Feminist Friday: Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

The early 1960s are identical to the 1950s in popular culture… largely tame and conservative. A late studio era musical, Bye Bye Birdie is a snapshot of this period. While it’s largely clean-cut and standard, an interesting tension boils beneath the surface. While the United States was still white bread, Eisenhower conservatism by and large, fascinating changes were bubbling underneath.

Bye Bye Birdie follows the zany goings on when the not-so-disguided fictional rocker Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) is drafted into the army. Facing the prospect of loosing their cash cow performer, songwriter Al (Dick Van Dyke) and Rose DeLeon (Janet Leigh) orchestrate a plan to have the singer kiss a girl goodbye on the Ed Sullivan Show. With the show set, this brings Kim McAffee (Ann-Margret) and the other residents of Sweet Apple Ohio straight into the sights of the chaos surrounding Birdie. George Sidney directs the film from a script by Irving Brecher.

The film is one of the earliest appearances of Ann-Margret, showing the triple threat actress in the years before she evolved into one of the 1960s greatest “sex kittens”. However, what becomes immediately apparent is the layers of her performance. In Ann-Margret’s hands, Kim Macaffee isn’t simply a giggly, stereotypical teenager. There’s a sense that she’s becoming a woman.

The subject matter of “How Lovely to Be a Woman”, Ann-Margret’s star persona and the cinematography combine in fascinating ways. Surprisingly, the song avoids feeling male gaze-ey, despite the fact the choreography sees the actress changing clothes (ever so delicately!) on camera. Considering the character’s young age, a lascivious camera could prove tricky. She’s not sexualized. Rather, the moment feels accurate (aside from the whole singing and dancing thing) to those late teenage years. You’re leaving the confines of childhood for the freedom of adulthood, you’re gaining a social life and the only drama in life is of the high school variety.

The clip shows just a hint of the sexual… awareness… which makes Ann-Margret a fascinating, early 1960s leading lady. Early in the song, she sings “Whenever you hear boys whistle, you’re what their whistling at!”. There’s an awareness (and acknowledgement) of sexuality in all of Ann-Margret’s work in the era, and while its subtle, this is still present in Bye Bye Birdie. While this might not feel so groundbreaking, simply look to the idealized femininity of the late 1940s and early 1950s. They’re chaste, innocent and dress exactly like their mothers. From the number above, it’s clear that Kim doesn’t fit this mold. This idea of teenage life is closer to the Beatlemania of the 1960s than the popularized ideals of the 1950s.

The film uses the narrative love triangle to further explore this facet of Kim’s personality. The young woman finds herself caught between her high school boyfriend Hugo (Bobby Rydell) and Elvis Presley like rock-and-roll idol Conrad Birdie. From his first appearance it is clear that Hugo is symbolic of the pre-teen years Kim is trying to get away from. As she sits on the phone with him, she says, “I have no plans, I think I can get out till about 10! Oh, you have to be in by 9. Well c’est la vie”.  Throughout much of the film, you can tell just how far ahead Kim is when compared to Hugo. This is what makes Birdie so appealing to her… he’s a grown… albeit creepy… man. He’s her fantasy. Hugo is a boy, who often looks in shock of his stellar luck at catching and “pinning” Kim.

The song is a particular interesting one as we see Kim and Hugo in the biggest relationship tiff of the entire film. Kids of the 1990s might remember talk of a Brittney Spears/Justin Timberlake nightclub dance-off. This is that… in 1963. Rydell particularly shines in the number which grants him his one opportunity of the movie to stand out, showing the vocal skills which made him a household name during the period.

The number shows Kim as sexualized as she is in the entire movie. She’s young, fiery and wants all the boys to see her as a sex-object. In this scene, her persona leap-frogs a few years, showing flashes of her “sex kitten” mid-1960s. She looks straight at the camera, filly aware of everything she’s doing. The actress showed that the girl-next-door could be sexual, and there was nothing shameful about that.

All at once, we see both Kim and Hugo stepping beyond the usual relationship/gender expectations of the early 1960s. She wants to drink lots of pink champagne and enjoy herself, while he wants to be a “ring-a-ding” drummer. Are they just saying it to get back st the other? Probably. However, when comparing this (very teenage) reaction to a break-up, we see both not placing their worth on establishing a nuclear family. There’s other things they could do, and both are very aware of this fact.

When thinking of Bye Bye Birdie as a triangle between Birdie/Kim/Hugo, the movie makes some interesting choices in Birdie’s development. He’s creepy. He’s really creepy. This is incredibly telling when he’s first introduced to Kim before “Sincere”. When the two shake hands, the camera is deliberate in showing that the rocker checks out the teenager with lingering, almost lurid eyes. It’s almost an uncomfortable moment.

Later, as everyone converges on the much-anticipated Ed Sullivan Show, Kim and Conrad are once again pushed into the same uncomfortably close territory. In this final number (“One Last Kiss”), the tone shifts drastically. In the previous numbers, Kim finds herself lost in the moment. She’s just another teenager, giddy at the prospect of listening to her idol. However, when she’s alone and squarely in his focus, the situation morphs. It’s uncomfortable, and Kim feels it. She doesn’t want his attention and this is the first time we see her try to get away from him. At one point, she almost backs off the stage.

The moment is shown through a completely objective lens, with only Hugo seemingly picking up on her body language cues. He springs to action, laying out Birdie with a single punch, saving the damsel-in-distress, and securing the Hollywood ending. In the grand scheme of things, the scene feels a bit strange with the major character shifts. However, it’s there for one reason: this is the early 1960s and the happy ending is paramount. Kim needs to make the right choice… Hugo.

Bye Bye Birdie is a fascinating film, especially coming out of the seemingly simplistic early 1960s. For a standard Hollywood musical, there’s a great deal of interesting context, largely surrounding the character development of Kim and actress Ann-Margret’s star persona. While things weren’t changing quickly, elements of the movie shows the ever-changing social lines during this turbulent period.

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