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.