Bye Bye Birdie (Blu-ray Review)3 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret, Bobby Rydell.
According to Julie Kirgo’s typically ace liner notes for the new BBB Twilight Time limited-edition release, smitten director George Sidney spent $40,000 out of his own pocket to film the famous opening where Ann-Margret (against a seriously true-blue backdrop) more or less comes out of a dream — certainly mine in 1963 — to belt a title tune that was not in the Broadway original. You would have to say that Columbia Pictures (which later reimbursed him) got a bigger bang for the buck than 20th Century-Fox did pouring money down the same year’s Cleopatra sinkhole.
Having just turned a bonafide 16 in that innocent final summer before JFK’s assassination, there I was in my favorite seat in the since preserved and standing Loew’s Ohio, a movie palace second to none. And there she was, 21 years old playing 16 — but who but some pedantic dweeb would complain about it? In her breakthrough role following the dud-ish 1962 State Fair remake for which she could hardly be blamed, Ann-Margret’s pre-credits teasing here (which figured in a “Mad Men” episode a while back) could have easily inspired soon-to-be co-star Elvis into recording “Dirty Dirty Feeling” had he not already done so in his first post-army LP: Elvis Is Back. A-M’s seminal role cast her as a storybook teen in Central Ohio selected from thousands to receive a ceremonial last kiss from an Elvis-parody of a rock star (Jesse Pearson as Conrad Birdie) just before his own drafting. And, this smooch is set to take place on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (with Ed, by the way, having what looks to be a grand old time playing himself here).
In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris opined that “it can be argued that Sidney has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” — citing Kiss Me Kate (which I rather like) and Pal Joey (agreed) but not the troubled MGM production of Annie Get Your Gun (a big hit but pretty deadly). Birdie, though, may be the liveliest of Sidney’s stage-hit bunch — and maybe the best musical of his very up-and-down career next to Judy Garland’s The Harvey Girls. For this, we can credit a good score with at least one standard (“A Lot of Livin’ To Do”), spirited casting (including Birdie stage vet Dick Van Dyke in his big-screen debut) and the bang-bang combo of Onna White choreography with brassy Johnny Green scoring (the two later reunited for the Oscar-winning Oliver! — which, by the way, would make a great Twilight Time candidate). Some critics at the time faulted White in comparison to Gower Champion’s preceding stage dazzle, but this rendition of “Livin’” (with that unforgettably pink Ann-Margret crop-top) is a pretty great number by any standards. And though people still talk about Champion’s 1960 staging of “The Telephone Hour,” the movie’s version is a lot peppier (speaking just musically here) than what you hear on the original Broadway album.
Rounding out the cast are Janet Leigh in a Chita Rivera wig that I’ve gotten a little used to over the years, though I resisted a brunette Leigh at time. Also Maureen Stapleton (discomforting) as Van Dyke’s glorified bag-lady-of-a-mother; Paul Lynde (also imported from the play) as the standard ’60s father-is-an-idiot familiar to TV sitcoms; young Bryan Russell, who got to play Ann-Margret’s kid brother a year after co-starring with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Safe at Home! (a full dine-out-on-it career right there); and, as Ann-Margret’s testosterone-deficient squeeze, already fading teen star Bobby Rydell (who, unlike, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Paul Anka, could really sing and doesn’t deserved to be bunched in history with them).
The broadness of Birdie used to get on my nerves some, but the movie now seems like a mellow final remnant of life just before the non-calendar ’60s began with the advent of JFK’s assassination, the Beatles invasion and the release of Dr. Strangelove all within about a two-month period in 1963-64. Most Columbia color releases of the period were on the anemic side because the studio employed an especially muddy brand of Eastman Color. Birdie, though, was in Technicolor, which gives this generally solid Blu-ray some tools with which to work (beyond the crop-top). The year 1963 isn’t an easy one to gauge because even most of its best movies by and large didn’t measure up to … well, the previous year’s. But I’m always amused when I hear today’s studio PR flacks talk about the diversity of, say, some recent “summer crop.” Beyond Fellini’s 8½, Visconti’s The Leopard (albeit in its dubbed and truncated version) and Peter Brook’s very fine movie of Lord of the Flies, I had at my moviegoing disposal that summer Birdie, Hud, The Great Escape, The Nutty Professor, my beloved Donovan’s Reef and, yes, Cleopatra — all hitting right after May’s belated American opening of Dr. No. Even Billy Wilder’s subpar June Irma La Douce (albeit the biggest commercial hit Wilder ever enjoyed) cleans most of the 2012 releases I just slogged through this past summer.