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Bye Bye Birdie

(1963) *** G
112 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: George Sidney. Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Ann-Margret, Janet Leigh, Bobby Rydell, Paul Lynde, Jesse Pearson.

/content/films/4391/1.jpgAnn-Margret got the launch of a lifetime in Bye Bye Birdie, George Sidney's 1963 film adaptation of the hit 1960 Broadway musical. Though not the zaftig starlet's first film, Bye Bye Birdie emphatically showcased Ann-Margret's youthful sex appeal, and while opinions differ as to whether the film does justice to its source material, one can't deny it's an energetic and tuneful musical romp.

Though Bye Bye Birdie is firmly rooted in retro bobbysoxer attitudes and old-school courtship rituals, the pivotal character of Conrad Birdie remains an instantly recognizable flash point. A stand-in for Elvis (with a naming nod to Conway Twitty), singing sensation Birdie inspires heterosexual-female squealing and heterosexual-male resentment that's been a familiar part of the American cultural landscape from at least the days of Frank Sinatra and right up to "Bieber fever." The kids' mass hysteria takes a turn to despair when their teen idol gets drafted (as Elvis was in 1958); as a so-long stunt, the star books an Ed Sullivan Show appearance, to be broadcast live from Middle America, in which Birdie will kiss a teen girl randomly selected to represent her peers. Sweet Apple, Ohio will never be the same...

Ann-Margret plays the lucky girl, Kim MacAfee, who happily complicates her relationship with newly official steady boyfriend Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell, a teen idol in his own right) to receive a "meaningless" kiss from Birdie (Jesse Pearson). Meanwhile, Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) desperately grasps at his last chance to break out as a songwriter: if it's his song Birdie sings before he ships out, Albert will have the security to marry his savvy, if long-suffering, girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh). The various road blocks to the lead characters' happy endings include Albert's smothering mother (Maureen Stapleton), Kim's martyr-playing father (Paul Lynde, king of manic neuroses), and the Russian dance troupe that threatens to take up the air time needed to debut Albert's song.

Bye Bye Birdie depends on the catchy songs of composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, at least two of which have become mainstays of the American Songbook: "Put on a Happy Face" (Van Dyke's big number) and  "A Lot of Livin’ to Do" (shared here by Pearson, Ann-Margret, and Rydell). And who hasn't heard, at some point, "Kids" ("What's the matter with kids today?"), a comic relief number shared her by Lynde and Stapleton. In adapting Michael Stewart's book, screenwriter Irving Brecher rather torturously makes Albert not an agent and aspiring songwriter but a research chemist (!) and aspiring songwriter (to accomodate the revised climax, and various numbers have been dropped, shuffled, and added (in the case of Ann-Margret's deliberately whiny opening/closing title tune). Van Dyke has publicly expressed displeasure at Albert's diminshed role, and anyone allergic to high-fructose corn syrup might do well to stay away, but the winking humor and musical gusto of this pop-artful camp standard-bearer still carry the day.

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