Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963)
I walked into the video store looking for a movie. Bye Bye Birdie had a sexy picture of Ann-Margaret on the cover, and I love Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde. Sometimes my musical picks aren’t any more complicated than that. On with the shew!
Bye Bye Birdie starts with a very simple premise and then shows us how it affects a whole shitwad of people. Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) is a heartthrob rock star who gets drafted, which I hear totally happened to a dude in real life. This obviously screws things up for his horny fan club, but it also throws a wrench in the plans of Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), a heretofore failed songwriter who was about to sell his first ditty to Birdie.
Guess he’ll have to start sweeping chimneys.
Albert’s girlfriend Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh) hatches a scheme: have Birdie appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and sing Albert’s song “One Last Kiss” before planting a smooch on some lucky gal and heading off to the Army. When Ed Sullivan (played by himself!) agrees, this sets off a chain reaction disrupting the lives of Birdie, Albert, Rosie, the selected kissee Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), her boyfriend, her classmates, her dad, Albert’s mom, the local chapter of the Shriners, the goddamn Russian Ballet… it’s just a zany clusterfuck. And lest you try to piece together a logical conclusion for these colliding plotlines, please know that it’s mostly a pile of silliness that at one point involves a turtle on drugs.
Turns out “the ooze” was street slang for cocaine.
Honestly, it’s very hard to nail down the tone of this story. It’s so hyper-campy that you can’t tell if you’re watching legitimate cheesiness or a biting satire of American values. It seems to openly mock rock ‘n’ roll and the sexual revolution, but it also features Paul Lynde in the most winky Obviously Your Gay Dad role I’ve ever seen.
“Ed, I love you.” – Actual line.
Self-aware or not, it’s a dumb hoot.
I’ve gotta say, my biggest surprise was that Dick Van Dyke wasn’t up to his usual slapstick routines in this flick. In fact, I don’t recall Albert Peterson tripping over a single ottoman! Still, he’s a likable fella that’s easy to root for, and he does manage to get in a funny musical number or two, even if he never reaches the comedic heights of confronting a monkey with a gun.
This unarmed pigeon will have to do.
Janet Leigh plays Albert’s main squeeze Rosie DeLeon, and I hate to say that she’s often not as noticeable as her costars simply because her character arc is fairly dramatic for a comedy. While everybody else is hamming it up, her ambition to get her man a gig turns into a sadness spiral of wondering if their relationship will work out. It’s a good role that gives her plenty to do, but she didn’t stick out in my mind.
Wait, but this random screencap just cracked me up,
so I take back what I said.
Ann-Margaret’s Kim MacAfee is such a breathy hormone-addled sweetheart that I’m entirely convinced she was the inspiration for Lorraine Baines. It’s a fun performance and I’m going to move on before I start sounding like a creep.
I Googled her age. Definitely moving on. Good acting, you.
Do I need to tell you that Paul Lynde is a riot as Kim’s corny dad? Of course I don’t. It’s Paul Lynde.
He’s a square with a secret.
You’re probably wondering at this point: what about the titular Birdie? Truth be told, he doesn’t actually get a lot of screentime, but what he does with it is great. Birdie’s stage persona is all poppy swagger, while his true self is an arrogant schlubby prick, and both sides are equally fun.
Here he is spraying beer in Paul Lynde’s face.
Also worth noting are Maureen Stapleton as Albert’s overly attached mother Mae, Walter Rydell as Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo, and Bryan Russell as the MacAfee son who sits through his own father’s song about how much he hates kids.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
The opening number is, naturally, “Bye Bye Birdie.” The sequence is incredibly simple; it’s Ann-Margaret on a blue background, walking on a treadmill, with a little wind in her hair, lamenting to the camera about how much she’s going to miss Birdie. Her voice seems intentionally pitchy, but the way she’s singing directly into my eyes makes me feel like the rock star.
Our first stupidly over-the-top number is “The Telephone Hour,” a cheerfully mocking montage of gossipy teens in which they are literally on the phone 24/7 no matter what else they might be doing at the time.
Are YOUR teens showergabbing? What is it? Tune in tonight!
Later, Kim sings “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” a sweet sequence where she details the joys of her blossoming femininity while getting dressed. It would be a delightful song to play while trying on mascara for the first time, up until the parts where it’s horribly fucking sexist.
We’ll come back to that.
I may be wrong about this, but I do believe “We Love You Conrad” is the first song without any musical accompaniment I’ve encountered in my entire cinematic journey this year. A crowd of Birdie fans gets a chant going about how much they adore him, then their boyfriends pull up ranting about their hatred for the guy. It’s short, it’s silly, hurrah.
The Sixties were a time of many important protests.
Oh, man, and then we get out first Birdie performance, and it is hot steaming crap, but beautifully written hot steaming crap. It’s called “Honestly Sincere,” it’s got a blatty horn section, repetitive lyrics, Birdie bragging about his authenticity in a garish gold jumpsuit, and it eventually devolves into him just saying, “Aww, yeah!” a whole bunch. And, of course, his fans eat that shit up.
Get a mop.
Then we get to see Paul Lynde have a wet dream about meeting Ed Sullivan. When he might have a chance to be on television, he suddenly has a fantasy sequence in which his family sings “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” a love ballad to Ed that’s only made weirder by the lighting, the cult robes, and Lynde’s visible erection.
Okay, I lied about the erection, but admit it, you looked.
Are you a fan of monogamy? Then you’ll probably like “One Boy,” in which Kim sings about why she only needs one partner in her life even though she’s going to put her mouth on Birdie later. I guess it’s an okay tune, but it’s more impressive when Rosie joins in to say that she too only needs her man Albert.
Musical magic: they’re standing this close, but unaware of each other.
Hey, I’ve heard this one before! Probably in a commercial? It’s “Put On a Happy Face,” in which Albert tried to cheer Rosie up by… imagining a pink ghost version of her that’s smiling and then dancing with it? Okay. Nice song, anyway.
Even the ghost is confused.
Paul Lynde’s second song is also a doozy. This time he’s complaining about his kids in “Kids.” But it’s not just him lamenting his decision to breed with a woman instead of running away with Ed Sullivan on a sailboat; it’s also a chance to duet with Mae about her son Albert and how kids have always been and always will be a pain in the ass. It’s campy, it’s catchy, it’s a hit.
And they sing it directly to their shit children, how cool is that?
Birdie has a brief rehearsal of “One Last Kiss” in a gym, then Kim decides she’s ready to get out there and grab life by the, uh, boy parts. She heads to the local eatery to get her groove back and sings “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” while shaking the horny teens into a dancing frenzy that’s honestly pretty damn amazing.
Are YOUR teens Chinatowning? What is it? Tune in tonight!
Now, I’m gonna drop a SPOILER WARNING TIME ALERT here because this twist was honestly pretty unexpected, and I want you to meet me back here to discuss something one you’ve seen the film… dance scenes are sometimes symbolic of sex, right? If so, the instrumental “Shriner’s Ballet” is a musical gangbang. No, really. Rosie gets shitfaced and ends up at a Shriners meeting, where she seductively dances for the leering crowd, eventually dragging them underneath a table and emerging wearing all of their hats. But then she gets scared and tries to escape rather unsuccessfully—okay, seriously, was this a rape scene? I mean, I get being a little tipsy and dancing for strangers, but again, they all got under a table. There’s no room to dance under there. Especially not badly enough to make you come up screaming.
So, anyway, it’s a wonderful dance with a probably horrible subtext.
And finally, clever reprises aside, there’s “Rosie,” a nice song Albert writes for Rosie. While she picks on him for being a hacky songwriter. Aww.
Here’s a spoonful of sugar to help the “Shriner’s ballet” go down.
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I try to pick blatantly obvious filler lines over offensive ones, but since all the dopiest lyrics in Bye Bye Birdie are intentional parodies of pop music, I think I’m going to have to go for calling out the full-on sexism of “How Lovely to Be a Woman.” (Yeah, it’s being sung by a naive teen in the ’60s, but still, it’s awful.) While it starts off as a celebration of makeup and clothes, it takes a shitty downward turn when it tries to state a woman’s role…
“How lovely to be a woman and have one job to do,
To pick out a boy and train him, and then when you are through,
you’ve made him the man you want him to be…”
It’s very hard to tell which parts of Bye Bye Birdie are exceptionally smart or laughably stupid, but whichever they are, it’s mostly a really fun time. The story is wacky, the comedic performances are top-notch, the majority of the songs are intensely catchy, and the dancing is a gas. By no means do you need to rush right out and watch it, but if you wanna just have a good time, praise be to our Lord and Savior Ed Sullivan.
Road to Morocco (1942)