'BYE BYE BIRDIE'--AN APPRECIATION (SORT OF)
Last weekend I went to the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and saw (among a couple of other films) 'Bye Bye Birdie', starring Ann-Margrock--er Margret--Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde etc. The film, shot in 1962/63, holds up only reasonably well with Margrock--er Margret--being the best reason to revisit it. Part of the problem is that it's poised uncertainly between the disappearing oldish Hollywood and the emerging newish Hollywood--even though 'A Hard Day's Night' hadn't yet appeared it's clear that Hollywood knew that something new was coming on 'the scene' and that musicals needed to be more inventive, filled with a different energy than they'd had in the already forgotten 1950s. The old-school MGM musical was dead, courtesy of the dissolution of the Arthur Freed unit at the end of the decade and MGM's failure to ever get its much touted biopic of Irving Berlin, 'Say It With Music', off the ground. Musicals were still alive, though, thanks to the powerhouse best-picture winning 'West Side Story' and Broadway was now the primary source for film musicals. 'Bye Bye Birdie' was a topical hit (the story involves the drafting of a teen rock and roll idol--Elvis of course) and so what better material to make use of? It sings, it dances, it has groovy teenagers doing sexy stuff and a sort of current topic.
The film that emerged seems to me to falter due to its direction. George Sidney, who helmed among other MGM musicals "Show Boat", "Anchors Away" and"Annie Get Your Gun", was very much a product of the old school system. Indeed, his father Louis K. Sidney was an old-time MGM executive and George basically grew up on the MGM lot, directing his first Our Gang comedies at the age of 21 in 1936. Sidney wound up specializing in musicals and clearly had a special talent for dealing with special talent. Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, Betty Hutton, Ava Gardner--all of them trouble--seemed to do well with Sidney. But as a musical maker, I can't make any great claims for Sidney as a visual stylist (no Minelli) or an actors/dancers director (no Stanley Donen). He was capable, delivered on time and budget and was much respected within the industry, earning multiple Directors Guild of America nominations and a couple of Oscar noms as well. So who am I to say? Below is a four minute clip of Sidney being interviewed about his work with Elvis Presley in 'Viva Las Vegas'. I dig his discussion of his own motorcycle and car collection and how he used it to intimidate Presley.
Alas, Sidney's professionalism doesn't help 'Bye Bye Birdie'. Where the movie should be slick and hip , it instead gets weighted down with unrealized dramatic scenes, ill-conceived story construction, unfunny comedy relief and a general sense of not knowing quite what it wants to be. Paul Lynde saves every scene he's in. Dick Van Dyke is far less self-assured than he is normally. Janet Leigh seems to be in another movie and no wonder--it turns out that Sidney, infatuated with the young emerging Ann-Margrock--titled the story heavily to favor her and played down Leigh's role (and close ups) in favor of the sex kitten talent-bomb that he found himself graced with. In fact, Sidney paid out of his own pocket to reshoot the opening and closing 'bracket' scenes for the credits, giving Ann-M. a solo version of the 'Bye Bye Birdie' theme song (written for the movie). It's pretty frigging great. Dig:
The two other reasons for revisiting the film are the 'Telephone Song' number and "Gotta Lot Of Living To Do". Below I've posted both.
The shows most famous and enduring song, "Put On A Happy Face", is a big cinematic disappointment. The concept is that Janet Leigh is somehow cloned--the 'real' version of her stands by watching skeptically as the hologram version of her comes to life, loving Dick Van Dyke's positive messaging and goofy dancing. I was going to say that the number didn't merit posting but what was I thinking? Failed souflees are often more intriguing than the successful ones so...
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Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 1:53 PM