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Preshow: Movietone News - 1932



We've certainly said bye-bye to lots of things in pop culture; a Blackbird, Brazil, Braverman, Miss American Pie and even Love. But never is it so much fun as it is to say bye-bye to Birdie. Before your eyes can adjust to the light in the room, and your ass can find the comfort spot on the couch, BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963) reels you in with its prologue - Ann-Margret singing the title song right to us; so cute, so kitschy, so purr-fect. I remember them running the hell out of BIRDIE on the 4:30 Movie on New York's Channel 7. A fine treat to come home from school and enjoy, like ice cream before dinner. I also remember (honest, I do) falling asleep one time during the useless scene with Rosie and the Shriners, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Anyway, that opening Ann-Margret song I spoke of? That wasn't in the Broadway show (1960). It (and its reprise which bookends the movie) was written for the movie because director George Sidney saw so much star-power (I'm betting he said "sex-appeal") in Ann-Margret that he shot it without Columbia Pictures' approval and...with his own money. And he was so right that after BIRDIE became a hit, Columbia reimbursed him. Although it can't be proven this is what made BIRDIE popular, I'd say it had a lot to do with it. See for yourself.

However, adding this song stepped on the toes of many of the other actors, some of whom were in the original Broadway production. But Sydney and screenwriter Irving Brecher made BIRDIE all about Ann-Margret. And though I'm sorry it hurt the others, it was a smart move. Here's the story, morning glory:

Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson)
Heartthrob Conrad Birdie
(Jesse Pearson), a microscopically thinly veiled Elvis, has been drafted, and the entire population of American girls are going out of their teeny teen minds. Jeepers, they're even picketing the White House. What's the matter with kids these days?

Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke
This is bad news for struggling songwriter Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), who was meant to pen a song for Birdie's next movie, which now looks like it's gone with the draft. This will also mark the end of Almaelou Music Company (AL is Albert, MAE his overbearing mother and LOU is his late dad). If only Albert's girlfriend/secretary Rosie (Janet Leigh) would concoct a plan to have Birdie sing one of Albert's songs on the Ed Sullivan Show before leaving for the army, Albert and Rosie's troubles would be over. And perhaps if they got a teenaged girl for Birdie to kiss, as a symbolic bye-bye gesture to all the girls, and do it during a live remote broadcast from Ohio on the Sullivan show, Albert won't have to fold Almaelou and go back into his original profession - chemistry. But which teenaged girl will they pick?

Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret) from Sweet Apple, Ohio, that's who. Naturally there are complications. Kim just got pinned by Hugo (Bobby Rydell), which means she's a woman now (or so she sings).
And Hugo, the lost doggy who is getting pushed around by both Kim ("To pick out a boy and train him...") and his friends ("Hiya Hugo. Hiya stupid. What ya have to go get pinned for?"), is going to get jealous for sure. Meanwhile, Albert, Rosie, Birdie and Albert's mother Mae (Maureen Stapleton) all converge for the Sullivan show in Sweet Apple. Paralleling Kim and Hugo's problems are Albert's and Rosie's. Albert's a mama's boy, which is impeding their romance. Not to mention that Birdie is staying at Kim's house, much to dad Harry's (Paul Lynde) chagrin. Yes, Sweet Apple's going kablooey, and it's all done with infectious joy, mostly through its musical numbers, like:

Telephone Hour

THE TELEPHONE HOUR. You know this one, right? Teen girls spreading the word of Hugo and Kim's pinning in a song that's dreamy and guaranteed to make you smile. It overflows with a charged felicity, presented in a mosaic of nimble nubility. To simplify: "Did he pin the pin on? Or was he too shy?" Even the boys chime in with their take, with a playboy declaring "When they got you hooked, then you're really cooked." I saw BIRDIE in movie theaters (twice) and I swear, the applause after this song was amazing. I think people even stood up. Of course, people who go to a theater to see this movie are mostly built-in fans; but still, it's a song that can bring actual happy tears to your eyes, errr, not that I would ever, ever, ever know this. And THE TELEPHONE HOUR isn't the only song to do this. Mere minutes later comes Kim's HOW LOVELY TO BE A WOMAN, which is as adorable and sexy as its performer. Here, we watch Kim transform right before our eyes. And the song's gag, a reversal of the lyrics, is masterfully executed and capped with a literal cap. Then there's Birdie's Sweet Apple arrival with his Elvis-y HONESTLY SINCERE, which lays the town's population as dead as if it they were crop-dusted with pesticide. Is it possible to swoon yourself to death?


BIRDIE is top-heavy, which is a problem. Most of the fun is in the first hour; the opening song followed by THE TELEPHONE HOUR and HOW LOVELY TO BE A WOMAN are all in the first 15 minutes. The second half of the movie gets silly, with Albert's chemical formula (he has a chemistry background in the movie as opposed to an English teacher in the show) that speeds up the McAfee's pet turtle. And as mentioned earlier, that deadly scene with Rosie and the Shriners that put me to sleep when I was a kid. I could have done without the entire (and ridiculous) ballet sequence, too. But fortunately, we've got A LOT OF LIVIN' TO DO, which gets this BIRDIE flying again. It's a bouncy, flirty song that has Kim and Hugo, now broken up, trading verses as they try to out-jealous each other; her and the boys and him and the girls. Onna White's electrifying go-go choreography slams this production number home, making it yet another, and the last, crowd-pleaser. By the dance's end, it's built up such a head of steam that it rivals today's toughest boot camp gym class.


When not in the few dead zones, director Sidney moves things along nicely, adding zoom-ins that enhance moments (Harvey Johnson's TELEPHONE HOUR queries, Hugo's jealousy, etc.). Some of the sharpest comedy comes from the mouth of Mae, and it's directed at Rosie.
I can't really say exactly what writer Brecher did, as his script was taken from Michael Stewart's book, and well, I just don't know that book that well. But I do know he did something great, because he also did script work for THE WIZARD OF OZ and the Marx Brothers' AT THE CIRCUS. But whichever writer did whatever, the roles of Albert and Rosie were trimmed in the movie because, again, they were shifting the story to Kim because of Ann-Margret. So she got some extra songs while other peoples' were cut. That's not to say Van Dyke and Leigh were not pulling their weight. They were simply overshadowed. Even though it was their story, it wasn't as interesting and fun as Kim's, so songs like PUT ON A HAPPY FACE, a hit from the show, as well as the catchy KIDS, seemed lifeless by comparison. Paul Lynde, however, can make you laugh by just sitting in his chair smoking his pipe, because we pretty much always know what he's thinking.

A lot of the success of this musical goes to (surprise!) the music, done here by Charles Strouse with lyricist Lee Adams (you also know them from the ALL IN THE FAMILY opening theme). But I'd like to take a second and mention something that rarely gets noted in musicals, especially ones like this, and that's the arrangements. There's some really beautiful things going on, like the sweeping themes of ROSIE and ONE BOY (both foreshadowing the actual songs). And just take a listen to the orchestrations of the chord progressions and woodwinds in HOW LOVELY TO BE A WOMAN during the verses.

Happy Face

Sidney was good friends with cartoon guys Hanna-Barbera. I'm pretty sure they did the animation in PUT ON A HAPPY FACE and at the end of THE TELEPHONE HOUR. And that also explains the proliferation of Hanna-Barbera characters in BIRDIE. They're not too hard to spot; Kim's kid brother wears Huckleberry Hound pajamas, a teen has a Yogi Bear record, and Kim herself has stuffed Yogi, Fred and Barney figures in her room. Six months after the release of BIRDIE, an animated Ann-Margret was performing as Ann-Margrock on THE FLINTSTONES. That brings me to the next point; BYE BYE BIRDIE catapulted Ann-Margret's career. My friend told me this story: he said that his friend, we'll call him Tommy, once spotted Ann-Margret and approached her. He just had to tell her - "You were my first boner!" Well, I've got news for you, Miss Margret, after seeing you in BIRDIE again...


Preshow: MOVIETONE NEWS - 1932

Every year or so, I like to pull out some newsreels I have on VHS. One outdated format playing another. We watched the year 1932, which included footage from:

  1. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and an appeal for everyone to be on the lookout for him.
  2. The Shanghai War of 1932, which had Japan invading China (I had to look this one up).
  3. The Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth, in a gym, clowning around.
  4. Hoover talking about the forming of a government run lending company to help the economy, called Restructuring Finance Company.
  5. Farmers calling attention to their plight; prices are too low and interest is too high. "A dollar of currency in the hands of a hoarder is just a dollar. A dollar of currency usefully employed forms the basis for ten times that amount of credit available to business and employment." In other words - spend!
  6. Mary Pickford as a volunteer for stamp sales to assist the unemployed.
  7. The Bonus Army, WWI veterans waiting for their promised money which never came. Camped on the White House lawn, this led to military action against...the military! And guess what? Though I couldn't spot him in the footage (like I know what he looked like), my grandfather was on that White House lawn in that protest.
  8. Roosevelt's speech upon being nominated by his party.
  9. Hoover fishing.
  10. Prohibition ended, showing Al Capone's barrels of illegal brew sledgehammered open. And Al going to jail. "Before Prohibition, there were 326 licensed saloons in Washington. We have, under national Prohibition, four times as many speakeasys."

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