Musical Monday: Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Bye Bye Birdie (1963) – Musical #168

Studio:
Columbia

Director:
George Sidney

Starring:
Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, Maureen Stapleton, Bobby Rydell, Jesse Pearson, Mary LaRoche, Michael Evans, Robert Paige, Frank Albertson, Trudi Ames, Bryan Russell, Kim Darby (uncredited), Melody Patterson (uncredited), Melinda Marx (uncredited)
Themselves: John Daley, Ed Sullivan

Plot:
Rockstar Conrad Birdie (Pearson) is being drafted. Before he goes into the Army, Rosie DeLeon (Leigh) creates an idea for Birdie to kiss a fan from Ohio on the Ed Sullivan Show as his big send-off. Rosie’s idea is that Birdie will sing a song written by her boyfriend, Albert (Van Dyke), it will become a hit and he will make enough money so his mother (Stapleton) will be set and he can marry Rosie. Birdie’s visit to Ohio turns the town upside down and creates problems between the young girl Kim (Ann-Margret), her new steady boyfriend Hugo (Rydell) and her family (Lynde, LaRoche, Russell).

Trivia:
– Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde were in the original stage version in 1960.
– The song “Bye Bye Birdie” performed by Ann-Margret at the beginning and end of the film was written for the screen and was not from the original Broadway musical.
– Groucho Marx’s daughter, Melinda Marx, has a small role as a teenager
– Jesse Pearson’s first role for TV or film.
– Based-off the Broadway musical of the same name which ran
– Ann-Margret’s third film, which also made her a star.
– Janet Leigh’s black hair as a wig, according to her autobiography.

Highlights:
-The dance sequences
– Paul Lynde
– Costumes

Notable Songs:
-“A Lot of Living to Do” performed by Jesse Pearson, Ann-Margret, Bobby Rydell
-“The Telephone Song” performed by the chorus of teenagers
-Hymn for a Sunday Evening (aka “The Ed Sullivan Song”) performed by Ann-Margret, Paul Lynde, Mary LaRoche and Bryan Russell
-“(Everything Is) Rosie/(Everything Is) Hugo” performed by Janet Leigh, Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell

Ann-Margret and Bobby Rydell dancing to “A Lot of Livin’ To Do”

My review:
Similar to last week’s “Brigadoon” review, this week’s Musical Monday is another case of a film revisit that changed my mind.

I first saw “Bye Bye Birdie” when I was in high school, and I didn’t dislike it but wasn’t in love with it. I rewatched it again for the first time in probably 10 years with my mom this past week, and we had a great time. The costumes by Pat Barto and Marjorie Wahl had me drooling, the Technicolor was bright and gorgeous, and this movie is hilarious! “Bye Bye Birdie” is a really funny film and we were laughing throughout!

Ann-Margret in my favorite costume from “Bye Bye Birdie”

Paul Lynde is (of course) hilarious, and the sped-up Russian ballet scene also had me laughing.

This is one of those rare musicals that you could remove the music, and it would be able to stand on its own as a comedy (our friend Terence Towles Canote recently remarked the same about “Singin’ in the Rain”).

Outside of the comedy, the music and dance numbers are entertaining too. “A Lot of Living to Do” is a personal favorite because I love the dancing in that scene, as well as Ann-Margret’s two-piece pink outfit. One number that mixes humor and music well is when Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) first arrives and starts singing “Honestly Sincere,” and all the women (including the mayor’s wife) are fainting all over the square. (A highlight for Frank Albertson fans: He plays the mayor of the town).

Of course, a standout number is “The Telephone Song,” with tons of teenagers calling and dancing about Kim and Hugo (Ann-Margret, Bobby Rydell) now going steady. This happens at the beginning of the film, but I really think it’s the highlight. It’s colorful and presented in a really cool way.

Outside of this movie being plain fun, it’s important for the careers of some actors. “Bye Bye Birdie” made Ann-Margret a star. Ann-Margret had been in two films prior to this but this is the one that made her famous.

This was also Dick Van Dyke’s first film role, though he had been on television since 1961 with the Dick Van Dyke Show. The film gave Dick Van Dyke a chance to recreate the role he originated in the Broadway play on-screen, though the role was changed a bit. Apparently, the film focuses more on Ann-Margret’s character Kim, and the Broadway musical focuses more on Albert and Rosie (Van Dyke and Leigh). This didn’t make Leigh or Van Dyke happy but as Van Dyke says in his autobiography, “That’s show business.”

Jesse Pearson’s characterization of Birdie is so over the top and hilarious, that he’s great in the role. It’s unfortunate that his Hollywood career didn’t take off.

Jessie Pearson performing “Honestly Sincere”

And as I said above, Paul Lynde was the best part of the movie. He makes me laugh in everything he was in, and he has some great lines in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

I’m also a fan of Bobby Rydell in the role of Hugo, Ann-Margret’s boyfriend. He has a friendly presence, and I love his smooth voice.

Of the group, Janet Leigh was the Hollywood veteran. While people today may not consider Leigh a musical star (and think of her in Psycho), Leigh’s MGM days included a few musicals like “Words and Music” (1948), Two Tickets to Broadway (1951) and My Sister Eileen (1955). Leigh gets to sing and dance some in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and I feel she does a good job. The role of Rosie was originated on Broadway by Chita Rivera, so Leigh donned a black wig for the film. The wig is really the only thing I didn’t care for in the movie. According to a June 20, 1962, newspaper clipping, Leigh’s friends wouldn’t readily recognize her in the wig:

“I went to a party recently with the wig on, and some friends walked by, nodded at me and kept on going,” she said. “Then, after they got passed me. They stopped, turned around and finally recognized who it was. They really weren’t quite sure the first time.”

I’m glad I gave this candy-colored musical comedy another visit because it really lifted my spirits and made me laugh. Even if you aren’t a fan of musicals, watch this one for the comedy.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

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