1960s Film, Fashion in Film, musicals

Spotlight on Fashion + Color: BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963)

What’s the story, morning glory?

It doesn’t get much sillier or more fun than the musical film Bye Bye Birdie (1963), which was adapted from the 1960 Broadway musical. The film stars Ann-Margret as Kim MacAfee, a teenager from Sweet Apple, Ohio who wins the contest of a lifetime: a kiss from rock and roll superstar Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) – a parody of Elvis Presley – before he must report to duty in the Army.

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Kim, a dedicated member of the local Conrad Birdie fan club, lives with her parents Harry (the uproarious Paul Lynde) and Doris (Mary LaRoche) and younger brother Randolph (Bryan Russell). She’s also dating a sweet classmate named Hugo Peabody (real-life singer/teen heartthrob Bobby Rydell) who, of course, resents her enthusiasm at the idea of kissing Birdie.

The movie also features Dick Van Dyke – in his first film – as a young songwriter named Albert, Janet Leigh as Albert’s girlfriend and secretary, Rosie, and Maureen Stapleton as Albert’s comically overbearing mother.

Dick Van Dyke_Janet Leigh

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One of the aspects I adore the most about this movie is the colors used in the sets and the costuming – especially the kids’ clothing. Set only several years before youth fashion became more daring, Bye Bye Birdie reminds us of a time when American culture was quickly shifting.

The opening scene, I will argue, is iconic. Stylistically speaking, you just can’t avert your eyes. From the moment it begins, Ann-Margret runs around in a straight line (on an off-camera treadmill) accompanied by a striking blue background. It’s as if we, the audience, are stand-ins for the man she’s singing to, Conrad Birdie. She’s looking right into our souls and bearing her heart directly with us. She’s gorgeous. (If you hadn’t figured it out, I’ve totally got a girl crush on her.)

 


Bye Bye Birdie has become one of my favorite musicals because it’s pure fluff in a campy-’60s-teen-musical sort of way. It puts me in an amazing mood every time I watch it and my life is richer because of it in some weird way.

I was lucky enough to see it on a huge screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival in April. Honestly, it was my favorite screening at the event. As mentioned above, I have so much fun every time I watch it, but watching it next to two ladies who saw it as teenagers in 1963 warmed my heart. During a couple of the musical numbers, I heard them whisper excitedly to each other that they remembered remembering and loving those parts. And it’s no exaggeration when I say the screen was huge; it really was. It was an incredible experience.

After the dynamite intro song, the first full-length number we’re treated to is “The Telephone Hour”. After Kim tells her best friend, Ursula that she and Hugo Peabody are going steady, Ursula calls a friend who calls a friend who calls a friend and the news about Kim and Hugo spreads around within minutes.

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“I just got pinned by Hugo Peabody!”

And so it begins:

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Soon after Kim reveals her news, she celebrates her newfound womanhood. The colors continue to pop, although the hues are a lot softer. Take note of her dolls and figurines, too. I spotted Fred and Barney on top of her dresser! Even though she makes it well-known that she’s now a sophisticated woman, Kim still retains some childlike qualities.

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Just look at that bedroom (and Kim’s socks!)

When Conrad Birdie arrives in Sweet Apple, things get a lot more colorful. After making his gold-clad arrival by a motorcycle motorcade, he takes his golden electric guitar out and serenades all of the elated fans who came out to greet him. And boy, does it get wild. He quickly gets busy with pelvic thrusts and sensual noises. By the time his song “Honestly Sincere” is finished, every woman in the crowd has fainted. It’s so over-the-top and funny.

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Bye Bye Birdie_Jesse Pearson

And then there’s the A Lot of Livin’ to Do number – my personal favorite. The scene pits Kim against her boyfriend Hugo (Bobby Rydell), as she decides to pursue the one and only Conrad Birdie – an older, more mature man of the world. Hugo retaliates in the best way possible: a dance-off. You just can’t beat the choreography in this one.

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Also, Kim’s outfit is what dreams are made of. The ruffles, man. The ruffles!

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As underrated as the topic is, I hope you also find enjoyment in this extremely colorful film. The charismatic and vivacious performance given by Ann-Margret proved to Hollywood and audiences alike that she was here to stay.

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Movie Icon: Ann-Margret

Opening note: The 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie is unashamedly one of my favorite musicals, so I thought I’d come back to my blog by dedicating a post to its starlet Ann-Margret and the impression she made on audiences, especially in the 1960s. This also gives me a chance to work with two subjects that are very dear to me: film history and fashion. I’ll highlight her performance in the aforementioned film and look at her iconic style and screen presence.

Courtesy of doctormacro.com
Courtesy of doctormacro.com

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Ann-Margret, often known in history as Elvis’ #1 leading lady and ’60s sex symbol, was born Ann-Margret Olsson in Sweden on April 28, 1941. When she was young her family moved to the United States near Chicago after World War II and lived in the funeral parlor that her mother Anna worked in as a receptionist. As a girl Ann-Margret took up dancing and she was a natural, thriving at her lessons. By the time she was a teenager she had been appearing in various talent contests and by the age of sixteen she got to showcase her musical talent on the national television show “The Amateur Hour” in 1957.

In college, Ann-Margret teamed up with three men to form a jazz band called the Suttletones. She completed her freshman year but afterward moved to the West coast with her band members to seek out musical success. This meant performing in cabaret clubs in cities like Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.

Her big break came in 1960. It happened one night in the lounge of the Dunes Hotel in Vegas. Legendary comedian George Burns spotted her performing and was taken with her. He asked her to perform for his Christmas show at the Sahara Hotel for $100 a night. By the next year she dropped her last name, got a recording contract and began her career in show business, starting with the film Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and then the not-so-successful 1962 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair.

Here’s one of her screen tests from 1961 which won the executives over at 20th Century Fox and earned her a 7-year contract. Take note of her energetic jazzy style:

Ann-Margret, as mentioned earlier, was known onscreen as a sex symbol and was brushed off by some as just that. (In real life, she is actually more shy and laid-back than her usual screen persona.) It would truly be difficult for anyone to deny that she had a unique quality in her performance style: a mix of sweet, sultry, and sassy; and she was undeniably charismatic.

In Bye Bye Birdie (1963), she got to show off her singing and dancing talents along with an all-star cast, including Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, a young and adorable Bobby Rydell, and the hilarious Paul Lynde. The story may have been extremely silly and a bit far-fetched, but I think the role of over-the-top but endearing fangirl Kim McAfee was well-fit for her. She was wonderful. By now, just about everyone knows the opening to the film: Ann-Margret singing the title song, running on a treadmill-like contraption off screen, singing, almost shrilly, to the love of her life, rock star Conrad Birdie–heavily inspired by Elvis Presley. I was going to post the video but A) I’m including several videos and a handful of photos so it’d probably be an overload and B) I realize not everyone loves the song (many people find it to be very annoying; I am not among that crowd…I love it.) If you’re a fan of fluffy, silly musicals and you haven’t seen Bye Bye Birdie I really do recommend watching it. It’s two hours of pure fun.

"Bye Bye Birdie" (1963) (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
“Bye Bye Birdie” (1963)
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)

Another notable screen role was with Elvis in the 1964 musical Viva Las Vegas. They proved to be a great screen team with sizzling chemistry–which is said to have carried off-screen for a short time. Many believe Ann-Margret and Elvis were meant to be together in real life, but their affair never led to anything further. They remained dear friends until Elvis’ death in 1977.

She met Roger Smith, who was in the television show 77 Sunset Strip and they were married in 1967. He also became her manager and led her on to more dramatic and serious acting roles. They’ve been married for forty-seven years. Pretty cool.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Ann-Margret had a great sense of fashion in the 1960s and ’70s. A natural brunette, her hair was eventually dyed red when her career took off. Her sense of fashion seemed to especially be influenced by her onscreen personality: vivacious and playfully sensual.

*Click on individual photos to view full-sized*

In 1966 (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
1966 (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
In 1966, for "Murderer's Row". Working the bangs/pigtails look. (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
In 1966, for “Murderer’s Row”. Working the bangs/pigtails look.
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)
Courtesy of doctormacro.com
courtesy doctormacro.com
Courtesy of doctormacro.com
Courtesy of doctormacro.com

 

Her career has spanned for decades. From films to albums to live shows, Ann-Margret’s legacy lives on. There’s so much more that I could say about her and in the future I’d love to continue writing about her…and maybe one day show her films to crowds of people. For now, I hope I’ve done her justice. From what I’ve heard, she seems to be one of the kindest most down-to-earth actresses out there–not to mention completely adorable. If I could meet any movie star of my choice, she’d be at the top of my list. I keep thinking I’m going to write her a letter someday. I think I’ll do that soon. Here’s to you, Ann-Margret. Keep on dancin’ on.

 

With Elvis on set of "Viva Las Vegas" (1964) Courtesy of doctormacro.com
With Elvis on set of “Viva Las Vegas” (1964)
Courtesy of doctormacro.com
Courtsey of doctormacro.com
With Roger Smith (courtsey of doctormacro.com)

 

For "State Fair", 1962 (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
“State Fair”, 1962
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)
1960s  (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
1960s
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)