cultural climate is as stringent and unforgiving. And Michael Stewart’s book, along with Lee Adams and Charles Strouse’s score afforded them plenty of opportunities to do just that. Bye Bye Birdie is utterly quaint in its commentary on the older generation’s itching anxieties about their teenage offspring, as yet uninformed by the culture shock about to envelope the nation (drugs, flower power, free love, the British invasion, Jimmy Hendrix, et al.). As such, the stage version of Bye Bye Birdie played with an air of refreshing clarity and hilarity about the three-ring media circus that had exploited the relatively unimportant military draft of Elvis Presley, transforming it into a nationwide cause célèbre in 1957.
It really was rather silly - what with Presley serving eighteen months in Germany, and Colonel Parker’s rabid PR campaign keeping his cash cow alive - Elvis giving ‘one last kiss’ to select members of the Women’s Army Corps. Hey, he was doing it for his country! The chaotic groundswell of outpouring on Presley’s behalf, from his mostly female fans – letter-writing pleas to the federal government for his immediate and safe return, lamenting the loss of their ‘king’ in soda shops around the country, and staging ‘crying parties’ when all else failed, proved just the inspiration for choreographer, Gower Champion; the instigator of this send-up and fluff piece to our collective idiocy. Champion, who had begun his career as one half of an MGM dance duo (Marge, his wife, the other half – literally and figuratively), was hired by producer, Edward Padula to stage a new musical: ‘Let’s Go Steady’ – a fairly antiseptic little nothing about two teenagers falling in love (stop me if you’ve heard this one before).
Champion was disinterested in this project and Padula fired his two writers almost immediately, embarking on a complete revamp. But he kept the song-writing team of Strouse and Adams, who had already written seven songs for the libretto. Champion then suggested Michael Stewart to do the book. Only Stewart’s first draft ‘Love and Kisses’ – about a young couple contemplating divorce – was arguably not much better. After some initial consternation and a lot of brainstorming, Stewart and Adams – at Champion’s behest – solidified the kernel of an idea that would eventually become Bye Bye Birdie; the story of a hip-swiveling rock and roll idol about to depart for military service, leaving silly teenage girls in the small Ohio town of Sweet Apple desolate with fits of near-epileptic grief. To mask their thinly veiled homage to Elvis, Stewart and Adams gave the story’s fictional counterpart the name, Conrad Birdie after suddenly realizing their original choice, ‘Conway Twitty’ was already being used by an up and comer in the country music scene, and, whose agents threatened to sue Padula if Twitty’s name appeared anywhere in his show.
That was 1960. But 1963 wrought other changes to the American music scene; the so-called British invasion set into motion by The Beatles. Viewed in the shadow of this chart-topping/trend-altering zeitgeist, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie must have played as something of a fond farewell to that beguiled adulation of an iconic pop idol whom most parents sincerely feared would sway their impressionable youth into more derelict behaviors; making out in the backseat of the family car with their best – or any – girl; trading Coca-Colas for paper-bagged libations; even ‘experimenting’ with (wait for it) cigarettes!!! In some ways, I would have the naiveté from those halcyon times again; swung – as our pop culture has today – toward gutless/mind-numbing gutter depravity: our current crop of celebrity wannabes behaving very badly indeed, thumbing their noses at our public adoration of them.
But in many ways, the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie is an unfair and decidedly malicious parody of Elvis: Jesse Pearson’s pelvic-thrusting cock of the walk, half-sneering with perpetual contempt for these Ohio hicks oozing out the corner of his mouth as he belts out ‘Honestly, Sincere’ – a most dishonest and frankly, insincere, faint-inducing serenade for his female fans. Unlike Elvis, who maintained an intuitive respect for the audience, Conrad Birdie definitely is not afraid to exercise a sense of entitlement – callously spraying beer all over the shag in Harry McAfee’s foyer, taking liberties with his otherwise receptive daughter, and demanding that his tricked out motorcycle be parked – brake lights flashing, no less – in the middle of the family’s living room. No, Conrad Birdie is something of a garish nightmare and assault on the older generation’s sense of social etiquette and decorum. He’s also very much the prima donna.
There is, of course, that ‘other’ well-known phenomenon to be mentioned; one more humorously deified in the Strouse/Adams score: Ed Sullivan, already something of an institution and host of the much-beloved Sunday night variety hour. Sullivan was equally as feared by the stars clamoring to get on his program. A nod from Ed back then meant you were on your way; a dismissive wave of his hand marking an aspiring talent with the proverbial ‘kiss of death’. In Bye Bye Birdie, Sullivan is elevated to untouchable status, the Strouse/Adams’ ‘Hymn for a Sunday Evening’ a sumptuous choral exaltation of his name made by the entire McAfee family. If Conrad Birdie is regarded as a god by the impressionable youth who collectively make up his fan base, then Ed Sullivan is the real McCoy in the eyes of their parents; the star/maker harmonized with religious fervor.
In 1963, Bye Bye Birdie was the 13th highest grossing movie, earning a domestic intake of $13,129,412, and this on the relatively modest budget of $6 million (more than half spent on the production numbers alone). Yet, in hindsight, it also seems to foreshadow the beginning of the end; both for the Hollywood that was, the musical as a genre in general (largely dedicated to sugary-light confections unaffected by the realities of life) and, America’s ‘unsophisticated’ world view, soon to have its sublime ignorance split wide open by the bludgeoning brutalities in Vietnam. Yet, Bye Bye Birdie begins to falter almost from its opener: director George Sidney’s tenure at MGM somehow working against him as he delves into garishly overblown production numbers; virtually every one, an exercise in the grotesque deflation of the stage’s more simple joys.
Take ‘The Telephone Hour’ as a prime example. Done live, the song was a little parody about that teenage perversion of Alexander Graham Bell’s communication devise; tying up the lines with endless hours of gossip – mostly dedicated to Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell) and Kim McAfee (Ann-Margaret). “What’s the story, morning glory? What’s the word, humming bird?” What’s the tale, nightingale?” On stage, this was an infectious spoof, Hugo and Kim’s closest friends agog and twittering over lanky Hugo’s bequest to Kim of his high school pin (a fifties’ symbolic gesture, signifying exclusivity in a relationship).
However, unable to resist the urge to ‘open things up’, George Sidney expands this premise to include virtually every student attending Sweet Apple High; vast minions of mindless girls and boys in frenzied pace, performing some truly awful kicks and struts choreographed by Onna White (who ought to have known better); screeching either their displeasure or approval at ‘goin’ steady’ from absurdly located handsets; inside a co-ed locker room shower (in the 1950’s?!?), lining the library study hall, or from the front seat of a 1920’s supped up jalopy, driven by a privileged teenage Lothario surrounded by his haram-esque bevy of sycophantic blondes.
The number doesn’t build in its energy so much as it remains an ineffectual montage, culminating in super-imposed images of these rabid teens still clutching their handsets, now set against a bilious green background of cartoon telephone poles, the brood eventually dissolving into animated splotches of paint that leach down the screen.
Most, if not all, of the numbers in Bye Bye Birdie – the movie - are given this ‘in your face’ approach; over-produced, yet embarrassingly undernourished. ‘Put on A Happy Face’ – arguably, the big hit of the play – used to be an endearing duet between song writer, Albert F. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) and Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh). In the movie it becomes a pas deux between Albert and Rosie’s translucently fuchsia alter-ego, the real Rosie pouting in a corner of the McAfee’s backyard, while a disembodied cartoon head – drawn in mid-air by Albert’s finger – presides over their on-again/off-again love match. In place of legitimate dance steps we get a lot of jumping around as though this were an adolescent game of tag, capped off by some rank slapstick provided by Van Dyke who, while up to the challenge, never entirely gets the funny with his sight gags.
And then, there is ‘Kids’ – what ought to have been a riotous commentary on the generation gap, blissfully emoted on the stage by Harry McAfee, but given over to a hammy full-treatment by the rather bitterly comedic, Paul Lynde, who many will more fondly remember as occupying the coveted ‘center square’ on TV’s long-running game show; Hollywood Squares. Herein, Lynde gets over-the-top support from Maureen Stapleton as the overbearing gargoyle in fur coat (in the middle of summer, no less) and squeaky-shoes, better known as Mama Mae Peterson; Albert’s maternal impediment in getting Rosie to the altar.
It is perhaps important to remember that Bye Bye Birdie – the movie – is not Bye Bye Birdie - the stage sensation, as screenwriter Irving Brecher was forced to build the movie around its rising star, Ann-Margret; a showcase for her formidable talents, thus necessitating the addition of a title song to immediately introduce her to the public. This, however, was done at a considerable expense, sacrificing other songs and secondary characters. The play’s more risqué machinations and a few of its most ebullient – if slightly suggestive - songs, including ‘Baby Talk to Me’, ‘A Healthy Normal American Boy, and the ‘How to Kill A Man’ ballet never made it into the final cut; the latter replaced by a ridiculous symphonic mishmash of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, performed under the influence of one of Albert’s phantasmagoric chemist’s potions, rather prophetically nicknamed ‘speed’.
For reasons only know to Brecher, Broadway’s Latina, Rosie Alavarez stayed on, but became the movie’s less obvious, Rosie DeLeon (played by a decidedly white Janet Leigh). But her solo, ‘Spanish Rose’ – intended as a mild spoof of Hispanic culture (belted with gusto on the stage by Chita Rivera) – was dropped entirely from the movie. Brecher also moved Birdie’s Ed Sullivan debut to the end of the movie, making it the penultimate moment of realization for Kim and Hugo, rather than the climax of its first act. The character of Albert F. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) was also rewritten to be (of all things) a chemist – and the almost accidental composer of ‘One Last Kiss’ – a song destined to become Conrad Birdie’s newest megahit…maybe.
Hence, the play’s central plot point - Birdie owing Albert a ‘favor’ for making him rich - is even less convincing and more contrived in the movie. One obvious plus: the screen version does end on a more positive note, restoring Hugo and Kim’s relationship, with Mama Peterson finally giving her consent for Albert and Rosie to marry. Regrettably, the entire cast seems to be ‘dis-honestly in-sincere’ about their parts; the joy of the piece evaporating into just another super-duper sideshow where no one rises above their ‘freak’ status.
Our story begins with Ann-Margaret’s Kim McAfee addressing the camera – and thus, the audience – as she pouts and warbles the movie’s lovelorn anthem, ‘Bye Bye Birdie’; expressly written for the movie – set against a rather uninspired royal blue background. From this rather inauspicious start, we momentarily digress to the upstairs Manhattan songwriting offices of Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) who desperately needs Conrad Birdie to sing one of his lyrics and make it a hit. Albert’s accountant, Mr. Nebbitt (the enchanted Cyril Delevanti) gives him some solid advice: surrender this failed attempt a showbiz and concentrate on pursuing a career in biochemistry.
Too bad, Mama Mae Peterson (Maureen Stapleton) wants a famous songwriter in the family…because this mama rules the roost. In fact, Albert’s woven so tightly around Mae’s fat little fingers he just can’t see how her influence is harming his relationship with his secretary, Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh). Mama does everything to discourage their courtship, keeping Albert on a very tight leash, much to Rosie’s dismay.
Rosie finagles an angle with Ed Sullivan (playing himself) to have Conrad Birdie kiss one girl on his live television program before he goes off to join the army; a symbolic gesture of farewell to his many adoring female fans. Ed likes this idea and even differs to Rosie’s influence to have Birdie sing one of Albert’s songs as part of the big build-up. How can it miss? In hindsight, all too easily as rank chaos descends on Kim McAfee – the intended chosen one by Rosie to be kissed by Conrad. Kim has just been ‘pinned’ by Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell). Feeling very adult, Kim extols the virtues of ‘being a woman’ before referring to her parents, Harry (Paul Lynde) and Doris (Mary LaRoche), by their first names, suggesting ‘it’s the new way’; but still not above trading her fine dresses for careworn blue jeans and a baseball cap cocked off to the side. Learning Conrad Birdie is coming to Sweet Water sends Kim into a sparkling tizzy. What to do? What will she wear?
The town, however, is divided by this revelation; Sam, the mayor (Frank Albertson) and a few other influential citizens threatening to take their patronage away from Harry’s fertilizer business unless plans for this staged spectacle are canceled. Nevertheless, Birdie’s arrival is greeted with baited anticipation; the whole town turning out in the public square (actually the expansive set built on the back lot at Universal’s Revue Studios and instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen more than one Back to the Future movie).
Birdie anesthetizes his audience into twitching, fainting spells with ‘Honestly Sincere’ before retiring to the McAfee’s home to await further preparations for the Ed Sullivan Show. Sam encourages Harry to call everything off until Harry – goaded by promises made to him by Rosie and Albert – lies to Sam, explaining he can use the show as a platform to make a speech; possibly even his pitch to run for governor.
Mama Mae arrives in town, squeaky shoes and all, interrupting Rosie and Albert’s already complicated romance. Rosie elects to teach Albert a lesson by momentarily taking up with local English school teacher, Claude Paisley (Michael Evans). This, of course, incurs Albert’s bitter disapproval. But Albert has not lost all sense of chivalry, coming to Rosie’s aid after she attempts an even more daring farce by crashing a Shriner’s Convention and doing a striptease, inciting a riot. Meanwhile, pushed to the brink of his own sexual frustrations, Hugo decides to take his self-pity to Maude’s Madcap Café, where everyone congregates to sip Cokes and the male of the species scope the scene for hot chicks.
Conrad arrives on cue, spying Kim at one end of the room and serenading everyone with ‘A Lot of Livin’ to Do’ – a suggestive declaration sparking Kim to add her own womanly longings to the lyric, then Hugo, manning-up in his outline for a future that may or may not include Kim at his side. The café breaks into a frenetic ‘chicken-styled’ dance; Conrad and Kim’s syncopated rhythms causing Hugo to depart the scene prematurely - and rather immaturely - without recognizing that Kim only has eyes for him. The next day during rehearsals for the broadcast inside the school’s gymnasium, an impatient Conrad suddenly plants an impromptu kiss on Kim who faints dead away. The kiss means absolutely nothing to Conrad. But both it and Kim’s reaction very much wound Hugo’s pride. Albert is informed after rehearsals that due to an oversight in scheduling the Russian Ballet’s time slot on the Ed Sullivan Show as eaten away their spot reserved for Conrad’s kiss.
Albert makes an ineffectual attempt to get the ballet’s manager to trim their performance, then elects to spike the conductor, Maestro Borov’s (Gregory Morton) cocktail with his own chemical concoction – nicknamed ‘speed’; a sort of synthetic performance-enhancing pill Albert designed to expedite the agricultural reproduction of egg-laying hens. Borov approaches the podium and, as the pill kicks in, conducts the symphony at a breakneck pace; the ballet having no choice but to make valiant attempts to keep up. The live broadcast is now running decidedly short. So Ed puts Conrad and Kim on.
However, as Conrad begins to serenade Kim with Albert’s song ‘One Last Kiss’ an indignant Hugo arrives on stage, knocking the pop icon out cold, Birdie landing on his celebrated gold lamé with a single solid punch, and thus, ruining Albert’s chances of getting his music heard nationwide. Proven himself every inch a real man who Kim can admire, Hugo and Kim reconcile. Taken up with a man of her own for a change – none other than the café’s owner, Mr. Maude (Milton Frome) - Mama Peterson gives her blessings for Albert to marry Rosie. Having outgrown her adolescent infatuation of Conrad Birdie…well, almost…Kim bids farewell to her teen heartthrob and her puppy love with a reprise of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’.
Bye Bye Birdie isn’t a great movie musical. But it might have at least been a competent one if only a little more adherence to the original – and decidedly a lot more rehearsal of its cast – had been paramount to the creative team working behind the scenes on this Broadway to Hollywood hybrid. George Sidney’s impressive roster of MGM musicals (Anchors Aweigh, Holiday in Mexico, The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, to name but a handful) ought to have made him a shoe in on this project. Yet, he brings nothing fresh or inviting to the piece. This is one tepid retread. Joseph F. Biroc’s cinematography remains a truly pedestrian affair, further marred by Paul Groesse’s languid, studio-bound production design.
Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Ann-Margaret and Bobby Rydell are all in very fine voice. But listening to them sing these songs is like enjoying a great cast album that, in visual terms, truly lets one down. It’s the abject tedium of these gargantuan, but stagnant, production numbers that prove the lethal combination, along with Sidney’s inability to camera stage anything with visual flair, hampered even further by the incompetence of Onna White’s loose-limbed flailing, masquerading as choreography. And worse, the movie has made an incalculable mistake in its casting of Jesse Pearson – pompous and leering – relishing Conrad Birdie’s magic spell over these hapless females whose hearts palpitate in unison as response to his every gyration. The movie version of Bye Bye Birdie might have celebrated the fifties. Instead, it founders as something of a grand artistic misfire; neither ‘honest’ nor ‘sincere’ to Broadway’s homage of that fabulous decade.
Any review of this disc should begin by extolling the virtues of Bye Bye Birdie in 1080p. Sony Home Entertainment, via Twilight Time, has given us yet another sumptuous hi-def presentation in original 2.35:1 with their usual attention. Your old DVD is officially a Frisbee. Bye Bye Birdie looks amazing on Blu-ray; rich and vibrant in its Technicolor hues and fantastically detailed with a consistent smattering of film grain. Better still, all of the staggering amounts of dirt and scratches that plagued the DVD have been eradicated herein. Best of all; the egregious grain that once accompanied optical split screen effects, mostly during The Telephone Hour have been brought into line with the rest of the visual textures; DNR compression done right for a change! What a welcomed rarity. The Blu-ray’s visuals are smooth and creamy, the palette of fifties pastels complimented by very accurate flesh tones. Wow, doesn’t begin to describe the way things look. You are going to love – LOVE – this transfer.
Get ready, because Bye Bye Birdie’s DTS-HD 5.1 lossless audio delivers an added kick to these vintage Strouse/Adams songs, with alluring orchestrations done by another MGM alumni, Johnny Green. As with most Twilight Time releases, we also get an isolated score to compliment, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended for fans of this movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)