April 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
Yes, it’s the one Elvis movie where Elvis is outshone by his co-star. And predictably, Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker was so outraged by this that he went out of his way to make sure it never happened again. Which is unfortunate, because Viva Las Vegas is just so darn fun–we could have used a couple more of it.
Viva Las Vegas contains most of the typical Formula elements: pretty women in bikinis (Ann-Margret is a swimming instructor at a hotel pool), travelogue scene of Las Vegas area tourist highlights, a car race to provide us with a suitably thrilling conclusion. But what makes it so much more fun than many of his other formula films is that it subverts the typical Elvis formula by placing Ann-Margret in the Elvis role. Instead of two pretty women fighting over Elvis, Elvis and Cesare Danova (as “Count Elmo Mancini”) fight over Ann-Margret. We’re privy to Ann-Margret’s personal thoughts and motivations, including scenes where she’s on screen without Elvis. She even gets her own songs (plural!), which has to be a first for an Elvis movie heroine–and which caused high amounts of distress for Colonel Tom, who felt his star was getting slighted when it came to screen time. Colonel Tom might have been right: ultimately this plays more like an Ann-Margret movie than an Elvis movie.
Colonel Tom wasn’t the only one worried about Ann-Margret during filming. Elvis’s girlfriend back home in Memphis, Priscilla Beaulieu, was nervous too–and she had a right to be. Elvis and Ann-Margret’s obvious chemistry wasn’t just confined to the screen, and it wasn’t long before they started an affair. At one point, Ann-Margret even announced that the two of them were engaged! She later referred to Elvis as her “soulmate”–perhaps somewhat optimistically, since she was just one of the many of his co-stars that he seduced while filming over the years. While their relationship ultimately ended–Elvis reportedly saw Ann as too independent, disinclined to give up her career for wife- and motherhood–the two remained friends for life. She came to visit him on the sets of later movies like Girl Happy, he sent her flowers on the opening nights of her live performances in Vegas, and after he died, she was the only one of his former co-stars to attend his funeral.
While Priscilla naturally failed to take rumors of the affair in stride–she reportedly was so insecure that she began wearing her hair and make-up like Ann-Margret’s–all the free publicity did, at least, do some good: Viva Las Vegas became Elvis’s top-grossing movie ever.
January 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m kind of a sucker for beach party movies. I always have been, even before I started watching old movies in earnest. I should probably clarify, though, that when I say “beach party movies” I don’t actually mean Beach Party movies, the classic AIP series–you know, Frankie and Annette fighting about whether or not they’ll get married via song, while Eric Von Zipper engages in Kooky Capers in the background. The emphasis on Kooky Capers and Wild Hijinks is, actually, what kills that series for me; I can put up with them in small doses, but the AIP series has no sense of restraint. What I really love are the precursors (Where the Boys Are, the Gidget series), the shameless and usually terrible rip-offs (It’s a Bikini World, Girls on the Beach), the imitators who were at least original enough to shift the action elsewhere while still ripping off the plots (Palm Springs Weekend, Get Yourself a College Girl). Some of these blended the frothy bikini-laden plots with drama, some of them simply melded the plot with a sense of humor that dialed back the wackiness just ten percent or so–and either way, for me the result is 90 minutes of pure guilty pleasure.
While watching It’s a Bikini World, I realized exactly why I’ve always loved this genre so much: a beach party movie is essentially an extended episode of Saved by the Bell. Like most kids who came of age in the early ’90s, I literally grew up with Saved by the Bell–two or three hours of episodes were on every day when I came home from school, from age 8 on up. There are episodes I’ve seen–literally–20 or 30, maybe even 40 times. Even now, fifteen years after I’ve watched the show with any regularity, I could still turn on an episode and tell you how the entire plot will unfold after watching about ten seconds. Saved by the Bell has pretty much fused itself to my DNA, predisposing me to like anything that shares enough similarities to it. And the similarities between a beach party movie and a Saved by the Bell episode are many: attractive California teenagers in bikinis, broadly drawn personality “types,” the token nerd friend who’s infiltrated the clan of popular kids, goofy plots often centered around battles of the sexes or elaborate deceptions, a cool hangout where the whole gang congregates, a general lack of parents, maybe one authority figure that makes sporadic appearances, gags that are run into the ground, the occasional musical interlude. Zack Morris even stole Frankie’s gambit of talking directly to the camera! Peter Engel must’ve been a hell of a fan of Muscle Beach Party.
The movie that prompted me to connect the two was It’s a Bikini World. In it, independent Delilah (Deborah Walley) spurns cocky surfer Mike (Tommy Kirk), so he invents a shy, dorky twin brother named Herbert in order to win her affections. (That’s a Saved by the Bell plot if I’ve ever heard one, complete with the only difference between Mike and Herbert being a pair of thick-rimmed glasses.) Delilah spends the rest of the film’s running time competing with Mike in various competitions–skateboarding, boat racing–and wondering why Herbert never comes to support her. Of course, she ultimately figures out that they’re the same person, and Mike must properly atone before they can get together for real. The plot is punctuated with appearances by the Animals singing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (they also appeared in Get Yourself a College Girl), the Gentrys (best known for “Keep On Dancing,” although they don’t sing it here), the Castaways, and girl group the Toys. My favorite part was the monster mouth-shaped stage the bands performed on, making them look as if they’re about to get swallowed alive, Jonah-style.
The movie’s wikipedia page describes it as a pro-feminist film, probably because of its battle-of-the-sexes plot . . . but “girls consistently losing to boys and ultimately only beating them because they lost on purpose” doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist, even for the ’60s. Maybe the most feminist part of the movie is that it was directed by a woman, Stephanie Rothman, in a time where female directors were almost freakishly rare. Rothman, the first female director to gain entrance to the Directors’ Guild of America, eventually became associated with her later exploitation flicks, although she insists that she did them not because she wanted to but because no other paths were open to her as a female director.
I should probably clarify that when I say I prefer movies like this to the real Beach Party flicks, it’s not because they’re better movies. They are, in fact, significantly worse in pretty much all ways that count–the production values are lower, the story is a blatant rip-off, Tommy Kirk is very Disney Teen Star as the leading man. But somehow–at least for me–all that actually works in their favor. The slick packaging of the AIP series always leads me to expect more than they deliver. But in a movie like It’s a Bikini World, I can enjoy the last wacky race sequences as a little bit of goofy fun rather than getting exasperated they’re not dishing out something better, the way I always do with the Beach Party movies. Small blessings, I guess.
December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.
Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.
Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .
As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.
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.
December 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
In honor of the holiday season winding up, here’s a run-down of a few of my favorite Christmas films. While I’ve spent most of the past few weeks hiding out from winter storms in my cozy little house catching up on Lost and drinking wine leftover from the holiday party my boyfriend and I hosted, I did manage to snatch a few minutes to re-watch a few of my holiday favorites. Be forewarned: Christmas dramas don’t do it for me, and I’m a little iffy on all variations of Ebenezer Scrooge, Charlie Brown, and anything involving children convincing jaded adults of the possibility of holiday miracles. On the other hand, I do love . . .
. . . 1960s stop-motion and Burl Ives singing about holly, jolly Christmases, but even more than that, I love How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Why? Max. That dog alone can carry the whole movie–and as a bonus, you get Thurl Ravenscroft’s delightfully nasty “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Grinch is my favorite type of Christmas movie, the one that has you rooting for the villain both before and after his miraculous metamorphosis into a beacon of holiday cheer. I love my holiday films with a little bit of black humor to balance out their light.
. . . which is also why I love The Man Who Came to Dinner so very much. Monty Woolley is just hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant, and the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle.
Still, I’m not totally averse to holiday treacle, which becomes obvious when you realize that the holiday musical is my favorite holiday sub-genre of all. My favorite Christmas scene in a musical is Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis (also my favorite Christmas song), but if I have to pick a full-length movie musical dedicated to the glories of roasting chestnuts and sleigh rides, et cetera, et cetera, then I haltingly opt for White Christmas. Sure, it’s conventional, and all right, In the Good Old Summertime has Judy Garland plus that charming Edwardian setting that I love, but . . . White Christmas has Vera-Ellen’s light-as-a-cloud dancing, cute sisterly chemistry with Rosemary Clooney, and army buddies! What’s not to love?
Merry Christmas to all!
December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.
Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:
- the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
- the sexpot/the flirt
- the ball-buster/the tomboy
- the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to
See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:
- Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
- Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
- Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
- Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex
The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.
To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.
Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.