Live a Little, Love a Little

February 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

Elvis and Michele Carey in Live a Little, Love a Little

Maybe it’s a stretch to call Live a Little, Love a Little a departure from the usual Elvis fare. After all, it’s a light comedy with a love triangle, wacky hijinks, plenty of beaches and a couple song breaks. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to deviate from the formula all that much. Elvis plays a photographer, Mike Nolan, who meets an unpredictable gal who:

  • a) tells him her name is Alice, then Susie, then Betty, and finally Bernice
  • b) is incredibly devoted to her Great Dane, Albert
  • c) drugs Elvis after he comes back to her house, leading to a surreal dream sequence set to Elvis’s song “Edge of Reality”
  • d) while he’s passed out, moves him out of his apartment and gets him fired from his job
  • e) isn’t exactly over her ex . . .

Somehow, despite his near-constant exasperation with her, Elvis is won over. (It doesn’t hurt that Michele Carey, who plays “Bernice,” is gorgeous. Sadly, that’s her character’s only redeeming feature.) In order to maintain the lifestyle that Bernice expects, and the swingin’ pad she’s set him up in, Elvis has to balance two photography jobs: one for the Playboy parody Classic Cat (where the receptionists wear cat ears) and another for a buttoned-up advertising firm (where the boss insists Elvis iron his slacks before he can proceed with the job interview). The comic plots that ensue are . . . well, exactly the plots you’d expect when you read that storyline.

But it was 1968 and the winds of change were in the air. Robert Kennedy was shot, black power was on the rise . . . and only thirty years after Rhett Butler, Elvis was allowed to say “damn” in a movie! Not only that, but after approximately 26 films consisting of us getting all talk about Elvis’s skills in the romance department, this one finally allowed him to deliver on those promises. (In the tamest sense of the word–he and Bernice are shown sleeping in the same bed.) This is still a romantic comedy, but it’s one that moves the emphasis from the (increasingly unromantic) romantic scenes of Elvis’s recent films to the screwball side, allowing Elvis to show off his comedic chops. But maybe Live a Little‘s biggest deviation from the Elvis movie norm is that it switches up his position in regards to the  pursuit of passion: the hunter becomes the hunted.

In real life, of course, Elvis was the prey as often as he was the predator. Girls tried to climb on stage at concerts, threw underwear at him, dressed up as maids to sneak into his hotel rooms. After he’d reached a certain point in his stardom, Elvis never had to be the sexual predator–he had the Memphis Mafia to personally pick out girls for him and bring them back to his room. While he engaged in no shortage of make-out sessions, many women complained that their encounters with Elvis hadn’t gone much further than that–and when they did, the women usually ended up disappointed. (“He can sing,” said Natalie Wood after a brief fling, “but he can’t do much else.”) With that in mind, the love triangles and rectangles of Elvis’s earlier films can be read as an attempt to sell an image in which he never felt entirely secure. Live a Little instead allows him to drop the international heartthrob mask and play a role seemingly much closer to reality: that of a man exasperated by an unwanted and never-ceasing onslaught of feminine attention. It’s through this swap that Live a Little gives us its most interesting twist on the traditional Elvis flick.

Baby step by baby step, Live a Little, Love a Little pulls away from the formula fare, beginning to forge a new prototype for an Elvis comedy. It’s not all there, but you can see where it might have led. Unfortunately, we never got to see that evolution play out. With only three films left before Elvis’s retirement from the silver screen, this was the last romantic comedy he ever made.

Hello, Dolly!

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

the Harmonia Gardens set of Hello, Dolly!: yes, it was overdone, and gloriously so

I’d always heard Hello, Dolly! described as a massive flop. The musical that killed musicals. That Fox, desperate to recreate the phenomenon that was The Sound of Music, pumped so much money into it that wasn’t returned that several top-level employees lost their jobs and the studio could only afford to produce one movie in 1970. So, naturally, I assumed the movie would be terrible.

I was wrong. The truth is that Hello, Dolly! is a musical for people who love musicals (and with Gene Kelly directing, how could it not be?). If you’re the kind of person who sighs heavily when an dance sequence breaks out or rolls your eyes when you can hear an actor’s slow transition from soliloquy into song, steer clear. If you’re the kind of viewer who laps up extended dance breaks taking place on jewel-encrusted, gazillion-dollar sets, then by all means, dive in.

You probably know the plot: a turn-of-the-century matchmaker meddles in the affairs of others while trying to finagle herself a husband. You probably know the stars, too: Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s feud on this set was legendary, building to such heights that Matthau refused to kiss her in the closing scene. (They angled the cameras so it’d look like they were locking lips even while remaining several inches apart.) Even if you’re not a musical fan, you probably know a scene or two, thanks to the Oscar-winning Wall-E, which featured a few clips from “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” (Stores reported selling more copies of Hello, Dolly! the quarter that Wall-E came out than they had for the previous ten years combined.)

Thanks to the experience of its production team, Hello, Dolly! was a throwback to the golden era of musicals. Gene Kelly, who needs no introduction, was directing. Ernest Lehman–who had been involved in the adaptations of The King and I, West Side Story and The Sound of Music–produced and adapted it for the screen. Lennie Hayton, who helped supervise the musical direction, had done the same for MGM through the Freed Unit era. Cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr., had worked on no shortage of classic musicals–Easter Parade, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady. So it’s unsurprising that Hello, Dolly! borrows so liberally from (and plays with!) the tropes of the mid-century musical. Like many golden-era musicals, it adopts a Gilded Age setting to showcase a worry-free world of financial splendor and charm, pretty dresses and horse-drawn carriages. Dolly’s role as a matchmaker allows the musical not just the traditional Rodgers & Hammersteinesque alpha and beta couples, but gammas and deltas too. We get admirably staged renditions of such musical theater stalwarts as the big crowd scene (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”),  the middle-of-the-second-half showstopper (“Hello, Dolly!”) and of course, the eleven o’clock number (“So Long, Dearie”).

Unfortunately, the production team was so mired in the glory of, well, the glory days that they failed to read the writing on the wall. It was 1969. The big-screen musical epic of Kelly’s youth was done. The frothy turn-of-the-century musical was over. It was the time of Woodstock, Apollo 11 and the Manson family. What would have been referred to perhaps even five years earlier as “grand” and “sweeping” was now “bloated” and “overdone.” Hello, Dolly! was still the fifth-highest grossing picture of the year–but it still lost almost as much money as it took in. Its stories of feuding stars, diva theatrics and blown budgets sunk its legacy at the time . . . but we’re past that now. Maybe it’s time for a comeback.

Speedway

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Speedway

Speedway is where Elvis’s on-screen fling with little girls comes to full flower. We’ve seen it before in limited doses: the little girl he shimmies with in Harum Scarum, the tagalongs in Girls! Girls! Girls!, the would-be ballerina he serenades with an ode to “Confidence” in Clambake. Elvis’s kiddie counterpart in It Happened at the World’s Fair even gets to split screen time with him. But his relationship with World’s Fair’s Sue-Lin is a model of restraint compared to his relationship with Speedway’s Ellie. Ellie is one of several adorable blonde daughters of the homeless Abel Esterlake, who Elvis bails out of a jam by buying him a new car to live in. (This is only one of several good deeds Elvis performs for the less-fortunate in this movie, all of them designed to convince us that he’s a Really Good Guy but all of which have the added bonus of convincing us he’s a total idiot, financially speaking.) Ellie clearly develops a crush on Elvis, telling him, “I wish I was big enough to marry you.” Which—okay. It happens. Little girls get puppydog crushes on older men all the time. But Elvis responds with the uber-creepy “Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby,” a musical number which importunes the six(?)-year-old to wait a few years until she’s grown up a bit, and then they’ll see what happens. “You’ll be a beautiful woman,” Elvis tells her, “because you’re such a beautiful child.” The song ends with Abel “giving” Ellie away to Elvis in a mock wedding, as wedding bills chime away in the background. I know, I know, times were different then. (A former coworker and I who used to listen to the oldies station at work had a running tally of how many of the songs were about wanting to bone high school girls.) But given Elvis’s totally inappropriate relationship with the young Priscilla Beaulieu just a few short years earlier, how can it not come off as creepy?

The actual plot of this movie is standard Elvis fare, which means it’s a lot less bizarre and compelling than the Freudian stuff in the background. Elvis is paired with his second-most famous love interest (after Ann-Margret), one Miss Nancy Sinatra, who plays . . . a sexy tax inspector. Seriously, this is word-for-word how the DVR blurb described her. Ladies looking for fresh Halloween costume ideas for next year, take note. She’s assigned to reign in the financially incompetent race car driver because he owes thousands to the government. They fight, they flirt, they (presumably) fuck. Elvis races some cars. I was starting to fall asleep by that point in the movie, but I’m fairly sure he wins, because, you know, it’s Elvis. He probably also doesn’t get married at the end of the movie, because a) it’s Elvis and b) he’s saving himself for Ellie in 10 years. Maybe six.

Spinout

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spinout switches up the Elvis formula by–wait for it–giving us three potential love interests instead of two! It also more or less dispenses with the plot–which can be summed up as “Elvis just wants to play in his band, race cars and never get married”–in favor of the romance. That might be necessary, given that each of the three women is in a love triangle of her own. Six love stories, nine songs, and a car race (fairly derivative of the one in Viva Las Vegas) in 93 minutes–no wonder there’s no time for plot!

Elvis gets his two usual suspects, the sweet young thing and the seductive older woman (see Blue Hawaii, Tickle Me). The sweet young thing is a spoiled daddy’s girl–played by Shelley Fabares in her second of three appearances with Elvis–who runs his car off the road in the opening scene and later insists that her rich father blackmail Elvis and his band into playing at her birthday party. The rest of the band is considerably less affronted by the blackmail than Elvis, given the hefty paycheck they’ll receive, but Elvis insists he can’t be bought. The seductive older woman is played by Diane McBain, an author of books on male psychology, who insists that her stalking Elvis is “research” after she chooses him as her representative of the The Perfect American Male for her upcoming book of the same title. Beach movie star and former Gidget Deborah Walley plays the third love interest, a new type: the tomboyish drummer of Elvis’s band who nurses a puppydog crush on him. He never notices her longing looks and the gourmet meals she whips up for him–until the party at the end of the film, when–post-makeover–she comes down the stairs in a red dress and heels . . .

In contrast to the froth of Spinout, Elvis’s off-screen life was taking a different turn. He was focusing on the gospel album he wanted to release and reading about religion. On the set, he and Deborah Walley formed a friendship centered around motorcycle rides and religious discussion. Like Elvis, Walley had never been fully comfortable with the trappings of stardom–some sources claim she went so far as to try and convince Columbia Pictures execs that she had leukemia in order to get out of doing Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Walley credited Elvis with introducing her to spirituality and changing her life; while it may not have been related, she quit doing beach movies shortly afterward. Elvis also introduced Diane McBain to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, whose philosophy Elvis tried to follow, and gave her copies of his favorite spiritual books. Throughout Elvis’s life, he constantly struggled with the idea of his fame, asking spiritual teachers why God had chosen the path He had for him. Elvis considered himself a “searcher,” someone who wants to “know the truth, to know and experience God.” His explorations ranged from mainstream Christianity–he once told Pat Boone that he wished he could go to church like him, but that he was worried about distracting the church-goers from the preacher’s message–to Judaism and Taoism, Hinduism and New Age philosophy. He was always looking for spiritual answers to the problems of his fame, but they never came.

Of course, none of this was reflected onscreen. Instead, the ending of Spinout plays like an homage to the Tao of Elvis. Rather than settle down with any of his three prospects, he summarily matches each of them up with other men, then finds a cute girl on the dance floor and vows to stay single forever–setting us up perfectly for the next Elvis movie, and on it goes.

The Great American Novel Project: Absalom, Absalom!

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Absalom, Absalom!

This isn’t my first attempted Faulkner novel. It is my first completed Faulkner novel. (Related: It’s also the book that derailed my Great American Novel Project for the better part of a year and a half.) To me, reading Faulkner is like trying to wade through the most impenetrable swamp in the South for a year and a half straight, and while occasionally there are some cool things during your trek, and the scenery’s great, by the time that year and a half is up, you’re soaked through, miserable, and have been so focused on the task at hand that you’ve completely missed the signposts alongside the swamp telling you a) what’s ahead of you, b) why you’re in the swamp and c) how to get out. Normally I like dense writing–two of my favorite books are Possession and The Secret History–but apparently I’ve come to the outer reaches of my limit, and Faulkner is it.

Thank god for Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, the ultimate recipient of the tale the Compsons are weaving in Absalom, Absalom!: his entire purpose in the novel seems to be to repeat back to Quentin what he’s been saying in plainer terms for the benefit of the reader. (There are actual points in the narrative where Shreve interrupts in order to say, “So what you’re saying is . . .?”–so the next time your writing instructor dings you on an As You Know, just tell them that Faulkner did it, too.) When you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out which character Faulkner is even talking about, it’s tough to simultaneously follow his metaphors. To be fair to Faulkner, that’s part of his goal–the obscuration of Absalom‘s events is a necessary part of his exploration of how we attempt to reconstruct the past. As always with Faulkner, the prose is incredible. The plot, once you sort it all out, is compelling. And the broader Southern themes of the novel–slavery as the downfall of the South, the region’s inability to come to grips with its own demise, the myriad versions of Southern history and what they all mean–are fascinating even now that many of them have been well-trod. (At the time Absalom, Absalom! came out and those themes were fresh, this novel–and particularly its closing lines, which are a neat summary of Faulkner and his entire oeuvre for me–must have been thrilling.) Intriguingly enough, Faulkner has said that the “true version” of his characters’ history is there in the pages, between the lines, for any reader conscientious enough to go back and look for it. All the same, I probably won’t be that reader.

Previously: The Great Gatsby
Next: the first book of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel

For Me and My Gal

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

for me and my gal

For modern viewers, identifying with the knee-jerk patriotism of the World War II-era movies can be a hurdle.  For those of us born in a post-Vietnam era, the war-bonds-and-victory-gardens trappings of those movies aren’t processed the same way as they were when they were released. Take, for instance, Gene Kelly’s character in the musical For Me and My Gal. In this film–set during the Great War but filmed during World War II–Kelly recognizes the talent of fellow vaudevillian Judy Garland, and convinces her to join his act. After a bit of waffling on Kelly’s part, the two fall in love, all the while dreaming for an invitation to play the Palace, the ultimate destination for top-notch vaudeville performers. But the same day they finally get news that their big break is imminent, Kelly receives a draft notice. In a fit of panic, he slams his hand in a trunk, permanently disabling himself–and ensuring that he’s not fit for duty in the process. Appalled at what he’s done, Garland breaks things off with him. He, of course, must find a way to win her back.

Upon viewing the first cut of this movie, viewers were upset by the ending–they felt that Kelly’s romantic rival, played by George Murphy, deserved to win Judy’s heart more than Kelly did, despite getting one-tenth of Kelly’s screen time. So what did MGM do? They went back to the back lot and filmed a handful more scenes–including one where Kelly manages to pull off some battlefield heroics despite not being a soldier. Voila!-wartime audiences were appeased and the movie was happily received.

The problem is that the additional scenes don’t really help to redeem Kelly’s character. During wartime, they probably carried an extra weight–he regretted his purposely disabling himself so much that it pushed him to save several lives; that has to cancel out the fact that he did it in the first place, right? But nowadays, those scenes read differently, because the intentional injury is hardly the worst thing he did in his partnership with Garland. Kelly’s character is still a jerk. His wartime rescues don’t make him a better boyfriend or a better business partner. He still is the cad who manipulated Garland’s character into working with him, who cozied up to an opera singer in hopes she could get them better gigs, and who throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get the biggest dressing room. While he redeems himself for the injury, he never redeems himself for the rest of that. The preview audiences were right: the wrong guy did get the gal. They were just wrong about why.

Further reading:

It Happened at the World’s Fair

August 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

It Happened at the World’s Fair is where Elvis’s image loses its teeth entirely. Only a handful of years after he was considered a hip-swiveling menace to society, Elvis now spends more of this movie baby-sitting plucky, pig-tailed seven-year-old Sue-Lin than chasing skirts (overachieving, he sometimes manages both at once). Sure, Elvis’s bad-boy sneer had gotten a little softening in movies like G.I. Blues, which also included a bit of baby-sitting–but at least in that movie he was still naughty enough to make a bet about spending the night with his paramour. World’s Fair is a straight-out family film, and the closest Elvis gets to a sleepover is when Sue-Lin falls asleep on his shoulder on the Monorail ride home after an exhausting day at the of Crackerjack-eating and Ferris wheel-riding.

What World’s Fair lacks in teeth, it makes up for in a different department: racial progressiveness. While Elvis was haunted throughout his life by urban legends about his alleged racism–and continues to be even after his death, despite JET debunking the rumors half a century ago–the truth is much more interesting. Childhood neighbors recall him as being on good terms with all races, playing in mixed-race bands and learning gospel songs from African-American church-goers. He was one of the few white artists of his day to regularly cross the color lines of the South, attending the Memphis fair on “colored night” and participating in black radio charity events. And his films commit to showcasing racially progressive views, too. In 1960′s Flaming Star, he plays a half-white, half-Native American character who articulates his frustration over fitting in neither world and the impossibility of choosing one over the other when both continue to attack each other–a plot that Douglas Brode in Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture reads as a pro-integrationist allegory for white-black relations and the Civil Rights movement. In 1961′s Blue Hawaii, Elvis rejects the prejudiced views of his Southern belle mother by choosing to party with his Hawaiian friends and marry his half-Hawaiian girlfriend. In 1963′s Fun in Acapulco, one-third of the obligatory Elvis love triangle is Hispanic actress Elsa Cárdenas.

But It Happened at the World’s Fair is perhaps Elvis’s most racially progressive film, for the fact that so little attention is drawn to race at all. In an era where movie characters were always white unless the plot required them to be otherwise (and let’s not kid ourselves–50 years later, that still basically applies), the fact that Elvis’s seven-year-old playmate is played by Asian-American Vicky Tiu stands out. Both Sue-Lin and her uncle are presented virtually sans stereotype, another rarity for the time. Even the Asian-American girl manning the Chinese food booth is treated exactly like every other woman in the movie (Elvis hits on her, naturally).

Granted, Elvis’s racial track record is by no means spotless. The character of Ping-Pong in Blue Hawaii is an unfortunate racial stereotype from beginning to end, and Elvis’s depictions of American Indians in later movies like Stay Away, Joe were less nuanced than one might have hoped from movies coming out ten years and a Civil Rights movement after Flaming Star. The allegations of Elvis’s appropriation of black music are legit, even if most of his contemporary black musicians, fans and media saw it very differently then than they do today. Back in the day, many African-American musicians credited Elvis as the breakthrough that made their own breakthroughs possible–he was the mechanism that allowed the mainstream press to start taking them seriously and, perhaps more importantly, for the mainstream fans to start making them rich–if never quite as rich as Elvis. And maybe that right there is Elvis’s legacy in a nutshell: a thief and a trail-blazer at the same time. But while people continue to debate the complex racial legacy that Elvis left us with, I’m glad there’s at least one of his movies that stands out as being not just racially ahead of its time, but ahead of ours.

See also: