Something odd occurred to me while watching Twilight Time’s lovely new Blu-ray release of Bye Bye Birdie (it’s a limited edition, buy it now before it sells out!). I’m a big musical fan and have always thought it’s one of the genre’s unsung gems. I’ve seen it about a half dozen times and have always liked its low key charm and lack of razzle dazzle. Most movie buffs today think of musicals as a grand spectacle, from The Sound of Music all the way to Moulin Rouge, but Bye Bye Birdie shows the range of the medium extends to smaller-scale comedy, a tradition that continues with shows like 13 and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Where most musicals end with a giant bang, the finale of Bye Bye Birdie is set during an Ed Sullivan live show in a small town in Ohio. It’s also one of the funniest movie musicals ever filmed. Dick Van Dyke made his movie debut here, and his charming comic agility is in full display a year before Mary Poppins. Paul Lynde is absolutely hilarious as a suburban salesman driven nearly psychotic by his teenage daughter. And Ann-Margret gives a luminous and iconic it-girl turn that propelled her to a starring role with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas and was even dissected in a memorable Mad Men episode a few years back.
Beyond the film’s surface though, it’s a fascinating time capsule of a very specific period of American life that’s rarely seen onscreen, The 60′s before they became “The 60′s”, in other words, the years from JFK’s election until the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam dramatically escalated in 1964/65 and the counterculture bubbled over into the mainstream. The allure of this time period is at the core of why everyone loves Mad Men so much, but that show is being made with the benefit of 20/20 historical hindsight. Bye Bye Birdie was made just months before arguably the greatest societal shift in American history and nobody had any idea it was coming. Early in the movie, there’s an arty montage of photos of the film’s Elvis surrogate, Conrad Birdie, interspersed with images of youth, optimism and energy, including a shot of JFK himself. To me, a quick Rorschach test image of JFK is a harsh and jarring one. In an instant, I feel the lost promise of a leader cut down in his prime, shadowy conspiracies, Vietnam, and the subsequent murders of his brother and MLK. But when Bye Bye Birdie was released in April of 1963, the darkness that would forever be associated with JFK was still months away, and the young, energetic president was still closely married to the burgeoning youth movement that first flocked to Elvis, then the Beatles, then a few years down the road, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix.
Once I started looking at Bye Bye Birdie through the eyes of someone from early 1963, it was hard to stop. I’ve been fascinated by the late 60′s and early 70′s for most of my life. The United States has been pretty much the same as long as I’ve been alive, even after 9/11, so it’s amazing to me that essentially everyone’s role in American life changed in just a handful of years, whether you were black or white, male or female, gay or straight, young or old. It was a turbulent, violent period of history, full of riots, assassinations, political corruption and war. For 80′s babies like myself, we’ve seen documentation of the counterculture for as long as I can remember, and quasi-documentary films like Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Medium Cool captured and popularized actual footage of “The 60′s”. What’s rarer these days is a picture of The Silent Majority, the calm before the storm, and that’s where Bye Bye Birdie comes in. Essentially the whole story revolves around whether or not a girl is going to get kissed on TV. If this was real life, in six months a bunch of these boys are going to get shipped off to Vietnam and at least some of the girls are going to start reading Gloria Steinem. In the film, though, they’re suspended in a state somewhere between bright pop art and picturesque Norman Rockwell without a care in the world.