The Seasoned Ticket #11

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

I’m still thinking about Elvis, and in lieu of good ideas this week, I dug up a past piece of writing that has me baffled. Did I wrote this for Film.com, one of the internet’s original movie websites (I mean, check out that web address—founder Lucy Mohl was really thinking ahead), back in the mid-90s? I think maybe. I have been into Elvis movies since childhood, when they were a staple of TV movie packages, and I wanted to say a couple of things. I had obviously just read Peter Guralnick’s great biography, and cite it in the piece. Guralnick is interviewed in the new documentary The King, and the movie could use more of him.

Anyway. If they’re not showing Elvis movies on TV with any regularity, you can come to Scarecrow and get the goods. In the meantime, here’s a vintage thinkpiece.

Elvis and the Colonel: Easy Come, Easy Go

In the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us—a comedy about Catholic schoolboys in the mid-sixties—the teenage heroes trundle off to catch the latest Elvis Presley picture at their Brooklyn movie house. Staring up at the screen, one of them ponders the image of the rock god in Hollywood: “Man,” the kid says, “What’d they do to Elvis—cut his balls off?”

That is as valid an observation as any about the dismal spectacle of Elvis’s movie career. There’s no sadder chapter in the rock-movie catalog than this transformation of a raw young colt (Elvis ’56) into a pasty-faced zombie (Elvis ’66), able to rouse himself out of his donuts-and-tranquilizers haze just long enough to deliver a half-hearted karate chop. Blame for this has always gone to Elvis’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who dictated the trajectory of his movie-mad client’s Hollywood career; but let’s not forget that The King had the ultimate say in his own work, and lacked the invention, the taste, or the balls to do something about his mostly plastic film vehicles.

In Peter Guralnick’s beautiful two-part biography of Presley, the deal-making machinations of Colonel Parker are fascinatingly detailed, and they say a lot about why Elvis movies became so formulaically tawdry so quickly. The Colonel’s goal through the 1960s was to keep Elvis one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood; but he also remained fanatically insistent on keeping the budgets for Presley pictures low, so there’d be a bigger slice of the chocolate-cream pie at the end. The perverse logic went something like this: whereas most actors experiencing success in movies would see the budgets and shooting schedules of their films increase in direct relation to their box-office profile, Colonel Parker arranged it so that Elvis’s films would be shot cheaper and quicker. It was the kind of short-sighted craftiness that would appeal to the Colonel’s huckster soul and Elvis’s Tupelo-bred appetites. And that’s how you get to the netherworld of Clambake and Spinout.

Elvis began with promise, and his pre-Army movies are neat entertainments—King Creole (1958) actually feels like the start of something special. The kid’s acting is green, obviously, but there’s an interesting wariness there, and no fakery; and when he cuts loose in song, as in Jailhouse Rock (1958), the voltage is live. In retrospect, Blue Hawaii (1961) marks a turning point: a fun movie, but its success set the Elvis formula in an increasingly hardening paste of peanut butter and bananas. Thenceforth E would be cast as a racecar driver, a water-skiing instructor, a roustabout, and engage in some contractual singin’ and scrappin’ while looking sleepily indifferent to the shoddiness of the scripts and sets. By 1970 the movie thing was dead, briefly propped up by a couple of concert documentaries. He had occasional chances, as when Barbra Streisand asked him to play the male lead in her remake of A Star is Born (1976), and you can imagine the weird pathos he might have brought to that ridiculous project. But the Colonel screwed the deal by asking for more than Elvis was worth at that point (as though pretending it was still 1962 could make it so), and it would have been a cruel sight anyway—seeing Elvis play a has-been and an addict, a role much closer to himself than anything he’d done since those early Young Man With a Guitar flicks. At that point Elvis was tired, almost gone, and “the movies” in his life consisted of kung fu pictures unspooling at midnight at a Memphis theater.

Without question, some of the riper titles from the Presley filmography have a rich camp appeal, and that’s the only way something like Stay Away, Joe is bearable. But even on that level, you can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy through the most absurd of his movies when they flash across a late-night cable viewing. It’s hard not to sigh and think: poor Elvis—if only he’d done something.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

An all new SHRIEK this Thursday!

This Thursday, SHRIEK: Women of Horror presents a classic, the original FRIDAY THE 13TH! Camp it up with us for this summer slash fest. Summer camp attire encouraged.

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Cinema Jackpots: MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING

by John S. 

Cinema Jackpot! is a series that reviews films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.

(Cinema Jackpot! runs alternately with Movie Postmortems)

THE CONTESTANT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding

THE ODDS: It’s common knowledge that The Big Studio Development Process is one that can radically change a screenwriter’s idea to the point where the end result is very different from the original concept. This minefield was one Canadian actress/comedienne Nia Vardalos had to negotiate while shopping around her idea for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a comedy based on her experiences with her eccentric Greek-Canadian family – and the humorous impact her husband (actor/comedian Ian Gomez) had on the clan when he married into it.

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The Seasoned Ticket #10

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

 

There’s a documentary called The King opening this weekend about Elvis, except that director Andrew Jarecki really wants the movie to be about America. I didn’t care for it. However, this gives me a chance to dip into my notebook for doodling about Elvis pictures, a genre I grew up watching on TV and continue to have a soft spot for. It is madness, of course, but one must take ownership of one’s own thang.

So here are a few notes written down over the years when I’ve re-watched one of the vehicles engineered for Elvis.

Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)

Elvis in Hawaii again, and a really rotten use of the locations. Man, at least Paradise, Hawaiian Style gets you out in the verdant places of Kauai; this stinker doesn’t even exploit the islands. Elvis is a fisherman who doesn’t own his own boat, but dreams of doing so; Laurel Goodwin (snooze) is the rich girl pretending to be poor so she can land an honest man. Homoerotic tension comes from Jeremy Slate, who buys the boat Elvis built with his late father. Lots of songs staged on boats, almost obsessively so, with the title tune being a seasick-inducing number. Everybody makes fun of “Song of the Shrimp,” but it’s one of the better numbers in a weak line-up. Mucho action set in a Trader Vic’s-like nightclub, but weird deployment of Stella Stevens, looking lovely as a gumdrop as usual, but stuck in the club as Elvis’s ex. EP has a number singing to kids again, always a rotten idea. There are some odd musical alleyways, especially for a movie set in Hawaii, including a calypso number (“Shrimp” actually) and a few flamenco steps by Elvis. He looks good, and at this point in his career the budgets were still big enough to allow for good studio lighting cameramen. The King comes to life in “Return to Sender,” which energizes him in that way he has, of giving body and soul to a song when it stirs him.

Follow That Dream (1962)

Elvis hadn’t dyed his hair a permanent midnight black yet in Follow That Dream, which is another way of saying this is still the point in his career when he was making movies, not just Elvis Presley vehicles. Elvis road-trips with his crabby, anti-government pop (Arthur O’Connell) and an adopted brood to a Florida beach, which by a legal quirk they can homestead. The authorities and some fairly unbelievable gangsters would like to stop them. The songs are undistinguished but not awful, the scenery is nice, and Elvis–looking well-fed and relaxed–shows off good comedic chops doing a dumb-guy shtick. Screenwriter Charles Lederer and director Gordon Douglas are a class act by Presley picture standards, keeping the sitcom-style plot moving along. No fancy clothes or cars in this one, just Elvis and some beachcombing and an old git-tar, and not a bad time-killer for all that.

Fun in Acapulco (1966)

Standard Elvis, middle period, set in Mexico. Unlike the Hawaii pictures, however, it’s obvious that Elvis never set foot in Acapulco—a fact that becomes a source of fascination as you watch the film. His double walks through hotel lobbies, rides motorbikes down Mexican streets, and strolls the beaches of sunny Acapulco, but Elvis appears in nary a shot that doesn’t involve rear-projection. Christ, the double is onscreen for a third of the picture. EP gets hired at a resort as both a lifeguard and a singer—right on—and gets to mess around with Ursula Andress. The salsa-flavored music is kind of fun, even if it ain’t Memphis, with the one great number “Bossa Nova Baby,” with Elvis pretending to boogie on the organ during the instrumental breaks. He nails the tune, though. For some reason he is instantly hostile to Alejandro Rey, another lifeguard and the competition for the other female person. The finale is one of those things you always remember if you catch it on TV in childhood: Elvis—well, a double—climbing the cliffs and diving into the sea below. (In doing so, EP is overcoming a trauma: it turns out before he was a deckhand/lifeguard/singer, he was a member of a family high-wire trapeze act—and responsible for his brother’s death under the big top! Jesus!)

Easy Come, Easy Go (1967)

Elvis as a Navy frogman. On a job de-activating a mine, he discovers a sunken ship with a locked chest on board. After being discharged, he plots to bring the booty up. His old buddy is beatnik Pat Harrington (in goatee and French-style striped shirts), who owns a club called The Easy Go-Go. Elvis meets Dodie Marshall, a hippie type who’s converted her lighthouse into an artists’ commune (she redecorated it in “early far out”). The kids stage “happenings” there, like dumping a load of spaghetti on a car or covering bikini-ed bodies in paint and rolling across a canvas. (They are, to Elvis, “kooks.”) Elvis first enters the place in the middle of Elsa Lanchester’s yoga class, which leads to the immortal song “Yoga Is as Yoga Does,” which is actually pretty much the high point of the music. Weird tune about spinning a wheel of fortune in the bar, with pictures of babes going ’round; Elvis does this with his Navy buddies, who all look about forty and then disappear from the picture. EP must have had a lot of time off on this one, because there’s a lot of underwater footage of a double (inspired by Thunderball, maybe), including the obligatory Elvis scrapping. No karate. His rival for the sunken treasure is a blond ball-breaker who seeks only thrills; she bosses around her Adonis companion. Not really awful, and the summer of love stuff is good time-capsule material.

Clambake (1967)

Elvis’s outfits are impressive in Clambake, especially a groovy, belted sport coat and a cream-colored suit covered with cowhide-style stitching. The costumes are more creative than the soundtrack, which is heavy with the mindlessness of late-period Elvis movies. As he sings “Confidence” (an obvious rip-off of the Oscar-winning “High Hopes”), you can almost see Elvis batting out “Just shoot me” in Morse code with his eyelids. The only decent tune has the star crooning a nice, lonesome version of the standard “You Don’t Know Me.” This one’s set in Florida, but with none of the scenic fun of his Hawaii pictures. He plays a rich oilman’s son pretending to be a water-skiing instructor, with Shelley Fabares (a three-time Presley costar) as the girl. The camp highlight is an ensemble number with go-go girls helping Elvis fix a speedboat, which is just about as far from Sun Studios as you can get.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

SHRIEK presents THE BIRDS

As we say goodbye to June-uary in Seattle, SHRIEK: Women of Horror brings you a masterwork of natural disaster horror: THE BIRDS. The film takes on new context in a time of climate change debates, renewed fears of the end of the world, and the continuing struggle amongst the sexes. Join us this Sunday to watch and discuss this female-led film about human impotence in the face of nature.

 

SHRIEK: A Women of Horror Film Class presents THE BIRDS

Sunday, July 1, 2018

doors 6:30pm, opening talk & screening 7:00pm

Naked City Brewery & Taphouse

8564 Greenwood Ave N.

Seattle 98103

Hosted by Evan J. Peterson, Heather Marie Bartels, and Megan Peck

Sponsored by Crypticon Seattle and Scarecrow Video

Get your tickets here.

 

THE BIRDS (1963)

Starring Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, and Rod Taylor

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Evan Hunter, based on the story by Daphne du Maurier

Subgenre: Thriller, Apocalypse, Natural Disaster, Crazed Animals

Blood & Gore: Minimal and memorable

Sexual Assault: No, just romantic coercion

Bechdel Test: Pass! The first conversation in the film fulfills all 3 criteria. In fact, in an inverse of the Bechdel Test, it’s quite infrequent for male characters to talk to one another about anything other than female characters.

 

For the love of horror,

Evan, Heather, and Megan

The SHRIEKsters

 

SHRIEK is a community class merging film with education and offering an accessible forum outside of academia. The goal is to offer low-cost opportunities to learn about film and women’s studies and to inspire more diverse filmmakers, especially women, to get involved as creators in the genre.