The 1960 stage musical Bye Bye Birdie was the first fictional work of mass-media consequence to take satirical stabs at rock-star idolatry. It poked fun at Elvis with a retro-hip wink, but pulled it off during the King's early reign impressively without benefit of hindsight. The story, concerning a cheesy and slightly sleazy Elvis parody (Conrad Birdie) on a promotional visit to small-town Ohio, was inspired by the real-world event of Elvis getting drafted into the army.
The 1963 film adaptation is even more of a pop-culture treasure trove. It justly made Ann-Margaret a sex-kitten superstar and featured a pantheon of entertainment icons, including Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Janet Leigh and Ed Sullivan (as himself). It also exploited the kitsch value of Donna Reed/June Cleaver TV-style middle-class America while co-existing in the thick of it.
One of the obvious reasons Bye Bye Birdie is such an enduring success is its body of clever, catchy songs. Although a few numbers (i.e. “Put on a Happy Face”) are indefensibly corny and unintentionally kitschy, the film boasts a subtle, surprisingly sly sophistication. “Honestly Sincere” (sung by Conrad Birdie as he rides his motorcycle into Sweet Apple, Ohio) is a hilarious send-up of early rock hit formulas. “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” (sung in worship of Ed Sullivan) possesses campy content and over-the-top delivery which feels closer to a John Waters moment than Ozzie and Harriet.
The film's super-saturated color production design and caricatures of teen subculture invoke the Cinemascope equivalent of a vintage Archie comic. Its stylized, extreme-widescreen composition puts Birdie in the 2001/Ben-Hur league of films that must be seen uncropped on the largest screen possible.
This weekend, the Cleveland Cinematheque shows a newly restored 35mm archive print. It screens first on Saturday at 5:15 p.m. and again on Sunday at 4 p.m. Also, Paul Lynde biographer Joe Florenski will attend the Sunday screening and answer questions afterward. —Michael David Toth
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