Some Notes on George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie

You can follow 30 years of the evolution of youth culture and its relation to show business just by following musicals from years that end in ‘3’.

1933: Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street
1943: The Gang’s All Here
1953: The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break
1963: Bye Bye Birdie

As the years go on, the youth get younger: early 20s in the 30s and 40s, college in the 50s, high school in the 60s. At the same time, the performance dream gets more remote: the 30s and 40s stars are performers, albeit not particularly successful ones (yet), with the war in 1943 making everyone seem more adult than they are (and the musical itself breaking down that facade, Busby Berkeley’s masterpiece ultimately reducing everyone to colored light and singing heads). In the 50s they’re just starting out, in the 60s the stars seem to occupy another planet (Birdie is an object of worship/jealousy rather than an aspirational figure).

The next decades take that estrangement even further, as not only are the characters in the musicals no longer performers, even aspirationally, with their soundtracks (usually) removed from the filmic space to the non-diegetic ether, but the movies themselves are no longer even set in the present. Rather than engage with the youth culture of today, their directors revisit their own youth (either lived or experienced on-screen).

1973: American Graffitti
1983: The Outsiders
1993: Dazed and Confused
2003: Down with Love
2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

(This is partly a result of the arbitrary year-end choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pump Up the Volume, Clueless and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench would be examples of attempts to document contemporary youth culture within the musical form, albeit still with the music removed from the performances on-screen. See also studio-era films that celebrated the filmmakers’ youths, like Meet Me in St. Louis or The Strawberry Blonde). Still I think the general trend toward nostalgia is worth noting.)

Anyway, Bye Bye Birdie seems to me to be an inflection point, a last gasp of the lower-budget studio musical (big budget musicals were increasingly dominant, before they too would crash, dragging the whole system with them by the end of the decade) before The Beatles arrived the next year and blew everything to hell. As an attempt for studios to grapple with the rock and roll phenomenon it’s a lesser version of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, and as a film it could have used more Tashlin-style surrealism. As it is, the director, George Sidney, was always at his best a more conventional Tashlin anyway, a steady hand with adaptations like Show Boat or Kiss Me Kate with a tendency to vulgar excess when let loose with Esther Williams in films like Jupiter’s Darling. His patience and skill in utilizing the full-length of the Cinemascope frame with long, lengthy shots in the big group dance sequences goes to show that if they stick around long enough, even the weirdest directors become classicists.

As for the stars, well, Ann-Margaret. To go back to where I started, take a look at the evolution of the female heroes of those films: Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye and Debbie Reynolds are all of a type: cute, girls next door, pretty but unthreatening. Ann-Margaret though sings a whole song about how awesome it is to be young and hot. The film isn’t about her becoming a star (though it is certainly a star-making performance), but rather about her learning to take control of her own life. As the film begins she’s obsessed with Elvis-clone Conrad Birdie (whose sexual charisma is such that he inspires every woman in town to either faint or have a seizure in the film’s first big group number) and in love with local boy Hugo (gladly submitting to future wife-hood through the pin-placement (pointedly not pin-exchange) ceremony). Through various plot machinations, she learns to take control of her own desires, break Birdie’s spell and reunite with Hugo on her own terms. Though she’s still aspiring to wifeliness, at least its because that’s what she’s decided she wants. Viewed another way, the film can be seen as a tragedy in that this poor girl can’t really imagine any other role for herself: either sexual object or homemaker.

Janet Leigh’s story somewhat parallel’s Ann-Margaret’s, in that ultimately she has to use her sexuality to inspire some jealousy in Dick Van Dyke’s songwriter/scientist. That she does so at a Shriner’s convention, and has to work really hard to get those men to notice her is kind of hilarious. 36 year old Janet Leigh still looks fantastic, and once the men finally see that they become a tidal wave. Leigh seems shocked by what she’s unleashed in them, as though it was mere social mores that kept them from pawing after her, but once pushed so far they could no longer be restrained. Thus are the dangers of rampant female sexuality: better keep it locked down in wifehood!

And then there’s the fact that Dick Van Dyke really wants to be a chemist, and his big career move in conjunction with Ann-Margaret’s father, Paul Lynde(!) is to start selling amphetamines to animals (they dope a turtle) and humans (they dope a ballet conductor). I have no idea what to do with that.

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