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Cinema: Featherbedding

2 minute read

Bye Bye Birdie. Broadway musicals, like rural beauty-contest winners, rarely survive a round trip to Hollywood without a loss of innocence. This one, a lampoon on the visit of a gyro-pelvic pop singer to Sweet Apple, Ohio, had an apple-cheekiness about it on the stage that seems slightly worm-eaten on film, and the result is more goof than spoof.

Birdie begins well enough by turning the screen into a mosaic of telephoning teen-agers (“Hello, Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson, can I speak to Deborah Sue?”) that climaxes with every kid in town chattering into enough Princess phones to make A.T. & T. swoon with pride. The arrival of Conrad Birdie in Sweet Apple to plant a symbolic farewell kiss on a local teen-ager (Ann-Margret) before joining the Army is a gas. Platoons of maidens march with placards reading “Spare HIM, Take Me,” and Conrad (Jesse Pearson) rides his motorcycle, rough-tired, right up the steps of the courthouse square, where a welcoming committee of bobby-soxed votaries is waiting to recite its oath: “I pledge allegiance to Conrad Birdie and to the United States of America.” Shrieks greet the sight of his gold lame riding habit, and when he begins to sing Honestly Sincere, even the mayor’s wife folds into gatelegged collapse. Pearson’s 6-ft. 3-in. frame lacks the necessary baby fat for a first-class ribbing of the plot’s obvious target, but the sideburns holding up the slack in his jaws have the look of authenticity.

Other things are authentic about Birdie: the real Ed Sullivan is more lithic than life playing Ed Sullivan, John Daly is no mystery guest, and many of the songs and production numbers from the Broadway original are worked in, along with a few members of the cast. Hollywood’s Ann-Margret, a too authentic 21, is a mighty big girl to be playing a 16-year-old. But her frisky dancing and cheery chirpings do help to keep Birdie from falling off the perch.

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