This column grew out of a conversation I had with TCM message board poster RayBan:
RB: There is quite a difference between the original Broadway musical, which was directed by Gower Champion and the later screen version, directed by George Sidney. The stage musical pivoted on the relationship between the characters played by Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera. The film version loses that emotional center by building up Ann-Margret’s part. She often seems to be squeezing Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh off the screen. And she really wasn’t young enough to play a high school girl.
TB: It became an Ann-Margret vehicle. I suppose Columbia thought that would ensure box office success, instead of letting the original material carry the film.
RB: For the director, George Sidney, this is quite a step down. The stage musical is infinitely superior.
TB: I think Charles Walters would have done a better job directing it, don’t you?
RB: Charles Walters would have been perfect.
TB:When I was a sophomore in high school, we performed the play. I remember some of us looked at the movie to see how our parts were played. We had a red-haired girl play Kim, and she did look like Ann-Margret. She was 16, a real high school girl and she fit the part perfectly. I played Mr. McAfee– and if you go by the original text, he’s a blustering sort of Gale Gordon type; not at all how Paul Lynde plays him in the film.
RB: So, you got to sing ‘Kids,’ you lucky dude, you!
TB: Yes, I had two big songs– ‘Kids’ and ‘Ed Sullivan.’ Plus the finale.
RB: Who played Conrad Birdie?
TB: Our high school quarterback. I had a scene where I have to fight him, while he’s trying to do a song. My character wants him to leave my daughter alone. We had rehearsed the whole thing perfectly. I was supposed to push my way through the crowd, get up on the platform and tell him to stay away from my precious baby girl. And he was supposed to brush me off, as in ignore me, and keep playing his song to finish out the scene.
RB: But it didn’t go as planned?
TB: Not at all. The night of the performance in front of a sold-out audience, he did more than ignore me– he actually shoved me back and knocked me off the high-rise platform. I fell at least twelve feet maybe more. The audience thought it was how the scene was supposed to go, but the rest of the cast on stage knew it was not as we rehearsed it. They all gasped, very much in character– thinking I was hurtling towards certain death, or at least a concussion.
RB: I can see it now.
TB: Somehow I landed just right, and though my shin was in incredible pain, I pushed my way back up on to the platform. I got in his face again just as the scene ended and the curtain closed. He was surprised to see that not only had I rebounded from the fall but I had gotten up there and stolen the scene from him. I learned a lot about myself that night– how much I loved to act, because it pulled me out of my shyness and inhibitions– and how I was willing to take the necessary pratfalls. After the curtain closed, it was intermission and they were all asking me if I was okay. We still had the second half of the play to do. We all had a great time with it.