BR: Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

November 5, 2012 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B

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Film: Very Good/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: August, 2012

Genre: Musical / Comedy/ Satire

Synopsis: A teen is hand-picked to give Conrad Birdie his final fan kiss on The Ed Sullivan Show before the famed crooner is shipped off to the U.S. Army.

Special Features: Isolated stereo music track / Theatrical Trailer / Colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment

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Review:

George Sidney’s film version of the hit 1960 Broadway musical (itself a satire of the pop culture event when Elvis was drafted into the army in 1958) may have hit all the right buttons with adults and teens during its original release, but in addition to being a sharp, satirical artifact on fame and pop culture, it’s also surreal cinematic experience.

Sydney was no stranger to filming electric musicals – Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), and Pal Joey [M] (1957) are vibrant due to the organic combination of music, dancing, and dynamic performers – but he also had a gift for packing frames with explosive colour schemes. Bye Bye Birdie is no different, and the graceful camera movements capture all the peculiar nuances of Gower Champion’s oddball choreography, from duets, group clashes, and full-town assembly with gliding camera crane action.

The dialogue by Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!) is sometimes slides into the frank silliness, while Lee Adams and Charles Strouse’s music is just a hair below grating – managing to be bubbly, silly, and melodic even when the libretto consists of a few repeated words which aptly mimic the bubblegum songs labels used to hook and lure teens into snapping up 45 singles.

Irving Brecher’s screenplay reportedly draws most of the material from Act 1, compacting the story, reordering scenes, reconfiguring a few characters, and elongating the repositioned the Ed Sullivan Show ‘kiss’ finale with a lengthy lead-in: a cartoonish poke at the Cold War via a rendition of Swan Lake for the TV audience.

Perhaps due to her innate appeal (or a deliberate realization by Sidney and Columbia they has something big), Ann-Margret’s role was augmented with additional dialogue and songs. Veteran cast members Van Dyke and Lynde weren’t pleased with the refocus on the younger, sexier character, and Sidney also chose to shoot Margret singing the newly-written title song for a pair of numbers that open & close the film.

The amendments do make BBB a hybrid, refocusing the dilemma of a wannabe songwriter Albert Peterson (Van Dyke wanting to marry his assistant Rosie while under the fierce dominion of a manipulative mama) towards a hot high school hip-swinger, but there is a balance of material between the teens, the adults, and satirical figure Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson, also from the 1960 stage production).

In addition to a pivotal sequence on The Ed Sullivan Show where Birdie is set to give his ‘one last kiss’ to an American Sweetheart (Kim) before heading off to serve his country, Sidney also shows the kind of crotch-grinding movements Sullivan had to mask when Elvis was on his show. Indeed, when Birdie performs his opening number on the steps of the town hall, the camera just holds onto Pearson’s ridiculously exaggerated movements (which oddly recall Dick Shawn’s own physical nonsense in The Producers and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M]).

Champion’s choreography sometimes forces the dancers to move or be treated like rag dolls, as when the teens do herky-jerky movements at the town’s local after hours club, or when Peterson’s assistant / fiancée Rosie goes on a bender of moral impropriety and teases a room of Shriners before she’s tossed over a banister to a shocked Peterson. Leigh not only performs the dancing and tossing, but manages the final strenuous pre-toss lifting in one full take.

Sidney respected choreography and knew the value of seeing it fulfilled in fluid motions, and it’s a key reason all of the actors have memorable moments. Van Dyke shines in “Put on a Happy Face,” oft-used in TV commercials, but here still refreshing with an animated, on-screen smiley-face.

The director also makes use of split-frames when news of Kim’s appearance with Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show becomes gossip: as each character reacts in their frameset, Champion’s phallic, leg-friendly, groin-thumping choreography ripples from frame to frame; it’s the earliest indication that BBB will not be a toned down Hollywood version of a fairly bawdy stage musical. (One suspects the censors weren’t troubled since the teens don’t engage in directly physical sexual behaviour, and the films’ silly tone is constant.)

Lynde’s best moment is his choral ode to Ed Sullivan (“He’s my favourite human!”) with his family, and as Albert’s mama Mae, Maureen Stapleton, outfitted with persistently squeaky shoes, threatens to gas herself in an electric oven during the song “Kids.”

Bobby Rydell is strong as boy-next-door Hugo, and he manages to keep up with Margret’s insane energy level, belting out verses with ferocity. Her rendition of the title song is more of an audience assault, filmed as she aggressively walks on a conveyor towards the camera against a plain pastel background.

It’s the role that solidified Margret as the sixties’ most aggressive teen-ish sexpot, and she quickly entered pop culture the same year by appearing as “Ann-Margrock” on The Flintstones, after which she reteamed with Sidney in the giggly Viva Las Vegas with Elvis – one of the best, blazing Technicolor films of the sixties. Even if one isn’t a fan of the choreography or songs, BBB shows the careful visual organization that went into Sidney’s films.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a gorgeous transfer (fans will likely puzzle again as to why Sony chose not to release the title themselves) with a really punchy sound mix that gets very aggressive whenever the full jazz orchestra kicks into gear (especially during the lengthy after hours club sequence). Extras include a stereo isolated score track, theatrical trailer, and sharp liner notes by Julie Kirgo.

BBB was adapted again for a 1995 TV version, and director Sidney reteamed with Ann-Margret in both Viva Las Vegas (1964) and The Swinger (1966). BBB also marks the last teaming with Janet Leigh, whom Sidney directed as a refugee ballerina in The Red Danube (1949), the swashbuckling Scaramouche (1952), and in the Dean Martin comedy Who Was That Lady? (1960).

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© 2012 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Wiki Soundtrack AlbumSoundtrack Review — Composer Filmography

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Amazon Links & KQEK.com’s Media Store:

Amazon.ca —– Amazon.com —– Amazon.co.uk

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