The history of film in the 20th century is made up of many smaller histories, and one of them concerns the musical satire, which has been running on a parallel track with the rest of the cinema, for about as far back as you’d care to go. Louis Feuillade’s 1907 comedy short, La Bous-Bous-Mie, spoofed the crazy dance phenomena of, yes, the first years of the 20th century. As it concerns the surreal 1963 musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie, the stage version of which took the Tony for Best Musical in 1961, you probably don’t need to go farther back than Frank Tashlin’s Swooner Crooner from 1944. Now considered a classic of Termite Terrace, and more than a little prescient, Swooner Crooner is an early satirical acknowledgement of that singularly 20th-century phenomenon, the professional warbler whose talents are such that he inspires screaming, hysterical crying, and all-around knee-buckling.
The concept of people (well, teenage girls) having Stendhal syndrome-like experiences when confronted by pop idols was, by the time Bye Bye Birdie hit cinemas, not really a new source of perplexed amusement for filmmakers: Long before YouTube and the Beliebers, Tashlin returned to that well several times, most notably in his brilliant 1956 musical/satire/revue, The Girl Can’t Help It; even Charlie Chaplin got in a few jabs when the title character of A King in New York was nearly trampled underfoot by such bedlam. Oddly enough, the historic appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show was still yet to come.
All of which is to say, pop music’s Svengali-like hold over American youth was in a position to be taken for granted by a film like Bye Bye Birdie. Channeling the zeitgeist, surprisingly, takes a backseat to more pressing matters, like: Will small-town sweetie Kim McAfee stay true to her beau or will she really kiss megastar recording artist Conrad Birdie on the Ed Sullivan telecast? Will struggling songwriter Albert F. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) open his eyes and ditch his foolish songwriting dreams for a more sensible career in chemistry? Will he wise up and marry his long-suffering secretary, Rosie (Janet Leigh)? Truly these are the Big Questions.
The director, MGM fixture George Sidney, has poor control over small stuff, like people talking in room tones, and if his lumbering, jazzy style doesn’t help us to remember him as an underappreciated master, he had a trick or two up his sleeve. He was crucial to developing Esther Williams into the iconic “bathing beauty,” and he’s at least partly responsible for the single greatest performances ever to appear in an otherwise mediocre film: Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun, and Bye Bye Birdie demonstrates that Sidney, lacking the nuance of a Charles Walters, or the tireless ingenuity of a Tashlin, is very good at one very specific thing, and that’s cranking the intensity of a performance, a shot, or a moment, all the way into the red zone, and somehow, despite the risk of overkill, finding some emotional resonance.
Bye Bye Birdie is as much a showcase for performers as it is for performances. The great Van Dyke, godfather to approximately one third of Bryan Cranston’s overall repertoire (especially as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle), made a striking film debut, and “Put on a Happy Face” remains one of his trademarks. Sidney was right to capitalize on the atomic power of newcomer Ann-Margret, but the cast is filled with other wonders. One-note comic mugging is rarely done well, but future Hollywood Squares center square Paul Lynde (as Harry MacAfee) and Jesse Pearson (as the idol of the title, Conrad Birdie) make an art of it. Standing tall among all the hoopla is Leigh, one of the most under-appreciated (thanks to Psycho) actors in the American cinema. If you’ve never seen Marion Crane cut loose and boogie, or play up winsome longing, you’re in for a treat—she nearly steals the film.
In a few short years, the British avant-garde filmmaker Peter Watkins would bloody his lance on the institution of pop celebrity with a far more sober, gloomier, and angrier take on the musical satire subgenre: Privilege was less Tashlin, more Altamont. But Bye Bye Birdie is content to be both the object of satire as well as the vehicle of its own critique. If it could be summed up in one word, that word would be “exuberant.” The film is packed with elaborate set pieces, and Sidney makes the most of his production resources (canted angles, animation, thousands of feet of track, every light in the Columbia arsenal) to knock the audience into submission. As a result, we have dazzling production numbers like “Put on a Happy Face,” “The Telephone Song,” and the showstopper, “A Lot of Living to Do”; that last one isn’t unlike mainlining the best parts of Charles Walters’s 1947 masterpiece, Good News, especially “Varsity Drag” and “Pass That Peace Pipe.”
If you’re up to speed on Mad Men, the first thing you’ll notice when you drop Twilight Times’ Bye Bye Birdie Blu-ray into your machine is—like, wow!—the Ann-Margret "bumper" that kicks off the movie looks just as good as it did when Matthew Weiner and company used it in their third-season episode, "Love Among the Ruins." The bumper (and it’s reprised at the end), which was paid for out of director George Sidney’s own pockets (he was reimbursed when the Ann-Margret rocket went into orbit), only hints at the fantastic, eye-popping 1080p transfer that’s yet to come. Maybe Joseph F. Biroc’s Panavision cinematography deserves most of the credit, but this is one of the best non-Criterion, Technicolor transfers I’ve seen in many moons, rich in depth and detail from front to back. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack might be a little too faithful to the original materials, given how it lays bare some of the patchwork ADR work that’s quite normal with a complex, big-budget musical like this, but which the audience shouldn’t notice unless they’re using a stethoscope.
Just a few crumbs for fans: an isolated score track and two vintage trailers (theatrical and teaser).
As expected, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray for Bye Bye Birdie sacrifices supplemental features for production quality, but when you’re trying to stuff your eyeballs back into your skull holes, you’ll know it was a smart compromise.