“Oh, those midgets…”


It’s always a treat to discover a movie once it’s released on Blu-Ray; that said, it’s likewise a kick to re-discover one when it debuts in the format. I offer as Exhibit A the 3000-limited Edition B-D of the 1963 musical-comedy BYE, BYE BIRDIE, available on the Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment label.

Adapted from the smash Broadway Michael Stewart (book)/Charles Strouse/Lee Adams (music and lyrics) hit, the show “made” star Dick Van Dyke. The movie, with a truly funny script by veteran scribe Irving Brecher (Meet Me in St. Louis, the Dobie Gillis TV series) and in the more-than-capable hands of George Sidney (who made such memorable entries as Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls, Scaramouche, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, Pal Joey, Who Was That Lady?) fully grasps the filmic possibilities of the narrative, “opening up” the cinematic Panavisioned-framed door, via the virtuosity of d.p. Joseph Biroc (utilizing a myriad of movement, inventive angles and even animation). Whew, that was a lot to say!

With a first-rate cast, a songbook of show-stopping tunes and a can’t-miss plot, BIRDIE is a win/win proposition from the amazing fade-in of smoldering teen/woman Ann-Margret winking, pouting and gyrating herself into orgasmic frenzy (and all male viewers into jail-bait fantasy hell).

For young women, the moral compass of BYE BYE BIRDIE is a double-edged sword: A) rock ‘n’ roll will open up a new world of fun, freedom and endless good times; and B) you’ll probably become a prostitute.

Ann-Margret was an inspired choice to play the small-town cutie selected to kiss rock star Conrad Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show; it’s all a publicist’s dream bon voyage stunt, chronicling Birdie’s temporary swan song to stardom, thanks to his induction into the military. Yup, it’s the Elvis Presley predicament spearheading this dilemma – one that had real-life 45 RPM mavens reaching for .45 caliber replacements. It’s a storyline so satire-ready that if it hadn’t actually happened, to quote the wags, “ya couldn’t have made it up!”

More than Van Dyke, celluloid BYE, BYE BIRDIE propelled Ann-Margret into the entertainment stratosphere. Prior to this movie, she was a demure singer (albeit it a fetching one), who made her show biz debut on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. Shortly thereafter, she became the protégé of George Burns, appearing with him in Vegas, and turning up on pal Jack Benny’s classic TV series. A-M then played goody-two-shoes eye candy in Frank Capra’s 1961 remake of Lady for a Day, Pocketful of Miracles, as the proper (translation: boring) daughter of Bette Davis.

It took the sweaty palms of Sidney to ultimately unleash the carnal beast – a determined tigress who morphs from girl to woman in an early BIRDIE number “How Lucky to be a Woman,” (supposedly) dressing down tomboy style in her bedroom (it kinda reminded me of Nancy Kwan’s far more in-your-face rendition of “I Enjoy Being a Girl” in Flower Drum Song). Credulously, throughout the Sixties, I thought that this was what all females did to excite themselves: retreat to their boudoirs and sing about luring men to their doom whilst putting on/taking off underwear. Kwan, Ann-Margret and an array of Hammer actresses provided enough collateral damage to last me nearly a decade.

Don’t take my word for it, check out reports of director Sidney, who, as with Kim Novak (in Jeanne Eagels and Pal Joey) became perilously obsessed with Ann-Margret during the production. This might well-account for the movie’s (aforementioned) opening and closing bumpers, the unbridled sexuality released during A-M’s dry hump dancing exhibitions comprising a catalog of come-hither expressions and effortless seduction techniques that would make Marlene Dietrich and Gloria Grahame gasp in horror. Within two years, Ann-Margret would be starring in such sensational titles as Kitten with a Whip, Bus Riley’s Back in Town, The Swinger and The Cincinnati Kid (relegating blonde pretty poison costar Tuesday Weld to good-girl status, a near-impossible feat). Sidney, so enamored of his star, agreed to return to his alma mater, MGM, to cast her opposite the real Birdie, Elvis hisself, in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, generally considered the best of the 1960s Presley Metro pics, and packed with more on-screen teen movie chemistry than the Manhattan Project. “That Go-Go Guy and That Bye Bye Girl in the Fun Capital of the World!” heralded the one-sheets, and, presumably, the bed sheets, as it was here a rejected Sidney sealed his fate, when, early on, the actress famously began an affair with the rock icon, clearly a case of art imitating art.

Whether it’s the extraordinary choreography of Onna White or her natural endorphins exploding before our very eyes, Ann-Margret’s dancing is one of BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s many highlights; for the young star, it was a celebrity-defining moment. From that point on, she never gave up an op to display these moves (usually attired in her soon-to-become trademark pink hip-huggers and midriff-top), save the possible exception of Joseph Andrews.

The only way to briefly describe Ann-Margret’s apparent boundless musical energy is to suggest Bob Fosse’s version of The Chicken Dance. She twitches, flapping arms outstretched, head bouncing from one shoulder to another, legs spread as her ankles defy gravity, snapping to impossible 45-degree angles in a manner that would make Jerry Lewis envious. It’s what cinema’s all about.

Of course, we can’t deny Dick Van Dyke’s contributions either. With all the enthusiastic talent on view, his role is, under careful consideration, fairly thankless. Credit his comic capabilities to really give serious competition to his fellow cast members. There’s astounding confidence in his character, Albert Peterson – the offspring of a nightmarish domineering mother (a frightening but wacky Maureen Stapleton, in reality, the same age as her movie progeny) – a closet biochemist forced into writing rock ‘n’ roll ditties. For the actor-comedian, flush from success of his brilliant CBS series, and simultaneously filming Mary Poppins, ’63 can certainly be said to have been his year. When one thinks about it, Albert’s the pic’s most genuinely interesting character. He essentially invents a new amphetamine, which he has no problem testing on humans (well, okay, Russians). That he plans to team up with Ann-Margret’s father to market the product moves us further along this twisty road – the final stretch being the pimply-pimped teen girl’s kissing the sleazoid Birdie on national television, thereby completing the entire equation of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in one delirious package, or, what we conveniently term American Exceptionalism. In retrospect, sabotaging the Russians on a coast-to-coast broadcast in 1963 was probably not too well-thought out an idea. If Cuba and the Bay of Pigs almost caused a nuclear war, methinks doping the Soviet Union’s concert meister to the delight of 100 million enemy viewers wasn’t going to sit well with Nikita. Alas, my post-BYE, BYE BIRDIE take is to make it the unofficial fourth installment of the Columbia Pictures mid-Sixties doomsday series, placing it squarely alongside Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe and The Bedford Incident. But that’s just me.

Happily, no one ever listens to anything I have to say, so off we go to BYE, BYE BIRDIE‘s most intelligent denizen, Van Dyke’s girlfriend, personified by Janet Leigh (top-billed, since at the time of the picture’s release, she was the movie’s most viable box-office name). Interestingly enough, Leigh’s character, Rosie, underwent the most changes from Broadway to Hollywood. Chita Rivera played the part on The Great White Way when Rosie’s last name was Alvarez; for the movie, a white-bread version was thought more suitable for the masses, changing the surname to DeLeon (how soon the fickle industry forgot The Ricardos). Nevertheless Leigh was decked out in a black Rita Moreno wig, along with hoop earrings and enough eyeliner to gnash the teeth of Maria Felix. Telltale reminders of her actual heritage are further displayed on her desk in the form of various Frito Bandito-type figurines. Leigh’s singing and dancing talents, however, are not compromised and she’s really quite the trouper in “One Boy” and “Rosie.”

Aside from Dick Van Dyke, the only other key cast member of the Broadway production to make the Hollywood cut was Paul Lynde as Ann-Margret’s long-suffering pater. After nearly ten years in the business, Lynde at last struck paydirt with BYE, BYE BIRDIE; simply put, this movie (and more precisely, the song “Kids”) made his career. I vividly remember seeing this flick during the summer of 1963 at the Onteora Theatre in the Catskill resort of Fleischmann’s. Virtually every line Lynde said brought the house down. I can specifically recall the scene where Stapleton goes suicidal, sticking her head in Lynde’s family’s oven. Not to worry, offers Lynde, “…it’s electric.” The laughs on that line alone drowned out the next two minutes of the picture. It’s Lynde, by the way, who makes the midget comment that I used as the headline for this piece, a reference made regarding the little people’s degenerate lifestyle when, as a youth, his character ran away to join the circus.

The movie’s rockers – fictional and real – merit more than just a mention. Bobby Rydell, teen idol du jour, does manage to turn his one-dimensional part as Ann-Margret’s boyfriend into something a bit more substantial. His geeky wide-eyed delivery brings to mind a slightly cooler version of Rick Moranis in Little Shop of Horrors; in fact, the whole comedic rock ‘n’ roll aura makes me wonder if this show didn’t at least in part inspire (Alan) Menken and (Howard) Ashman.

This brings us to BYE BYE BIRDIE‘s most underrated participant, Jesse Pearson as its main protagonist. On Broadway, Birdie was portrayed by Dick Gautier, known to most TV fans as Hymie the robot on the Get Smart sitcom. Never having seen the original production, I can’t imagine Gautier being scummier than Pearson’s uncouth redneck SOB – every daughter’s parent’s worst fear. Pearson’s sneering expressions, his jubilant expertise at his seductive prowess, his hysterical spot-on parody of a dangerous rock ‘n’ roller warbling (“HURT ME!”) raise the proceedings to a magnificent snarky level. If anything, it’s unfair to his target Presley, who, by all accounts, was a courteous, decent dude. Pearson’s Birdie is more along the lines of a teenaged Lonesome Rhodes, that monstrous Andy Griffith bastard from A Face in the Crowd. Furthermore, Pearson’s Birdie powers are such that his effect on a small town is identical to the opening of Village of the Damned: instant mass female unconsciousness (whether this actually caused all the womenfolk to subsequently become pregnant is never explored).

The mini-bits are great too. Trudi Ames as Ursula was seemingly the go-to girl whenever a teen femme working for Columbia or Screen Gems (Columbia’s TV appendage) needed a best friend. Mary La Roche, as Ann-Margret’s mom and Lynde’s wife, went down a similar road in Gidget. Great character actor Frank Albertson is a scream as the town mayor with an insatiable wife (Beverly Yates), who even after passing out, still pumps her spread-legs up in the air (“Birdie, what ya doing?,” uttered while cradling his pulsating spouse, never fails to bowl me over). Leigh and Albertson had previously crossed paths in Psycho (he was the grungy millionaire whose 40K she absconds with). Robert Paige is an A.D. for the Sullivan show (“Hey, it’s the guy from Son of Dracula!” I shouted out loud in the theater before being told to shut up). Then there’s Ed Sullivan – whose personality defies any description, and heir to one of my favorite celebrity credits (So-and-so as…HIMSELF).

There are tons of reasons for purchasing this Blu-Ray, a few of which I will ecstatically praise. Primarily, one can never shout loud enough about how important a great print of a movie is to the overall presentation. BYE BYE BIRDIE was shot in unstable Eastmancolor. For years, one either had to suffer through blotchy-hued copies with peach-colored facial tones, or, out-and-out faded red versions; of course, on TV, these prints were pan-and-scanned, which automatically made them unwatchable. This new transfer was struck from the recent restoration, which premiered in conjunction with the 2011 Oscars (and was hosted by Ann-Margret and Rydell). Hey, folks, they’re actually accurate fleshtones, neon-enamaled reds, greens and blues and more. Joe Biroc is a terrific cameraman, and, as indicated earlier, his collaboration with director Sidney was a rewarding one (encompassing some nice second unit NYC, Washington, D.C. location work). The 2.35:1 compositions are fantastic; most notable is the framing and lighting during the “One Boy” duet between Ann-Margret and Leigh (Ann-Margret’s amorous bedroom-eyed desire to have “…one boy to joke with, have Coke with…” is an unintentional “connection” to Leigh’s aforementioned songwriting pill-pushing boyfriend). The imagery on the Blu-Ray is so sharp that one can actually make out the guest roster on Sullivan’s upcoming programs (nice to know that Nixon was somewhere between Kim Novak and Jerry Lewis). We can also enjoy the shameless Columbia product placement, as evidenced by the teens’ accumulation of various Hanna-Barbera toys and apparel (ditto the record store stock in the “Telephone Hour” number, as all the LPs are Colgems).

The audio is even better. Unless one saw BYE BYE BIRDIE first-run (Radio City Music Hall for us New Yorkers), they were denied the pleasure of hearing the likes of “Put on a Happy Face,” “I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do,” and the rest in full-dimensional stereo. More than thirty years ago, Pioneer Special Editions released a letterboxed laserdisc with the original stereo elements – but, in a notorious example of QC FU, they switched the tracks to wrong sides of the screen. Since then, DVDs have corrected that problem, but, until this evocation, I have never had so much fun hearing the precise separations and surround effects that the movie had to offer. I can enthusiastically state that BYE BYE BIRDIE could be one of the best classic movie stereo B-Ds I’ve ever heard. Moreover, like all Twilight Time titles, BIRDIE has an IST (Isolated Sound Track) option (including the musical numbers).

A testament to Sidney’s Ann-Margret jones is the inclusion of a special BYE BYE BIRDIE teaser, which is, nothing more than a blatant love letter to the talents of the rising and writhing starlet; jeez, you’d never know that anyone else was in the picture. The official theatrical trailer is also thrown in the mix (noteworthy, as it uses an alternate take to “Kids”), but it’s nowhere near as much fun – nor embarrassing.

Talk about embarrassing, a friend reminded me that a sequel, Bring Back Birdie, debuted in 1981, basically utilizing the Callaway Went Thataway plot; it died a quick death. Then a TV revival movie was filmed in 1995 costarring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams, clearly an anti-Christ artistic undertaking of flipping the BIRDIE; if nothing else, it provides an additional impetus for rushing out and buying the Twilight Time disc.

BYE BYE BIRDIE: Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Limited 3000-only pressing.

Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.

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