Why watch George Sidney’s adaptation of the popular stage musical Bye Bye Birdie (soon to be revived on Broadway) when you can slap yourself upside the head with a soggy, hot-pink slab of beef? Because for all its annoyances—and there are many—the film somehow sears its way into the mind’s eye. As musician Marshall Crenshaw has noted, it’s the Mad magazine aesthetic that is key to the movie’s pleasures. A particular highlight: After Army-drafted rocker Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) performs his hip-thrusting, fainting-masses introductory number (“Honestly Sincere”), Sidney orchestrates a deadpan brilliant re-creation of the wounded-soldiers crane shot from Gone with the Wind.
The director was reportedly so smitten with star-on-the-rise Ann-Margret that he rejiggered the movie around her character, bubbly small-town teen Kim McAfee. It’s imbalanced and it shows: Janet Leigh gives Birdie’s best performance as Rosie DeLeon, the perpetually frustrated paramour of composer-cum-science-whiz Albert F. Peterson (Van Dyke), yet she’s mostly overshadowed by Ann-Margret’s subversive-to-a-point sex-kitten routine. That’s a shame, since Leigh, made up as a fiery Latina, channels original Broadway cast member Chita Rivera while making the role her defiant own. She’s second only to Paul Lynde, whose extraordinary mincing-queen act as the McAfee patriarch all but shatters traditionalist notions of family, even if only in retrospect.