FILM – looking back at BYE BYE BIRDIE

With Tina Fey’s new book “Bossypants” and Tad Friend’s profile of Anna Faris in The New Yorker, there’s been a lot of talk about women in showbiz – at least a lot more talk than usual. Whether you’re a fan of these two comediennes or not, all the buzz they’re generating got me in the mood for a good old-fashioned, feel-good chick flick. Luckily, BYE BYE BIRDIE was on TV (I said old-fashioned). It may be a musical comedy, but it still counts. In fact, of some of the funniest gags are the songs themselves. Paul Lynde is hilarious is his earnest ode to Ed Sullivan, and the heartfelt teenage proclamations of love are ingeniously insipid, like when Kim coos to her beau, “Huuugo, I will go wherever youuu go.”

I realize these kinds of movies tend to have a polarizing effect, and that most people, most young people anyway, find them perfectly annoying rather than perfectly entertaining. But as I belong to the latter group, I can say without shame that all the Technicolor pomp, frivolity and gratuitous camp that reviles some audiences only leaves me rollicking. What’s more, for a movie that’s all about a man (Conrad Birdie plays an Elvis type with a young female fanbase mourning the news of his draft) it’s the women who really stand out. Not that the men do a shabby job. Aside from Lynde, singer Bobby Rydell manages to out-croon Birdie, even dressed up as a total square, and Dick Van Dyke made his career-launching film debut, but the two female leads, played by Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, make the movie.

Leigh’s role as Rosie, the sharp, perky, fast-talking secretary, is somewhat of a departure from her previous roles in PYSCHO, TOUCH OF EVIL and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but she took to comedy exceedingly well with her quick, unflinching delivery and a knack for timing matched only by Van Dyke himself. And while Leigh’s Rosie is someone we can laugh with, Ann-Margret’s swooning, airy, love-sick Kim is practically begging to be laughed at. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. This was 1963, after all. Funny women were still a relatively new phenomenon and it was going to take actresses more pioneering than Ann-Margret to break through the limited range of comedic types available to women. That said, she was something of a trailblazer in her day. At age 22, BIRDIE was only her third film. Before she arrived on set the part of Kim was a mere side character with maybe half the lines and musical numbers. The director, however, was so taken with the young, charismatic Ann-Margret that he doubled her screen time, effectively launching her into stardom. BYE BYE BIRDIE may have a plot about as uncomplicated as Ann-Margret’s dizzy, star-struck Kim, but it’s also every bit as charming and eye-catching. Besides, who ever said all comedies need to be smart? Sometimes you just need to laugh.