Bye Bye Birdie, George Sidney’s candy-colored adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, arrived in theaters on the eve of pivotal moments in the histories of both the musical genre in Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll. The film shows no signs of anticipating either the arrival of the Beatles or the coming collapse of the studio system, but it still rests on an interesting axis with regards to its subject. In many ways, it’s a reactionary spoof on youth culture and its histrionics. But the presence of Ann-Margret alone is enough to complicate that premise, her star-making energy steering her character away from derision and into a kind of awe. In fact, the overriding joke might be more on the familial, political, and cultural authorities represented in the film, who after a decade of rock music were still flustered by the noise coming over the radio and its appeal for teenagers. In any case, the script clearly tries to have it both ways, resulting in something of a mixed bag.
The featherweight story revolves around two couples and their halting approaches to long-term commitment. Through these pairs, the film is able to keep one foot in each generational perspective. The adults are the struggling songwriter Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) and his patient girlfriend Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh). Van Dyke had initiated the role on Broadway and in the intervening years had become a sitcom star. The character couldn’t be more suited to him. In fact, fans of The Dick Van Dyke Show should find certain plotlines — such as the rock star hiding out in someone’s home and the single man staying loyal to his overbearing mother — quite familiar. The latter does produce some good laughs thanks to the performance of Maureen Stapleton as Albert’s mother (in real life, not even six months older than her “son,” but who’s counting?), shuffling into each of her scenes with virtuosic passive aggression. But many of the situations produce only mild slapstick and gentle misunderstandings.
Much of the film’s spoofery can be located in this adult perspective. First, of course, is the figure of Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), a preeminent rock star who’s just been drafted into the armed forces. Birdie is introduced with a photo montage juxtaposing the Elvis manqué’s lip curls and pelvic gyrations with reactions from enraptured teen girls. The use of still images plays up the absurdity of his raw animal appeal. Later, Birdie’s first live performance in the film elicits a mass fainting spell, culminating in a riff on the famous crane shot of wounded soldiers in Gone with the Wind. When the main plot gets going, with Birdie asked to do a farewell song on The Ed Sullivan Show, the joke gets a little more tangled. There’s the clash of high culture and low culture: a ponderous ballet performance threatens to crowd out the one-and-a-half minute song (that Albert somehow seems to have written in even less time). Combined with that is a light dusting of Cold War humor: the vulgar American entertainer trampling over pompous Russian artistes. Maybe Birdie has been fighting for his country all along! This climactic sequence is home to some truly tedious comedy, including a poorly thought-out Preston Sturges-esque framed portrait gag and some drug-induced hijinks. On the other hand, the sequence offers (with good-humored participation from Sullivan himself) an effective elbow to the ribs of cultural gatekeepers who very nearly missed the boat on the zeitgeist.
The film’s younger couple is fully aware of Birdie’s power. Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret) is randomly selected to receive a peck from the star during his Ed Sullivan performance, rousing the jealousy of her boyfriend Hugo Peabody, played by pop star Bobby Rydell. Early on, some fun is poked at the mercurial passions of the young, but the film comes to life for Hugo and Kim’s conflict in ways that it doesn’t for Albert and Rosie. Naturally enough, there’s more excitement in the kids’ group dance sequences — filmed classically with floor-to-ceiling shots, albeit with expressive lighting and color. Dramatically, as well, Hugo just seems more aware of what’s at stake and what he needs to do, as opposed to Albert’s oblivious deference to his mother. Ann-Margret sustains a great deal of ambiguity as to whether Kim is merely testing Hugo’s willingness to fight for her or is truly star-struck enough to reject him. More muddled is Kim’s rebellion against her own ineffectual parents (Paul Lynde and Mary LaRoche). Her decisions to call them by their first names and dye her hair without their permission are both easily reversed. Ultimately, the rough edges of youthful energy are sanded off with a wink. The notorious hotspot Maude’s Madcap Cafe, described by Kim as a “wild place,” turns out to be owned by a balding widower, with a staid Shriners meeting in the back room. Small-town modesty prevails.
Bye Bye Birdie shows many signs of its specific age, although not every “dated” element is unflattering. Parents of the 1950s who opposed rock ‘n’ roll have long since faded into obsolescence, their point of view all but forgotten. Had the film not spun self-aware humor out of its stodgy premise, it certainly would have faded away as well. The application of that humor isn’t always successful, but it establishes the right mood. These characters’ problems might seem difficult and heartrending, but in the end they’re easily resolved with a song. When this movie came out, the Hollywood musical, such a wonderful cultural phenomenon for thirty years, was about to enter a long fallow period after succumbing to decadence in the mid-to-late 60s. But Bye Bye Birdie isn’t worried about that. It’s a movie that thoroughly and innocently enjoys itself.