Viva La Redhead, But It’s A Sin To Eat A Mocking Birdie
It’s been awhile since my last “birthday clock caricature.” Time to make amends. A belated Happy Birthday to actress-singer Ann-Margret (b. 1941) and reclusive author Harper Lee (b. 1926), both born on April 28th. Here’s the final:
I had to laugh when I saw the two women shared a birthday. Why? Ann-Margret got saddled with the term “sex kitten” early in her career, and Harper Lee wrote To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), one of the most famous novels in American Literature. The idea of juxtaposing a “cat” and a “bird” jumped into my head immediately. But it gets even funnier because the movie that made Ann-Margret a major star was Bye Bye Birdie. Here’s a detail image:
Ann-Margret Olsson was born in Sweden, and moved to the United States in 1946. She broke into show business around 1960, at the tail-end of the “golden age.” Early fans and supporters included show-biz legends George Burns, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny.
She began recording in 1961, and has had a long career as singer. However, she’s only hit the Billboard Top 40 once, with a song called I Just Don’t Understand, which peaked at #17 in August, 1961. (Trivia: The Beatles covered the song in their early live sets, and it can be found on their compilation album, Live At The BBC.)
She became a major star playing all-American teenager Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio, in the film version of the Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie (1963), and went on to star with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).
Below left: a very young Ann-Margret with television host Ed Sullivan on the set of his variety show. Right: with Presley on the set of Viva Las Vegas.
Trivia: Ann-Margret is a natural brunette. Alas, that famous red hair isn’t real (sigh). In researching this post, I was surprised to find that she had recorded a Christmas album as recently as 2004, and that she is still active as a television actress: she won an Emmy in 2010– her first, after six nominations. Below left: at the peak of her commercial success, circa mid-60s; below right: with her Emmy Award, August 2010.
Just how good is To Kill A Mockingbird? I saw the movie version (1962) first, then went straight out and bought the book. I literally couldn’t put it down– despite having seen the film and knowing exactly how it was going to end. It really is that good.
I could tell you it’s set in Alabama in the American South during the depression years of the 1930s, and that its central theme is racial prejudice. That there’s a court trial, and a heroic lawyer, and that the story is narrated (remembered) by his daughter who was six years old at the time the book’s events take place. That it’s also a coming-of-age story, filled with colorful characters and subplots. But it’s more than all that: it’s about human nature and life itself. And it recreates a time and place so visceral and real, you feel you’ve been there when you finally close the book.
Nelle Harper Lee based much of the book on her childhood growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. Her own father was a lawyer. Pictured below: Lee circa 1960 sitting in the balcony of the Monroe County Courthouse, where her father argued his cases. For the movie version of the book, a set designer came to Monroeville to measure and photograph the courtroom. It was then recreated on a Hollywood sound stage.
The book’s odd title is drawn from an exchange in the story. Atticus Finch, the lawyer and central character, gives his children air rifles for Christmas, and tells them they can “shoot all the bluejays they want,” but that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Puzzled, his daughter asks a neighbor why killing a mockingbird would be a sin. The neighbor explains that mockingbirds do no harm and simply “sing their hearts out for us.”
Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages. It’s the mostly widely read book in American high schools, and has never been out of print. A very tough act to follow. It is Harper Lee’s only book.
Below left: Harper Lee with actor Gregory Peck who played Atticus Finch in the movie. Right: a photo of Lee taken in 2005.
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