Ed Sullivan’s Travels

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I don’t know if George Sidney needs to be elevated up a few notches among the cognoscenti, but he definitely deserves to be better known in general. his problem may be that his good bits — brazen, stunning musical cinema — are often contained in the same flawed films as his bad bits, but his good bits are transcendent.

Andrew Sarris lobs more backhanded compliments at Sidney in The American Cinema than you can shake Ann-Margret at, from the heading “lightly likable” to the specific putdowns (“has ruined more good musicals with more gusto than any director in history” and “There is a point at which brassiness, vulgarity, and downright badness become virtues”) which are very funny, but don’t do justice to the creativity and dynamism Sidney brings to his work.

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BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), adapted from a Broadway show and reaching the screen rather too late to be topical about Elvis entering the army (five years previously), isn’t particularly clued up about the rock ‘n’ roll it attempts to satirize, but its gigantic parodies of pop culture still left us gaping at the screen like the first night audience of Springtime for Hitler.

The film stars Dick Van Dyke (his first movie), Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret, with Paul Lynde as secret weapon. Jesse Pearson plays Conrad Birdie, the Elvisalike, with roughly the same appeal Alberto Sordi brought to THE WHITE SHEIK — hard to spoof sex appeal when you’re mainly repulsive, but credit is deserved for courage and shamelessness.

First jaw-dropper: Pearson causes all the girls in a small Ohio town to faint, and Sidney cranes up a mile high, blasphemously parodying the giant pull-back of Confederate wounded in GONE WITH THE WIND.

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Second jaw-dropper: Lynde, who overplays like a starving actor seeing scenery for the first time in a year, is transfixed by the thought of appearing on television with Ed Sullivan (“My favourite human!”) and has a Grouchoesque Strange Interlude, wandering into the foreground and provoking a ripple-dissolve by sheer overintensity, leading to a musical dream sequence in which he and his family, attired as a heavenly choir, sing “Ed Sullivan” ad nauseam and Lynde’s face becomes progressively more purple, like Luca Brasi getting strangled in THE GODFATHER.

Third jaw-dropper: when Lynde refuses to let his daughter kiss the rock star, Mrs. Lynde worries about the kid losing face. “If he stays here, that won’t be all she -” begins Lynde, before choking off in an excess of emotion. The censorship of the word “loses” actually makes this mildly smutty joke seem about six times more obscene.

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Fourth jaw-dropper: Janet Leigh, frustrated by her mother-obsessed fiancé’s failure to propose, crashes a meeting of some random fraternal society (dressed like The Sons of the Desert) and basically rapes most of them under a table. Or so it would seem: hard to know how else we’re meant to interpret it, as one shriner after another is yanked out of frame below the furniture as if beset by Bruce the Shark.

I think Van Dyke basically inventing super-powered Benzedrine and giving it to a tortoise who then jet-propels from the room probably counts too.

Elsewhere, there are less startling pleasures: “Put on a Happy Face” and “I’ve Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do” are the most recognizable numbers. Maureen Stapleton plays Dick’s domineering mom, improbably enough — she was exactly his age, joining a select club with Jesse Royce Landis, whose character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST must have given birth to Cary Grant just as she was leaving the womb herself, like a kind of Russian doll, or a variant on that cartoon of three fish swallowing one another.

Sidney loses out on the chance to be a less sexist Frank Tashlin by staging a long, not-too-funny sequence where the conductor of the Russian ballet is slipped a capsule of Van Dyke’s speed, and proceeds to lead the production at 400% velocity. The anti-Americanism is funny, but this stuff is neither a sufficiently robust response to Kruschev, nor a questioning of the Cold War. It just dilutes the acerbic gusto (that word again) of the rest — but the prolonged, Hitchcockian build-up to the slapstick IS pretty funny, so outrageously does Sidney extend the wait.

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Oh, and there’s Ed Sullivan himself, who always looked to me like a version of Richard Nixon with third-degree burns, and it turns out the low-resolution TV picture was flattering him.

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Janet Leigh reprises her bra routine from PSYCHO, and Ann-Margret is alternately cute and terrifying (when her lips retract, yikes!), ending the picture by rattling her tits right at the camera. I think female viewers, or gay male viewers (at a musical?? surely not!) are slightly short-changed in the pulchritude department, since DVD is one of those hetero actors who projects no particular sexuality — he’s straight without ever seeming to want to do anything about it. I guess that’s a useful quality, since he has to be able to share screen time with “teenage” Ann-Margret without looking like he’s going to rip his shirt off and run amongst her.

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9 Responses to “Ed Sullivan’s Travels”

  1. Regarding those gay male viewers, Bryan Batt in :”Man Men” — an openly gay actor playing a closeted gay ad man — is obsessed with Ann-Margret in “Bye Bye Birdie.” He uses that finale image as a pitch to a lipstick company the firm represents. and they buy it.

  2. Yow! You’re averaging more than one laugh-out-loud line per paragraph here! // Somewhere in the 600+ closely printed pages of “But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen,” Anthony Burgess waxes ecstatic about the “gloomy mask of tragedy / you’ll be glad you de-” rhyme in “Put on a Happy Face,” but it was a tangent in an essay about something else and there is no index.

  3. Maybe Ann-Margret makes such a great avatar for radically different feelings because she’s sexy and also slightly alarming in her savagery…

    Thanks, Jeff! Ideally I should only ever write about demented films like this one…

  4. Quite true about A-M. I’m sure that’s why Sidney liked her so much and directed her so often. I particularly love her in “Viva Las Vegas” where she and Elvis are perfectly paired. On Broadway the “Birdie” character she plays, “Kim” was far more innocent. Her boyfriend “Hugo” was played by Michael J. Pollard. He was usurped by Bobby Rydell (an actual teen idol) for the movie. But in 1967 he came into his own on-screen with “Bonnie and Clyde”

  5. bensondonald Says:

    I still have a weak spot for the stage version — it still works well when emphatically done in period — and still have problems with the directions the movie took.

    Perhaps the biggest is that the Broadway show was for the parents of teenagers, while the movie was for the very youth it mocked. Hence replacing two comic actors with gorgeous teen types trying to play doofusy kids. GREASE had the same problem: Originally a cruelly funny riff on 50s adolescence aimed at those old enough to remember it, it became part of a big fake nostalgia wave for current teens (who managed to miss the razor blade satire in ANIMAL HOUSE and embraced a flood of toothless ripoffs).

    The Russian stuff isn’t in the play; nor is the rival for Rose’s affections. Act One ends with Hugo punching Conrad Birdie on national television, sending the Sullivan show into chaos. Act Two is the townwide chaos that immediately follows. Rosie finally walks out on Albert and Kim follows her lead; parents are out searching for their straying youth; Birdie is out seeking diversion and finds Kim, then is found by his rabid fans (“Let’s have an or-gee” a girl shouts) and rescued by cops. Rosie escapes the aroused Shriners and joins Albert, who finally told off his mother. By dawn they’ve managed to put the humbled Birdie on a train out of town while going the opposite direction to Albert’s real dream, teaching grade school English. The show ends on a deliberately old-fashioned duet; such a small ending on a broad and often raucous comedy naturally bothered Hollywood.

    The GONE WITH THE WIND moment is almost in the play: While the orchestra plays “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, flashlights play across the darkened stage as disgruntled men collect their unconscious womenfolk. The “Ed Sullivan” song is in the show, where it works better (and now reminds the audience that Ed really was a big deal back then). The movie purges all references to Rose being “Spanish” (in the play her name is Rose Alvarez); Albert’s mother was full of racist digs which paid off in Rose’s comic showstopper “Spanish Rose”, where she embraces all the stereotypes (Broadway’s Rose was Chita Rivera, hot off WEST SIDE STORY).

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Story I’ve read in a couple of places: At a studio party, various male bigwigs get up and celebrate Brilliant New Star Ann Margret at almost creepy length. Finally Paul Lynde stands up. “You know, I think I’m the only one here who doesn’t want to screw Ann Margret.”

  7. Thanks!

    My reading up on the play revealed to me the presence of a character called Gloria Rasputin, which is enough to make me want to see it.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    Saw a stage production a couple years back which had a joke that might appeal to you, David. Kim hasn’t returned home from her date in a timely fashion, and Albert is forced to improvise an alibi: that she’s been at the movies (see Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue in A SUMMER PLACE). The joke is when he tells the name of the l-o-n-g double-bill: GREED snd FLYING DOWN TO RIO.

    Author of the script: Michael Stewart. Song-writers: Lee Adams (words) and Charles Strouse (music).

  9. Hahaha! That’s insanely perfect — far funnier than just naming two films known for their length.

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