Having Wonderful Time

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

A couple years back I came up what I thought was a genius idea: summer camp for adults. Just imagine it: all those happiest, most carefree summers of your youth, packed with swimming, arts & crafts hour, and s’more-roasting under the stars . . . only this time with alcohol and sex. (Well, more sex. My sleepaway camp adventures ended in middle school, and took place at a church camp to boot, so the closest we got to sexin’ was en masse crushes on the boys from Cabin 6 with Devon Sawa hair and names like A.J. and Jonathan. But Little Darlings, Meatballs and Wet Hot American Summer make it clear I missed out.) What could be better? And how exactly was I the first person to think of this? We have adult kickball leagues, adult Chuck E. Cheese . . . how had nobody invented adult summer camp yet?

Then I watched the Ginger Rogers romance Having Wonderful Time and realized they had.

Ginger Rogers plays an overworked typist who’s been saving all her pennies for a vacation in the Catskills: at Camp Kare-Free, to be exact, which is . . . you guessed it, an adult summer camp. She shares a bunk with a handful of comic relief friends (including Lucille Ball), she eats breakfast in the mess hall where Red Skelton provides the guests with comedy routines about the proper way to dunk their doughnuts, and her days are spent horseback riding and canoeing on the lake while nights involve dancing and star-gazing on the camp’s veranda. The camp canteen is even fully stocked with liquor. Dream vacation, right? But Ginger’s got bigger dreams: her reason for taking this trip was to land a husband who can rescue her from her busy working girl life and the noisy family she lives with. Despite a rocky beginning, Ginger does manage to win the heart of camp waiter Douglas Fairbanks, but he, naturally, is penniless and in no shape to be rescuing anybody from anything. Misunderstandings lead to the usual romantic comedy hijinks, which are solved, 1930s-style, at the last possible minute before the fade-to-black.

I have no idea what happened to adult summer camps. Maybe they only ever existed in the movies in the first place. But one thing’s for certain: it’s time for a comeback. Anybody want to put a down payment on a little lakeside place in the Adirondacks with me?

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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.

Green Fire

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Stewart Granger, wooing Grace Kelly in Green Fire: “In the meantime, there’s all this. A classic setting: man, woman, tropic night, beautiful river. . .” Yes, folks, that’s right–Stewart Granger identified the Jungle Love genre half a century before I did.

And Green Fire is a worthy addition to the canon. A rare example set in the New World rather than Darkest Africa or the steamy jungles of southeast Asia, it nevertheless covers all the necessary tropes: a love triangle between middle-aged men and a 20-something leading lady; a beautiful Colombian setting (filmed on location); a substantial population of brown people to work the coffee plantation and the emerald mine and, when necessary, to wave guns around threateningly; a cave-in and an eventual landslide, along with the ongoing threat of the rainy season, an ostensibly Hispanic villain played by a WASPy former Yalie. No royalty, but we do get emeralds, which has to count for something, right? I’m going with “Right.”

The run-down: Granger is an emerald miner-slash-adventurer in Colombia. His claim borders a coffee plantation owned by Grace Kelly and her brother. Granger aims to romance Kelly, but his devotion to the mine ends up alienating him not only from her but from his business partner as well. Meanwhile, a group of bandits led by a man called El Moro is terrorizing the miners, trying to take the emeralds for themselves.

Green Fire wears its white savior complex on its sleeve. It’s paternalist, colonialist, and misogynist. Not only that, it’s horrifying from an environmentalist standpoint, what with all the mountain-decimating and river-rerouting. So of course, I loved it. I don’t know why I even try to justify it anymore: it turns out I just like racist, sexist movies in spite of themselves. And apparently we can add “environmentally destructive movies” to that list.

It’s a Bikini World

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.

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.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

“I’ve got to get on that dance TV show” was the plot–or subplot–of a number of films leading up to Girls Just Want to Have Fun‘s release in 1985. The movie version of Grease used it; Bye Bye Birdie had a variation on it. A few years after Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Hairspray would dedicate a full film to this trope. But while most of those examples were undeniably retro, Girls Just Want to Have Fun updated it for the ’80s. The dance TV show in question–inventively titled Dance TV–isn’t an American Bandstand rip-off; it appears to be something closer to a whiter Soul Train, or maybe a precursor to Club MTV/The Grind. Janey Glenn, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is obsessed with the show, so when she learns that they’re holding tryouts for new dancers, she has to go. Even after Janey’s father puts the kibosh on that plan, her more adventurous friend, Lynne, drags her along–and of course Janey makes the first cut, winning a cute new dance partner as she goes. The rest of the film is a mish-mash of Flashdance-inspired dance rehearsal scenes, Sixteen Candles-inspired take-down-the-rich-bitch hijinks, and the required romantic spark between Janey and her dance partner. As Janey puts it, “Things are going too well. I mean, besides DTV, I have a best friend, and I mean, I’d never dreamed in a million years that I would have a boyfriend!”: all the elements for the perfect ’80s sleepover film in place.

Watching this movie is a weird experience from an adult perspective: both of its stars–Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt–went on to find greater stardom as adults than they did as teens, in television roles that they’ve each more or less become synonymous with.  It’s weird to watch Sarah Jessica Parker mooning over her first boyfriend when you’re used to her being world-weary and jaded with men, weirder still to watch Helen Hunt play the boisterous, boy-crazy half of the pair when her Mad About You character was so neurotic and high-strung. But as jarring as their playing-against-type was, I still enjoyed it. Not that I’m saying it’s a good movie. But it was an enjoyable movie while still being a terrible one.

Eighties filmmakers did the best high school movies, didn’t they?  They were usually still decent into the ’90s, but towards the end of that decade they began their slow, inexorable slide into the mediocrity of the ’00s. The genre has never recovered. As I watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I wondered why that was–how the movie could be so bad and yet so simultaneously watchable–and then I realized exactly what it was: rich kids. In the 80s, the rich kids were always the enemy. And filmmakers knew exactly what to do with them–as Rushmore summed up half a generation later, “Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget it.” A decade of teen films is encapsulated in that quote. And it always worked! Even if you didn’t personally have any animosity towards rich kids in your own life, you couldn’t have any qualms about rooting against the entitled brats in the movies. It brought the audience together in a way that hasn’t been recreated since–and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most successful of the last decade’s teen movies, like Mean Girls and Rocket Science, are updated rehashes of the high school class war.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun doesn’t plumb the rich-kid conflict to quite the depths of The Outsiders or, say, John Hughes in every teen movie he ever made. But watching our designated villainess get her comeuppance–not once, but over and over again–is still satisfying. And the movie does us the favor of making her so over-the-top that her repeated humiliations feel less like bullying and a lot more like karma. Yeah, the ’80s knew how to do it. Shouldn’t there be a Pretty in Pink remake coming out one of these days?

The Reluctant Debutante

January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Reluctant Debutante stars Sandra Dee as a sweet but stubborn California teenager in the midst of a London season and, as such, is essentially just Gidget Goes to the UK. Inspired by the last round of court presentations for the Queen in 1958, the film chronicles the trials of Jane (Dee), who goes to visit her British father and his new wife, and is (reluctantly, of course) thrust into the social whirl of debutante season. Through the gauntlet of balls and parties, Jane falls for one man–who her stepmother considers below her station and whom both her parents worry might be a date rapist in disguise–but is also pursued by a parent-approved but nauseatingly boring one. Of course everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction by the end, helped along by a few last-minute cinematic plot contrivances.

This film is simply a trifle, but it’s an extremely enjoyable one. Real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Jane’s father and stepmother, and they’re so funny that the story ends up being more theirs than hers. (This being pre-Dee stardom, they get top billing, too.) Angela Lansbury has a fun turn as Kendall’s meddling friend. Since the movie was based off a play, the script has a farcical, madcap flavor to it at which Kendall and especially Harrison excel, culminating in a drawn-out but hilarious living room scene where the two attempt to spy on their daughter. Director Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace flowing at a clip, and of course, Minnelli being Minnelli, everything is beautifully set and staged. The plot is a little dated–the idea of Jane dating a man who forces himself on her is treated with boys-will-be-boys heedlessness rather than any real cause for alarm–but the whole thing is just so fun that that’s easy to overlook.

Further reading:

  • Let’s Get Physical“: a PopMatters column on Kendall’s physical acting in this film and Les Girls

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