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.
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.
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.
And so it begins:
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.
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.
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.
Also, Kim’s outfit is what dreams are made of. The ruffles, man. The ruffles!
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.