Elvis at 80

8 Jan

One night this week I was watching an episode of The Untouchables called “Ma Barker and Her Boys” and at one point the narrator (Walter Winchell) intones the date of Dock Barker’s arrest, “January 8, 1935.” That sure jumped out at me. It was Elvis Presley’s birthdate. Some time yesterday I realized that tomorrow (today), January 8th, would have been Elvis’s 80th birthday. I wish I’d thought of it sooner and actually watched some Elvis movies, documentaries or concerts for the occasion. Instead, I barely had enough time to compile some of my past writings on Elvis and scrounge up some screen grabs to illustrate them. 

While I enjoy a lot of Elvis movies, my biggest lament about his career is his unrealized potential as a movie star and it seems to me that there were a lot of lost opportunities. That seems to be the thread that runs through these posts, a wish for what might have been. There are three posts I did for Mobius Home Video Forum, one on a dream I had, one an appreciation of IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963), and one on JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). These are followed by three pieces I did for IMDB: a comment on VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964), a short review of SPINOUT (1966), and a long review of CHANGE OF HABIT (1969).

April 21, 2006: Post to Mobius Home Video Forum

 Elvis and Doris Day—a literal “dream” cast…could it have worked?

I woke up from a dream a couple of hours ago in which I looked in a magazine and saw footage (i.e., the still photos became moving film footage) of Doris Day and Elvis Presley getting out of a plane to pose for publicity pix together on a fake-looking African veldt, with director Henry Hathaway there to guide them, all for a film they’d co-starred in. She was in a green dress and Elvis was in a safari jacket. So, still ensconced in the dream, I got to thinking just how such a pairing could have worked. These were two of the biggest movie stars of virtually the same period (late ‘50s to late ‘60s) and their films both targeted middle America (i.e., they weren’t terribly big draws in my Bronx neighborhood). Elvis could have played a singer and Doris his manager (a la Elvis and the older Lizabeth Scott in LOVING YOU, 1957) or Elvis could have played a photographer assigned to do a story on a high-powered female exec, a part Day played in several films with Rock Hudson. Granted, Elvis did not have the light comic touch of Hudson, but they could have tailored the script to give Day most of the comic business. Granted also that Day was a full eleven years older than Elvis and perhaps their fans might not have accepted a romance involving the two of them. Granted, yet again, that Henry Hathaway wouldn’t have been caught dead anywhere near a project like this. (If he wanted to work with a popular singer, it was Dean Martin, as witness THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER and FIVE CARD STUD.) It’s more the kind of assignment that would have been handed to Norman Taurog or Michael Gordon or Delbert Mann.

Still in the dream, I thought about doing a post on Mobius and asking what others thought. So, now I’m awake and thinking of other possibilities. What would a studio exec at Universal Pictures or Paramount in the mid-60s be thinking of as a vehicle for Doris and Elvis? Doris could have played the carnival owner that Barbara Stanwyck played in ROUSTABOUT. Well, maybe not. (I’m a big Stanwyck fan.) How about Doris plays a pink collar worker, like the waitress she played in THAT TOUCH OF MINK with Cary Grant, and Elvis plays a rich kid or some kind of “wild” guy and scratches her car or gets her uniform soiled or something where he owes her a debt and he has to make amends and then keeps following up with her. And maybe she has a son and Elvis gets along well with him and…oh, well, just trying to think of something era-appropriate. Or a variation on LOVER COME BACK, where Day plays the ad exec and Presley plays the guy plucked out of nowhere to be the star of a new ad campaign and Day falls for him and tries to control every aspect of his life and he balks at this and stalks off and only when she acts like a “real” woman (i.e. cooks for him, lets him pay for things, tones down her high-poweredness, etc.) does he come back. Something that would be politically incorrect today.  And they get to sing songs, both solo and a duet or two. Doris and Elvis singing to each other. Would that have been such a bad thing? I think not. Could it have worked? I like to think it could have.

August 16, 2007: Post to Mobius Home Video Forum

Elvis: 30th anniversary viewing…

Since today’s the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis, I thought I’d honor the King by watching one of his movies on my new TV set (the one I complained about in another thread). I pulled one out of the box set that I bought last year and it was IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR (1963), the first DVD I’ve now watched in its entirety on the new set and I must say the disc looks pretty damned good. Either I’m getting used to my set, my set’s getting used to me, or it just likes Elvis, too.

WORLD’S FAIR is lightweight fluff like so many of his post-KID GALAHAD movies, but it’s got a simple, unhurried plotline and a smaller cast than usual and it coasts quite comfortably on Elvis’ considerable charm. He’s got two leading ladies in this one, Joan O’Brien as a no-nonsense nurse/aspiring NASA careerist who’s got much more gravitas than usual for an Elvis romantic partner, and adorable little Vicky Tiu as seven-year-old Sue Lin whom Elvis has to take care of when her uncle, a Chinese farmer, disappears.

Elvis and Vicky Tiu

What struck me about Elvis while watching this was how often his films were set in the heartland and how often he was a working guy with a dream, but always rooted in communities far from Hollywood and the major cities. I don’t recall him ever playing a rich guy. (Right now he’s palling around with his mountain kinfolk in TCM’s cablecast of KISSIN’ COUSINS.) Despite the films being mostly shot on studio sets and locations around Southern California, there’s a real feel for the kinds of regional spaces and activities that Americans in flyover country were familiar with. In WORLD’S FAIR, he’s a broke crop duster pilot and he winds up staying in some kind of bungalow court (an upscale version of a trailer park) in Seattle. At one point, he sings the film’s signature song, “One Broken Heart for Sale,” while strumming the guitar and strolling around the court among its exclusively middle-aged occupants, four of whom lip-sync the Jordanaires’ backup. It’s scenes like this that endeared Elvis to his legions of fans. And that’s why they continue to make the pilgrimage to Graceland year in and year out.

I realize that this isn’t a particularly new insight, but I think it’s worth comparing his performing style with that of such other musical film stars as Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The others tended to do most of their performing in completely rarefied types of places and spaces. Elvis tended to sing right out in open, public spaces, often associated with working-class occupations, or ordinary homes and streets right among the people. Granted, Sinatra, Kelly et al sang much better songs by better songwriters that belonged in different places. But I think that where Elvis’ songs were played had something to do with the way his fans reacted to him.

For me, it’s always about the kinds of films Elvis should have been making, the directions he probably wanted to take, but, thanks to the iron hand of Col. Tom Parker, never did. He could have been a great movie star and, judging from the short fight scenes he often had, including one in WORLD’S FAIR where he does all his own fighting, a great action star, too. I just finished reading Elmore Leonard’s “Mr. Majestyk,” a novelization of the screenplay he wrote for the film of that title starring Charles Bronson. What if Elvis had played the Vietnam Vet melon grower up against a mob hitman instead of Bronson? He could have pulled it off. Granted, in 1974, I’m sure I would have preferred Bronson in the part and I’m sure I do now, but I’m trying to think of non-Elvis movies he could have been plausibly cast in. I saw the one non-singing western he made, CHARRO (1969), but it just wasn’t a good enough film to craft a new Elvis for us. But there certainly must have been a western or two he could have excelled in. What if Elvis played James Caan’s part with John Wayne in EL DORADO, instead of Caan? Caan’s okay, but just think of the dynamic that would have resulted from casting Elvis alongside Wayne and Mitchum. What other existing movies from that period would Elvis possibly have been suited for?

Oh, well… Just some thoughts about Elvis on this occasion.

Joan O’Brien, Elvis, and Kurt Russell in IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLD’S FAIR. Russell later played Elvis in a 1979 TV movie.

 

August 18, 2008: Post to Mobius Home Video Forum

More on Elvis…

Since the last post, I watched one more Elvis, one of his seminal works, JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957). It’s a problematic film for me, because it contains one of his best performances, and also a look at the “raw” Elvis, before he was “tamed” by the studio system and stuck playing safe characters in all that PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE and FUN IN ACAPULCO stuff. He was still a little dangerous in JAILHOUSE and still angry and somewhat unsympathetic. But, unfortunately, the script and direction don’t find his rhythm and never catch up to him. Old Hollywood hand Richard Thorpe (who was born in 1896 and had been directing at MGM since 1936 and had begun his directing career in the early 1920s) treats this as just another assembly-line studio assignment, completely oblivious to the powerful presence standing in front of his camera. The same goes for Elvis’ two co-stars, Judy Tyler and Mickey Shaughnessy. They’re acting, not reacting. I get the sense that they’d read their lines the same way if James Darren was in front of them, or Fabian, or Troy Donahue, or whoever would have been cast in the part if Elvis wasn’t there. Compare the way Judy Tyler plays off Elvis with the way Ann-Margret and Barbara Stanwyck did in later films. Or Lizabeth Scott in LOVING YOU, a film made the same year as JAILHOUSE.

What if they’d gotten a young director to helm this film? Look at the caliber of men who were making their film directing debuts around this time: John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman! What if one of these guys had directed JAILHOUSE ROCK? I’m not saying any one of them would have accepted it or even recognized Elvis’ potential (although other directors, such as Don Siegel and Phil Karlson did), but it sure seems like a wasted opportunity.

 

Aug. 23, 2008: Comment on VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964) for IMDB

Elvis’ only bonafide Hollywood movie musical gives a hint of what might have been

Why didn’t Elvis work more often with strong female musical co-stars like Ann-Margret? Given how powerful the result was in VIVA LAS VEGAS, it’s a shame they didn’t try to tailor more full-blown Hollywood movie musicals for him. He worked with Nancy Sinatra in SPEEDWAY, but aside from one song written for her by Lee Hazlewood, she wasn’t given much to do musically in the film and doesn’t even share a duet with Elvis.

What would an Elvis teamup with Julie Andrews have been like? Or Shirley MacLaine? Or, dare I say it, Doris Day? And why not younger 1960s musical stars like Petula Clark or Diana Ross? Or even Annette Funicello. The possibilities are tantalizing. Instead they kept putting him with attractive but non-musical co-stars in lightweight romantic comedies with occasional songs, with titles like GIRL HAPPY, DOUBLE TROUBLE, CLAMBAKE, TICKLE ME, and EASY COME, EASY GO, that just don’t compare with VIVA LAS VEGAS. At least in ROUSTABOUT, he had a formidable female co-star in Barbara Stanwyck. She didn’t sing or dance, but she sure acted up a storm. And her chemistry with Elvis was far more evident than any he might have had with the starlets who populated all his fluffy, throwaway comedies with music.

Aug. 23, 2008: Review of SPINOUT (1966) for IMDB

Above-average Elvis comedy with music

Elvis Presley spent most of the 1960s making fluffy lightweight romantic comedies with music, all constructed on a studio assembly line during the waning days of the old Hollywood studio system. These films tended to sap Elvis of the energy he could have devoted to better films and better roles, all of which he was capable of. Having said that, some of these films were more tolerable than others.

SPINOUT, made at MGM, is one of the most entertaining thanks to its teaming of Elvis with three colorful and delightful leading ladies, all of whom more than hold their own with their charismatic leading man. Deborah Walley plays the tomboyish redhead drummer in Elvis’ band and has a secret crush on him; Diane McBain plays a sexually voracious best-selling author on the hunt for the perfect American male; and Shelley Fabares plays the heiress of an auto fortune who thinks she’s entitled to whatever she wants and whose father wants Elvis to race a car for him. In the course of it, Elvis encounters rivals for each of the girl’s affections, leading to a set of romantic entanglements that are ultimately resolved in an inspired and original ending. The plot is packed with lots of clever twists, thanks to a script co-written by Theodore J. Flicker who would write and direct the cult hit, THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, the following year. Fortunately, the film’s racing angle is downplayed in favor of comic situations and a set of enjoyable songs.

The supporting players deserve singling out, including Jack Mullaney as Elvis’ comical bandmate; Carl Betz as Shelley’s father (a role he played with Shelley on “The Donna Reed Show” as well); Warren Berlinger as Betz’s loyal assistant; TV cowboy Will Hutchins as a highway cop with a penchant for gourmet cooking; and Hollywood veterans Cecil Kellaway and Una Merkel as an elderly rich couple who allow Elvis and his band to take over their house when they go on vacation. (This latter touch is representative of the film’s Hollywood fantasyland approach to life, but it’s all so well played by such skilled hands that it’s difficult not to get sucked into the fun of it all.)

 

January 10, 2010: Review of CHANGE OF HABIT (1969) for IMDB

Awkward attempt to make Elvis “relevant”

I watched CHANGE OF HABIT for the first time on January 8th to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth. It’s quite a change of pace for the star, an attempt to mix social commentary with an Elvis musical. It doesn’t quite work, largely because the script and the direction, products of the old Hollywood studio mindset, clash with the young performers and the ideas in the story that were clearly in sync with the tenor of the times. Had they gotten a younger, more innovative director, it might have worked. But that can be said about so many of Elvis’s movies.

The basic premise is sound. The three nuns in the film played by Mary Tyler Moore, Jane Elliot, and Barbara McNair have clearly defined professional skills and a strong commitment to using them to help the disadvantaged. The women are unquestionably sincere and quite admirable and courageous. Their characters provide the emotional core for the story of a free clinic operating in a multi-ethnic ghetto neighborhood. From a production standpoint, the casting direction and some of the background work offer an authenticity quite rare in a studio product of the time. Despite being shot largely on the Universal Studio backlot (the New York street set), the street life portrayed has a rhythm and level of noise and aggression that wasn’t often convincingly captured in studio productions. There are a large number of black and Latino performers in the cast and not a single one of them look like they stepped out of Central Casting. A cute Puerto Rican actress, Laura Figueroa, plays a 17-year-old street girl who has the hots for Elvis. One of the black militants who confronts Barbara McNair’s Sister Irene is played by Ji-Tu Cumbuka, who went on to quite a number of important roles in black-themed films and TV shows (e.g. UP TIGHT, TOP OF THE HEAP, “Roots”). There’s even a street fair with a Latin band that resembles events I used to attend in the South Bronx back in the day.

The one significant false note in the casting is the inclusion of two stock old white lady characters (played by Doro Merande and Ruth McDevitt) who stick their heads out of the windows regularly to cluck their disapproval, as if they’d been held over from the Frank Capra road company. Hollywood veteran Regis Toomey (who was actually in a Capra movie, MEET JOHN DOE) is on hand as a grumpy old parish priest who antagonizes the nuns, but, to its credit, the film refuses to soften the character or make him one of those stock Irish priests with a kind word and a useful homily for every situation. Instead, he’s presented as a man fearful of his parishioners and clearly out of step with the times. In another interesting casting touch, Ed Asner turns up as an enlightened beat cop who speaks Spanish to the street’s residents. Cult favorite Timothy Carey (THE KILLING) plays a surly butcher who regularly cheats the customers.

There are some alarming elements on display, though. In one scene the doctor played by Elvis takes a young autistic girl of about five or six into his arms and manhandles her in a bout of “tough love,” urging her to get her “anger” out. To a modern viewer it looks an awful lot like child abuse. At one point, Elvis tries to dissuade the nuns from working in his clinic with a jaw-dropping line that has to be heard to be disbelieved: “The last three nurses who worked here couldn’t take it. Two of them were raped, one even against her will.” Later, an attempted rape of one of the nuns at knifepoint by a disturbed patient is brushed off quite casually. Maybe they assumed it wasn’t “against her will.” Also, this has to be the only Elvis film where you hear the words, “faggot,” “bitch” and “nigger.” (And it was rated “G,” to boot!)

While Mary Tyler Moore does an excellent job as Sister Michelle, who is torn between her love for Jesus and her love for Elvis, I can’t be so generous in assessing Elvis’ performance. He’s quite charismatic, despite the inappropriate hairstyle and wardrobe, but he holds back in every scene. With a better script and direction, the role of an embittered Vietnam veteran who carries out his moral obligation to a dead soldier by becoming a doctor to help the poor could have been a breakout performance for the singing star. Instead, Elvis comes in, reads his lines with a minimum of involvement and refuses to express the emotions that the character must surely be feeling. What happened? Why didn’t he step up to the plate and knock this one out of the park? He had it in him. Instead, this was his last acting job. All I see now is sad, wasted potential. It hurts.

 

Back to Elvis’ 80th, this morning I watched a segment of A&E’s Biography series that was devoted to Elvis, dating from 1993, and was pleased to see a concise overview of Elvis’ life and career over the course of 30-odd years, with comments from Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis, as well as interviews with many non-celebrities who knew him way back when, intercut with footage of his early years and earliest TV appearances. It’s nice to hear from people who were more intimate with him or who knew him before he became famous and can give a non-Hollywood perspective on his character. The clips from his studio features are limited to trailer footage, usually faded and scratchy, evidently reflecting the episode’s lack of a budget for licensing full-fledged clips. There isn’t much actual Elvis music in the piece, either, for that matter, but then we’ve got the films and the albums for all of that.

Finally, a search through my still collection uncovered some shots of Elvis from his penultimate acting role, CHARRO (1969), the only film he made in which he doesn’t sing on camera and the only Elvis film I saw during its initial release:

ADDENDUM: After doing the above I wound up commemorating the day by watching an Elvis film I owned on DVD but had never seen in its entirety before: KING CREOLE (1958), directed by Michael Curtiz. I’ve always felt that Elvis fared best when in the hands of strong directors (e.g. Phil Karlson, Gordon Douglas, Don Siegel) and here he’s working with an old Hollywood hand who’d guided such stars as Errol Flynn, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart through some of their best films.

It’s a contrived and formulaic Hollywood melodrama about a good boy with a chip on his shoulder who tries to survive in the world of New Orleans nightlife by negotiating his way out of trouble with the bad guys while trying to stick full-time with the good guys only to run into inevitable violence. (It’s based on a novel by Harold Robbins.) But Elvis manages to make the character his own and one constantly feels the moral seesaw he’s forced to ride throughout the film and the battle between his own desires and goals and those of the adults and women around him. He’s basically a good guy, with more nerve and courage than usual, who finds he might have to dirty his hands once in a while to get ahead in this world. He sings ten songs in it and they’re much bluesier than the fluffy songs he was saddled with in his 1960s musicals. He’s got a top-notch supporting cast, too, including Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart, Vic Morrow and future nun Dolores Hart. In fact, he beats up both Matthau and Morrow in it. I tend to like FLAMING STAR and a couple of his other films better, but this one is definitely in the top five of Presley films. And he even shows up on location in New Orleans for a few scenes, surely a first for Elvis and something he didn’t often do for the rest of his film career.

 

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One Response to “Elvis at 80”

  1. Judith Trojan January 8, 2015 at 11:55 AM #

    Happy Birthday, Elvis! Rita Moreno has some interesting revelations about Elvis. Look for her interview on “Access Hollywood” earlier this week. Doris and Elvis? Not a fit for her career path at that time. Elvis was not known for his “acting” ability and aside from Stanwyck’s character stint, his costars were young women at the beginning of (and, in some cases, the end) of their careers. They were cute and pretty and didn’t have the chops to overshadow Elvis. Doris grew her career from singer to serious actress, and was a popular star at that time starring in sophisticated, adult dramas and comedies playing against name actors at her level.

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