Sunday, July 04, 2010

turner's misstep

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.

17 comments:

Ric said...

I’m a fan of Sidney's "Birdie," but confessing it makes me feel like a strange creature from outer space. Definitely a guilty pleasure, as I realize that it's not a very good film.

david h. said...

I also agree Birdie leaves me untouched. Stapleton is probably the best thing in it, if only because she suggests a darker side to the affair and hers is the only role that remains faithful to the stage character. The other charcters in the screen Birdie are poorly written and hardly developed as more than ciphers. Only Stapleton has substance, as if she wrote her own mise en scene.
The film itself certainly represents Sidney’s last gasp in the musical genre, unless you count "VivaLas Vegas." (I don't.) "Kiss Me, Kate" remains my favorite Sidney musical.

joe baltake said...

Actually, David, "Half a Sixpence" was George Sidney's last gasp as a maker of musical films, and it's very good. But it remains a forgotten movie today and consequently "Birdie" looms as his swan song (pun intended, given the lame Swan Lake ballet parody that he forced on the film). Still, some people like it.

John Kaiser said...

Agree whole heartedly about the movie "Bye-Bye Birdie". But as for John Lithgow's credentials as host, he is the author of quite a few children's books.

joe baltake said...

John- I'm aware that Lithgow is the latest actor to pen books for children, but to the best of my knowledge, his books are for small children. Essentials, Jr., however, seems to be directed at older kids - pre-teens and teens - if "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Birdie" are examples of the kind of titles being screened. Anyway, there seems to be this disconnect between the age of the audience for whom Lithgow writes and the age of the viewer that Turner wants to attract.

Marvin said...

Loved! your "rant" on BYE BYE BIRDIE -- a truly awful film. I was recently discussing this film with some friends, and we all wondered what had happened to Jesse Pearson. Well, Joe, thanks to you, I now know!

joe baltake said...

Jesse Pearson died in 1979. Only made those two films. He was 33 when he made "Birdie" in '63.

Sheila said...

You're right. Gautier was the original Conrad Birdie and the best.

Kevin Deany said...

"Got A Lot of Livin' To Do" is an absolutely terrifc number, one of my all-time favorites. The rest of the movie is unbearable.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- I agree - up to a point. Yes, Onna White's choreography is great, but by that point in the film, I had enough of the grating Ann ("Look at me!") Margret. She looks more like a Vegas showgirl in that number than a small-town teen. But don't get me started! -J

Kevin Deany said...

Joe: Despite my love for that number, I understand exactly where you are coming from, and I can't argue with you.

The musical number you don't want to get me started on is "Put On a Happy Face." Is there a more idiotic number on celluloid?

I really need to check out the TV remake. I missed it when it first aired.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- On stage, "Put On a Happy Face" was a sweet, Gene Kelly kind of number. And that's the way it's staged in the TV remake. The animation forced on it by George Sidney is grotesque, as is the animation that ends "The Telephone Hour," a really cheesy number that was inventively staged by Gower Champion for the original production. By all means, try to see the remake.

Seymour said...

I am not ashamed to admit this film was a fave of mine when I was young it appeared on TV. What did I know from the original show? The songs were mostly good, but I agree about "Put on a happy face", awful. Despite your many objections, I still think Paul Lynde is funny and "The Telephone Hour" is a memorable minor spectacle. As for Mr Lithgow, meh, I don't have TCM right now but I don't feel I am missing anything as far as he is concerned.

The idea of getting young viewers to watch old film is completely misguided. For years I worked in a video store, and I'm convinced that a huge segment of the 'younger' demographic will never be interested in anything "old" or in black & white. They want to be on the cutting edge of new movies, no matter how much dreck that implies. There is nothing to be done about it. A few of them will discover the wonders of the "classic" and maybe they will carry the torch to the next generation, but I have my doubts.

Bx6207 said...

Not crazy about Musicals (skipped this one once Lithgow announced it, not crazy about his choices, either) but might check out the Gene Saks (a fellow New Yorker) version if I ever encounter it.

PS: enjoyed "A Thousand Clowns" (Dir. Saks/1965).

joe baltake said...

Bx6207! Gene Saks did not direct "A Thousand Clowns," although he is in it as an actor. It was directed by Fred Coe, who also did the forgotten "Me, Natalie" (1969).

Bx6207 said...

That's right, my mistake. Sorry. He played Leo/Chuckles the Chipmunk. But he did direct Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple & Cactus Flower, a fairly decent 1960's track record.

Bx6207 said...

Haven't seen "Me, Natalie". Researched & on the basis of the synopsis/ cast, it appears to be a film I would enjoy. Thanks for the tip.