Bye Bye Birdie has sunshiny singalong written all over it even before we know the premise. The fact that it’s about the frenzy following the draft notice of a beloved hunky teenage heartthrob Conrad Birdie (a knowing amalgamation of Conway Twitty and Elvis) doesn’t help its case much. It can be rather annoying for the complete and utter squareness of every successive moment. That is true.
But on the whole, that overwhelming peppiness bowls you over with its sheer gaiety and the fervor of teenybopper spirit. So yes, at times it’s nearly suffocating and still intoxicating due to that same excessively sweet 1960s optimism.
Birdie’s unfortunate fate creates the spectacle. In its wake is left a war zone of swooning girls who go absolutely gaga after a particularly spectacular performance. But that’s just the beginning. To set the stage we must look first to a biochemist turned composer named Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) who after 6 years of fruitless toil is looking to leave the business.
But his gal, the chipper Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh), hanging onto the hope that he will one day propose marriage, brings a brilliant idea before America’s greatest variety show icon Ed Sullivan himself. Her idea: To have the beloved Birdie kiss an All-American girl as a symbolic gesture of his goodwill towards his booming fan base. Ed, of course, eats it up, and her Albert will pen the song to be heard by millions across the country that fateful Sunday night.
All that’s left is to find the girl and by the most coincidental circumstances the lucky tween winds up being Ohio’s own Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret). Her best boy Hugo (Bobby Rydell) has just “pinned her” and she sits chatting away on the telephone but it’s peanuts compared to the meteor that strikes her household that evening. Soon the whole student body and her family get carried away in the excitement promising them eternal bliss and stardom on the biggest stage imaginable.
The adolescent masses continue going baddie — namely those of the feminine persuasion — while the boys hate Birdie’s guts for stealing away their dates. In the end, Kim and her family, Albert and Rosie are on the brink of getting pushed off of Sullivan. It all seems for naught until some quick thinking gets them the outcome they were long hoping for. The Russian Ballet gets truncated to put it lightly.
What matters is that everyone gets a happy ending. Each person winds up with their respective significant other and just as it opened, Bye Bye Birdie goes out with Ann-Margret belting out the title chorus with a charisma that conquered many a young heart.
What the screen adaptation does well is act as a fitting forerunner for another cultural explosion that would occur on Ed Sullivan’s Show only a year later. In fact, Birdiemania looks strangely familiar and perfectly personifies the older generations befuddlement with their crazy kids. Paul Lynde is the perfectly idiosyncratic father figure to reflect the changing times.
Meanwhile, Janet Leigh seems to relish an opportunity to tap into one of her more ditzy personalities as Rosie DeLeon. While new to film, the beloved Dick Van Dyke struts his physical comedy and provides a charming performance of “Put on a Happy Face.”
Director George Sidney comes in with an innate understanding that musicals are a communal event and just as importantly with the realization that he had a star on his hands in Ann-Margret. If this story was on the stage, Van Dyke and Leigh would have been the stars and they did indeed have top billing. Still, with the purposeful framing device he chose and the many close-ups and set ups he picked Sidney made this Ann-Margret’s picture no question. She obliges by lighting up the screen with that unparalleled mixture of perky sensuality and early 60s innocence.
It’s all so cute and fluffy and sweetly sincere it’s almost difficult to sense the satire sitting there. But I would like to think that it’s purposefully here from the cameos of Ed Sullivan and John Daly to every other spastic characterization. My only hangup is that instead of Elvis Presley himself we got Jesse Pearson. No offense whatsoever, but he’s not exactly the King and besides having Elvis in the picture would have only accentuated the irony of the whole ordeal. Still, fans can still find solace in the fact that there’s Viva Las Vegas.