Thursday, December 6, 2012

Getting acquainted with ... Elvis Presley

This is the second-to-last in my Getting Acquainted series, where I have been watching three movies per month by a director or actor or writer whose work was previously unfamiliar to me. I've got one final installment in December.

November's subject has probably got to make almost anyone laugh. Who doesn't know Elvis Presley?

But the Elvis I know is not Elvis the actor. In fact, I had seen none of his movies. Not that they were supposed to be great cinematic masterpieces, but you'd think I would have caught one at one point, just by accident. Never happened.

I had a very specific idea of what to expect from Elvis' movies, but got off to a bad start when the first one didn't conform to my preconceived notions ...

Jailhouse Rock (1957, Richard Thorpe)
Watched: Monday, November 5th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A man convicted of manslaughter tries to forge a music career after getting released from jail.
My thoughts on the film: It may sound crazy to compare an Elvis Presley movie to Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, but yep, I'm about to do that. One of the many things that annoyed me about that film is that they spent almost no time in Guantanamo Bay -- literally less than five minutes of screen time. In Jailhouse Rock, Elvis might spend twice that amount of time in jail --15 minutes at the absolute maximum. Then the plot turns to the not-that-interesting machinations of how his character becomes a music star. Although it's always a good idea to judge a movie on what it is rather than on what you thought it would be, I couldn't overcome the disappointment of being shortchanged on the type of movie I thought Jailhouse Rock would be. Even the titular song doesn't take place in the titular location; instead, it appears as a musical number on some kind of Ed Sullivan-type show later on in the narrative. But what really turned me off about this movie was Elvis himself. I was expecting a fun-loving scamp who was up to all kinds of skirt-chasing and mischief, but ultimately had a good head on his shoulders. This Elvis, however, is a surly, me-first guy who seems to disrespect women and gets off on being "cool." I have a kneejerk negative reaction to this personality type. So the thing that makes many people consider Jailhouse Rock to be Elvis' best movie -- its sense of substance and realism -- was the very thing that ultimately turned me off. Bring on the bubblegum Elvis!

Blue Hawaii (1961, Norman Taurog)
Watched: Tuesday, November 20th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A solider returning from the army to his Hawaiian home resumes his slacker island ways with his friends, despite his parents' insistence that he go to work in the family business.
My thoughts on the film: Ahhh ... that's more like it. I chose Blue Hawaii, the least iconic of the three titles, precisely because I expected it to be light and charming, and to remind me of my love affair with Hawaii (which I share with pretty much everyone). I've been there once (in 2005), but have also loved a lot of movies set in Hawaii (Forgetting Sarah Marshall for one), and specifically have an affection for Elvis-era Hawaiian music -- when we were staying in an Airstream trailer on our trip to Bisbee, Arizona (see here for a fuller discussion), we played a couple Hawaiian albums on the vintage record player, at least one by Dean Martin. I'm glad to say that Blue Hawaii did not disappoint in any of these respects -- which only means that it is an enjoyably frivolous confection, well short of a "great" film. This is the smilin' rather than sneerin' Elvis, and since this is the Elvis I understand we saw in most of his movies, his career sure was a strange sort of repudiation of Jailhouse Rock, even though that movie was a pretty big hit. It's fun to see the carefree King dancing at luaus and singing with his native Hawaiian friends as they paddle around in various skiffs and another local forms of aquatic transport. He has a playful relationship with his leading lady, too, even though he seems determined to keep her off balance (one song about his time in the army talks about how he was "almost always true" to her). One thing I noticed is that the campaign is now in full swing to almost subliminally sexualize Elvis, where more overt displays of sexuality may not have been feasible. His exchanges with various women are almost dripping with a winking sexual innuendo. The movie also has a breezy comedic subplot about Elvis' role as a tour guide for a group of mainland schoolgirls, one of whom becomes fixated on him, causing many Three's Company-style misunderstandings and hijinx to ensue. I was impressed to note Elvis' fitness for this type of comedy. One thing I found interesting is that poor Angela Lansbury must have always been thought of as some kind of dowdy old woman. Even at the young age of 36 -- making her only ten years older than Elvis -- she's cast as Elvis' mother, a stick in the mud who comes closest to being the film's antagonist. And in this role I noticed a bit of the movie's latent (or blatant) misogyny: Elvis' father is quite the opposite, an easygoing soul who seems to genuinely hate his wife and all she stands for.

Viva Las Vegas (1964, George Sidney)
Watched: Friday, November 30th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A Las Vegas race car driver crosses paths with the girl of his dreams while trying to win/earn the money necessary to replace his engine and race in The Big Race.
My thoughts on the film: More of the Blue Hawaii vibe here, except there's one big difference from Blue Hawaii that's important to note: Instead of hogging the spotlight for himself, Elvis shares it with his leading lady, making for a far more balanced love story and a much more progressive film in terms of its gender politics. That leading lady is Ann-Margret, and I must say, my qualms with her odd hyphenated stage name aside, she is charming (and talented) as all get-out. I don't think I'd seen Ann-Margret in anything in which she wasn't already middle-aged, and I must say, I was astonished at the radiance of her beauty. But if she were just a beautiful face, she'd be no different from a series of unknown pretty faces who played opposite Elvis in his other films. She can (and does) sing, including at least one solo, and she dances like there's no one watching -- which is to say that she gives her all to a number of 60s-style jigs that we might confuse for convulsions if we didn't know they were popular back then. In fact, I was particularly impressed with her solo "My Rival," which was shot in one long take without edits -- a feat that was made more complicated when the choreography required her to catch several slices of toast ejected from a toaster oven at precisely the right moment. Little details like this made the movie seem more than just a color-by-numbers Elvis movie, shot as quickly as possible according to the path of least resistance. Oh, I suppose I should say something about Elvis, but you already know I think he has a good talent for comedy, more of which is on display here. My one complaint about the movie is that it has an almost comically hasty conclusion, as though at that point they really did just decide to close up shop, cut and print. A couple other quick things to mention: 1) The famous scene of Elvis water-skiing alongside what I now know to be Ann-Margret, which I always assumed was probably in Blue Hawaii, materializes here, and it's actually on Lake Mead near the Hoover Dam; 2) The movie made me wish I'd ever bothered to visit Vegas' old downtown, which was bustling back in the 1960s long before the strip surpassed it in popularity; 3) The sexuality in this movie becomes considerably more blatant, as Elvis and Ann-Margret actually simulate sex sounds briefly during one of their songs; 4) For reasons I'm not sure I entirely understand, several different characters in this movie know how to fly a helicopter.

Conclusion: I would like to watch more of Elvis' comedies, having been particularly intrigued by a screwball-looking affair called Live a Little, Love a Little, whose trailer appeared before Viva Las Vegas.

My favorite of the three films: Viva Las Vegas by a hair over Blue Hawaii, mostly because of Ann-Margret

Okay! It's finally here, the last month of Getting Acquainted. And as I told you last month, I plan to go out with another icon, a little somebody you may have heard of named John Wayne. (Marion to his parents.)  I have seen probably only about three of the 142 features he appeared in, and I need a good excuse to finally watch several of his most famous titles: Stagecoach and Rio Bravo. (Stagecoach is really young Wayne and is probably more associated with John Ford than John Wayne, but it's supposed to be a masterpiece in its own right and I finally need to see it.) Mostly because I know it's available on streaming, I'm going to finish the whole shebang with McClintock! I always love titles with random exclamation points.

I'll see you back here on the other side of December.


Nick Prigge said...


I love Elvis movies. LOVE.THEM. I have seen so, so many and I honestly love the majority of them even if they are generally not of the greatest quality. Specifically because, as you allude to, bubblegum Elvis movies are better than the ones where he's trying.

You definitely picked two of the best to use for getting acquainted. "Viva Las Vegas" is my favorite Elvis movie by a long shot and "Blue Hawaii" would probably be in the Top 3.

The song in "Viva" that ends with Ann Margaret shoving Elvis off the diving board......that is just cinematic heaven.

Vancetastic said...

I did think of you this month, as I remember you writing on your own blog about a regrettably racist Elvis movie that you'd just seen.

Glad I chose well. Do you have any thoughts on Live a Little, Love a Little? That looks like a hoot.

I agree about that diving board moment.