**Spoilers contained within. 56 year old film. Read at your own risk**
Bye Bye Birdie has been made and remade dozens of times since the show’s initial Broadway run in the early 1960s. The first time was a musical in 1962, starting hot, young newcomer Ann-Margret alongside Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde. The film, which has a large root in teenage culture is an interesting one in terms of early 1960s culture.
The story revolves around greaser rock and roll star Conrad Birdie (newcomer Jesse Pearson in the film, the amazing Dick Gautier on stage) who’s pending enlistment in the army is looming large. (Sound familiar?). As one last publicity stunt, his manager Albert Peterson (the lovable Dick Van Dyke in both) devises a plan where Birdie will plant a kiss on one specially picked teenage girl (Ann-Margret on screen/Susan Watson on stage) on the Ed Sullivan show. It’s a symbol! Literal and metaphorical! The story continues as the tiny town of Sweet Apple Ohio is turned upside down as the rock and roll community settles down on the tiny town.
The casting off Ann-Margret is a complicated choice in the scope of the narrative, as Margret (especially through a contemporary lens) brings a notable star persona to the role of teenage Conrad Birdie fan Kim McAfee. Her career took off like a shot in 1961 after her casting in Pocketful of Miracles, and she secured three more roles in a remake of the classic musical State Fair, Birdie and the Elvis Presley film Viva Las Vegas.
Ann-Margret brought an unmistakable, fiery sexuality to every role she took on. The overt nature of the sexuality in her star persona is quite surprising, especially in the early part of the 1960s. Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s we see the sexual female characters being either vilified or victimized. Ann-Margret is a definite rarity because she had this unmistakable sexuality (which the studios were aware of as early as Bye Bye Birdie), and she was still allowed (at least in her early roles) to be the girl next-door. Just look at the below screen shot with Pat Boone (who was so chaste he had never even kissed a woman onscreen before appearing opposite Margret. Watching the below sequence in State Fair, there is very little to suggest that she didn’t de-flower (in the cinematic sense) America’s go-to, good-boy of the 1950s.
Now, her romantic lead in Birdie (the adorable Bobby Rydell) is probably one of the least interesting of her early leading men (Elvis, Pat Boone). It seems like Margret’s Kim would very quickly get bored with Rydell’s Hugo Peabody. The two characters are most able to shine in the number “A Lot of Living to Do”. It is your typical post-breakup dance off, and both characters are singing about what they’re going to do now that they’re single. Both performers shine, and Rydell shows off surprisingly adept dance moves. The number is very much an Ann-Margret dance number, seemingly a bit above the supposedly 16 year old Kim McAfee. It’s sultry, and sexual in places, and seems like it would be a stage routine for Margret’s character in any of her other films of the period. This (and the film’s intro and exit credits) are clear instances where Ann-Margret’s complicated star persona is allowed to show through in the fairly cookie cutter character of Kim McAfee.
However, the accepted happy ending (which happens) is for Kim and Hugo to end up together at the end of the film. They are young, happy, bubbly teenagers in love. It can be argued that while the narrative of the more than 50 year old film is the furthest thing from progressive, there are definite and interesting connotations injected into the film in something so simple as the casting of Ann-Margret in this role. Her career is worthy of continued examination in its impact on the culture of the supposedly chaste and innocent early 1960s.
All talk of gender and sexuality aside, the film is a well-made, catchy musical which is highly representative of this generation of the studio era. It couldn’t be more polished from the immaculate set design to the absolutely stunning cinematography by Joseph Biroc. If you’re at all a fan of musicals (Broadway or otherwise) make sure you check this one out. It’s definitely a gem.
Verdict: Fun and Catchy 🌟🌟🌟🌟