When rock star Conrad Birdie (a very thinly veiled Elvis-type) is drafted by the U.S. Army, the news isn’t just devastating to his legion of teenage fans. It’s also bad news for songwriter Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), who was supposed to write a song for Birdie’s next movie. But Albert’s quick thinking secretary and fiancée Rosie (Janet Leigh) manages to convince Ed Sullivan to have Conrad Birdie give a farewell performance on his show, during which he would sing the song “One Last Kiss” (written by Albert, of course) and Conrad would kiss one lucky teenage fan. Ed Sullivan agrees and Rosie chooses Kim McAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio to be the lucky girl. When Conrad arrives in Sweet Apple, his presence wreaks all sorts of havoc in the small town. Passed out teenage fans litter the streets, Kim’s boyfriend Hugo is insanely jealous, and Kim’s father (Paul Lynde) is not at all thrilled about having a rock star staying in his house. And to make things worse for Albert and Rosie, Albert’s overbearing mother (Maureen Stapleton) also comes to town bent on splitting up Albert and Rosie. Kim’s father’s worries are quickly put to ease when he’s promised an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Albert’s mother, on the other hand, is a harder problem to solve. The visit to Ohio turns outright disastrous when Conrad’s performance on the Ed Sullivan Show is canceled to give the Russian ballet more time. But because Albert just happens to also be interested in chemistry, he’s able to find a way to get Conrad back on the show. Of course, Conrad’s performance can’t go the way it’s supposed to. But everything ends up working out so that everybody goes home happy.
Up until recently, Bye Bye Birdie was a movie that just hadn’t really shown up on my radar. Considering how much I love musicals and 1960s rock music, you’d think a musical about a 1960s rock star being drafted would rank high on my “to watch” list, but nope. It wasn’t until I saw an episode of Mad Men that I became oddly intrigued by Bye Bye Birdie. If you don’t watch Mad Men, there’s an episode where Sterling Cooper is asked to make a commercial for Patio, a precursor to Diet Pepsi, and Pepsi wants the commercial to be an exact copy of the beginning of Bye Bye Birdie. Of course, all the men in the room can’t wait to start casting the Ann-Margret look-alike, but Peggy thinks Ann-Margret is shrill and tries to convince everyone the commercial is a disaster waiting to happen. (To watch the scene in question, watch the first 50 seconds of this video.) I had never seen Bye Bye Birdie before, but just from the clip featured in the show, I agreed with Peggy and thought it was kind of annoying. But seeing that clip actually made me curious about the movie. Yes, there is part of me that will think, “Wow, this looks obnoxious. I want to see this!”
When I finally did see it, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. Once I got into it, I didn’t find Ann-Margaret quite as shrill anymore. Instead, I found her vivacious and fun to watch. I also thought it was fun to see Janet Leigh in such a lighthearted role because when I think of Janet Leigh, I think of things like The Manchurian Candidate and, of course, Psycho. Janet wasn’t the greatest singer or dancer, but it was fun. Even though the movie is firmly set in the 1960s, I think it’s a movie all generations can still relate to. Every generation has their teen heart-throb du jour, so even if you weren’t around to see Elvis get drafted, all you have to do is imagine what it would have been like if one of the New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, or Jonas Brothers got drafted and you’ll get this movie. No matter how old you are, Bye Bye Birdie is simply a great bit of light, frothy entertainment. Although, I can see how you might find the movie shrill and annoying if you don’t like super lighthearted stuff.