While other countries like Japan and India have a great sense of the fun of pop culture, the style originated here in the good old U.S.A. I was reminded of this watching the 1963 movie "Bye Bye Birdie" on the big screen at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia last night. With its nonstop energy and candy-color photography, the surprisingly satirical film is "pop" from start to finish.
The premise is an Elvis Presley-like rock singer, Conrad Birdie, drafted into the army, who's to give a "last kiss" to a randomly selected teenage girl on the Ed Sullivan Show before going away. The girl, significantly, is played by Ann Margaret in as dynamic a movie appearance ever.
The direction by George Sidney still has verve and style, with split screen effects and sight gags. Everything is satirized, from teenagers in "The Telephone Hour" to Russians to small town America to, of course, Elvis and rock n roll. As gold jumpsuit-wearing Conrad Birdie, Jesse Pearson has to be swaggering, boorish, buffoonish, lustful, and sexy-- to mock Elvis yet show his backwoods allure-- and somehow pulls it off, in part because against the rest of the cast he appears to be seven feet tall.
Though everyone in the plot is supposed to be chaste, the subtext of sex is everywhere. It proves Slavoj Zizek's point that movies were sexier when sexual repression was the norm. Four scenes in this regard stand out. One, when Birdie destroy's the small town's entire girl population by performing a song in the town square. A bit later, a quick shot of the mayor's wife in heat from the encounter with the rock star. Later on, the character Rosie (Janet Leigh) sexually destroys a room of Shriners in a night club. Finally, Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh satirize the mores of the time when he tells her, "You've never seen me in my pajamas before!" It's a G-rated film, but sex is everywhere.
No more so than with Ann Margaret. She plays a wholesome all-American girl-- yet in the big dance scene that includes herself, Pearson, and her boyfriend played by Bobby Rydell, she caused an audible reaction from last night's audience when she started dancing. Explosive is the only way to describe it. Few performers have been so hyper-talented. She dominates a movie that includes the talented scene-stealing likes of Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, who have large personalities of their own.
The audience, which included many college students as well as older folks, a few people just escaping the summer heat like myself, was in hysterics for the last ten minutes. Would that movies were that much fun, had that much verve, now.
I'd like to write a pop novel sometime with that kind of energy and edge. It'd reinvent the form.