Hello, Dolly!

February 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

the Harmonia Gardens set of Hello, Dolly!: yes, it was overdone, and gloriously so

I’d always heard Hello, Dolly! described as a massive flop. The musical that killed musicals. That Fox, desperate to recreate the phenomenon that was The Sound of Music, pumped so much money into it that wasn’t returned that several top-level employees lost their jobs and the studio could only afford to produce one movie in 1970. So, naturally, I assumed the movie would be terrible.

I was wrong. The truth is that Hello, Dolly! is a musical for people who love musicals (and with Gene Kelly directing, how could it not be?). If you’re the kind of person who sighs heavily when an dance sequence breaks out or rolls your eyes when you can hear an actor’s slow transition from soliloquy into song, steer clear. If you’re the kind of viewer who laps up extended dance breaks taking place on jewel-encrusted, gazillion-dollar sets, then by all means, dive in.

You probably know the plot: a turn-of-the-century matchmaker meddles in the affairs of others while trying to finagle herself a husband. You probably know the stars, too: Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s feud on this set was legendary, building to such heights that Matthau refused to kiss her in the closing scene. (They angled the cameras so it’d look like they were locking lips even while remaining several inches apart.) Even if you’re not a musical fan, you probably know a scene or two, thanks to the Oscar-winning Wall-E, which featured a few clips from “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” (Stores reported selling more copies of Hello, Dolly! the quarter that Wall-E came out than they had for the previous ten years combined.)

Thanks to the experience of its production team, Hello, Dolly! was a throwback to the golden era of musicals. Gene Kelly, who needs no introduction, was directing. Ernest Lehman–who had been involved in the adaptations of The King and I, West Side Story and The Sound of Music–produced and adapted it for the screen. Lennie Hayton, who helped supervise the musical direction, had done the same for MGM through the Freed Unit era. Cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr., had worked on no shortage of classic musicals–Easter Parade, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady. So it’s unsurprising that Hello, Dolly! borrows so liberally from (and plays with!) the tropes of the mid-century musical. Like many golden-era musicals, it adopts a Gilded Age setting to showcase a worry-free world of financial splendor and charm, pretty dresses and horse-drawn carriages. Dolly’s role as a matchmaker allows the musical not just the traditional Rodgers & Hammersteinesque alpha and beta couples, but gammas and deltas too. We get admirably staged renditions of such musical theater stalwarts as the big crowd scene (“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”),  the middle-of-the-second-half showstopper (“Hello, Dolly!”) and of course, the eleven o’clock number (“So Long, Dearie”).

Unfortunately, the production team was so mired in the glory of, well, the glory days that they failed to read the writing on the wall. It was 1969. The big-screen musical epic of Kelly’s youth was done. The frothy turn-of-the-century musical was over. It was the time of Woodstock, Apollo 11 and the Manson family. What would have been referred to perhaps even five years earlier as “grand” and “sweeping” was now “bloated” and “overdone.” Hello, Dolly! was still the fifth-highest grossing picture of the year–but it still lost almost as much money as it took in. Its stories of feuding stars, diva theatrics and blown budgets sunk its legacy at the time . . . but we’re past that now. Maybe it’s time for a comeback.

Speedway

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Speedway

Speedway is where Elvis’s on-screen fling with little girls comes to full flower. We’ve seen it before in limited doses: the little girl he shimmies with in Harum Scarum, the tagalongs in Girls! Girls! Girls!, the would-be ballerina he serenades with an ode to “Confidence” in Clambake. Elvis’s kiddie counterpart in It Happened at the World’s Fair even gets to split screen time with him. But his relationship with World’s Fair’s Sue-Lin is a model of restraint compared to his relationship with Speedway’s Ellie. Ellie is one of several adorable blonde daughters of the homeless Abel Esterlake, who Elvis bails out of a jam by buying him a new car to live in. (This is only one of several good deeds Elvis performs for the less-fortunate in this movie, all of them designed to convince us that he’s a Really Good Guy but all of which have the added bonus of convincing us he’s a total idiot, financially speaking.) Ellie clearly develops a crush on Elvis, telling him, “I wish I was big enough to marry you.” Which—okay. It happens. Little girls get puppydog crushes on older men all the time. But Elvis responds with the uber-creepy “Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby,” a musical number which importunes the six(?)-year-old to wait a few years until she’s grown up a bit, and then they’ll see what happens. “You’ll be a beautiful woman,” Elvis tells her, “because you’re such a beautiful child.” The song ends with Abel “giving” Ellie away to Elvis in a mock wedding, as wedding bills chime away in the background. I know, I know, times were different then. (A former coworker and I who used to listen to the oldies station at work had a running tally of how many of the songs were about wanting to bone high school girls.) But given Elvis’s totally inappropriate relationship with the young Priscilla Beaulieu just a few short years earlier, how can it not come off as creepy?

The actual plot of this movie is standard Elvis fare, which means it’s a lot less bizarre and compelling than the Freudian stuff in the background. Elvis is paired with his second-most famous love interest (after Ann-Margret), one Miss Nancy Sinatra, who plays . . . a sexy tax inspector. Seriously, this is word-for-word how the DVR blurb described her. Ladies looking for fresh Halloween costume ideas for next year, take note. She’s assigned to reign in the financially incompetent race car driver because he owes thousands to the government. They fight, they flirt, they (presumably) fuck. Elvis races some cars. I was starting to fall asleep by that point in the movie, but I’m fairly sure he wins, because, you know, it’s Elvis. He probably also doesn’t get married at the end of the movie, because a) it’s Elvis and b) he’s saving himself for Ellie in 10 years. Maybe six.

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:

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.

Kissin’ Cousins

March 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

When we’re talking about Elvis’s formula movies, fans acknowledge that some of them are so bad they’re good, while others are just so bad they’re awful. The problem is that there’s no real consensus on which is which. Kissin’ Cousins is one of those Elvis movies that straddles the divide–some fans will rank it smack in the middle of their best-to-worst lists (I’ve ever seen a few lists where it falls in the top third!), while plenty of others will put it dead last. I wondered about this until I realized that there are infinite reasons Elvis aficionados are drawn to the King, and subsequently, a million ways to rank his movies. Some people rank based on plot cohesion or plot originality, others on how many good songs it contains. Some are in it for Elvis’s hotness, while others care more about the hotness of his co-stars; some fans care most about his chemistry with his female leads or the effectiveness of the love triangle (because there’s always a love triangle). Some just want to see him act. Someone judging on plot would rank Tickle Me damn near the bottom of their lists, but if you’re more in it for the girls, Elvis’s co-star in that one, Jocelyn Lane, was one of the hottest he was ever paired with. Many of the King’s devotees rank Clambake low solely because Elvis looks like he’d stuffed himself with a few too many peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches prior to filming, but I kind of dug it because of Shelley Fabares and its wacky ’60s bar set. Anybody who cares about the songs would hate Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, where Elvis barely sings, but those are often ranked at the top of lists for fans who care about those trivial things like acting and plot.

Then, of course, there are the viewers like me: the ones who just want 90 minutes of a good time. On that count, Kissin’ Cousins delivers. At least I think it does. Maybe I’m just biased, since I watched it directly on the heels of Double Trouble, which would make anything seem good. The plot summary for Kissin’ Cousins didn’t set the bar much higher: Elvis plays a dual role as two cousins, one a Tennessee hillbilly, the other as a soldier who’s trying to help the government seize Hillbilly Elvis’s land to build a missile site. Throw in some hot cousins, a girl gang of nymphomaniac neighbors called the Kittyhawks, a little bit of moonshine and a hoe-down or two, slap it all together with a three-week filming schedule, and there you go. The difference between the two films, though, is that Kissin’ Cousins wholeheartedly embraces the camp factor right from the start. The camera winks at us every time Hillbilly Elvis (complete with blond wig!) demands to “wrassle,” every time the Kittyhawks go on the prowl for “men critters . . . and that ensures that later on, when Soldier Elvis heroically rescues the family patriarch from falling off a “cliff” that appears to be all of three feet tall, or when Hillbilly Elvis flips his wooing technique from trying to tackle his love interest to singing her a tender ballad, we can laugh it off. The film never asked us to take it seriously in the first place.

Double Trouble

March 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

When the Elvis formula started to fail in the mid-1960s, Elvis correctly intuited that audiences were sick of it and pushed for a more diverse set of roles. But his handlers–in particular his manager, Colonel Tom Parker–were unwilling to risk losing out on their substantial cuts of the formula films’ gravy train. Instead of allowing Elvis to take better roles, they simply introduced a new twist to the traditional Elvis formula: wacky hijinks and poorly planned-out mystery subplots. The travelogue-style films of the early ’60s, like Blue Hawaii and Fun in Acapulco, had been lightweight, but essentially realistic according to their own internal logic: if you could accept that Elvis was a singer and a race car driver, or that somebody would hire him to protect his daughter from oversexed men, that was all the suspension of disbelief required. But the moderate success of the campy Kissin’ Cousins in 1964 led to a string of sillier and sillier plots: the ghost town shenanigans in Tickle Me, the entirety of Harum Scarum. And then there’s Double Trouble . . .

Double Trouble proposes that Elvis is a rock star who’s distressed to be pursued by an underage fan across Europe–only to become even more distressed when he realizes that someone is pursuing (and trying to kill) one or both of them. The movie is basically the Elvis Formula stripped of all its fun. Hot girls in bikinis fighting over Elvis? Nope–not a bikini to be seen, and Elvis’s major love interest is a prim, 17-year-old stalker who calls Elvis “dahlink” and with whom he has negative chemistry. (And yes, Elvis does utter the line “Seventeen will get you 20.”) The second half of the “love triangle” disappears for forty minutes at a time. Gratuitous shots of exotic foreign lands? The film takes place in England and Belgium, but we don’t get a single exterior shot of the UK, and the shots of Belgium can be counted on one hand. Elvis’s character is even less fleshed-out than usual–he’s a rock star on tour, with no other goals or backstory. The mystery plot is poorly set up and poorly executed. There’s not a single memorable song, unless you count Elvis’s totally pointless-to-the-plot rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” which is memorable for how awful it is. Even the title makes no sense. No wonder this was one of Elvis’s lowest-grossing films ever

Blue Hawaii

January 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

An incomplete list of Elvis movie cliches:

  • Beautiful, romantic setting (bonus points for beaches, as they allow for more skin–see below)
  • The setting or a local custom is worked into at least one song on the soundtrack
  • Elvis drives an awesome car
  • Elvis sings in his awesome car, usually serenading a girl or three
  • Elvis is or was in the military
  • Elvis plays some sort of outsider/rebel/vagabond
  • Related: Elvis wants to break free from his family or expectations and become his own man
  • Elvis has some kind of unconventional job–if he doesn’t work as a singer, it’ll be along the lines of race car driver/boat captain/water-ski instructor–no 9-to-5 stability for our Elvis (but bonus points if he works as a singer and a race car driver/boat pilot/water-ski instructor)
  • Two or more women fight over Elvis
  • Girls in bikinis, duh
  • A girl loses her bikini top
  • No woman over the age of 14 can resist Elvis’s charms
  • Elvis punches another man in the face (bonus points if he’s defending a woman or the fight is over a woman)
  • Elvis beats a rival in a competition (boat race, cliff diving competition)
  • Elvis spends the night in jail
  • Car chase or race
  • Small, adorable child sings/dances/hams it up with Elvis (bonus points if they’re never seen again after their one turn in the spotlight)
  • Unfortunate racial stereotypes (although this is somewhat tempered by the fact that the movies went out of their way to include multiracial cast members in a time period where that wasn’t usually a given-hell, it’s still not)

Blue Hawaii is alternately loved and hated as the movie that solidified all of these cliches into The Elvis Formula that governed most of his mid-career films. A few of his earlier films contain examples of these tropes–something I touched on in my review of Jailhouse Rock–but it wasn’t until Blue Hawaii became a hit that Elvis’s handlers truly paid attention to what the public was responding to and then, unfortunately, made an effort to include every single one of those components in every single film he did. The result was that Elvis’s film career can largely be imagined just by watching this one movie, as most of its follow-ups can essentially be summed up as Blue Mexico, Blue Europe, or Blue Florida.

There’s this idea floating around among the uninitiated that all Elvis Formula films are bad. They aren’t! I hate to disillusion anybody whose sole exposure to Elvis as an actor was Tickle Me, but some of the formula films are actually pretty enjoyable. For most critics, Blue Hawaii falls somewhere near the middle of the pile–not quite as good as Viva Las Vegas or Girl Happy, not quite as bad as Harum Scarum or Spinout.  I’d put it a little closer to the top end of the spectrum, which has more to do with its showcase of Hawaii’s beauty than the script itself. The plot is pretty simple: just out of the army, Elvis returns to his Hawaiian home, but has no interest in returning to his place at the family pineapple manufacturing plant. Taking up a job as a tour guide instead, he balances the expectations of his family, his girlfriend, his job–and one particularly unruly client.

Maybe the fact that it’s the dead of winter and I live in Wisconsin, but the movie has enough charms in scenery alone to make up for the fact that the script basically falls to shambles towards the second half. Unlike some of Elvis’s later films, Blue Hawaii was actually shot on location, and those location shots are just the thing to get me through the bitterly cold nights we’ve been having lately. For anybody who is, like me, interested in the historical developments of tourism (I know, there must be thousands of you, right?), Blue Hawaii is a neat look back at Hawaiian vacationing at the dawn of its statehood (and the height of Hawaii mania), including several scenes taking place at the Coco Palms Resort.

The soundtrack, too, is much better than his average movie fare, including “Blue Hawaii” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”–maybe that explains why it became the second best-selling pop album of the entire decade. (It does, however, include the abysmal “Ito Eats,” a song that should turn up on every list of the top ten worst songs Elvis ever sang.) And I’ve always liked Joan Blackman as Elvis’s love interest in this film. She does more with the character than most of her successors would, and the fact that we get half the movie with her before her rival shows up means that we’re a little more invested in her relationship with Elvis than we would be with most of his subsequent movie girlfriends. Mostly, though, it’s the scenery. If I can pretend I’m on a sun-drenched beach overlooking my own private bay, rather than in my apartment with the heat cranked up, a hoodie on and a glass of hot chocolate in hand–well, I’ll take that, even if it’s just for a moment.

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