Janet Leigh, being a good sport and a team player in George Sidney's 1963 destruction of "Bye Bye Birdie"Turner Classic Movies rarely does anything wrong. It almost never loses its footing in its pristine presentation of the best of Hollywood.
However, for me, its Essentials, Jr., Turner's attempt to introduce kids to the pleasures of great old movies, was misconceived from the very beginning and has a remained a slough in the TCM landscape.
For some bizarre reason, this feature has been hosted for the last two seasons by the ordinarily affable John Lithgow. I assume that someone at Turner thinks that Lithgow is a draw for children because of his association with the sitcom, "3rd Rock from the Sun." But that show ended its five-year run in 2001, and the kids who watched it are probably in college now and could care less about John Lithgow, who begins every segment earnestly trying to enlighten Turner's coveted young viewers by pontificating in the most professorial, unctous way imaginable.
This is OK when the film in question is a genuine classic, such as the June 20th Essentials, Jr. showing of Robert Mulligan's 1962 "To Kill a Mockingbird," but right now, Turner is airing George Sidney's singular disaster, "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963). Surely, calling this catastrophe, this embarrassment, a "classic" or an "essential" is a joke, right?
The film seems to exist only so Sidney, who came onto the film after original director Gower Champion bolted, could fetishize Ann-Margret, grotesquely miscast here as a 15-year-old innocent. So "Bye Bye Birdie" is questionable not only as a "film classic" but also as something suitable for children, given A-M's bumping and grinding and heavy breathing.
But back to Lithgow's opening lecture... He sings praises of Michael Stewart's book for the stage show, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Sidney's film, by way of Irving Brecher's hack screenplay, destroys everything that was good about Stewart's script. (The inane, Disney-fied bits involving the turtle, the speed-up pill and the Russian ballet troupe were all Brecher's brainchildren.) I know that Lithgow doesn't write this stuff himself but, as the front man here, this kind of omission, this misinformation, reflects directly on him. That's right - misinformation.
Case in point: During his intro, Lithgow comments that Sidney retained three of the show's original stars - Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde (both of whom reportedly never liked the film; ditto for Janet Leigh) and, as the titular Conrad Birdie, Jesse Pearson. Wrong. Pearson was not the original Birdie on Broadway. That would be the incredible Dick Gautier. Pearson didn't even appear in "Birdie" on Broadway. He was plucked from the touring company. He's a stick in the role and it's understandable, once you've witnessed his arch performance here, why he made only one other feature film (George Marshall's "Advance to the Rear" in year later).
After Lithgow's introduction, I tried to watch the film again but, as usual, I couldn't make it past the spectacle of A-M running toward the camera and, seemingly, growling, stratching and barking at it, as she she screamed out the opening title song. "Bye Bye Birdie" is a prime example of good material sacrificed in service to a misguided director's obsession with his starlet. Sorry, but, I never shared this particular obsession.
By all means, forget Sidney's unwatchable film and instead check out the 1995 TV remake, directed with fidelity to the original - and with intelligent wit - by Gene Saks. As for Essentials, Jr., it also represents a good idea that remains stillborn. It's time for Turner to pull the plug on this feature.
Or seriously rethink it.