I’ve never been a huge fan of Elvis, but he’s always been a part of my life. You see, when my sister and I were kids, we were for some reason convinced that Elvis was our dad’s least-favorite singer of all time. Naturally, that meant we were required to taunt him with Elvis memorabilia at every opportunity. You name it, we shoved it at him — Elvis license plates, t-shirts, posters, keychains, purses. (Yes, purses.) At the time, we thought we were hilarious. Looking back on it now, I have no idea why.
Apparently we weren’t the only ones who found Elvis to be unintentionally hilarious, though. In 1963, the heartthrob got his very own spoof film, Bye Bye Birdie.
Elvis himself was reportedly sought for the role of Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), the hip-swingin’ idol of the rock-n-roll set. The film tells the story of Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), a songwriter who wrote the title tune for a film Conrad had been planning to make before the draft derailed his plans. In addition to his professional woes, Albert has a complicated relationship with his secretary (Janet Leigh), further strained by his relationship with his overbearing mother (Maureen Stapleton).
Mass hysteria has hit the nation’s teens with the news of Conrad’s drafting, so naturally, a publicity scheme is concocted. Albert will write a song for Conrad to sing to a fan on the Ed Sullivan Show, a sort of farewell before he leaves for the Army. Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret), a small-town Ohio gal, is chosen as the lucky fan. Chaos ensues in Ohio and in Albert’s personal life.
“Sociologists agree that Birdie is a phenomenon” in this silly-but-fun film. The performances are somewhat over-the-top and hammy, which is perfect for a musical spoofing teen culture and fandom.
There are some nice special effects used in the film during Dick Van Dyke’s famous “Put on a Happy Face” number. Some illustration is incorporated, and a ghostly twin of Janet Leigh appears, to accompany Van Dyke in song. It’s delightful.
The rest of the songs are kind of hilarious, adding to the fun. Ann-Margret sings a tune about how a girl can “pick out a man and train him.” Albert writes one called “Mumbo Jumbo Gooey Gumbo” (not performed — in fact, the sheet music matches the film’s opening tune — but the title’s enough to get a laugh.) An anti-Conrad gang attempts to defeat him with song. Conrad himself sings an amazing tune about sincerity. And who could forget?: “Hello Mrs. Miiiiller, this is Harvey Johhhhhnson. Can IiiiIiiiIII speak to Deb-rah Sue?”
The music brings a lot of fun to Bye Bye Birdie, but the real star here is Ann-Margret. Whether she’s leading the fan club’s Birdie salute or acting as the hot topic of the day’s “Telephone Hour,” she captures her character so well, charming and glamorous but also slightly obnoxious (as real teens often are; I know, I was one, minus the glamour).
The one low point of the film is the subplot involving Albert’s overbearing mother, which feels tired to me (something that I didn’t notice much on first watch, but bugged me when re-watching for this post). Otherwise, the film is very enjoyable, especially for those who love a good fad-centric spoof.