Wednesday, March 20, 2013

BYE, BYE, BIRDIE 1963

Sure, Bye Bye Birdie is a bright, lively, tuneful, only intermittently funny, satire of teenage pop culture in the '60s. But as far as I’m concerned, Bye Bye Birdie has two huge assets (I know what you’re thinking…and you should be ashamed of yourself!) which make it one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Those assets: the unstoppable star-quality of Ann-Margret, and the snappy musical staging and choreography by Onna White. 
Ann-Margret as Kim McAfee
Bobby Rydell as Hugo Peabody
Dick Van Dyke & Janet Leigh / Albert Peterson & Rose DeLeon
Mary LaRoche & Paul Lynde / Doris and Harry McAfee
Jesse Pearson as Conrad Birdie
Adapted from the 1960 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie pokes gentle fun at America’s burgeoning youth culture by spoofing the real-life pandemonium surrounding hip-swiveling pop star Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1958. Standing in for Elvis in the musical is the fictitious rocker Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson): a beer-swilling, ill-mannered, libidinous hillbilly who wreaks havoc on prototypical Midwestern small town Sweet Apple, Ohio, when he arrives to bestow a symbolic coast-to-coast televised goodbye kiss on an adoring female fan before being shipped overseas.
Cue the generation-gap complications and small-town vs. show-biz culture clash hijinks. None of which, I might add, should anyone having even the most cursory familiarity with '60s-era sitcoms should have trouble staying one step ahead of. Bye Bye Birdie, when it’s either singing or dancing, is the most engaging and sprightliest of musicals, full of fun and as eager to please as a puppy. In its quieter moments—scratch that, there are no quieter moments—in its non-musical moments, Bye Bye Birdie's amusing, if not particularly funny, screenplay feels a tad labored and more than a little creaky.
Rooted in a kind of broad, over-emphatic acting style of most sixties sitcoms (a style that struck me as riotous when I was nine, a good deal less so now) and over-reliant on moldy, near-vaudevillian comedic shtick of the sort that considers silly names (Hugo Peabody) and wacky plot contrivances (that deadly speed-up pill subplot) the height of comedic brilliance; Bye Bye Birdie stays afloat chiefly through its simple desire to entertain and because of the buoyant charm of its talented and energetic cast.
The Sweet Apple chapter of The Conrad Birdie Fan Club 
(fronted by Ann-Margret and Trudi Ames) pledge undying allegiance.

The film version of Bye Bye Birdie was significantly (and, as per the voiced consensus of Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Paul Lynde, and Maureen Stapleton, controversially) retooled from the stage production. Primarily a middle-aged romance (Albert & Rosie) against a satirically rendered teen-culture backdrop, the Broadway production was nominated for eight Tonys, winning four: Best Musical, Best Director, Best Choreography, and Best Actor (Van Dyke). By the time it reached the screen, what was essentially a Dick Van Dyke showcase was fashioned by director George Sidney into a $6 million valentine to vivacious protégé Ann-Margret.
This was Ann-Margret's third film (she made her debut in Pocketful of Miracles, and assumed the Vivian Blaine role in the 1962 remake of State Fair), but thanks to Sidney's loving attention and her heretofore peripheral character being thrust to the film's center, Bye Bye Birdie is the movie most people credit with making her a star.

What began life as an anti-rock & roll musical fashioned to reflect the middle-age mentality of adult Broadway audiences reeling from rock & roll upstarts like Elvis stealing the Sinatra crown, arrived on the screen as a youth-centric glorification of teenybopper culture that effectively allocated once-prominent adult plotlines and relationships to the sidelines to make way for the fresh vitality of its young cast members (aka Ann-Margret). With Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde the only carry-overs from the Broadway show, numerous songs jettisoned and plotlines abandoned or reworked; Bye Bye Birdie became the ironic embodiment of all that the Broadway play had spoofed. Bye Bye Birdie, hello to the first multimillion-dollar teenage musical!
Paul Lynde's comedic number, "Kids" was a showstopper that brought down the house on Broadway. When speaking of his much-abbreviated screen role, Lynde was fond of saying of the film, "They should have retitled it, 'Hello, Ann-Margret'!" 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
One look at Bye Bye Birdie and it’s easy to see why it has become one of the most imitated and referenced movie musicals since The Wizard of Oz. Each number in the bouncy Charles Strouse / Lee Adams score is given almost cartoonishly vibrant life in increasingly clever and dazzlingly cinematic ways. So many large-scale musicals fall into the trap of thinking that mere size and expense is enough to make a film fun and energetic; Bye Bye Birdie is that rare example of a musical whose scale perfectly fits its subject, and whose accumulated talents (dancers, singers, cinematography, color, choreography, staging, and minor special effects) all remain on the same creative page. Every number throughout is infused with a lighthearted wit and silliness that remains true to the escapist tone of the entire enterprise. The effective musical film is almost a lost art, but Bye Bye Birdie is a glowing example of the genre done right. Small wonder that musicals like Grease and Hairspray, and entertainments as diverse as music videos, TV’s Mad Men, and Disney’s High School Musical franchise, have all owed a debt to Bye Bye Birdie.
The combined talents of director George Sidney (Pal Joey, Annie Get Your Gun) and choreographer Onna White (The Music Man, Oliver!) result in a movie whose clever, eye-popping musical sequences are a great deal of silly fun and still have the power to delight and captivate after all these years.
"The Telephone Hour (Going Steady)" predates the look of MTV music videos; "Put on a Happy Face" makes imaginative use of cute, if primitive special effects; and "A Lot of Livin' to Do" is a powerhouse production number of unparalleled energy and witty choreography.

Oscar and Tony Award-winner Maureen Stapleton makes her musical debut in
Bye Bye Birdie as  Mae Peterson, Albert's dominating mother.

PERFORMANCES
In her 1982 book 5001 Nights at the Movies, fave film critic Pauline Kael wrote the following about Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie...and I couldn't have said it any better: “Ann-Margret, playing a brassy 16-year-old with a hyperactive rear end, takes over the picture; slick, enameled, and appalling as she is, she’s an undeniable presence.” 
OK, I might have left out “appalling.”
Real-life teen idol Bobby Rydell makes his film debut as Ann-Margret's love interest
Beyond that, Kael pretty much nails Ann-Margret’s appeal for me in this film and why any director would have been a fool not to have kept the camera trained on her every second. She's a dynamo! Members of the film’s cast may have felt slighted, and fans of the stage show may cry foul, but in my book, if Bye Bye Birdie is remembered at all today, it’s due in large part to Ann-Margret. The material is just too ordinary as it is. She is camp, a little over the top, and perhaps artificial as hell, but she is blessed with that indefinable something that makes it near-impossible for you to watch anyone else when she's on the screen. She’s a star.
In the Broadway show, Bye Bye Birdie paid tribute to iconic, stone-faced TV host Ed Sullivan  in the song, "Hymn for a Sunday Evening." Director George Sidney snagged the genuine article for the film (that's him on the left, for all you youngsters). Appearing with Sullivan here are Janet Leigh and Robert Paige.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
There aren't many lines across which the life experiences of gays and straights of my generation intersect, but one thing that many males (and a good many females) my age have in common—regardless of sexual orientation—is the memory of their first time seeing Ann-Margret singing the film’s title song. Whether we saw it on the big screen in full color or in black and white on our TV sets, like the Moon Landing, few of us ever forgot or recovered from that image. Wow!
At the start of the film, Ann-Margret's performance of "Bye Bye Birdie" is girlish and plaintive. When she reprises the song at the end of the film, her performance has become assured, teasing, and not a little sexually aggressive.

The fifties had Marilyn Monroe standing over that subway grate, but we children of the sixties had Ann-Margret on that treadmill. A sequence so obviously tame, perhaps it's a testament to our nation's level of sexual repression at the time that Ann-Margret, in those few short minutes at the start and end of the film, made men, women, children, straights, gays, lesbians, and adolescents of all stripes fall in love/lust with her.
The first time I saw Bye Bye Birdie was in black & white on late-night TV. I remember being just thunderstruck (I'm positive my jaw dropped open). I'd never seen anything like her! Advancing and retreating against that endless void, wind machine a-blowing...Ann-Margret was nothing less than a celluloid Venus emergent.
The dancer assuming the puppy hands pose with Bobby Rydell here is Lorene Yarnell, 
who found fame in the '70s as half of the popular mime duo, Shields and Yarnell.
The blond staring agog at Jesse Pearson is '70s TV personality and Match Game stalwart, Elaine Joyce. Pearson himself would go on to write and direct porn films in the '70s until his untimely passing in 1979 at the age of 49. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As I've stated, Bye Bye Birdie is one of my favorite movie musicals, but primarily due to its songs, musical sequences, and the rapturous presence of Ann-Margret. I have no complaint with anyone in the cast except to say that they're sorely ill-served by the weak script and they're all goners when it comes to having to share any scenes with Miss You-Know-Who. Predictably, I'm finding that the older I get the more certain aspects of the film seem to strike me as charmingly camp or comically dated. Some of these things are fun: the middle-class suburban milieu, the fashions, all those rotary phones. Other things less so: the all-white cast, that Shriner's Ballet when it starts to get out of hand (the 2009 Broadway revival removed the number entirely claiming, in the words of its star Gina Gershon, "It seemed a little too gang rape-y").
Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye
When I saw Bye Bye Birdie on the big screen for the first time in the 80s, the film's biggest laugh came from the intentional misunderstanding of this sweet, totally innocent lyric. 

So whether enjoyed as camp, escapism, or an idealized journey to a past that never existed, Bye Bye Birdie is, at 50-years, still the most fun-filled musical around. And best of all, it has Ann-Margret!
This great caricature is the work of Pete Emslie
Copyright © Ken Anderson

22 comments:

  1. Great review, Ken. I certainly understand why other performers might resent the A-M build-up, but then again, she was no Pamela Tiffin -- she's had a 50+ year career, no mean feat for a sex-kitten! The only sad part is that poor Janet Leigh, who was probably only in her mid-thirties, ends up seeming matronly by comparison -- and sour.

    It's sort of a shame the movie got so silly in that Beach Party/It's a Mad, Mad, Mad....World sort of way: you really do lose a lot of the original satire, but it is fun. Personally, I couldn't stand Maureen Stapleton, who was simply too young for the role.

    There are very few post-Sixties musical numbers that can equal "A lot'a livin' to do" imo -- and a super arrangement superior to the Broadway version.

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    1. Hi Peter
      Personally, had I won a Tony Award as Best Actor for a role and then was lucky enough to have been cast in the film version, I would have been pissed as hell if I found what could have been as tar-making role leading role turned into a co-starring bit because the 46-year-old director had a "thing" for a 21-year-old ball of fire. And as you said, it must have been doubly hard for Janet Leigh who was really quite the stunner, but came off looking so much older (and very subdued).
      I really love the musical numbers though, and indeed when I watch the film these days, I find myself fast-forwarding past a lot of the scenes with Stapleton and Van Dyke.
      I also wish they had kept Dick Gautier from the stage show as Birdie. Gautier had a sexual charisma that Pearson lacks for me.
      Finally, I agree with you about "Got a lot of Livin' to do." If they shot that today not only wouldn't the camera have the good sense to stay in one place to capture the movement, but you'd likely need dance and voice doubles for everybody. Show biz talent today...I'm showing my age. Thanks, Peter.
      (By the way, did you ever see A-M with Pamela Tiffin in The Pleasure Seekers? I'm surprised Ann-Margret had a career at all after that.)

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    2. I have always love A-M, but she never had the film career she deserved, mainly because of the trash that was being churned out during the mid-Sixties, and partly because she did have an overwhelming sexual presence and was probably difficult to cast as anything other than a temptress. At least she had Carnal Knowledge. I haven't seen The Pleasure Seekers but to watch Pamela Tiffin lip-synch in State Fair really makes you long for Jeanne Crain, and I don't even like Jeanne Crain.

      The real loser in all this, imo, was Chita Rivera, who is dynamite on the original cast album. Losing the part of Rosie to a WASP-y blonde must have hurt.

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    3. Hi Peter
      You're such the tactful gentleman! Thanks for the heads up re: Jean/Maureen Stapleton. Wouldn't you know it? The very thing that probably plagued those Maureen in life ceases to be resolved in her death.
      As for A-M, as much as I like her, so much of her early career work is near-unwatchable. I think you're right in narrowing it down to the kinds of films being made around the time she came upon the scene. Dreadful mid 60s comedy stuff.
      You made me laugh with that Jean Crain remark, by the way.
      And Chita Rivera...she photographed so hard on the screen I can see why her Hollywood career never took off in spite of her talent. (I seem to remember she reteamed with Dick Van Dyke as his wife in a short-lived sitcom in the 70's. Once again, she came off harder looking I think she might be in real life.)

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  2. Great piece - it isn't easy to write affectionately about a movie that is so seriously flawed in so many respects. I saw it in a theater at the age of 12 and can still remember the impact of that opening Ann-Margret sequence. Never saw anything like it before or since!
    The film really captures the mood of the country - at least from my child's point of view - just before everything changed with Kennedy's assassination. Pre-November 1963 was more like the 1950s than what we think of as "the Sixties."
    I fell for A-M then and went on to love her work in so many films. She was a first-rate Blanche in a TV "Streetcar" and of course heartbreaking in "Carnal Knowledge"(Have you ever seen her in "52 Pick-Up"? The scene in which husband Roy Scheider tells her he has been cheating on her is certainly an A-M career highpoint.)

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    1. Thanks, Joe
      Having only seen this film on the big screen as an adult, I can only imagine that my eyebrows would have been singed off had I seen full-color Ann-Margret on the screen as a child. She's one of a kind...even today no one can come near to what she had on the screen. Too bad it was so misused in so many unworthy projects.

      Very interesting your comment about America being very 50s before the assassination and this film reflecting more America's sense of itself than perhaps what it actually was.

      Ann-Margret is so fascinating to me because so much of her post-"Carnal Knowledge" work shows a talent I never would have guesses from her earlier films. It's like she became an entirely different person. I think I've liked everything she's done in her mature years except her comedies ("the Cheap Detective" being the exception).

      I saw "52 Pick-Up" when it was released and had a dim memory of liking A-M in it, so you comment sent me off to YouTube where I could revisit that scene you spoke of. Wow! You're so right. She's pretty powerful in that scene! I would never guess that Pauline Kael's hyperactive sexpot from Birdie and the woman in that scene were the same person. It's like a journey of a million miles. Thanks for calling it back to mind.

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  3. "Did you hear about Hugo and Kim," is all I have to say. That is so real today as it was then, but now it would be twitter or Facebook. "Kids, what's the matter with kids today," they're missing the best thing about being on phones, music playing and perhaps breaking out in song (sadly true, Marion and I would often do that...sigh). Love this one.

    Now off to watch my favorite and best oldie....Born Yesterday.

    Great write-up Ken.

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    1. You're totally right on the money there, Catherine. If in our day, kids had to wait until after school to come home and spend the entire evening on the phone with a classmate they just left (and would be seeing in class the next day), nowadays kids speak, text, twitter, and FB all day long.
      And I'm glad to hear you would break out in song occasionally (we did around our house, too!). This is a very fun movie. And while technology changes, kids pretty much stay the same. Thank you very much for reading this and commenting, Cathy. And have fun watching "Born Yesterday" I love that movie!

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  4. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for giving a shout out to Dick Gautier in this post. I could not stand Jesse Pearson and felt he was out of shape and not very attractive in a role based mostly on Elvis (who was very pretty!) I say mostly because there was also an element of young Conway Twitty to it in the clothes and name (get it... Conrad Birdie?)

    After reading about your adoration of A-M, I do hope you've seen her 1965 film "Bus Riley's Back in Town" in which she is given full-on, living color, sex kitten treatment to the nth degree!

    I recognize all the good things you mention about BBB, but for me the less appealing things cause me to check out somewhat. I do not care for Janet in this at all, from her look to her performance, and really hate the changes to the plotline, particularly the finale. Still, it has charm and plenty of people with talent in it. When it was remade for TV in the mid-'90s, I thought they would finally do it right, but that one had issues, too!

    Anyway, I always love your posts whether the movie is a favorite or not because they are always so insightful and thought-provoking. Thanks!

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    1. I'm with you 100% on Jesse Pearson. I've always felt that at it's heart "Bye Bye Birdie" is really an anti-rock and roll musical (like "The Girl Can't Help It") attempting to cash in with the teen audience while simultaneously siding with the parents and making fun of teen culture. It's like the filmmakers refused to make Conrad even remotely appealing and went out of their way to present him as adults might see him: gross and garish. Like you, I thought Pearson was unattractive and looked bloated. (I was actually going to say as much in the "Performance" section, but after doing some online research, Pearson's life sounded so sad and his demise was so young that I thought I'd take it out. Your comment allows me to vent a bit!)
      Surprisingly, I only made that Conway Twitty/Conrad Birdie connection last year when the host on TCM mentioned it. How had that not ever occurred to me? I guess I can only see Twitty in his puffy, 70's, Grand Ol Opry period.
      I agree with you on Janet Leigh in the film. By all accounts she was pretty miserable while making it. I kind of loathed that TV version of "Bye Bye Birdie" you mentioned, but I did see a good revival many years ago in Long Beach with Ann Reinking and Tommy Tune. However, I think I'm spoiled by Ann-Margret in this. I always wind up liking the movie version best.
      And YES I've seen "Bus Riley's Back in Town"...she's very much channeling her "Kitten With a Whip" vibe there. If you ever want to see polar-opposite Ann-Margret, rent "Return of the Soldier" where she appears beside my idol, Julie Christie. She's so SUBDUED!
      Thank you, Poseidon. Your always welcome posts are like talking to a like-minded friend!

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  5. Great review! I agree with practically everything said. As a young boy seeing the movie when it first came out, seeing Ann Margret made me truly notice girls in a whole new way. Birdie's Ann forced young boys out of childhood into adolescence.

    But that said, I must add something that seems to get overlooked by everyone who has ever reviewed the film, and that is the other far less attractive starlet who gets little (no?) credit but is a definite scene stealer (if you allow your eyes to go her way). I am referring to the uncredited actress Trudi Ames. Watch the film again and try to tear your eyes away from Ann and what you get is Trudi comically over acting in a cartoonish fashion in every scene she appears in. Even in the dance numbers and wide angle shots Trudi is doing that no other cast member does and is adding an element to the film that none of the main cast can provide. She is a cartoon come to life.... which is perfect for a film like this!

    Though our subconscious is aware of Ann Margret's less sexy sidekick and appreciates her high jinks, it's not until we force our self to consciously pay attention to her that we realize she is making this film into something which it would not be without her charming presence. Take Trudi out of a scene and you are left with a more mundane film. Trudi is every bit as important in Birdie as every one of the main cast. When I think of Bye Bye Birdie in my mind's eye, I always see the incredible Ann Margret radiating and over powering the other stars, but not by her self. I also see the comical Trudi visually complimenting Ann and being an integral part of the overall scene.

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    1. I'm so happy that you called attention to one of "Bye Bye Birdie" greatest unsung assets: the wonderful Trudi Ames as Kim's best friend, Ursula. You're 100% right in saying that, should you ever find your eyes straying from Ann-Margret, it is Tudi's Ursula that captures your attention.
      She is broad and funny in that way typical of the way teens were depicted in sitcoms of the day (she reminds me of Larue in TV's Gidget) and she is so believably teenage that she helps tone down Ann-Margret's rather mature sexuality. She has Paul Lynde's overstressed style of comic emphasis and is a major asset to the film. So cool of you to sing her well-deserved praises! Thanks very much for visiting the blog and encouraging us to take in a little more than Ann-Margret's star quality.

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  6. The wonderful caricature of Bobby Rydell and Ann-Margaret is the work of the brilliant Canadian artist Pete Emslie. After having spent many years as an artist based at Walt Disney World in Florida, he returned to the Toronto area to teach and continue in illustration.

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    1. Thank you very much for solving the puzzle for me and offering a bit of bio information. Emslie's work is really terrific, and I'm happy now to be able to credit that great caricature. Much appreciated!

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  7. Dear Ken - again, love your review!! BBB is one of my favorite stage musicals *and* film musicals, but I need to love them as separate entities. The movie is excellent, energetic, and loads of fun, but as a faithful film of the stage show- it wasn't. That doesn't have to be a negative, although I could have done without the speed pill/turtle/insane Russian Ballet. It also cut "Spanish Rose", "What Did I Ever See In Him", and "Normal American Boy", which were all great songs. But - with all that fun energy, the cast, the music, the choreography - you can't help but enjoy!!

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    1. Thanks, Michael!
      Your position is the wisest to take: accept the movie and screen versions of "Bye Bye Birdie" as separate entities sharing the same title...they are SO dissimilar. As you point out, you miss all the good songs that were cut from the original show, but what IS there is so energetic and fun, it's hard to quibble.

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    2. Love the 80s film with Ann Margret so I suggest you go see the film/movie.

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  8. Not a lot of sex andvgayin the film.

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    1. "Not a lot of sex and gay in the film"
      Well, I noticed that when all the females on the school ground have fallen into a Conrad Birdie swoon, the police guy has fainted too. You don't call that gay??
      Anyway, for a rock star Pearson has as much sex appeal as Maureen Stapleton and he was even worse tone deaf than she. But I feel that such was the evil intention of the makers.
      Maureen's lines were in the league of 'Laugh or I'll rip your head off', but I found them actually very funny.

      BBBirdie is a ADHD experience, in beautiful Panavision and Doris Day colors.
      The dance session is fabulous - West Side Story really set a trend - and mine eyes too were following Ann-Margret constantly. Before this I watched her performance in Vivas Las Vegas, but what she did in Birdie was even better.
      I hate musicals, I HATE musicals, and found myself enjoying this one...

      I can't understand why Ann-Margret Olsson wasn't a superstar around 1970. She had it all. (And it can't have been her singular name, actress Meow-Meow managed to rise to cinema fame in France, and till this very day no one knows her surname!). But even Robert Altman didn't seem to notice her. At least Mike Nichols and Ken Russell did.

      "Ann-Margret's rather mature sexuality"
      1963, every teen boy's Mom: '...You told me that this actress was barely 16!'

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    2. Ha! Yes, the fainting of the boys and cops when Conrad walks by is as overtly gay as you'll get, if you don't count Paul Lynde's entire performance.
      Happy that you , as one who hates musicals, found yourself enjoying "Bye Bye Birdie." Indeed, Conrad appears to have been cast so as to neuter any real sex appeal. And I'm sure you're right in that it was intentional.
      I like Ann-Margret a great deal too, and I think she comes off much better in rear-view revisionism than she did in the actual late 60s. What I think impeded her stardom in the 70s was how mired in the 60s her image was. Next to Ali MacGraw and Karen Black and even Streisand, the big stars of the early 70s, Ann-Marget's lacquered, Vegas sexuality looked like she was from another planet.
      She seemed to occupy a camp, Playboy bunny space in the public's mind (like Joey Heatherton, Stella Stevens) that didn't fit how seriously Hollywood was taking itself at the time. I'm glad Nichols and Russellsaw beyond the image(or at least knew how to utilize it) for she is genuinely talented in a way few stars are today.
      Very much enjoyed hearing from you on this. So great to imagine someone coming upon Bye Bye Birdie for the first time! Thanks, Willem!

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  9. Every serviceman who saw Ann-Margret in one of Bob Hope's shows in Vietnam will always consider her a very, VERY special person! It's a joy to watch BBB at every chance, just to see her. She touched the hearts of every man there ... and perhaps a few other organs as well!

    That said, there are two more standouts that deserve mention. The first is the irrepressible Trudi Ames who has been mentioned before, but the other is equally deserving and even more overlooked: Bobby Rydell. In the opinion of many - and I include myself in this group - Rydell was the best young singer of his generation. His body of work stands by itself; check out "Wild One", "Volare", and "Wildwood Days".

    Thanks for your wonderful review of my favorite Ann-Margret film!

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    1. Thank you very much!
      Yes, Ann-Margret is understandably and deservedly the main attraction of this film, but I'm glad you called attention to both Trudi Ames (who is great and very funny), and Bobby Rydell. He's surprisingly good and I have all those songs you mentioned (and more) on my ipod.
      Nice to hear this is one of your favorite Ann-Margret films. Thank you very much for reading my post and taking the time to comment!

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