Clambake

May 10, 2012 § 2 Comments

Ask any Elvis fan: Clambake is the movie where everybody involved has just stopped trying. Elvis’s love for forbidden foods was legendary, and he’d clearly been engaging in a few too many prior to filming. (Priscilla claimed it was stress-eating due to his misery over the quality of the script.) He films a waterskiing scene with a jacket on rather than blow his heartthrob image by letting us see his less-than-flat stomach. He didn’t even bother to get a tan before the movie started, despite the fact that he’s playing a Texas oil baron’s son who’s working as a waterskiing instructor at a Florida resort. Some biographers even mark Clambake as the point of escalation for Elvis’s prescription drug abuse: like Judy Garland, doctors prescribed Elvis uppers to combat the weight gain. Clambake‘s songs are universally lousy or forgettable, including the oft-cited “High Hopes” rip-off “Confidence. As for the plot, it’s basically writers taking all the typical Elvis elements and throwing them in a blender. The only remotely original part of the script (and then only “original” as applied to Elvis) is that the usual elements are superimposed on a “The Prince and the Pauper” plot where rich kid Elvis trades places with a poor waterskiing instructor so that he can interact with girls knowing that they like him for him, not his money. Of course he falls for wannabe trophy wife Shelley Fabares, who takes her sweet time falling back because she’s holding out for a millionaire. Ultimately Elvis reveals his secret to her and everyone ends up happy. Oh, and there’s a boat race. And a clambake that isn’t really a clambake. The end.

Basically the only people who weren’t slacking on their jobs were the set designers. The resort’s bar is a glorious pseudo-Moroccan wonderland filtered through the eyes of someone on an acid trip. (The bartenders wear fezzes and the waitresses, harem pants.)  The actual clambake set involves tiki torches, trampolines, and dancers shimmying on the roofs of beach houses. The overdone decor even extends to the hotel lobby and the boathouse where Elvis hangs out, but my favorite part of the entire set is the suite belonging to the rich dude who competes with Elvis for Miss Fabares’ attention. Picture this, if you will: A white and black tiled checkerboard floor. A white chenille sofa on which Shelley Fabares sits while she’s being serenaded by the rich dude’s white, gilded player piano. The serenade is accompanied by drinks from the white pleather-padded bar with marble walls so shiny you can see your reflection in them. Oh, and the costumes weren’t bad either (see the photo above for a few more understated examples). It almost makes me feel like I’m at Graceland.

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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 . . .

The Man Who Came to Dinner

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.

Teenage Rebel

May 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

The movie is called Teenage Rebel, and here’s one of its promo posters:


(I also dig this Italian one.)

But far from the visions of black leather and liquor flasks that this marketing campaign conjures up, the most rebellious thing that anyone does in this movie is to leave her mother’s house without asking in order to hit up the malt shop. Literally. The malt shop.

The film is frothier than a root beer float, and while the producers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Rebel without a Cause the year before, it’s hard to see how they thought they were going to get away with it. It’s got Ginger Rogers in it, for pete’s sake!* And malt shops! But while their promotions department was ripping off Rebel without a Cause, somebody who would eventually contribute to the 1961 film The Parent Trap must have had their eye on this movie . . .

While Deanna Durbin’s Three Smart Girls is generally regarded as the forerunner for The Parent Trap, and Lotte and Lisa is the acknowledged source material, I’d hazard a guess that somebody at Disney liked this Ginger Rogers vehicle an awful lot, too. Teenage Rebel has no twins, but there’s an awful lot of other plot recycling going on. Let’s recap: Its protagonist is a child of divorced parents who live on opposite coasts, one in California and one in the Northeast. The California parent is cool and relaxed–the “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” kind of parent–while the east coast parent is uptight and high-strung. Their respective houses, too, reflect their personalities, with the California house warm and sunny and the east coast house stuffy and imposing. The plot revolves around the father getting remarried to someone the daughter perceives as a gold digger. Also, there’s a Big Dance where Everything Changes.

Granted, these are pretty standard movie tropes–and The Parent Trap uses them in much more enjoyable and effective ways than Teenage Rebel tries to. I’m not alleging plagiarism, just inspiration. Still, it’s odd that so many of the same stereotypes would be employed in exactly the same ways from film to film . . . and I’ll touch on the whys and wherefores of that in an upcoming post, “Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream.”

* This film is worth watching if solely to see how good Ginger looks at 44. But that’s pretty much the only reason.

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