Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Handwringing
|April 24, 2012||Posted by Jess under Movies, Musicals|
When I was a kid my grandparents had a big rambling house in the Poconos where I spent many a Thanksgiving/summer/spring break. On rainy days there wasn’t much to do besides write plays for my younger cousins to perform under my direction (I’m still proud of “The Lion King and I”), and watch the few tapes in the house: a collection of Mickey Mouse shorts1, A Goofy Movie2, and Bye Bye Birdie.
And man oh man, did I love Bye Bye Birdie. Such happy singing and dancing! And of course, as a musical-loving kid I was hardwired to love anything Dick Van Dyke touched. But most importantly: Ann-Margret. I thought Ann-Margret was the most beautiful and talented woman who ever lived, and I wanted to look and sound just like her. I wore a big gray sweater and argyle socks around the house for years because of her extended “How Lovely to Be a Woman” wardrobe change. I demanded to rent Viva Las Vegas from the local video store because she was in it and remember nothing but her yellow bathing suit and matching little robey-do. She was my earliest and most dazzling girlcrush, by far.3
When I was about 14, I was in a camp production of it, which is when I learned how much was changed for the movie. Oh, the heartbreak when I found out that Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde didn’t like the movie version! They had to be wrong. The movie version was perfect.
Well, I rewatched it recently, and although I’ve seen it now and then as an adult, for the first time I was struck by two things:
1. The flopsweat is very much in evidence, and Dick and Paul were, I’m sorry to say, very much correct. Since the last time I watched this movie, I’ve read a lot about the transition away from the studio era of Hollywood, mostly via Fred Astaire biographies and film reviews and Anne Helen Peterson’s blog, and suddenly the vaguely-desperate gimmicks seem a lot more obvious. You like TV instead of movies? Here’s Ed Sullivan, for realsies! You like music heartthrobs instead of Clark Gable? Here’s Bobby Rydell, playing a high-schooler and looking about 35 even though he was actually only 21! Although we’re going to mock teen heartthrobs mercilessly the whole way through, so he must not have read the script.
And then there are the visual effects. At age 10, I didn’t think anything of them. At age 27, I’m wondering why Albert can draw smiley faces in the sky and pull Rosie’s “happy persona” or whatever out of her body to dance with him. The extended gag where a tortoise is force-fed a pill that speeds it up and then tears around the set for a while seems awkward and somewhat cruel4; the repetition of that gag with the Russian ballet on The Ed Sullivan Show seems dated and contrived. You can’t fast-forward ballerinas in a live show, folks! the whole thing seems to be saying. And look how awkwardly widescreen it is! Aren’t you glad you came to the movies?
2. Boy howdy, are these folks threatened by female sexuality. And male sexuality. And…aw heck, can we just start reproducing via spores? The plot of Bye Bye Birdie, in brief, revolves around Elvis parody Conrad Birdie, who has just been drafted – or more accurately, around his manager Albert (songwriting friend in the movie), who is about to be out of a job. Albert’s secretary and long-suffering girlfriend, Rosie, comes up with a plan: Albert will write a song called “One Last Kiss,” which Birdie will sing on The Ed Sullivan Show before bestowing a final kiss upon one lucky girl, chosen at random, and then heading off to basic training. Birdie’s Hollywood machinery descends en masse upon the small Ohio town where the chosen girl, Kim McAfee, lives, and turns it upside down. Girls fainting! Teenagers dancing in the streets! Cats and dogs living together! Adding to the chaos are Kim’s put-upon father, her jealous boyfriend, and Albert’s domineering mother, but eventually Kim and her boyfriend and Albert and Rosie are safely paired off and no one important cares all that much about Birdie anymore. Hooray?
Our cultural pearl-clutching over teenage girls’ reaction to teen heartthrobs is nothing new, of course. Birdie – and by extension Elvis – and his fans are relentlessly mocked throughout the movie – the screaming, the fainting, the hysteria. The Birdie phenomenon is soundly dismissed as frivolous. Birdie himself is crude, selfish, and predatory, and the girls who love him are silly and self-important – witness “the Conrad Birdie Pledge,” where they promise to cherish both their hero and “the United States of America, with liberty and justice for all. [insert hysterical screaming]” However, Birdie-mania is also dangerously combustive: when Birdie first arrives in Sweet Apple, his guitar playing and hip swiveling and scandalous lyrics (“Oh baby! Hug me! …Suffer.”) cause literally the entire female population of the town to pass out. In the play, he nearly leads the local teens into a riot. (In the movie, he just leads them into a happy chicken dance.) The nearest the movie comes to genuine hysteria – to really unfettered, unchoreographed passion – is when Kim gets the news that Conrad Birdie is going to kiss her. Within seconds she’s writhing on the stairs, babbling and screaming and clutching her hair. Girl, I feel you.
Of course, Kim’s body is the battleground for much of the conflict of the movie. (It’s a bit different in the play, where Albert is more firmly the protagonist; Kim’s role was embiggened in the movie to showcase rising star Ann-Margret.) She’s going to be kissed on national television by some lounge lizard, and the two men who have laid claim to her – her father and her boyfriend – are none too happy. The idea of Kim as an intelligent, rational being who can make decisions about her own body is laughed off within minutes, as she sings about the joys of being a woman while donning – gasp – blue jeans and addresses her parents by their first names; five minutes later, post the aforementioned Birdie news, she’s screaming for “Mommy.” Ha ha! Isn’t it funny when teenage girls think they’re in charge of themselves? Later, to hammer home the point, she dyes her hair blonde, and defends herself against her parents’ outrage by pointing out that it’s her hair, after all. “Not until you’re 21, it’s not!” her father retorts, and though it’s a joke, it’s also true.
In general, though, Mr. McAfee mostly storms impotently around as Kim’s lips become part of the national discourse, but Hugo, Kim’s boyfriend, has a more central role. He’s considered a laughingstock and a “fink” by the other boys in town because he is allowing Kim to go through with the kiss and thus betraying their united, anti-Birdie front (so Kim’s lips don’t just belong to Hugo, they belong to all the boys in town). In Kim’s favor, she’s indignant at the idea of needing permission from Hugo, and breaks up with Hugo when he tries to forbid her from kissing Birdie. But more fool her! Inspired by Birdie, she sings saucily about all the “older men from Yale or Purdue” whose hearts she’s going to break and all the pink champagne she’s going to drink “as if it were water.”5
(P.S. Try to take your eyes off Ann-Margret in this. Bet you can’t!)
As the cheerfully choreographed dance number dissolves into people dancing without choreography in the dark and motorcycles revving in the distance – to borrow from another musical, the kind of scene “that’ll drag your son, your daughter, to the arms of the jungle, animal instinct, mass-steria!”6 – Kim realizes her folly and looks helplessly around for Hugo, who is gone. Suddenly and for no particular reason, she’s far less enamored of Birdie, and when the kiss comes, edges nervously away until Hugo comes to her rescue by punching Birdie in the face. The lady’s chastity has been preserved with violence on the part of our feckless hero, Birdie’s corrupting, city-fied influence is hustled off to Vietnam, and order is restored. In the play Hugo and Kim actually get engaged, which horrifies me. They’re sixteen!
But as I mentioned a couple paragraphs back, none of this particularly surprises me. It was the early 60s, and it’s a movie about Elvis Presley and his effect on teenage girls. Of course there would be steaming piles of anxiety around the teenage heroine’s lip-chastity! What else could this movie be about?
What actually did surprise me upon rewatching, though, was the anxiety about adult women’s sexuality, particularly Rosie’s. Rosie, more than anyone else, drives the movie: as mentioned, she comes up with the whole “One Last Kiss” gimmick, smoothes over Mr. McAfee’s protests, and just generally keeps the ball rolling while waiting patiently for Albert to get up the nerve to tell his mother about them. As an adult, you’d think she’d be permitted to be more independent than Kim, but the policing of her body and sexuality starts early; when she jokes that she and Albert will soon have a third mouth to feed, Ed Sullivan and his staff are appalled and remind her that she’s not even married yet. She explains that she meant Albert’s mother and laughs her way offscreen, but seriously, Ed, you just met the lady. If she wants to fuck her boyfriend of like a million years, it’s not your business.
The anxiety over Rosie’s sexuality hits its high point, though, right after Kim’s pink champagne number. Furious with Albert for his failure to man up, Rosie heads out to a bar and finds her way downstairs, where a bunch of Shriners are holding a fairly dull meeting. She begins a very goofy combination dance/striptease that at first just leaves the Shriners weirded out and uncomfortable. Then she disappears until the table and pulls the Shriners down after her one at a time. Their expressions of mingled horror and pleasure – are they getting blowjobs or being devoured? – are anything but subtle.
Once she reemerges wearing all of their hats – having consumed them, clearly, and did I mention this movie’s not subtle? – the atmosphere changes. The men are rowdy, the room is suddenly filled with smoke, the music goes wild, and Rosie is clearly loving it. That is, until she suddenly finds herself surrounded by riled-up men with no escape. She’s flung about, chased, and grabbed; she looks on in dismay as a head appears between her legs; she screams for help and for Albert until she’s suddenly flung into his arms, and together they flee.
The thing that struck me about this scene upon rewatching is that from the point of view of the movie, she did this to herself. She flirted with men who weren’t Albert, she went into a place she wasn’t supposed to go despite Albert calling warnings after her, and she aggressively seduced a group of men who at first clearly just wanted to be left alone. Her explicit rejection of “Rosie the good girl” (she has a line to that effect a bit earlier) only leads to trouble. And not for the first time – she briefly dates Kim’s seemingly charming English teacher, also to get back at Albert, and he turns out to be a dog. Every time Rosie strays, the narrative punishes her, even though by any reasonable standards Albert has taken advantage of her good nature for years.
Immediately after the Shriner’s Ballet we cut to the morning after, which is played like Albert and Rosie spent the night together – so much so that as an 8-year-old I assumed they had and it took me years to realize the impropriety of that, 1960s-wise. She seems literally post-orgasmic as they talk. Then, hilariously, she asks what he thinks of her pajamas, and the camera pans out to reveal her babydoll nightie and ruffly bloomers as she does a slow turn. It’s sexy, but it’s also deeply infantilized, and it’s that moment that restores the Albert/Rosie dynamic to order. She’s no longer a threatening woman in fringe; she’s a docile child – though still sexy – and back to her proper position of obeying Albert. And yes, it’s gross.
Two final notes:
1. It’s worth pointing out that in the play, Rosie is explicitly Latina, which appears to be the crux of Mrs. Peterson’s disapproval of her; she directs several racist jabs at Rosie throughout the show. Rosie’s climactic solo “Spanish Rose” is an interesting example of simultaneously embracing and rejecting her Latin heritage, as she sings and dances to faux-Latin rhythms about how much of a Hispanic stereotype she’s planning to be “right after I marry Alberrrrrto.” (“I’ll be the toast of chi-chi Costanango/ And all day long my castanets will click/ I’ll hide behind my fan and do the tango/ I’ll be so Spanish it will make you sick.”)7 In the movie, Rosie (played by the distinctly non-Latina Janet Leigh) has her last name changed from Alvarez to DeLeon and the racist digs are dropped, as is “Spanish Rose,” which might suggest Movie Rosie is Italian? Regardless, both Latina and Italian women were stereotyped then (and now) as oversexed, so Rosie’s sexuality is potentially even more threatening and combustive than it would be if she were Rosie Smith or Rosie Jones.
2. If the sexuality of young women and girls is threatening, the sexuality of older women is embarrassing and horrifying. The mayor’s wife faints in response to Birdie along with the teenage girls – the mayor spends the rest of the song literally trying to force her legs closed – and she’s seen later twitching on her bed half-undressed.8 It’s played for laughs, but her husband is, of course, extremely disturbed by his wife’s blatant display of sexual desire – after all, she’s gawky and old. And when Mrs. Peterson is shown on a date – the first time she hasn’t been obsessively micromanaging and controlling Albert in years – Albert is appalled and tries to break it up. You don’t get sexual or romantic satisfaction, Mrs. Peterson! You’re old! (Later, she has to ask her son’s permission to get married. What.)
I still think Bye Bye Birdie is a really entertaining, fun show. It’s great for high schools especially, with its cheerful numbers, clean language, multiple roles for girls,9 and large female chorus. And the movie will always have a very special place in my heart, especially Ann-Margret’s contributions. I am not in any way advocating for no more Bye Bye Birdie. But the anxieties it raises are very much with us now (Bieber Fever, anyone?), and I think it’s worth unpacking them and seeing what drives this beloved installment of the musical canon.
- Including the one where Mickey pulls a gun on Donald, otherwise known as the greatest and most hilarious Mickey/Donald interaction of all time. ↩
- Hence my lifelong affection for this most underrated of Disney films. ↩
- I’ve heard that “girlcrush” is an inappropriate term for straight girls to co-opt, so I suggest as an alternate term: “ladydazzled.” Ann-Margret ladydazzles me something fierce. ↩
- But I’ve owned turtles all my life, so I’m biased. ↩
- God, she even sings “Daddy dear, you won’t know your daughter.” Could the Freudian ownership of young girls in this movie/play be less subtle? ↩
- Bonus points for identifying that line. ↩
- It’s also both racist and a heated response to racism, and parodying the stereotype of the oversexed Latina while playing into it…basically I could spend another couple thousand words unpacking just this song. But I won’t. ↩
- Kim is also seen partially undressed in bed dreaming fitfully of Birdie. While Albert watches. It’s weird and inappropriate. ↩
- My camp production had a female Birdie due to lack of boys, which now that I think about it gives the show some awesome subtext. ↩