Sunday, March 31, 2013


In the overheated melodrama Queen Bee, the Joan Crawford we’re given is one so seemingly tailor-made for the post-Mommie Dearest crowd; I find myself hard-pressed to even imagine how this film was received before Crawford became a camp punchline. Who was its intended audience? Certainly, its dominant female lead and soap-opera histrionics qualify it as a late entry in the “woman’s film” genre so popular in the '40s. But the camp factor is pitched so high in Queen Bee, at times, the entire enterprise feels like a well-financed drag act pandering to Crawford’s legion gay fan base. Like All About Eve (1950), Queen Bee seems to be operating on two levels at all times: 1) The straightforward southern-fried potboiler (the least interesting level); 2) The gay-friendly parade of camp-diva posturing, elaborate costuming, and bitchy dialogue.

But whether self-aware or inadvertent, the ever-present gay sensibilities that make Queen Bee such a rip-snorter of an entertainment are thanks solely to Joan Crawford ruling the roost in full female drag queen mode. Always in charge, always fascinating to watch, in Queen Bee, Crawford rolls out the entire arsenal of her patented, crowd-pleasing shtick: mannered delivery, mannish countenance, slaps to the faces of co-stars, pointed barbs delivered with haughty disdain, menacing eyebrows, teary-eyed close-ups…the works! And delivered as reliably and on cue as though she were taking requests from the audience.
Joan Crawford as Eva Phillips
Barry Sullivan as Avery Phillips
Betsy Palmer as Carol Lee Phillips
John Ireland as Judson Prentiss
Lucy Marlow as Jennifer Stewart
Based on the 1949 novel The Queen Bee by Edna Lee, Queen Bee is a curiosity in that its plot, upon reflection, seems to have no real point to it. It's like a monster movie in which an unprovoked evilembodied by a beast of single-minded malevolenceis introduced purely for the fun of watching the havoc it can wreak, then quickly dispatched so that normalcy can be regained. Eva Phillips is the monster in question (Joan Crawford, surprise!), a character whose sole defining character trait is Bitch on Wheels, with little to no variance or shading. Eva is a southern socialite who tricked her way into the moneyed Phillips clan (true to Joan Crawford movie tradition, Eva comes from humble beginnings) and is hell-bent on making everyone pay for their part in having made her feel like an outsider.
This manifests itself in her pathologically keeping a mean-spirited, ankle-strapped heel on the necks of anyone foolish enough to stay under her roof. In spite of the fact that her behavior seems to gain her very little, Eva gives herself over to it with spontaneity and enthusiasm. Something her victims seem to mind a great deal, but not so much that it ever occurs to any of them to leave the comfy confines of the Phillips mansion/plantation.
Eva Phillips, spreading joy wherever she goes 
It's gently alluded to that Eva's contemptibility stems from a frustration born of her embittered, guilt-ridden husband Avery (Sullivan), having emotionally and sexually abandoned their marriage to retreat into the bottle. You see, in order to wed Eva, Avery jilted his then-fiancé, Sue McKinnon (the lovely Fay Wray in a small role); one-time southern belle, now local Ruby Red Dress. It's nice Eva's one-note biliousness has been given a backstory by way of exposition, but considering Eva dumped Avery's best friend, Jud (Ireland), for the bigger fish that was Avery (by way of a faked pregnancy), it's clear she was quite a piece of work to begin with.

People I know who are unfamiliar with Queen Bee are always surprised when I set about summarizing the plot, for it truly boils down to merely 95 minutes of Joan Crawford behaving badly. That's it. For the average moviegoer, that's a mighty slim entertainment prospect. For a guy like me, a man capable of simultaneously appreciating Crawford as both a talented, underrated actress and a laugh-a-minute camp-fest, Queen Bee is the gold-standard. In earlier essays on the films Harriet Craig and Mommie Dearest, I've explained a bit what it is about Joan Crawford that so appeals to me. Suffice it to say that there has never been anyone quite like her before or since, and a true original is hard to resist. I love her when she's really on her game and delivering a solid, serious performance (she's terrific in A Woman's Face), but I'm just as gaga when she succumbs to excess and self-parody, as she does here. She's Joan Crawford, she doesn't have to be anything else!
A slap in a Joan Crawford movie is as sure and anticipated
 as a back-lit close-up in a Barbra Streisand movie.

If it's a Joan Crawford movie, it's a pretty safe bet that the only star one is apt to walk away from the film singing the praises of is Joan Crawford. In Queen Bee, Crawford dominates the movie screen with the same iron will she dominates the lives of the Phillips household. And I couldn't be happier about it. When playing bad, both Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis are more adept at delivering performances that are dimensional and based within a recognizable reality. But Crawford's appeal for me is how she so often plays everything (her character's highs and lows) in such boldface type. She's unsubtle and frequently full-tilt over the top, but I find her to be SO magnetic a screen personality. I love watching her. I just wish I knew whether my adoration was ironic or not.
A scene where we get to watch the tears well up in her eyes
is always a favored part of any Joan Crawford movie.

Ingenue Lucy Marlow (is that a great name for an actress, or what?), considerably deglamorized from the first time I saw her in A Star is Born (1954), does fine with a purposely colorless role (Eva: "Jen, you really must learn to join in conversations. Otherwise you give such a mousy impression!"), and while not being a particular favorite of mine, should be credited with not simply fading into the woodwork. Toothsome Betsy Palmer, whom I barely recognized without a game show panelist podium in front of her, is rather appealing and wins camp points for playing her role as Avery's sister Carol with so much misdirected ponderousness.
Taking the proceedings all-too-seriously, Palmer actually comes close to achieving the impossible ...overacting opposite Crawford! When not trying to wise up the wide-eyed Phillips house newbie to the pernicious ways of the Queen Bee, her character is otherwise a walking bullseye target for Eva's frequent scorn (Eva:"My, Carol, you look sweet! Even in those tacky old riding clothes!").
King Kong's inamorata, Fay Wray, makes a brief but welcome appearance as Sue McKinnon, a left-standing-at-the-altar, Blanche Dubois type. Although the film is set in Atlanta, GA., Wray is the only actor considerate enough to supply us with a southern accent.

When Christina Crawford gave Crawford fans and detractors the heads-up about Harriet Craig and Queen Bee supplying the closest (not to mention safest) glimpses into what real life was like inside the Crawford household, both films rose to the top of my must-see list. No one will ever know the truth of all that Christina disclosed in her book, but I tell you this, these films make a hell of a double feature. Based exclusively on what Joan Crawford's image has become of late, both films bear that indelible stamp of re-enacted documentary. You can't watch either without your mind going to some bit of nightmarish lore attached to the whole Mommie Dearest legend. Depending on your taste for celebrity self-exposure, this can come off as either highly entertaining or uncomfortably squirm-inducing.
In this scene where Eva lays waste the bedroom of a particularly disliked in-law, it doesn't take much imagination to picture one of those "night raids" so vividly evoked in Christina Crawford's memoir, Mommie Dearest.

And for those who are most familiar with Joan through Faye Dunaway's portrayal of the actress in the legendary Mommie Dearest, there's still plenty of déjà vu cross-referencing to call your grip on truth and illusion into question.
A criticism consistently leveled at Mommie Dearest on its release was how many scenes appeared to have been culled from Crawford's films, and not her life. I have no idea what Crawford's real-life home looked like, but these staircase scenes definitely suggest that someone on the Mommie Dearest production team did a little of their research by way of The Late, Late Show. 
The Jean Louis costumes for Queen Bee were one of two Oscar nominations the film received (the other, Best Cinematography). Here in the center image, you see Faye Dunaway sporting a Jean Louis-inspired creation (and a  Joan Crawford-inspired expression) in Mommie Dearest

Perhaps it's a sign of age, but the soporific blandness of so many contemporary "movie stars" is one of the reasons Joan Crawfordconsidered by many to be more a defined screen personality than an actressis starting to look better to me with each film. The dull beigeness of actors like Channing Tatum, Jennifer Aniston, and Ryan Reynolds, makes me long for Crawford's brand of imposed-personality intensity.
Although John Ireland brings a kind of perpetually peeved severity to his role, and I'm fascinated with Barry Sullivan's ability to deliver most of his dialogue through clenched teeth; true to form for movies with strong female leads, the males are an oddly bland and wooden bunch.

Joan Crawford is first and foremost a star. And a movie like Queen Bee needs a true star at the helm. Obviously relishing every moment, Crawford isn't stretching very far with her performance here, but in tapping into the character's narcissism and malicious manipulativeness with such fiery gusto, one can't help but admire her style and commitment even as you're giggling at her mannered excesses (hell, this is the actress who approached even her role in Trog with straight-faced earnestness). Although I would truly love it were I to detect a note of knowing self-parody in Crawford's Eva Phillips, I nevertheless enjoy her performance here very much. It has command, humor, touches of pathos, and there's a scene or two where she borders on the terrifying. I only recently discovered Queen Bee through TCM, but I have since placed it at the top of my list of all-time favorite Joan Crawford films.
The Queen Bee...who stings all her rivals to death.

Bonus Materials
Hear Barbra Streisand sing QUEEN BEE from A Star is Born (1976) the unofficial theme song to "Queen Bee." For Joan Crawford screening parties, may I suggest playing this over the film's closing credits for full camp diva effect. Begin music immediately after Barry Sullivan says the line: "The sun is shining. I didn't expect the sun to be shining." Click Here.

Hey, Pepsi fans! Joan Crawford appears in and narrates this 1969 Pepsi-Cola-sponsored video. A kinder and gentler Joan (who, oddly enough, comes off as even more terrifying) visits a supermarket...complete with hat, gloves, and a really obnoxious kid! The fact that she doesn't wallop the just-asking-to-be-slapped child is a testament to Mommie Dearest's control. (At least when a camera is around.) Click Here!
The Queen of Showmanship herself. (Image courtesy of

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Before there really was such a thing as a high-concept movie, in 1967 Warner Bros. released this doozy of a nail-biter whose intriguingly unorthodox casting and high-concept thriller premise resulted in lines around the block and a boxoffice ranking as the 16th highest-grossing film of the year. The film: Wait Until Dark. The casting: All the heavies are played by actors best known for comedy roles. The concept: Somebody wants to kill Holly Golightly!
Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix
Alan Arkin as Harry Roat, Jr.
Richard Crenna as Mike Talman
Jack Weston as Sgt. Carlino
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Sam Hendrix
As if drawn to the theater for the collective purpose of forming a militia in her defense, sixties audienceslong-accustomed to spending a pleasant evening being charmed by the winsome, doe-eyed, Belgian gamine of Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany'sturned out in droves to witness Hepburn as a defenseless blind woman tormented by a gang of sleazy, drug-dealing, New York thugs. The Old-Hollywood zeitgeist had shifted in a big way! And if you don’t think placing cinema’s much-beloved eternal ingénue within harm’s way is a concept both incendiary and controversial, you must have missed the 2010 online war raged against Emma Thompson when she dared to utter but a few disparaging remarks about everyone’s favorite sylphlike waif.
Thompson, at the time writing a since-shelved remake of My Fair Lady, drew the heated ire of millions when she expressed the opinion that Hepburn couldn't sing and “Can’t really act.” Ignorant or indifferent to the fact that, at least on this side of the pond, anyone trash-talking Audrey Hepburn is just begging for a major ass-whippin’; Thompson made herself no friends in Hepburn camps. There's no reason to believe there's any connection between this public outcry and the fact that Thompson's My Fair Lady re-up hit a snag, but if there’s one thing Audrey Hepburn elicits from movie fans, it’s the near-unanimous desire to shield and protect her. A quality exploited to entertainingly nerve-racking effect in Wait Until Dark.
"What did they want with her?"
Poster art for Wait Until Dark prominently featured the image of a screaming Audrey Hepburn accompanied by the above tagline.  Yikes!

From the moment I first saw her in Roman Holiday, I've always thought of Audrey Hepburn’s screen persona as akin to that of a butterfly. A creature so exquisitely fragile and beautiful that you couldn't bear seeing harm come to it. Sure, Hepburn was drolly menaced in Charade, and most certainly, pairing the then 27-year-old Hepburn with 57-year-old Fred Astaire in Funny Face constitutes some form of romantic terrorism; but for the most part, Audrey Hepburn has always seemed to me to be a woman far too adorable and classy for anybody to mess with.
That being said, I don’t number myself among her fans who would have been happy to have seen her continue along the path of taking on the same role in film after film. When Hepburn made the heist comedy How to Steal a Million in 1966, she was 36 years old, a wife and mother, yet still playing the sort of girlish role she virtually trademarked in the fifties. While that particular comedy revealed Hepburn in fine form and as radiant as ever, it was nevertheless becoming clear that in a world that was making way for Barbarella, Bonnie Parker, and Myra Breckinridge; it was high time for the Cinderella pixie image to be laid to rest.
Taking on the role of the tormented blind woman in Wait Until Dark was a concentrated effort on Hepburn's part to broaden her range and break the mold of her ingénue image. Earlier that same year Hepburn appeared to spectacular effect opposite Albert Finney in Stanley Donen’s bittersweet look at a troubled marriage, Two for the Road. Giving perhaps the most nuanced, adult performance of her career, Hepburn in modern mode revealed a surprising depth of emotional maturity that signaled, at least for a time, she might be one of the few Golden Age Hollywood stars able to make the transition to the dressed-down '70s. While Two for the Road ultimately proved too arty and downbeat for popular tastes, Wait Until Dark was a resounding boxoffice success and garnered the Oscar-winning actress her fifth Academy Award nomination.
Wait Until Dark was adapted from the hit 1966 Broadway play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder) which starred Lee Remick in the role that won her a Best Actress Tony nomination. Recreating the role she originated on Broadway, actress Julie Harrod (above) portrays Gloria, the bratty but ultimately resourceful upstairs neighbor.

I really love a good thriller. And good thrillers are awfully hard to come by these days. When a suspense thriller succeeds in its objectives to send a chill up my spine, keep me guessing, or, better yet, induce me to spend a restless evening sleeping with all the lights on…well, I’m pretty much putty in its hands and will willingly follow where I’m led. Wait Until Dark does a marvelous job of duplicating the formula that worked so well for Ira Levin in both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, two of my all-time favorite suspense thrillers. Wait Until Dark takes a vulnerable female character (a woman recently blinded in a car accident, just learning to adapt to her loss of sight); pits her against an enemy whose degree of malevolence and severity of intent she is slow to recognize (Susy is the unwitting possessor of a heroin-filled doll her tormentors are willing to kill for); and (most importantly) takes the time to develop its characters and methodically build suspense so as to best to encourage empathy and audience identification. Simple in structure, yet rare in its ability to sustain tension while providing plenty of nightmare fodder, Wait Until Dark is one of those scary movies that still packs a punch even after repeat viewings.
When it comes to strict adherence to logic, most psychological thrillers don't hold up to too-close scrutiny. Wait Until Dark is no exception. Plot points and theatrical devices that play well on the stage don't always translate to the hyper-realistic world of motion pictures. But when a thriller is as fast-paced and full of spook-house fun as Wait Until Dark, head-scratchers like the one above (I won't give anything away, you'll have to see the film) won't hit you until long after your pulse has returned to normal and the film has ended. 

A while back I wrote about how refreshing it was to see Elizabeth Taylor tackle her first suspense thriller with 1973’s Night Watch. In thinking back to 1967 and my first time seeing Audrey Hepburn’s genre debut in Wait Until Dark, the word that comes to mind is traumatizing. Yes, it was quite the shock seeing MY Audrey Hepburn keeping such uncouth company and being treated so loutishly in a film without benefit of a Cary Grant or Givenchy frock for consolation. Like everybody else, I had fallen in love with Audrey Hepburn’s frail vulnerability in Funny Face and My Fair Lady, so seeing her brutalized for a good 90 minutes was a good deal more than I was ready for at the tender age of ten. 
Javier Bardem's creepy psychopath of No Country for Old Men owes perhaps a nod to Alan Arkin's equally tonsorially-challenged, undies-sniffing nutjob in Wait Until Dark

Over the years, my shock over Hepburn’s deviation from type has given way to an appreciation of the skill of her performance here. Actors never seem to be given the proper credit for the realistic conveyance of fear and anxiety, yet I can't think of a single thriller or horror film that has ever worked for me if the lead is unable to convince me that he/she is in genuine fear for their life. Audrey Hepburn delves deep into her somewhat underwritten character and makes her more than just a "lady in peril." She authentically conveys her character's mounting apprehension and fearful response to the circumstances she finds herself facing, yet never abandons the innate resourcefulness that has already been established as part of this woman's makeup as a survivor. 
Hepburn is the emotional linchpin of the entire movie, and she is incredibly affecting and sympathetic. Without benefit of those expressive eyes of hers (she somehow allows them to go blank, yet finds ways to have all manner of complex emotions play out over her face and through her body language) Hepburn keeps us locked within the reality of the film. Even when the plot takes a few turns into the improbable (once again, my lips are sealed!). 
Sixties model Samantha Jones (yes, Sex and the City fans, there IS a real one) plays Lisa, the inadvertent catalyst for all the trouble that erupts in Wait Until Dark. Jones' fabulously '60s big-hair, big-fur, slightly cheap glamour seems to have been borrowed by Barbra Streisand's working girl ("I may be a prostitute, but I'm not promiscuous!") in 1970s The Owl and the Pussycat.

Having been born too late to experience the mayhem attendant the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho with that famed shower scene, I'm therefore thrilled to have had the experience of actually seeing Wait Until Dark during its original theatrical run, when exhibitors turned out all of the theater lights during the film's final eight minutes. Jesus H. Christ! Such a thunderous chorus of screams I'd never heard before in my life! My older sister practically kicked the seat in front of her free of its moorings. At least I think so. I was on the ceiling at the time. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that while that experience has since been duplicated at screenings I've attended of the films Jaws, The OmenCarrie, and Alien; it has never been equaled. At least not in my easily-rattled book.
I hope William Castle appreciated the irony
At the exact moment director William Castle - the great-granddad of horror gimmickry - was making a bid for legitimacy with Rosemary's BabyWait Until Dark, a major motion picture with an A-list cast, was attracting rave notices and sellout crowds employing a promotional gambit straight out of his B-movie marketing playbook.

Audrey Hepburn ventured into the damsel-in-distress realm just once more in her career (with this film's director, Terence Young, no less). Unfortunately, it was in the jumbled mess that was Bloodline (1979). An absolutely dreadful and nonsensical film I've seen, oh, about 7 times. As theatrical thrillers go, Wait Until Dark is not up there with Sleuth or Deathtrap in popularity, but it does get revived now and then. Most recently, a poorly-received 1998 Broadway version with Marisa Tomei and Quentin Tarantino, of all people. In 1982 there was a cable-TV adaptation starring Katherine Ross and Stacy Keach that I actually recall watching, but, perhaps tellingly, I can't remember a single thing about.
As a kid, I only knew Jack Weston from the silly comedies Palm Springs Weekend and The Incredible Mr. Limpett. Richard Crenna I knew from TV sitcoms like Our Miss Brooks and The Real McCoys. Producer Mel Ferrer (Mr. Audrey Hepburn at the time) is credited with casting these two talented actors against type to refreshingly unsettling effect

When people speak of Wait Until Dark, it is invariably the Audrey Hepburn version that's referenced, and it's this film to which all subsequent adaptations, like it or not, must be compared. Even when removed from the fun exploitation gimmick of the darkened theater and the novelty of seeing Hepburn in an atypical, non-romantic role, Wait Until Dark holds up remarkably well. Delivering healthy doses of edge-of-the-seat suspense and jump-out-of-your-seat surprises, it's a solid, well-crafted thriller with a talented cast delivering first-rate performances (save for Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who just does his usual, bland, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.thing).
Still, it's Audrey Hepburn—age 37, inching her way toward adult roles who is the real marvel here. Being a movie star of the old order, one whose stock-in-trade has been the projection of her personality upon every role; Hepburn is never fully successful in making us stop thinking at times as if we're watching Tiffany's Holly Golightly, Charade's Regina Lampert, or Roman Holiday's Princess Ann caught up in some Alice-through-the-looking-glass nightmare. But in these days of so-called "movie stars" who scarcely register anything onscreen beyond their own narcissism, I'm afraid I'm going to favor the actress whose sweetly gentle nature has shone through in every role she's ever assumed. That's a real and genuine talent, in and of itself.

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


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'!" 

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.

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 of you youngsters).

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 blonde 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. 

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  2009 - 2013