The movie begins with Ann-Margret singing the title song written especially for the movie, “Bye Bye Birdie”. Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), a popular rock & roll star (similar to Elvis Presley), receives an Army draft notice, devastating his teenage fans across the nation. Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), a friend of Birdie’s who is studying to be a chemist, is struggling as a songwriter to please his overbearing mother (Maureen Stapleton). He schemes with his secretary and long-suffering girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) to have Birdie sing a song Albert will write called “One Last Kiss” on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then kiss a randomly-chosen high school girl goodbye before going off to the Army. This will make big money for Albert, who can marry his secretary/girlfriend Rosie. Albert’s meddlesome mother will do anything to separate her son from Rosie. Sweet Apple, Ohio, is chosen as the location for Birdie’s farewell performance because the Russian Ballet, which is scheduled to be the other guest on Sullivan’s show, happens to be in town on its goodwill tour of America.
The random local girl chosen is Kim MacAfee (Ann-Margret), but Kim already has a high school sweetheart, Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell). The teenagers of Sweet Apple, blissfully unaware of their town’s impending fame, are spending the “Telephone Hour” catching up on the latest gossip: Kim and Hugo have just gotten pinned (popular USA slang of the era for “going steady”). Kim feels grown up, and declares “How Lovely to be a Woman”. When Birdie arrives, the teenage girls tell him, “We Love You Conrad”, but the boys despise him (“We Hate You Conrad!”). Sweet Apple becomes a very popular small town, and some of the locals are unhappy with the sudden celebrity, especially after Conrad shows off his hip-thrusting dancing as he performs “Honestly Sincere”. Albert is able to calm the town down. He befriends Mr. McAfee (Paul Lynde), who owns a fertilizer business, showing him one of his chemical inventions: a speed pill. Albert demonstrates the pill’s effect by giving one to Randolph McAfee’s (Bryan Russell) turtle.
Though Mr. McAfee is hesitant to allow his daughter to kiss Conrad on television, Albert placates him by telling him that their whole family will be on The Ed Sullivan Show. The MacAfees join in singing “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”, chorusing the praises of their favorite host. Rosie feels like Albert doesn’t appreciate her, so Albert persuades her to “Put on a Happy Face”. Hugo feels threatened by Conrad; after all, Conrad’s going to kiss his girl! Kim assures Hugo he’s the “One Boy” for her. Albert’s mother shows up, distressed to find Albert and Rosie together, and Mr. MacAfee doesn’t like the way Conrad is taking over his house; they lament how “Kids” just aren’t like they were. During rehearsal for the broadcast, Conrad kisses Kim, and she faints. Hugo is wounded, and he and Kim break up.
That night, Conrad and the teenagers have a “A Lot of Livin’ To Do” as they party, and Kim and Hugo flirt with everyone else, trying to make each other jealous. Rosie, fed up with Albert and his mother, dances and flirts with a room full of men at a Shriners convention in “Sultans’ Ballet”. Albert rescues her from the crazed Shriners.
The day before the broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show, Albert and Rose are distressed because they have been told that the Russian ballet has switched to a difference dance and needs extra time, therefore Conrad Birdie will only get to take a quick bow, not sing the song or give Kim the farewell kiss. Rose slips a speed pill in the drink of the orchestra conductor (Gregory Morton) to speed up the ballet. There is a last minute shuffle of the show’s lineup to fill air time, and Conrad Birdie gets to appear on the show and sing “One Last Kiss”. Hugo interrupts the planned kiss by running onstage and knocking out Birdie on live TV. This impresses Kim, and all the couples (Kim and Hugo, Rosie and Albert, and Mama Mae and her new husband) find happiness (“Rosie”). Kim, now wiser, bids Birdie goodbye in “Bye Bye Birdie” (reprise).
I remember watching the made-for-TV version of this while in high school and loving it, so I decided to give the original a shot. Lo and behold I believe that I like it better. I need to see the other version again to be fair, though.
The main drawing point of musicals is the music. The better the music then chances are the better the musical will be. Unfortunately, with a couple of exception, the songs in this film aren’t memorable. That’s not to say they aren’t good, but rather you won’t be singing/humming/whistling them for days after watching this.
Dick Van Dyke is in his element here. He uses his natural acting and comedic skills as well as a bit of his dancing skills. I even noticed a move he used in Mary Poppins.
Janet Leigh does a pretty good job here, although her character is supposed to have been a woman of Latina decent in the original Broadway production. She had that working against her, so a spectacular performance on screen was required and she delivered.
Paul Lynde is bet known to me as the eccentric uncle on Bewitched. I swear that he almost makes me believe he’s straight in this role. Definitely one of his best screen gems.
This is not topping my list of musicals, but I do have it pretty highly ranked. It is a mixture of fun, controversial topics of the era it is portraying, and good music that all can enjoy. The cast is spectacular and there is plenty of 60s camp to go around. Sit back, watch, and enjoy!
4 out of 5 stars