Did “Bye Bye Birdie” influence “I wanna hold your hand?”


Until I saw Bye Bye Birdie again, I hadn’t realized just how much “I wanna hold your hand” owes to it.

And in some ways, the Steven Spielberg produced film is a very successful remake of the 1963 classic, using the Beatles as the center piece rather than Elvis Presley.

“Bye Bye Birdie” is a film about the impact of a super star on then contemporary society. It is a film depicting what would happen if someone like Elvis was to suddenly arrive in an average American town. How the people would react, what would be the inevitable social impact?

“I wanna hold your hand,” takes a slightly different tract, by bringing the small town population to the city, documenting in fiction what might have happened to a pack of suburban kids seeking to see The Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.

The two films differ in many ways, but the most important involves the distance between when the film was made the events they are trying to portray. “Bye Bye Birdie” is a film still largely in the middle of the events. In fact, “Bye Bye Birdie,” was released to the theaters a few months prior to the events that “I wanna hold your hand” portrays.

Filmed decades later, “I wanna hold your hand,” has the advantage of hindsight, but the disadvantage of attempting to recreate an atmosphere of innocence more natural to “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Although “I wanna hold your hand” has the benefit of decades of news reports, documentaries and, not least, The Beatles own film, “Hard Days Night,” the chore of going back to that time is a monumental task, that even the good doctor from “Back to the Future” would have found daunting – a feeling Tom Hank’s film “That thing you do” accomplished well.

The solution may have been to use both “Hard Days Night” and “Bye Bye Birdie” as a model – and since “Bye Bye Birdie” seems to have had a strong influence on “Hard Days Night,” “I wanna hold your hand,” has numerous apparent interconnection with the 1963 classic.

“Bye Bye Birdie” and “I wanna hold your hand” have numerous details in common.

Many of the scenes in “I wanna hold your hand” seem to echo those of “Bye Bye Birdie,” from the preparations for the show to the impact of performers have on particular women. Scenes such as the fan clutching Birdie’s guitar are echoed in similar scenes depicting the love fest the girl has with Paul’s base in “I wanna hold our hand,” and the repeated fainting of the mayor’s wife we get in “Bye Bye Birdie” is repeated in “I wanna hold your hand.”

Of course, “I wanna hold your hands” provides a much more graphic picture of the desperate means fans will use to get what they want resorting to sale of fake bed sheets, muggings, bribery, even prostitution. Yet some of these same elements can be found in “Bye Bye Birdie” as well, if in a more innocent guise.

Love and marriage figure prominently in both films, although we get something of a difference in philosophy and a better view of the sharp cultural differences that makes one film an icon of the 1950s and the other one that could serve the 1960s better.

In “Bye Bye Birdie” we get a songwriter who is afraid to tell his mother than he wants to marry, and a significant thread deals with his ability to overcome this so he can win the girl – with his contact with the superstar somehow helping him.

In “I wanna hold your hand,” we have a girl engaged to a 1950s-like overly controlling boyfriend and her contact with The Beatles causes her to seek her freedom.

Ann Margaret plays the fan that is chosen to be kissed by Birdie before he goes off into service. While she has no direct counterpart in “I wanna hold your hand,” aspects of her are broken into several fans.

One aspect of this is reflected in the intellectual girl in “I wanna hold your hand” hooks up with a macho male who hates the influence of The Beatles and reflects the change in society going on at the time. We get a similar if weaker character in Ann Margaret’s boyfriend who becomes the wimpish spokesperson for the Birdie-hating boys.

As pointed out earlier, the films present us with a differing geography: small town vs. big city. Yet this is less of a difference than it first appears. While Birdie’s arrival in the small town turns society on its ear, The Beatles make an invasion to the small town, too, via the airwaves through disc jockeys such as Murray the K. Although “I wanna hold your hand” is located in New York City, the psychological geography is the same. Suburban life is simply dragged into the streets of New York.  In both films, we are presented with the same mental anguish, the struggle for teen identity, and the stiff resistance of adult society to admit change.

One particular scene from each film highlights just how similar the films are in this respect and strongly suggest that one film influence the other.

In one of the ever expanding subplots that make “I wanna hold your hand” such a grand entertainment, we find the teen photographer at wits end after her various plots to raise the necessary $50 bribe have failed. Previously, she agreed to bribe a stage guard into letting her onto the stage for pictures once The Beatles went on. But raising the money was a chore, and nearly resulted in her getting beat up when she sold phony bed sheets to a rough female street gang.

She and a boy companion are quietly getting drunk when she overhears a man at another table arranging to have a college-aged prostitute come to his room. The teen photographer decides to pose at the hooker – although she clearly has reservations and in the end chickens out, and chooses to steal the man’s money instead. But she is forced into the man’s apartment closet when the real hooker shows up.

Meanwhile her boy companion, who is rapidly becoming a romantic image, drinks until he has built up enough courage to come rescue her, and eventually succeeds in luring her away from big city’s perversion.

In a similar scene in “Bye Bye Birdie” we find the songwriter’s frustrated lover seeking out the “wildest bar” in the small town after the songwriter again failed to tell his mother about the budding romance.

Yet the term “wild” is relative (and notoriously tame by big city standards) and the best she can find is a Shiner Convention that resists her seductions when she eventually invades it.

Yet underlying even the sleepiest suburbia are the same basic primitive urges as those more openly displayed in the big city, and once set free, the male conventioneers drag her into a dance with strong sexually ritualistic overtones from which the song writer eventually untangles her.

In both films The Ed Sullivan Show features prominently. For those living in the era of “Bye Bye Birdie” Ed Sullivan was the central icon of entertainment, in much the way Johnny Carson was later, a symbol of contemporary American culture through which the adult world was introduced to Birdie (Elvis). Again, the 1963 film foreshadows that arrival of The Beatles a short time later.

“I wanna hold your hand” documents a specific and monumental moment in contemporary American history, an exact point to which we can accurately point as to when society changed dramatically. The film is thick with specific references Birdie lacks, yet the basic structure of both films is the same. Both films depict the build up to the performance and the chaotic events that take place during that time.

While you may believe “I wanna hold your hand” developed this plot line from The Beatles film “Hard Days Night,” you can also see the massive influence “Bye Bye Birdie” played in The Beatles film, from grandfather’s arrival on the stage during the performance (like that of Ann Margaret’s dad) to Ringo’s perceived lewd behavior during his walkabout (similar to the song writer’s journey into the Shiner convention).

Both “Bye Bye Birdie” and “I wanna hold your hand” attempt to show the change of culture taking place at the time. Both appear to bemoan the loss of innocence, although each provides us with a slightly different view of that loss.

This difference may be the result of when each film was created.

For all its bells and whistles, “Bye Bye Birdie” is a very conventional film. It was created at the time when Elvis and a short time later The Beatles till were uncertain forces on the community, and their impact still reverberated through society, pitting teens against adults. While the film as a musical has a very artificial surface, resembling in many ways the host of bedroom and musical comedies that came out during that era, it had deeper more serious and very authentic undertones that reflected the fears and the struggle going on at the time.

But when all is said and done, “Bye Bye Birdie” sides with the conventional society. It is society telling itself that the changes are nothing to worry about and that in the end all will turn out as it ought to, despite the huge influence superstars like Elvis have on the kids. Whatever is wrong with kids today will work itself out and the kids will turn out just the way they always have.

“Bye Bye Birdie” conveys the innocent believe that all will turn out all right, that this madness of icons like Elvis will pass, and if people can wait out the worst of it, all will turn out well: the girl will hook up with the right boy and that the son will leave his mother and take on a bride.

The film paints Elvis as a moment in time that allows the characters to reflect on what is important, and if the characters are determined enough, they can still save what it good from the past.

“Bye Bye Birdie” filmed in 1963 could not have foreseen the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the riots in the ghetto, or the impact of the war in Vietnam. It did not foresee the massive social changes the 1960s would bring, and in this respect, presents us with a truly innocent vision of the time period.

While “I wanna hold your hand” seeks the same sense of innocence, it is burdened with a huge amount of history “Bye Bye Birdie” didn’t have, each historic event working against it so that in the end we get loss a sense of actual innocence and more a pang of nostalgia for a time when people could be an innocent as the characters we meet.

The film makers are not blind to this fact. So that unlike in “Bye Bye Birdie,” we meet characters whose lives are fundamentally changed by contact with the superstar. They are forced to shed the past and embrace a much more uncertain future.

Where as Ann Margaret returns to her boyfriend and the song writer wins the heart of his girl, the characters in “I wanna hold your hand” break with the past and its tradition: the son does not get a haircut; the girl gives back the engagement ring; the ambitious reporter gives up her ambition.

Instead, we get new unions based on their experiences in coming into contact with the superstars.

In knowing what happens afterwards, “I wanna hold your hand” cannot give us the same assurances that “Bye Bye Birdie” does and still remain authentic. So while the characters in “Bye Bye Birdie” go on to live their lives as convention dictates, the characters in “I wanna hold your hand” head off hand in hand into the unknown, full of hope for the future, yet without the absolute sense of balance we get in “Bye Bye Birdie.”


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