Sunday, August 12, 2007

Let's Kick This Hick Town Into High!

Revisiting musical films by George Sidney has given me a new appreciation for a film I didn't use to like much, Bye Bye Birdie.

The reason I didn't like it is simple: I love the stage musical, and as an adaptation of the stage show, the film is a travesty. The story was rewritten from a gentle satire to a bizarre cartoon (complete with wacky cartoony climax); some of the best songs were dropped or rewritten; Janet Leigh was both miscast and wasted; Ann-Margret was playing herself instead of the character and Sidney unbalanced the whole production by giving her extra material (including a title song that wasn't in the play). Also, Johnny Green's orchestrations -- brash, vulgar and loud -- are jarring to those of us who think Robert Ginzler's flute-heavy Broadway arrangements are among the greatest in Broadway history.

All of that is still true, but when I return to the film version and evaluate it on its own terms, I think it has to rank as one of the better movie musicals of the '60s. Everything about it is garish and vulgar, but that's what makes it a George Sidney film; he was one of the least tasteful of musical directors, a guy who would overload his films with loud color patterns and lighting. It's a good-natured, larger-than-life piece of escapism, whereas the original musical was actually kind of observational and even subtle. Sidney had achieved some of his biggest hits by ignoring the spirit of the source material and coming up with something completely different; Scaramouche has very little to do with the Sabatini novel, and his version of Show Boat (another movie I like a lot more than I used to) is almost unrecognizable compared to the stage play.

The odd thing about Birdie is that by the time it was made, most Broadway adaptations didn't work this way any more: now the fashion was to stick closely to the Broadway show and come up with a long musical that approximated the experience of going to a Broadway play. (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Music Man were examples of this.) What Sidney did to Birdie would have been pretty common back when he was under contract to M-G-M; he wrecked the source material a lot less than, say, the makers of On the Town did (now there's a movie I still haven't come around on). But in 1963, such a heavy rewrite of the source material was frowned upon, and so, like Sidney's Viva Las Vegas, the film feels like a throwback to the M-G-M golden age, in both its good and bad points.

The good points include the simple point that Birdie has a vitality and unpretentiousness that most of the big, bloated movie musicals of the '60s simply didn't have. It's not a big musical, not an event; it's just fun, a showcase for the director, the choreographer, and the performers. What keeps it from being a really great movie musical is that some of the performers are wasted (Dick Van Dyke doesn't get enough to do, and was apparently unhappy at the downgrading of the part he'd played on Broadway). But when it's good, it blows you away with its inventiveness and energy the way a good movie musical should, and the way most '60s musicals didn't.

Also, you can't really blame Sidney for wanting to give Ann-Margret more to do in the picture. People often explain this decision by saying that had a crush on her, which may be true but isn't very specific; everybody had a crush on Ann-Margret at that time. There were two perfectly good reasons for throwing more of the movie to her. One is that she was really good, and deserved more opportunities to do her own thing rather than stay within the limitations of the part as written (which was intended for a very different kind of performer). And the other thing is that the original Birdie play was very much aimed at adults; the grown-ups were the focus of the story and got most of the numbers, and the kids were very much secondary. The makers of the film clearly wanted it to skew younger, and that meant giving more time to the young characters. It worked, too.

The "A Lot of Livin' To Do" number, with Onna White's choreography (she came up with that crazy arms-out, head-tilting move that runs through the whole thing) is an extravaganza of creative lighting, color, dance and music that is probably -- just as a stand-alone number -- superior to any individual number in Gower Champion's Broadway staging. Even back when I didn't like the movie, I liked this number.


Jenny Lerew said...

You're right, this is wonderful stuff. You're also making me want to go buy the original Bway cast album.

I was in a very good production of "On the Town" in high school, here in L.A.(as Mme Dilly); as a result I can't stand the movie, which really did throw away a lot of great numbers. It's a puzzle why they even bothered to give it the same title.

Anonymous said...

No accounting for taste, I thought it was jarring and out of place when I first saw it, now I think it was decades ahead of it's time.