Archive | July, 2014

What Is This Charade?

25 Jul
Charade Poster

Per the IMDb, a clerical error regarding “copyright” status in the credits rendered Charade as part of the public domain immediately upon its 1963 release. Luckily, Criterion has a super-edition that features lively commentary by director Stanley Donen and scriptor Peter Stone. Admittedly, part of the fun is listening to these well-seasoned pros bicker–good naturedly–as they hash their sometimes hazy memories of a movie they filmed decades earlier.

So, there we were watching 1980’s Hopscotch, the non-sequel that reunited 1978’s House Calls stars Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson in the same way that 1979’s Lost and Found reunited George Segal and Jackson in a non A Touch of Class sequel. Interesting, isn’t it, that in such a brief period Jackson reteamed with high-profile co-stars in new projects.

Hopscotch, directed by legendary Ronald Neame, whose credits include everything from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to The Poseidon Adventure, is a heck of a lot of fun as Matthau’s intelligence operative goes rogue rather than settle into forced retirement. Ever-reliable Matthau has great fun as the CIA equivalent of a wascally wabbit. He even notched a Golden Globe nod. The script, based on a novel by Brian Garfield, was nominated for both a Writers Guild award as well as the Poe prize. Well done. Jackson could have phoned in her performance,  but she didn’t. Again, she and Matthau are in fine form. Plus the thing was filmed all over the place:  Savannah, London, Munich, and Salzburg. For some reason I thought Paris, put in a cameo as well, though that’s not confirmed on the IMDb (nor in the DVD featurette).

Seeing Matthau in this light-hearted caper brought back fond memories of Matthau in 1963’s Charade, top-lined by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Charade, set in Paris and directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain), has often been pegged the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hepburn plays a widow whose murdered husband lived a double-life. Grant portrays a shadowy figure who often arrives either at the nick-of-time when Hepburn is in peril, OR he appears suspiciously at the most inopportune time.  Matthau pops up for a few scenes as a bumbling bureaucrat at the U.S. Embassy. He makes the most of his screen-time, still a few years shy of winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fortune Cookie.

FYI: The rest of the Charade cast includes two more future Oscar winners, James Coburn and George Kennedy, in addition to Ned Glass.  They’re like a goon squad that may or may not have conspired to kill Audrey’s Charlie.

Charade ignited a mild controversy or two during its original run. First, consider that the movie opened in early December of ’63, barely two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy (yes, in Dallas, TX). As detailed in his commentary, even director Donen questioned the appropriateness of Hepburn and Grant using the word “assassinated” (and its variants) in one scene. The director alleviated that concern by quickly arranging to have the “offensive” dialogue dubbed (or redubbed), substituting “eliminated” instead.  Not a seamless transition but serviceable given the gravity and immediacy of the matter. Another cause for alarm came about due to the comparatively high body count. Now, this may seem spectacularly difficult to grasp in the post-Pulp Fiction, post-Saving Private Ryan, post-Saw era, but we’re  talking only five. Five dead bodies, total. Five dead bodies with hardly a speck of blood between them, but the censors argued that the deaths were treated casually, or, worse, humorously. Per Donen,  he had to slightly rework a scene in order to appease the standards and practices watchdogs.

Arabesque

Fresh from his Charade triumph, director Stanley Donen signed on for another round of cinematic cloak and dagger with Arabesque. The frothy thriller, filmed in and around swingin’ London, plays much campier than Charade, making even Hitchcock’s delightfully convoluted North by Northwest seem positively restrained. Arabesque’s plot is purely nonsensical, but the striking visuals and mid 1960s “mod” quotient help make the blasted thing imminently watchable. Per the IMDb, Peck was not the director’s first choice for the male lead. That honor reportedly went to Charade’s Cary Grant, but the actor was ready for retirement and especially not interested in playing a romantic hero opposite a much younger female co-star. He’d already expressed a similar concern during the production of Charade. Critics may carp that Peck is miscast as an American scholar at Oxford, but I get a kick out of the way he seems to be channeling Grant, adding another layer of fun. In many ways, this is Loren’s movie. Oh, she doesn’t give a performance in any way comparable to, say, her Oscar winning Two Women. Mainly, she’s used as a clothes horse, averaging what appears to be one Christian Dior costume change per scene. That’s right, Dior. Well, if Audrey Hepburn can insist on Givenchy, Loren is equally entitled to wardrobe by Dior. Of course, Loren, so sheerly beautiful, dazzles in one close-up after another though she lacks Hepburn’s vulnerability.  The Italian superstar plays an Arab mobster’s mistress who may know more about a secret code than she cares to share with Peck. Arabesque is by no means a classic, but while it wasn’t a huge hit on the order as Charade, it wasn’t a flop either [3]. Existing on a level somewhere between James Bond and The Pink Panther, both of which were in vogue at the time,  it’s all good fun with music by Henry Mancini, and a title sequence designed by  Maurice Binder. Tell me this poster doesn’t read as “Bond-esque.” No extras on the DVD–if you can find it.

Still, in spite of those momentary glitches, Charade with its high-wire mix of suspense, guessing games, witty banter, comic foils, and movie-casting nirvana (in spite of the two leads’ more than twenty year age gap) played to packed houses, possibly outpacing even Hitchcock’s super-scary The Birds from the same year, depending on the source [1]. Additionally, Grant and Hepburn both snagged Globe nods as well as Laurel and British Academy honors: a win for her, a nomination for him. Meanwhile, writer Peter Stone, whose screenplay had kicked around Hollywood for awhile, including being tweaked into story form for Redbook magazine, won an Edgar Allen Poe award as well as Writers Guild recognition. Finally, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer shared an Oscar nod for their theme song (a variation of Manicini’s title music with added lyrics).

So, as our Hopscotch night turned into a Hopscotch/Charade double feature, I thought about what a swell movie Charade is, and I’ve thought so ever since I first saw it. Instantly captivated, I was.  That was, gosh, decades ago. I’m pretty sure  the occasion was a Saturday night late show, probably channel 8. I think I was babysitting. Anyway, I was biting my nails in suspense the whole time, from one twist to the next and all the way through the climactic showdown in and around the famed Palais Royale (a combination of the actual Palais Royale, a less historic theatre better suited for shooting interiors, and an intricately designed set).

The next day, after the double-feature, I had a thought. I remembered that Alternate Oscars author Danny Peary bravely, if not brazenly, elected to NOT award “Best Picture” any 1963 release. Peary’s argument is that while there were still a number of good films that year, none of them were up to the standards of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, which had won the previous year, or even West Side Story, the 1961 victor. Of course, this flies in the face of what the Academy awards represent: the achievements of any given year for better or worse. The record is what it is. I actually wrote about this very thing in May of 2012.

On the other hand, Peary makes a point, however misguided. 1963’s Best Picture line-up probably leaves something to be desired. Peary argues that Best Picture winner Tom Jones looks smug and dated these days, and, in retrospect, it may have very well received a boost at ballot time from the British invasion that began sweeping the country in February of 1964. Seems plausible. The other nominees represent extremes. On one hand, there’s Cleopatra, lavish, yes, but bloated and–let’s face it, Liz–badly acted. Talk about irony, the film sold enough tickets to be one of the year’s top earners even though it didn’t sell nearly enough tickets to recoup its enormous, record breaking, production costs. On the other hand, Elia Kazan’s America America, a three hour black and white movie inspired by his emigrant father, seems to have  had no lasting impact, not that it achieved anything close to mainstream status at the time.  What about How the West Was Won?  A huge hit, no doubt, but the three-strip Cinerama extravaganza is practically unwatchable in anything but its widescreen glory. That noted, it now takes its place among the classics in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

Historically, the odds were against the fifth nominee Lilies of the Field  (which earned Sidney Poitier a historic Best Actor trophy [2]) as Ralph Nelson was shut-out by his peers in the directors branch. Oh, and that omission actually tips the scale even more in Peary’s favor as Kazan and Tom Jones‘s Tony Richardson were the only directors among the five Best Picture nominees recognized by the Academy,  the other three slots accorded to Frederico Fellini (), Otto Preminger (The Cardinal), and Martin Ritt (Hud). Okay, Peary almost makes sense. How can three of the year’s five Best picture nominees not have corresponding Best Director nods, and how can the films of three nominated directors not be included among the five Best Picture slots?  Again, maybe Peary has a point. 

Cary Grant

In Charade, Audrey Hepburn plays vulnerability and wide-eyed panic so well that it’s hard for audiences to resist; however, Gary Grant may very well have the more difficult assignment, essaying a character whose motives, much like his name, seem to change from one scene to the next. Is he really protecting Miss Hepburn from danger, or is he danger personified? It’s a tricky balancing act, and Grant performs with aplomb, but he covered similar territory in at least two Hitchcock films: Suspicion (as Joan Fontaine’s scheming husband) and To Catch a Thief (the prime suspect in a series of jet-set burglaries). Luckily, his charm and sophistication remain intact in his last great film role.

Even though Peary refuses to honor any 1963 film with his phony award, he includes a list of his personal favorites along with some well-regarded also-rans, including The Nutty Professor, The L-Shaped Room, The Birds, Jason and the Argonauts, the aforementioned Hud, and a few others.  And no Charade. What, no Charade? It occurred to me to double-check Peary’s 1963 entry, and there it was, or, rather, there it wasn’t. I started this blog to write about movies that somehow failed to make the cut with Oscar voters, but now I find myself wanting to defend a film that didn’t even make an imaginary list of sub-par contenders.  How can that be? Did Peary just forget that Charade came out in 1963? Would his chapter for that year have turned out differently if I had been there to put a bug in his ear? After all, the IMDb was still in its infancy when Peary wrote his book. Maybe he just didn’t have as many resources as I did/do.

Still, Peary can write whatever he wants in his own book. I can’t fault him for that though I am a little stunned that someone who basically writes off a whole year’s worth of output can still find praise for the likes of The Nutty Professor, Jason and the Argonauts, The Birds, etc., without also seeing some value in such a popular and generally well liked enterprise as Charade. What’s not to like? [To clarify, I’m a fan of many of the movies Peary likes–that’s not my gripe.]

That noted, I’ll allow that the oft-repeated favorable comparisons to Hitchcock might be a tad hasty. Of course, I’m not real big on the word “Hitchcockian” though I have been known to use it from time to time, so, okay, I’m guilty. My concern about the term at all is that it’s lazy or sloppy and not even always appropriate. In the case of Charade,  the usage is almost justified considering Grant’s presence; after all, the quick footed, charismatic leading man enjoyed great success in such Hitchcock films as North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Even Donen and Peter Stone acknowledge the superficial similarities to the latter, what with Grant and  the gorgeous travelogue footage of the French Riviera as well as the larky tone and the  budding romance between the two impossibly glamorous leads, yet  Ms. Hepburn definitely does not fit the bill of the typical Hitchcock icy blonde goddess, such as To Catch a Thief‘s Grace Kelly, who smolders just beneath the surface. In contrast, Heburn is brunette, approachable, and vulnerable.

Charade-tumbler

Golden Globe nominees Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn cavort all over Paris in Stanley Donen’s comedy-thriller Charade. Hepburn previously worked with director Stanley Donen on 1957’s Funny Face, partially filmed in Paris, as well as 1967’s Two for the Road with Albert Finney, also shot on location in France. Many critics, including Danny Peary, herald the pair’s final collaboration as Hepburn’s finest performance though she was Oscar nominated, instead, for the same year’s Wait Until Dark. Prior to Charade, Grant worked with Donen on Indiscreet with Ingrid Bergman.

Also, Charade‘s set-up is more straightforward than many–but by no means all–Hitchcock films in that Stone’s script plays more as a whodunit whereas Hitchcock tends to favor cat  and mouse scenarios. Think about it. Consider, oh, just about any Hitchcock film: Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Frenzy. In these films and others, there’s little or no question about the murderer’s identity. The dilemma is how long before the good guy catches up with the bad guy. In Charade, the first murder takes place within seconds. Nothing is known about the either the victim or the assailant though at least three possible suspects are introduced in short order.

Additionally,  one of Hitchcock’s signatures is that the audience usually knows more at any given moment than the characters do. Look no further than Vertigo, in which tension builds as the audience waits for the moment when leading man James Stewart snaps to the deadly duplicity  that has already been revealed in another character’s flashback; however, in Charade, the action unfolds from the perspective of Hepburn’s widow, so almost without exception the viewer only knows as much as she does. Still, Charade does include what Hitchcock once labelled the “MacGuffin,” that is, the elusive “thing” that everybody wants and which serves as the catalyst for much of the plot.  In Charade, Donen turns this one’s “reveal” into a doozy of a surprise, one that caught me off-guard for at least the first 2-3 times I saw it, years apart I might add, but that’s what makes the movie so much fun.

Some highlights include Grant and Kennedy sparring atop the American Express building, or rather, a studio re-creation of said building’s rooftop, bringing to mind the rooftop climax of To Catch a Thief. Even so, while the location has clearly been faked, Donen insists that what the audience sees is Grant, upwards of 60 at the time, doing much of his own footwork. Keep in mind that before he became a Hollywood star, Grant worked as an acrobat.  Oh, and soundstage trickery is evident in a pretty well-executed scene in which the two stars enjoy a dinner cruise down the Seine. The sequence begins with an actual location establishing-shot before cutting to Grant and Hepburn framed against a filmed  plate of Paris at nightime, but Donen does his best to sell the illusion through a clever sound mix that involves a slight echo when the vehicle passes under a bridge. There’s also a nifty Paris Metro sequence which leads to the Palais-Royale showdown in which the action cuts back and forth among three vantage points in the  darkened, cavernous theatre.

I love Charade so much, and think that’s it’s so complete as is, that I could never imagine watching Jonathan Demme’s 2002 remake, The Truth about Charlie with Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Since the Demme version tanked, I guess no one else was interested in seeing a classic defiled either.  And that’s the real truth about Charlie. I wonder what Danny Peary has to say about that.

Thanks for your consideration….

 

^ In many ways, Maurice Binder’s Charade title sequence is reminiscent of Saul Bass who designed the opening credits for such high profile Hitchcock films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho–all to the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s thrilling scores, but Binder was no mere copycat. Binder, who died in 1991, was one of the most influential designers in the biz, responsible for conceptualizing the look of the James Bond credits as well as 1987’s Oscar winning The Last Emperor (one of my all-time faves), in addition to Donen’s Arabesque and Two for the Road among many many others. Binder featured at Art of the Title: http://www.artofthetitle.com/designer/maurice-binder/

[1] According to an article by Jeff Stafford on the Turner Classic Movies website, Charade actually outpaced Hitchcock’s The Birds at the box office. The figures listed in Cobbett Steinberg’s book, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, published in 1978 by Vintage Books (a division of Random House) support Stafford’s assertion though, keep in mind, that as a late 1963 release, Charade most of its money in 1964. Click here to access Stafford’s piece: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3838/Charade/articles.html

On the other hand, the lists of 1963’s top earners on the IMDb and Wikipedia are much different. I can’t explain the difference–re-releases, adjustments for inflation–since until fairly recently industry figures were reported in rentals, that is, the fees paid to studios from exhibitors based on percentages of ticket sales. Almost nothing was reported in grosses–even as late as Steinberg’s book–though a safe bet, as it was once explained to me, is that a gross could be figured my multiplying the rental by 2.5  Read more at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/about/boxoffice.htm

[2] Interestingly, Peary strips Poitier of his win and favors Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor) instead, listing only official nominee Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) as a finalist; likewise, Peary elevates official nominee Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room (one of my mother’s faves) over actual Best Actress winer Patricia Neal (Hud): Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta (a division of Dell), 1993. 168-171, 190-191.

[3] Per Steinberg’s book, Charade was 1964’s 4th biggest earner while Arabesque tied for 14th in 1966.

Charade at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056923/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Hopscotch at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080889/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Arabesque at the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060121/?ref_=nv_sr_1

 

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Return to Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!

11 Jul
Soundtrack album

Look closely at the back side of this Girls! Girls! Girls! soundtrack album, and you will see the name of veteran producer Hal B. Wallis who made his name at Warner Bros with such classic films as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Now Voyager, and Casablanca. Wallis finessed an agreement with Elvis’s manager Colonel Tom Parker to produce many of the King’s films at Paramount which, in the early to mid 1960s saw heady profits as the home base for both Elvis and Jerry Lewis. Nice work if you can get it. Meanwhile, Wallis sunk his  earnings from the Elvis flicks into fancy prestige projects as Becket and Anne of the Thousand Days.

Anyone who grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, possibly the ’70s, maybe even the ’80s, most likely watched an Elvis Presley movie or two, probably more, either at the movies–and that includes drive-ins–or on TV. A lot of the latter for sure. Per the IMDb, between 1956’s Love Me Tender and 1969’s Change of Habit (w/Mary Tyler Moore as a nun of all things), Elvis made a total of 31 feature films. He was in the military for part of that stretch in the ’50s, meaning most of the films were made in the 1960s. As popular as they were, a lot of Elvis’s movies were awful: formulaic, rushed through production–sometimes as many as three a year–and increasingly filmed on the cheap in order to maximize profits. Even so, we all have our favorites and not without reason. For example, Jailhouse Rock features that amazing musical number featuring the title track while the generally acclaimed King Creole boasts no less than Casablanca‘s Michael Curtiz sitting in the director’s chair and source material by Harold Robbins.

When I was a child I was crazy about Fun in Acapulco, which I first remember seeing in a theatre, though Viva Las Vegas long reigned as my absolute favorite. What’s not to love, right? Elvis meets Ann-Margret in one of the most smokin’ hot romantic pairings in screen history: she sizzles, he smolders.  These two really brought out the best in each other, especially when singing and dancing though Elvis’s fiercely protective manager, Colonel Tom Parker, kept Ms. Margret in-check on that count lest she upstage Mr. Presley; after all, Elvis was somewhat out of his comfort zone, working for MGM rather than Paramount, per usual. Plus, Viva Las Vegas was directed by George Sidney, who catapulted Ann-Margret  to major stardom with 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie, so, yes, the colonel micro-managed the production from behind the scenes in order to protect his star’s rep. Still, even with limited interaction in musical sequences, Elvis and A.M. are sexy as all get-out. In spades.  Yet as fab as Ann-Margret and the King were, they only made one film together, no doubt the doing of Colonel Parker though the two stars remained close throughout the years.

Elvis’s most frequent leading lady was no less than popular TV star and sometime pop-singer Shelley Fabares. Famous for her role on The Donna Reed Show and her #1 hit, “Johnny Angel,” Fabares shared the screen with Elvis three times: Girl Happy, Spinout, and Clambake.  Clearly, they enjoy rapport though the movies aren’t anything special, but at least Fabares fared better than the likes of such co-stars as Moore, Nancy Sinatra (Speedway), and Mary Ann Mobley (Harum Scarum), the latter being the dregs of the dregs.

Meanwhile, I have a soft spot for Blue Hawaii mainly because I practically melt when I hear “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” which a dear friend sang–beautifully–when I was escorted down the aisle at my wedding oh so many years ago. Of course, one surprising downside is that the Academy snubbed that particular tune while Grammy voters found the soundtrack worthy of a nod. Another downside to Blue Hawaii is that poor Angela Lansbury was barely 10 years older than Elvis when she was cast as his mother, so there’s a casting credibility issue. Luckily, Lansbury redeemed herself from that thankless task by going for the gusto as Laurence Harvey’s  politically ambitious mother in The Manchurian Candidate though, wait for it, Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, the man who played her son; she then set her sights on Broadway with Mame, and the rest is history, but I digress. Still, Blue Hawaii was a major success and cast the mold for Presley’s subsequent films: exotic locales, fun in the sun, lots of girls, and plenty of music. Indeed, Blue Hawaii was followed in short order by Girls! Girls! Girls!, which like its predecessor was filmed on location and followed the now  familiar formula.

So it came to pass that in the deepest darkest days of this past winter, Michael and I happened upon Girls! Girls! Girls! one night, presumably on Turner Classic Movies, and I was instantly captivated. By an Elvis movie. Oh sure, I’d seen it as child (probably at a drive-in), and I easily remembered parts of it, but I had no memory of how revved up with color it was, and is. I mean this is one bright sunny movie, perfect for obliterating winter doldrums, but also a nice summer lark after a long day at the office.  See, as I watched that frosty winter evening, I also turned to the IMDb to learn some behind-the-scenes particulars, and what I found is that Girls! Girls! Girls! is in fact the only Elvis movie, the only one, to ever be nominated for a Golden Globe, and, yes, that surprised me. Oh, okay, it’s not like a Globe is the same thing as an Oscar, everybody knows that, but I also thought that Elvis’s popularity would render a Globe nod a no-brainer, especially for some of the classier entries, such as Viva Las Vegas, King Creole, Flaming Star, and a precious few others.

To clarify, in the case of Girls! Girls! Girls!, the GG nomination was for the film as a whole:  Best Motion Picture Musical; not surprisingly, it lost to The Music Man in a competition that also included Gypsy and Billy Rose’s Jumbo (starring Doris Day), all of which I actually enjoy. To further clarify, Elvis’s name frequently appeared on the  Laurel award honor roll, voted by theatre owners and managers via the trade mag, Motion Picture Exhibitors:  second place for Girls! Girls! Girls!; third place for Viva Las Vegas. He actually won for Tickle Me, the only acting award of his career. Really? I fully confess that I used to watch Tickle Me whenever it aired on the old late show, and enjoyed it immensely as a kind of mystery/comedy even though it retains a large cheese quotient. (Backing up to Blue Hawaii, it finished 4th in the Laurel voting for Best Musical.)

Elvis (center) and Girls, Girls: Stella Stevens (l) and Laurel Goodwin (r), both of them gorgeous in dresses designed by legendary Edith Head

Back to Girls x 3. What’s so special about this one? First, as noted, the colors provide an amazing and welcome sensory jolt, and by the colors, I really mean one color specifically, blue: blue skies, blue waters, and even co-stars Laurel Goodwin and Stella Stevens attired in shockingly blue outfits–designed by no less than the illustrious Edith Head [1]. Even the doors in Elvis’s rival’s office are intensely blue. Right? It’s like Blue Hawaii only bluer. The cinematography, btw, is credited to no less than Loyal Griggs, a multiple Oscar nominee and, in fact, a winner for 1953’s magnificent Shane [2].

Interestingly, and in contrast to Fun in Acapulco, Elvis ventured to Hawaii for the shoot. Apparently, security concerns kept him from making the trip to sunny Mexico for the later movie. Now, this is important because Fun in Acapulco is clearly cobbled from location shots with stunt doubles (or a stunt double), and studio trickery including some obvious process shots, also known as rear projection, also known as the precursor to blue and green screen technologies [3]. Oh, there are still plenty of process shots in Girls! Girls! Girls! as Elvis’s character spends plenty of time in a fishing boat out on the water; however, there is just enough of actual location footage to help suspend disbelief, especially since the process stuff is actually pretty clever, almost seamless, compared to, say, the same era’s Beach Party flicks, some of which were also directed by Norman Taurog [4]. The process shots are also more persuasive than those of Elvis and Ann-Margret water-skiing in Viva Las Vegas, which are kind of  obvious and lame.

Elvis in Boat

Process shot or actual location footage? In Girls, Girls, Girls, filmed in Hawaii, it isn’t always easy to tell.

Girls! Girls! Girls! also contains a couple of swell musical numbers. A lot of the songs in Elvis movies are and were forgettable, mere filler to justify a soundtrack album as well as to compensate for skimpy scripts. Oh, there are a few such lackluster ditties in G!G!G!, but two in particular rise above the rest. First and foremost would have to be “Return to Sender,” a genuine Elvis classic that was actually recorded for the film (as opposed to a convenient retread). The other number is an especially imaginative tango, of all things, set in the teeny bachelorette apartment of Presley’s newest squeeze, played by Laurel Goodwin. The whole scene is a pip because Elvis actually prepares and serves dinner even though it’s the girl’s place, but that’s just the beginning. Presley and Goodwin cap their evening with the ingeniously conceived “The Walls Have Ears,” which finds the pair dancing amid noisy neighbors and rattling walls. Truly, it must be seen to be believed, and I won’t spoil it by including a clip. Go find it and watch it for yourself. You’ll probably be delighted in a way you might not have imagined–especially if it’s been 20, 30, or 40 years since you last saw it. Credit for the staging of this ditty belongs to choreographer Charles O’Curran whose credits include G.I. Blues, also with Presley, and Bells are Ringing.

Rio2

Return to Rio: My favorite movie of the summer, so far, is Rio 2. Okay, technically, I know it was released in April, but I didn’t see it until it hit my neighborhood discount house last month, and I’ve actually seen it twice. Oh, and I never even saw the first one, don’t know why, but when I saw the trailer for the sequel, I was blown away. Why? Well, just like Girls! Girls! Girls!, Rio 2 is just insane with color, maybe the most intense, color-rich animated movie I’ve seen since Fantasia. Michael compared it favorably to Yellow Submarine. The story is a little perfunctory, but, this non-Disney/Pixar flick offers some pleasing musical numbers. (The original featured the Oscar nominated “Real in Rio,” co-written by Sergio Mendes) Coincidentally, this cartoon creature feature includes a rainy, late night scene reminiscent of such a scene in Girls! Girls! Girls! Oh, this one is available for home video this coming Tuesday: 07/15. Check it out! Btw: #2 on my list of summer faves is Jersey Boys, which I also hope to see again soon.

So, when I ask myself, what was it about Girls! Girls! Girls! that prompted the Hollywood Foreign Press to nominate it for Golden Globe–after I rule out bribes by the suits at Paramount–the answers I find most satisfactory are the lush cinematography and/or production values, and a few nifty musical numbers.  Plus, the movie was a big hit, of course.  Also, Elvis works hard to give a real performance. What’s that, you say? I’ve spent the past week or so reading reviews of ALL Elvis movies by a number of seasoned Elvis fans/bloggers, and one frequent complaint is that he plays a character who is quite unlikeable at times.  Yes, I agree. His “Ross Carpenter,” a down on his luck fisherman with both girl troubles and money woes, isn’t always nice, and what a great challenge for Elvis or any actor. How did the Colonel let this one get past his Elvis image gauge? In many movies, Elvis played characters that seemed stamped out of cardboard, characters that seemed to exist only to curry favor with audiences as though Presley could not manage that on his own.  Another favorite scene, set on a lanai during a late night rainstorm, shows a softer side of Elvis, a sweetness and vulnerability that didn’t find its way into his later movies.  Another plus.

Of course, we’re still in the fantasy realm of Elvis, not, say, Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Longest Day, The Miracle Worker, or The Manchurian Candidate, all of them released the same year. One of the most glaring flaws is, of course, racism in the form of exoticizing the locals, especially a pair of sisters–wee youngsters of Chinese descent. Played by real-life siblings, Elizabeth Tiu and Ginny Tiu, these are some adorable moppets, but their very “differentness” seems exaggerated to the point of rendering them as barely more than show-biz pets or dolls if you get my drift, something less than human. You know, the way clumsy American tourists make a fuss over “native” children. At any rate, what played as cute in the early 1960s registers most differently in a presumably more culturally enlightened era though, to clarify, it’s not Elvis, per se, who treats the girls condescendingly; it’s the filmmakers who are to blame.  Oh, well, at least the girls get to do something. Not so Stella Stevens, wasted in the nothing role of a catty one-time fling, that is, ex-fling, who just can’t seem to let go. She drains the energy out of almost every exchange but puts over a sultry night club number or two, and she looks swell. Goodwin hardly fares better. She’s a good sport, but she lacks pizzazz. It’s no wonder that, per the IMDb, her acting career was relatively short-lived.

Poor Elvis. Well, sort of. He truly was a victim of his own success. Reportedly, he hated many of his own films and yearned for a chance to prove he had it in him to be a great film actor rather than a merely passable one. The trouble wasn’t really with him but rested with that damn Colonel Parker. The legend is that Elvis was considered for the male lead in 1961’s blockbuster adaptation of West Side Story, but the colonel didn’t feel it was the right vehicle for his star, what with gangs and knives–not to mention the fact that Elvis would have had to share the screen with a huge cast of actors, singers, and dancers that might have pulled focus. Nothin’ doin’. Of course, West Side  Story was a box office blockbuster that also scored big at the Oscars, taking awards in 10 categories, including Best Picture and Best Director–shared, in an Academy first, by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (though the latter, hired specifically for the dance sequences, was dismissed midway through production, but I digress). Several years after quitting films with Change of Habit, Elvis was approached as a possibility to play the doomed rock star in Barbra Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, but, once again, Parker intervened on behalf of his client, reportedly with a list of demands that did not set so well with Babs who was also one of the film’s producers. Instead, the role went to rugged country singer-songwriter  and sometime actor Kris Kristofferson who at least temporarily reinvented himself as a sexy leading man. A year after A Star is Born, Elvis passed away at the age of 42. Only 42, a legend in his time, no doubt, but also a study in unrealized potential and a mass of contradictions. Maybe he could have built on the potential he showed in his early films, but he  allowed himself to be manipulated by someone who stubbornly resisted opportunities for real growth.

Still, as Girls! Girls! Girls! proves, not all of Elvis’s many, MANY, films were mindless failures. Indeed, as I came home today to finish the article, I turned on the TV and found King Creole on the second or third channel I selected, most likely TCM yet again. More good stuff, including gorgeous black and white cinematography, New Orleans location footage, and a fascinating sequence set in the rain. As much a treat in the summer as Girls! Girls! Girls! was in the winter. Maybe it really is good to be the King after all.

Thanks for your consideration…

Elvis at the Internet Movie Database  http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000062/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[1] For the uninitiated, in her illustrious career Head racked up a whopping 35 Oscar nods (in both color and black & white categories), taking home a total of 8 statuettes, a record for both a woman and a costume designer. Her detractors insist that, as the longtime head of Paramount’s costume department, she often took credit for work that wasn’t hers. Her Oscar winners include The Sting, All About Eve, Samson and Delilah, The Facts of Life, and A Place in the Sun. Among the films for which she was nominated for but did not win is the Shirley MacLaine extravaganza, What a Way to Go!

[2] Griggs was previously included in the piece, “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road…” from December 30, 2013.

[3] In other words, actors performing before a pre-filmed “plate ” to simulate the effect of riding in cars, surfing, or any other outdoor activity that presents filming challenges.

[4] Among Taurog’s nearly 200 credits are 1931’s Skippy, for which he won an Oscar, as well as Boys Town (1938). He might have directed portions of The Wizard of Oz though uncredited.  His filmography also includes some of the Martin & Lewis outings.