We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
8. Bye Bye Birdie, 1963
From the opening shot, as Ann-Margret (b. Ann-Margret Olsson) bops, bounces, and belts out the title song — on a treadmill, no less — this film belongs to the twenty-one-year-old Swedish-born beauty.
Bye Bye Birdie (originally a stage hit) is based on the national hysteria that hit when Elvis Presley was drafted into the army in 1957. But the film is also a commentary on the emerging youth culture that found its voice in rock and roll, whose deliciously wicked bad boys displaced the clean-cut romantic crooners who had dominated radio and film since the 1920s.
The plot is simplicity itself: Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), the hip-swiveling rock-and-roll idol, gets a draft notice, sowing despair among his swooning female fans. Meanwhile, Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh), a PR go-getter and the long-suffering girlfriend of frustrated songwriter Albert Lewin (Dick Van Dyke), schemes to have Birdie sing one of Albert’s songs on the Ed Sullivan Show, and then give a goodbye kiss to his ardent fan Kim MacAvee (Ann-Margret) of Sweetapple, Ohio.
Of course, as with all musicals, the plot is merely a device on which to hang a series of songs and dances.
With colors that are the visual equivalent of jelly beans, Bye Bye Birdie is distinguished by Oona White’s energetic choreography and a heart-breaking innocence that was smashed forever by the assassination of JFK, the turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the rise of the destructive American Left.
All movies are landscapes in which moral fables are enacted. The world of Bye Bye Birdie is a distant cultural echo. In this world, the American heartland is a small town where kids dance at the corner soda shop and where a girl becomes a woman by going steady, chastely, with the boy next door.
The film has a wonderful velocity, alternating clever bits of narrative business with high-powered production numbers that move the plot along with admirable efficiency. Notable is the opening “The Telephone Hour” dance and song montage, which has to be one of the exuberant displays of teenage romance ever committed to celluloid.
Most traditional Hollywood musicals revolve around a central romance. Think of Astaire and Rogers, through ten movies, performing a series of mating dances in which the outcome is never really in doubt. It’s the getting there that moves the audience to laughter and tears.
Bye Bye Birdie has no such romance. Ann-Margret is going steady with Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell), but their connection is zero, a narrative device that never rings true. Ann-Margret would gobble up this skinny kid and spit out his bones without a thought. A sad irony is that Rydell, a multiple Billboard hit maker, was one of those clean-cut balladeers who was consigned to the nostalgia circuit by Elvis, and the subsequent explosion of rock & roll.
When Ann-Margret co-starred with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas just one year later, their on-screen chemistry was off the charts… perhaps because they were having a passionate affair during production. The film is one of Elvis’s best.
A curious (though not deadly) problem with Bye Bye Birdie is the lack of — go figure — rock and roll. Conrad Birdie sings show tunes that are poorly disguised as rock and roll. It makes no sense, but every movie creates its own internal logic. The audience either goes with it or not.
This was a deeply unhappy shoot for Janet Leigh. She watched helplessly as director George Sidney built up Ann-Margret’s role — the opening sequence was not in the original script — and cut back on her own screen time. This was all the more painful for Leigh because Sidney had helped propel her career when she was a dewy-eyed Hollywood ingenue.
Perhaps Maureen Stapleton, who plays Albert’s overbearing mother, put her finger on the true power of the film at the production wrap party. Ann Margret, a painfully shy woman off-screen, was surrounded by a swarm of ardent male suitors. Stapleton rescued the overwhelmed young woman by calling out: “Come sit with me, Ann. I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t want to f**k you.”
Recently, Seraphic Secret sat down with budding film-lover granddaughter Maayan Ariel, 5, to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and then, after a quick snack, Bye Bye Birdie.
After our marathon film festival, I asked Maayan which movie she liked better.
“I don’t like the part in Seven Brothers where the boys steal the girls. It’s scary. Birdie is more fun. Let’s watch it again!”
For this veteran Hollywood screenwriter, there is no higher praise.