Home
---------------
About
---------------
News
---------------
Films & TV
---------------
Records
---------------
Various
---------------
Links
---------------
Clips
---------------
Quiz
---------------
Fan Club Info
---------------
Roger Smith

The Female Elvis - In 'Bye Bye Birdie'
Ann-Margret Was King

In the 1963 rock 'n' roll musical spoof "Bye Bye Birdie" (April 9, 24), it's Jesse Pearson who swaggers through an archway of electric guitars, croons the song "Honestly, Sincere" and provocatively tests the give of gold lame. But for all the hip-swiveling homages to Elvis Presley, Pearson isn't the one who most recalls the combustible sexuality and feral charisma of the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. That honor goes to the girl from Valsjobyn, Sweden, known simply as Ann-Margret.

The former Miss Olsson never needed her last name again after this headturner of a performance. She wriggles, she jiggles, she purrs, she preens; most vividly, she dances up a storm in Bazooka-pink capris and three tiers of midriff-baring ruffles. Yet look beyond those frills (it's hard, we know), and you'll find a most amusing irony: In the midst of lampooning Elvis fever, the ginger-haired starlet was fueling a frenzy of her own.

The painting was like the stage production it's based on, the film opens with the news that singing sensation Conrad Birdie is being drafted into the army. Horror grips the nation's teens: Throngs of ponytailed protesters march on Washington with signs proclaiming, "The Army Is Mean!" and "Spare Him, Take Me!" Still, Birdie isn't about to take wing without a proper (read: highly publicized) send-off. Not long after his fate's announced, 16-year-old Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), an all-American lass from Sweet Apple, Ohio, is tapped to kiss the ersatz Elvis adieu on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Not everyone, though, is thrilled with Kim's luck. While the rest of Sweet Apple hinges on hysteria, her boyfriend (Bobby Rydell) fumes with jealousy, and her father (Paul Lynde, looking as if he owns six more teeth than the rest of us) rants and raves about all that "wiggling." Meanwhile, Ed Sullivan's secretary (Janet Leigh) connives to marry the songwriter (Dick Van Dyke) of Birdie's last tune; that is, if she can unpry him from the clutches of his overbearing mother (Maureen Stapleton). All these conflicts, of course, get sorted out amid much music, with "The Telephone Hour," "Kids," "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do" among the high points.

Back on the set, Ann-Margret had a lot of learnin' to do. Birdie was only her third film. The daughter of a Swedish electrician who emigrated to Illinois, she got discovered at a nightclub by none other than George Burns. Shortly after, in 1961, she made her debut as Bette Davis's daughter in Frank Capra's last film Pocketful of Miracles; she quickly followed that up with a role in the warbly -- and wobbly -- 1962 remake of State Fair. In real life, of course, the actress was no teenybopper: She admits in her autobiography, My Story, that she didn't catch Elvis's big 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. And as those pink pedal pushers attest, the 22-year-old looked nothing like your average high school junior.

Precisely, thought director George Sidney. The filmmaker -- then best known for such lavish musicals as 1945's "Anchors Aweigh" and 1951's "Show Boat" -- had spotted the Northwestern University coed dancing at a New Year's Eve party in Las Vegas. Evidently, he liked her seductiveness. And it didn't hurt that, at the 1962 Academy Awards, she burned down the house in a very tantalizing dance number. Sidney would fork over $60,000 of his own money to shoot additional footage of the starlet -- strutting against an azure backdrop in a low-cut canary-yellow dress -- for "Birdie's" opening and closing scenes. The effect? Her lips may be singing "Bye Bye Birdie," but everything else is shouting, "Hello, Ann-Margret!"

Suffice it to say that Sidney's gamble paid off. Big time. In its first week, the film grossed more money than any film in Radio City's 30-year history. The critics were equally enthralled, the New York Times downright, well, flowery: "
.. [the] young people dance and sing with the nimble and joyous exuberance of daffodils bursting into bloom ..." As for Ann-Margret, words like "wow" and "knockout" were trotted out, with one writer hooting that her "torrid dancing almost replaces the central heating in the theater."

Soon her career was as hot as her hoofing. A Life magazine cover followed. So did an invitation to sing "Happy Birthday" to JFK. Almost overnight, Ann-Margret was booked for more than a dozen films, most of them, including 1964's "Kitten With a Whip" and "The Pleasure Seekers," fanning the naive sensuality she exudes in "Birdie" into full-blown libidinousness.

Ironically, one of her best parts would come opposite the icon "Birdie" so eagerly skewers: Elvis Presley. Yes, leave it to the prescient Sidney to pair the redhead with the King in 1964's "Viva Las Vegas." Their collaboration is pure nitroglycerin, and it comes as no shock that the chemistry raged offscreen, too. Indeed, biographers report that Miss Olsson nearly became Mrs. Presley. The attraction just seemed inevitable, as one crony remarked to Elvis: "She's the female you!"

Yet in "Bye Bye Birdie," Ann-Margret's something more. With her incongruously innocent pleated skirts and skimmers, she's a nostalgic reminder of just how beguiling sweet-'n'-sexy can be. In any case, it was enough to leave moviegoers chanting, "We love Ann-Margret, oh, yes, we do ..."

--------------------------------------------------------------

From American Movie Classics website April 2000

--------------------------------------------------------------

Back to Various »

--------------------------------------------------------------

Home »


The Unofficial Home Of The Fantastic Ann-Margret | Various stuff | Magazines