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.
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.