It Happened at the World’s Fair

August 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

It Happened at the World’s Fair is where Elvis’s image loses its teeth entirely. Only a handful of years after he was considered a hip-swiveling menace to society, Elvis now spends more of this movie baby-sitting plucky, pig-tailed seven-year-old Sue-Lin than chasing skirts (overachieving, he sometimes manages both at once). Sure, Elvis’s bad-boy sneer had gotten a little softening in movies like G.I. Blues, which also included a bit of baby-sitting–but at least in that movie he was still naughty enough to make a bet about spending the night with his paramour. World’s Fair is a straight-out family film, and the closest Elvis gets to a sleepover is when Sue-Lin falls asleep on his shoulder on the Monorail ride home after an exhausting day at the of Crackerjack-eating and Ferris wheel-riding.

What World’s Fair lacks in teeth, it makes up for in a different department: racial progressiveness. While Elvis was haunted throughout his life by urban legends about his alleged racism–and continues to be even after his death, despite JET debunking the rumors half a century ago–the truth is much more interesting. Childhood neighbors recall him as being on good terms with all races, playing in mixed-race bands and learning gospel songs from African-American church-goers. He was one of the few white artists of his day to regularly cross the color lines of the South, attending the Memphis fair on “colored night” and participating in black radio charity events. And his films commit to showcasing racially progressive views, too. In 1960’s Flaming Star, he plays a half-white, half-Native American character who articulates his frustration over fitting in neither world and the impossibility of choosing one over the other when both continue to attack each other–a plot that Douglas Brode in Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture reads as a pro-integrationist allegory for white-black relations and the Civil Rights movement. In 1961’s Blue Hawaii, Elvis rejects the prejudiced views of his Southern belle mother by choosing to party with his Hawaiian friends and marry his half-Hawaiian girlfriend. In 1963’s Fun in Acapulco, one-third of the obligatory Elvis love triangle is Hispanic actress Elsa Cárdenas.

But It Happened at the World’s Fair is perhaps Elvis’s most racially progressive film, for the fact that so little attention is drawn to race at all. In an era where movie characters were always white unless the plot required them to be otherwise (and let’s not kid ourselves–50 years later, that still basically applies), the fact that Elvis’s seven-year-old playmate is played by Asian-American Vicky Tiu stands out. Both Sue-Lin and her uncle are presented virtually sans stereotype, another rarity for the time. Even the Asian-American girl manning the Chinese food booth is treated exactly like every other woman in the movie (Elvis hits on her, naturally).

Granted, Elvis’s racial track record is by no means spotless. The character of Ping-Pong in Blue Hawaii is an unfortunate racial stereotype from beginning to end, and Elvis’s depictions of American Indians in later movies like Stay Away, Joe were less nuanced than one might have hoped from movies coming out ten years and a Civil Rights movement after Flaming Star. The allegations of Elvis’s appropriation of black music are legit, even if most of his contemporary black musicians, fans and media saw it very differently then than they do today. Back in the day, many African-American musicians credited Elvis as the breakthrough that made their own breakthroughs possible–he was the mechanism that allowed the mainstream press to start taking them seriously and, perhaps more importantly, for the mainstream fans to start making them rich–if never quite as rich as Elvis. And maybe that right there is Elvis’s legacy in a nutshell: a thief and a trail-blazer at the same time. But while people continue to debate the complex racial legacy that Elvis left us with, I’m glad there’s at least one of his movies that stands out as being not just racially ahead of its time, but ahead of ours.

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In the Heat of the Night

February 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I recommitted to my goal of making it through the two AFI Top 100 Movies lists, and one of the most interesting thing about the two lists is how you can see critical tastes changing–especially in regards to race–even in the span of a decade. Movies like Dances with Wolves, Giant, or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–initially regarded as racially progressive for their intersection-of-two-cultures plots–were now seen as overly sentimental, unrealistic, and heavily imbalanced towards the white side of the story. Movies like In the Heat of the Night and Do the Right Thing–presenting grittier, less rosy-eyed portraits of race relations–replaced them, alongside pictures like The Shawshank Redemption and Spartacus that had subtler themes of identifying with the oppressed. In perhaps the most blatant example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was almost literally replaced with his later Intolerance, substituting a pro-bigotry message with an anti-bigotry one–and while Intolerance is certainly more palatable from a humanitarian standpoint, and more interesting from a storytelling point of view, it seems a little like cheating to pretend that its technological advances were anything compared to Birth of a Nation‘s. It’s not a fight I’m compelled to go to the mat for, but I do think this kind of historical revisionism ultimately does more harm than good–Birth of a Nation was a great film based around an awful story, period, and removing it from the list doesn’t make people in the early days of the 20th century any less racist than they were. Ultimately, cinematic superlative lists need to decide if they’re grading on technical innovation or artistic achievement (however you define that)–Birth of a Nation shows exactly why it’s so dangerous to grade both simultaneously, as the AFI list purports to do. Otherwise you might come across as tacitly condoning the acts of the Klan when, in reality, all you mean is that you think Griffith’s invention of “close-ups” was really neat.

Before watching, I was familiar with three parts of In the Heat of the Night already: the scene where the police officer arrests Sidney Poitier in the train station and repeatedly refers to him as “boy,” the part where he snaps, “They call me Mister Tibbs,” and the part where an older white man slaps him and he returns the slap full-force. I loved finally seeing them in their proper context; it’s like the experience I had reading Jack Gilbert’s “Michiko Dead” on its own and then reading it in the context of The Great Fires. That poem and those moments seemed less contrived, less trying to prove a point, more trying to tell a story when taken as part of a full work. This will sound ignorant of me, but I didn’t realize that they were making films like this in the 1960s, let alone that films like this were winning multiple Academy Awards–the depiction of racial tensions seemed more realistic to its time than many pictures’ being made today. It helped that the movie was set up as a mystery rather than a “problem picture”; it avoided a lot of the potential derailings into heavy-handedness while still managing to touch on some serious issues. I’m reading Donald Bogle’s wonderful book Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks right now, on the history of African-Americans in cinema, and I’m surprised that he gave this film what was essentially a sentence-long review of “Sidney Poitier plays another variation on the perfect black man,” because to me, there were several very transgressive moments in this film–including, but not limited to those I noted above–that pushed the (primarily white) audience to identify with Poitier’s character in the same way that horror movies often force the mostly male audience to identify with a female lead.

My favorite moment of the film occurred right after Poitier returns the rich white man’s slap and stalks out. The white man’s black servant, who’s been sent to the kitchen for a tray of lemonades, returns just in time to witness this exchange, and responds with a small, sad shake of his head. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous: Is he disappointed in Tibbs for stepping out of line? Pleased but knowing he has to play the part of loyal servant? Openly upset with his employer? Annoyed that he got all those lemonades ready for nothing? I’ll admit that I’m not the kind of person who usually notices small details in films like this unless I see them multiple times, but rarely has such a tiny moment been so perfectly played.

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.

Race & Hollywood

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Out of all the special programming that Turner Classic Movies does–Summer Under the Stars, 31 Days of Oscar, war movies over the Memorial Day weekend, Silent Sundays–their annual Race & Hollywood feature has always been my favorite. The channel picks one particular racial or ethnic group to focus on, devotes blocks of programming to both positive and negative portrayals of that race throughout film history, and frames the films with interviews, discussions and documentaries about race. Since I’m both a classic film fan and a history geek, Race & Hollywood is my perfect intersection of the two–and more importantly, the speakers that TCM invites to introduce each movie often have things to say about their culture that normally don’t get heard in mainstream film media. Last year, watching Hanay Geiogamah speak, I realized that that was the first time I’d ever heard a Native American speak about film. Ever. And I wouldn’t have gotten that chance if it weren’t for TCM.

So when May came and went with no sign of Race & Hollywood on the schedule, I was first worried, then annoyed. I tried to figure out why they weren’t doing it this year–I couldn’t be the only one that was interested! Maybe, I decided, after doing blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans, they’d decided they’d run out of races. But that was ridiculous. They could just start over again with blacks–there had to be plenty more performances to discuss, or new things to say about ones that had already aired. Or they could get more specific–I’m certainly not the only one who would be interested in seeing how Afro-Caribbeans had been portrayed in Hollywood, or Polynesians, or the Romani? Or, especially timely, what about Arabs?

It seems TCM has read my mind, because Race & Hollywood has appeared on the schedule again–slated for July, rather than May–with a focus on Arab images. I’m especially looking forward to this installment of Race & Hollywood. The One Thousand and One Nights-inspired film has long been a favorite of mine, and it’ll be interesting to see that deconstructed. Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheik, and The Thief of Bagdad were some of the earliest movies I ever added to my Netflix queue. I’ve been dying to see Kismet for years. And I’ll finally have my chance, because it’s one of the films TCM will be showing in July! A full schedule can be found here.

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