Love Me Tender

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

The most depressing thing about Elvis’s first movie is that it makes the wasted potential of the next thirty films very clear: Elvis could have been a solid actor. Sure, this is an amateur effort–but for the debut performance of a crossover star, it ain’t bad. If his films had stuck a little closer to this model than the Blue Hawaii one, he could have developed into a fine actor. Alas.

Confederate cavalrymen–three of the four Reno brothers–stage an elaborate attack on a Union train, and when it’s successful, they wind up with thousands of dollars in hand. They plan to take it to their leader, but unbeknownst to them, the war has already ended, their cause defeated. When they find out, they decide to keep the money for themselves rather than turn it over to the U.S. government. The eldest, Vance, uses a little bit of his portion to buy a wedding suit for his upcoming wedding to his fiancee, Cathy–but when he gets home, he discovers that his family had mistakenly been informed he was dead, and Cathy has married his youngest brother, Clint (Presley), instead. The rest of the film traces three conflicts: Cathy’s love for Vance despite her marriage to Clint, Clint’s all-consuming jealousy, and the government’s attempts to hunt down the Renos once they find out what happened to that money.

Setting a precedent for future films, Elvis takes a very 20th-century singing break in the middle of the action, which grinds the film to a halt. The songs–which include the smash hit “Love Me Tender”–are good, but entirely out of place. Elvis had once sworn that he never wanted to sing in his movies, but the enthusiasm of his fans–who attended premieres of the film in shrieking droves–made that all but impossible. Unfortunately for Elvis, that would set the model for years to come.

Jupiter’s Darling

July 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

One thing I’ll never get over when it comes to old movies: the endings that are totally morally egregious to anybody with a 21st-century conscience. While nothing can really beat those 1930s musicals where everybody happily swaps fiances at the end, Jupiter’s Darling gives them a run for their money. In it, Amytis–played by Esther Williams–just isn’t that into her Roman general of a fiance, Fabius, so she escapes to his enemy Hannibal’s camp, hoping to seduce him into not attacking Rome. At the end of the film–note that I don’t feel compelled to give a spoiler warning because, this being an Esther Williams aquamusical, it ends the only way an Esther Williams aquamusical possibly could–Hannibal comes to storm Rome, but Esther convinces him to take her as tribute instead, leaving the city alone. Fabius–who has been entirely clueless as to his fiancee’s escapades–initially won’t allow it, but Amytis convinces him, and she and Hannibal ride happily off into the sunset together. Great. Fantastic. Everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the fact that Fabius, her fiance of seven years, will never see her again and feel a lifelong sense of guilt that his guarding the city was so inept that he had to trade his fiance to a bloodthirsty barbarian for peace. Let’s be honest, he probably kills himself about twenty minutes after the movie ends, while Amytis and Hannibal are consummating their love in a war elephant’s howdah.

The entire movie seems designed to annoy modern sensibilities as much as possible, actually: there’s a happy-slave song in “If This Be Slavery [I don’t want to be free]” and the vaguely misogynist “Never Trust a Woman.” Oh, and how could I forget “The Life of an Elephant,” wherein Gower Champion expresses his wish to “train” his love interest, played by his real-life wife Marge, the same way he does his elephants? (With a bull hook?) The whole thing is pretty fun, though, if you can overlook the 1950s ridiculousness. Or maybe it’s just that I watched it on 40 minutes of sleep? At any rate, if you watch this movie on 40 minutes of sleep, you’ll definitely enjoy it. Maybe.

Green Fire

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Stewart Granger, wooing Grace Kelly in Green Fire: “In the meantime, there’s all this. A classic setting: man, woman, tropic night, beautiful river. . .” Yes, folks, that’s right–Stewart Granger identified the Jungle Love genre half a century before I did.

And Green Fire is a worthy addition to the canon. A rare example set in the New World rather than Darkest Africa or the steamy jungles of southeast Asia, it nevertheless covers all the necessary tropes: a love triangle between middle-aged men and a 20-something leading lady; a beautiful Colombian setting (filmed on location); a substantial population of brown people to work the coffee plantation and the emerald mine and, when necessary, to wave guns around threateningly; a cave-in and an eventual landslide, along with the ongoing threat of the rainy season, an ostensibly Hispanic villain played by a WASPy former Yalie. No royalty, but we do get emeralds, which has to count for something, right? I’m going with “Right.”

The run-down: Granger is an emerald miner-slash-adventurer in Colombia. His claim borders a coffee plantation owned by Grace Kelly and her brother. Granger aims to romance Kelly, but his devotion to the mine ends up alienating him not only from her but from his business partner as well. Meanwhile, a group of bandits led by a man called El Moro is terrorizing the miners, trying to take the emeralds for themselves.

Green Fire wears its white savior complex on its sleeve. It’s paternalist, colonialist, and misogynist. Not only that, it’s horrifying from an environmentalist standpoint, what with all the mountain-decimating and river-rerouting. So of course, I loved it. I don’t know why I even try to justify it anymore: it turns out I just like racist, sexist movies in spite of themselves. And apparently we can add “environmentally destructive movies” to that list.

The Reluctant Debutante

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Reluctant Debutante stars Sandra Dee as a sweet but stubborn California teenager in the midst of a London season and, as such, is essentially just Gidget Goes to the UK. Inspired by the last round of court presentations for the Queen in 1958, the film chronicles the trials of Jane (Dee), who goes to visit her British father and his new wife, and is (reluctantly, of course) thrust into the social whirl of debutante season. Through the gauntlet of balls and parties, Jane falls for one man–who her stepmother considers below her station and whom both her parents worry might be a date rapist in disguise–but is also pursued by a parent-approved but nauseatingly boring one. Of course everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction by the end, helped along by a few last-minute cinematic plot contrivances.

This film is simply a trifle, but it’s an extremely enjoyable one. Real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Jane’s father and stepmother, and they’re so funny that the story ends up being more theirs than hers. (This being pre-Dee stardom, they get top billing, too.) Angela Lansbury has a fun turn as Kendall’s meddling friend. Since the movie was based off a play, the script has a farcical, madcap flavor to it at which Kendall and especially Harrison excel, culminating in a drawn-out but hilarious living room scene where the two attempt to spy on their daughter. Director Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace flowing at a clip, and of course, Minnelli being Minnelli, everything is beautifully set and staged. The plot is a little dated–the idea of Jane dating a man who forces himself on her is treated with boys-will-be-boys heedlessness rather than any real cause for alarm–but the whole thing is just so fun that that’s easy to overlook.

Further reading:

  • Let’s Get Physical“: a PopMatters column on Kendall’s physical acting in this film and Les Girls

The Opposite Sex

December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

One of the 1950s’ cinematic quirks was taking straight movies from the 1930s and ’40s, and making mediocre musicals out of them. It’s how we got High Society (The Philadelphia Story), Silk Stockings (Ninotchka), and She’s Working Her Way Through College (The Male Animal), just to start. It’s also how we got The Opposite Sex, derived from the 1939 classic The Women, about a Susie Homemaker type whose husband leaves her for a showgirl, and the group of friends who surrounds her in his wake. The Opposite Sex takes about 70 percent of The Women’s wit and charm, and replaces them with a bizarre mish-mash of musical numbers. “Dere’s Yellow Gold on the Trees”? What is this? And why is it mixed in with a singing cowboy number and a couple of smoky ballads?

The movie might still have worked, though, with a more charismatic lead. This was the only real failing of The Women, too–it was hard to root for Norma Shearer, and grows harder by the year as the views espoused in the film grow more and more outdated–but The Women had a lot to fall back on. The Opposite Sex needed a heroine we could root for, and June Allyson was not it. Or maybe it’s just me–Allyson’s “perfect little wifey” persona has always bugged the hell out of me, and her whiskey-&-cigars voice just frustrates me, hinting at a darker, more interesting side that never comes. While watching The Opposite Sex, I found myself hoping that her showgirl rival, played by Joan Collins, would win out. Probably not what the filmmakers were going for . . .

Jailhouse Rock

December 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

Jailhouse Rock is supposed to be one of Elvis’s better movies. What this means, apparently, is that it contains all the standard Elvis movie tropes–Elvis sings, Elvis gets in a fight with another man over a woman and wins, even the rare woman that starts out hating Elvis ends up loving him–but here, unlike in most of Elvis’s films, they’re actually integrated into the plot. For example, that whole fight-with-another-man-over-a-woman thing? Elvis knocks out a woman-beater so thoroughly that he ends up dead, and that’s how Elvis ends up in the pen on a manslaughter charge. And all the songs take place in recording studios, at parties, for television film crews–places where it’d make sense for Elvis to be singing. Nowhere in this film does Elvis just whip out a guitar in the middle of a barnyard to perform a fully scored song (no backing band in sight) to the delight of a crowd of young ladies. (Can you tell I just watched Tickle Me?)

While still too telegraphed and sentimental to be a good movie, it’s true that this is better than Elvis usually got. The rise-and-fall-of-a-star plot allowed him to play to his strengths. And fortunately Elvis is compulsively watchable even in a mediocre film. Hell, I would watch a movie of Elvis eating peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches. (Well, I’d watch 20 minutes of it.) It helps, too, that he landed a more substantial co-star than the frothy featherweights he’d later get stuck with: Judy Tyler, who died tragically in a car crash only a few days after filming ended. Jailhouse Rock is one of the few films Elvis ever appeared in where his female lead is more character than scenery. (And, on a more personal note, it helps that this contains my all-time favorite Elvis song, “You’re So Square.”)

Given its reputation as a “good” Elvis film, I was surprised to see that most of the reviews upon its release were overwhelmingly negative. Apparently, Elvis repelled early critics as much as he excited later ones. Here’s Time: “For moviegoers who may not care for that personality, Presley himself offers in the film a word of consolation: ‘Don’t Worry,’ he says, ‘I’ll grow on you.’ If he does, it will be quite a depressing job to scrape him off.” And The Spectator: “Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley’s new film, is so nasty that it makes our Elvis, who just passes in a merely silly film like Loving You, seem dangerously near being repulsive. Presumably aimed at adolescents (who else?)”

Now? Jailhouse Rock is in the National Film Registry. How times change.

How to Be Very, Very Popular

December 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

How to Be Very, Very Popular is a bizarre little comedy from 1955. When I say bizarre, I mean bizarre. The premise isn’t too off-the-wall for a mid-century comedy: two strippers witness a murder, and in order to keep from getting killed themselves, they go undercover, hiding out in the fraternity hall at Bristol College. (Substitute “convent” for “college,” and now you know where Sister Act got its plot.) Apparently the novel this film was based on involved the two of them dressing up as men as part of their disguise, but why pay all that money for Betty Grable and Sheree North if you’re not going to keep them on permanent display? Thus they wear their spangled leotards throughout the entire movie, hiding them under jackets and graduation gowns when the plot calls for it.

So yes, the premise seems similar to a number of other college-based 1950s films. The execution, however, is just . . . strange. I can’t pinpoint exactly what was off about it. Sometimes, watching old movies like this, I wonder if the weirdness is due to the age gap–sometimes I just don’t get the jokes or the slang or the name-dropping or the references to then-current events. Especially with comedies, I always have to wonder if the style of humor just hasn’t aged well or whether or not it was just as unfunny then as it is now. With this movie, I’m going with the latter. For example: One of the strippers, Curly, spends the vast majority of the film in a hypnotic trance, a gag that might have been funny for about ten minutes in a better film, but isn’t even funny for five minutes here. And most of the minor characters exist solely to incite bafflement. Why does the fraternity house mother have such a salami fixation (not a euphemism) and speak only in poetry fragments? Why is a litter of kittens living in the fraternity house basement? Why does one of the policemen wear a brown toupee over his gray hair? None of this is ever explained.

But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why Fox thought we’d buy a bunch of 30-something-year-old actors as college students. Heroine Stormy, who’s supposed to be roughly the same age in the film as 23-year-old Sheree North, was actually played by a 39-year-old Betty Grable. Neither do any of the middle-aged male leads look like college students. By the time we get to the movie’s climactic commencement scene, where a hypnotized Curly whips off her graduation gown and performs a frenetic striptease to “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”–a scene that’s energetic enough, it would have charmed me in a film that had done more to earn it–I’m ready to quit.

This film was originally designed to reunite Grable with Marilyn Monroe after the success of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. But Monroe, who was in the prime of her career and hungry for better parts, steered clear. Fox, who had been grooming Sheree North as Marilyn doppelganger that they could pay less and boss around more easily, stuck North in the role instead. Perhaps Monroe could have introduced a little more charm into the lightweight role of Curly than North did. But then again, probably not. She is hypnotized for most of the movie’s running time, after all.

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