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Monday, 26 April 2010

Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

This film is still one of the more memorable Hollywood musicals, despite its not originating at MGM. Based on the 1960 Broadway show, Dick Van Dyke repeats his award-winning role of a would-be composer, but the movie is not remembered for his star turn. The two factors that elevate this film into high esteem are the still catchy score and the breakout performance by 22-year old Ann-Margaret in her third movie role.

Building on the hoo-hah over Elvis' induction into the army, she plays 16-year old Kim, a smalltown high school student, who has been selected to give pop idol Conrad Birdie a farewell kiss on behalf of all his screaming fans before he becomes the property of Uncle Sam. The movie nicely captures the basic innocence of cornbelt America and the subversive influence of rock 'n roll. I believe the storyline has been somewhat sanitized between Broadway and Hollywood, which weakens the plot to some extent and the overall casting is something of a mixed bag. Van Dyke at the height of his TV popularity is OK as chemist-turned songwriter Albert, but he is lumbered by his interfering busybody mother played by Maureen Stapleton (a far from sympathetic turn) who objects to his long-standing relationship with his sweetheart Rosie, Janet Leigh in an offputting black wig. I believe her objections in the original play were based on ethnicity with the character being Puerto Rican, not that it is mentioned here, which may account for disguising Leigh's normally blonde good looks. She still, let it be said, is gorgeous and shows good comic timing; I don't know whether her singing was dubbed, but she makes a good fist of it, even if her dancing leaves something to be desired.

Apart from Stapleton's Jewish mama (if that's what it is) and Paul Lynde as Kim's equally annoying father, the weakest casting is Bobby Rydell, a teenaged popstar of the day, as Kim's jealous boyfriend, and surprisingly one Jesse Pearson as the eponymous Birdie, whose singing has virtually none of Elvis' charisma and whose character is something of a blank. However, the sexy and dynamic Ann-Margaret is a force to be savoured and as she gyrates in her brightly-coloured togs, one is blown away by her appeal and talent. It's amusing to remember that her very next movie role was opposite Elvis himself in "Viva Las Vegas".
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