The news is breaking across the nation: Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson), teen sensation and the most famous singer in the land, has been drafted! Girls from coast to coast are up in arms, how could the government do such a thing to their idol? But spare a thought for the songwriters who make their money from Conrad's million-selling records, what are they going to do now? One of them, Albert F. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), is barely scraping a living as it is, and wonders if he ought to go back to chemistry, but his secretary Rosie (Janet Leigh), who is also his girlfriend, has a great idea: how about making Conrad's last public appearance a real publicity stunt?
Bye Bye Birdie was based on the long-running stage musical, although some changes were made between the two so that the film version could better show off the talents of Ann-Margret, a new star who was starting to be a sensation herself thanks to efforts like this. She played Kim McAfee, a supposedly typical American teenager, who is chosen by The Ed Sullivan Show (Ed Sullivan plays himself) to appear on television at Conrad's farewell and be blessed with a kiss from the megastar. In effect, this means the cast (apart from Ed) have to congregate at Kim's smalltown home of Sweet Apple, Ohio, creating quite a to-do.
When the original was written, it was taken from the headlines about Elvis Presley going into the U.S. Army and the worries for his fans (and hopes for his non-fans) that his career would be over. This isn't quite successful as satire, mainly because while Conrad Birdie (his name a spoof of Conway Twitty's for some reason) is vain and self-impressed, something of a jerk in fact, Elvis was well known as being a thoroughly nice guy, so the object of the lampooning is more the stereotypical showbiz monsters you hear about than an accurate portrayal of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. And besides, nobody was going to mistake the tunes here for anything other than light pop, if that.
Two of the stars of the stage show were transported over to the big screen, Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, and although both were vocal about their dissatisfaction with the movie they were household names already, though more for television than film. Lynde plays Kim's harrassed father, which he does very amusingly, perhaps unintentionally so when we now know details of the actor's private life (not that it was difficult to guess from his camp persona). He certainly gets most of the funniest lines from a script by Irving Brecher which could have been snappier, though does gather up a fair few targets in its arms.
This results in a neat snapshot of what was obsessing America in the years just before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and all that national innocence we heard about was supposedly lost forever. So there are troubles with the Soviets when the Moscow Ballet run too long in rehearsals, meaning Conrad's song is cut, the effect of rock 'n' roll on the country's morals is much worried over, if something's not on television then it's as good as never happened, and the effects of amphetamines on turtles is given space for debate. What? Yes, to save the day, Albert turns to chemistry and creates some speed - well, I won't spoil it. Suffice to say Ann-Margret overshadows everyone, a flame-haired firecracker who may not show off great range, but you can see why she was taken to the hearts of the teens of her day. This is still quite good fun, even if it does look as if it was made largely by the squares. Songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. Is there no hotel in Sweet Apple?