The Tytell Timeloop: Bye Bye Birdie

Welcome to the Tytell Timeloop, a column where I (Tytell) look at old teen movies from different decades in chronological order (a Timeloop) to see what different times have to say about the teenage experience.

Bye Bye Birdie (1963)—Angstus teenagus variety: fangirl

When Elvis-inspired rock legend Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) gets drafted, the nation’s teenage girls are distraught. But for Al Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), this is a different kind of disaster: Al writes Birdie’s songs, so his career is all-but doomed.

Seeking to get one last hit out, Al and his will-they-won’t-they secretary Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh) hatch a plan: they arrange for Birdie to have a one final goodbye before joining the military where he kisses a random fan as a publicity stunt. The fan Rosie chooses at random from a file cabinet is Kim McAfee (Ann-Margaret) of Sweet Apple, Ohio, which causes a bit of drama since she has just been “pinned” (“taken,” for readers born after 1947) by her now-boyfriend, Hugo Peabody (Bobby Rydell).

Social critique: Was all that Elvis drama really necessary?
A gloriously unsubtle satire, “Bye Bye Birdie” pulls no punches in laughing at the lunacy of late-1950s teens’ obsession with Elvis. The schoolgirls are all part of a devoted fan club to Birdie (complete with a pledge of allegiance) and literally scream and faint at his every move.

Throughout the course of the film, the characters (especially Kim) begin to see through Birdie’s charming hip-wiggling that there are far more important things to focus on. What she needs (and really what all women need) is to marry a real, steady man instead of fantasizing about someone who doesn’t want to settle down and be a good husband…

Uh oh, that sounds like the “this didn’t age well” alarm.

Modern perspective:
“Bye Bye Birdie” goes out of its way to show that its female characters are smarter and more capable than their male love interests, especially in the beginning. However, it also goes out of its way to show those same women completely accepting their societal position as inferior to those men and beholden to the rules they make.

The first time we see Kim, she is completely obsessed with receiving Hugo’s pin—a symbol of his possession of her—and the interesting thing is that the movie appears to be satirizing this as well. It would even match with the theme of “obsessing over things that don’t matter is stupid” that the movie develops with its criticisms of the Elvis craze.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t commit to this parody of the boy-crazed woman trope. Instead of giving its female characters arcs where they realize their single-minded man-chasing is a waste of their time, the movie frames any deviance from the traditional path of “woman and man that have ‘chemistry’ will end up together” as a misstep at best. Kim sings a song about how she needs “One guy, one special guy/One guy to live for, to care for, be there for,” and both predestined pairs end up together; the satire stays half-baked. I guess I was expecting too much of 1960’s Hollywood.

Teenage Take: What did the 1960s have to say about being a teen?
Being a teenager is about figuring out what is really important (heterosexual monogamy) and sticking with it amidst a world of distractions.

Expect lots of:
Dance breaks, high phone bills, disturbing close-ups, skin-tight gold suits, cordless golden electric guitars, mass trust falls, tortoises on speed, grim canasta threats, Battles of the Sexes, Russian doping scandals, a surprising amount of fezzes and oh-so-many screaming teenagers.

Should you watch it?
“Bye Bye Birdie” is pretty much the polar opposite of “Rebel Without a Cause”; it’s funny and delightfully ridiculous with practically no stakes and dancing every five minutes. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it for the characters alone, and I can forgive the themes being mediocre so long as I don’t pay much attention to them.

I strongly recommend you watch it if you’re in the mood for some fluff and love random musical numbers. Laugh at the jokes; cringe at what people were willing to accept sixty years ago. But don’t think too hard about it: if you watch “Bye Bye Birdie” as a serious film, you are only setting yourself up for disappointment.