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.


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:

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.


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.

The Apartment

April 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

I watched The Apartment early on a rainy morning when I couldn’t fall back asleep. Raindrops were dripping off the trees outside, and as I watched the sun come up, the sky only lightened from black to a stormy gray. And that was the perfect atmosphere to be introduced to this movie: accentuating its moodiness, its melancholy, its theme of how we go through life bumping into people and bouncing off of them until we find somebody that sticks. It’ll always be a rainy day movie for me.

It’s a classic, so you probably know the plot, but on the off-chance you don’t: Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a bachelor aiming to climb the corporate ladder at the insurance company at which he works. Rather than stick to conventional ladder-climbing methods, Bud allows more senior executives to use his apartment when entertaining their mistresses. And it works–until he realizes that personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is using it to woo Bud’s own object of affection, elevator attendant Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). That realization is that catalyst for Bud to reassess his priorities, unfolding in a way that’s strangely reminiscent of another movie about love triangles . . .

When I was a freshman in college, Almost Famous was one of my favorite movies. One of the things I loved most about it was its relatively unconventional–to me, at least–take on the characters’ relationships to each other, and how that led to plot turns you wouldn’t expect. I loved the idolatrous relationship between William and Penny that eventually evens out, the constantly shifting boundaries between Russell and William, the way that the audience–like Penny–is slowly seduced into believing that maybe Russell truly cares for her after all, making it that much more devastating when you’re all forced to confront the fact that he doesn’t. It all seemed new and fresh to me, a perfect balance of bittersweet. But while watching The Apartment, I kept thinking of how much it resembled Almost Famous, how the relationships and certain plot elements and the tone of the film itself seemed to have been lifted wholesale from Billy Wilder. And when I went online afterwards and looked it up, I learned that that was no coincidence: The Apartment is one of Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe’s favorite movies.

This is my favorite part of watching old movies. To see something made half a century ago that set the mold for things I later grew to love, to be able to independently draw connections between two works, to broaden the way I thought the world had worked–it’s the best feeling.

Viva Las Vegas

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.

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