Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Heath Holland On...Three Flicks: Elvis Part 2 -- From Graceland!

It’s a hunk-a, hunk-a burning something, but it doesn’t smell like love.

Last weekend I went to Graceland, the  home of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. My wife and I stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel, part of the Graceland property and tourism complex owned and operated by the estate of Elvis. There are two interesting things about the Heartbreak Hotel. The first is that they have a bar called The Jungle Room with Elvis-themed drinks. The second is that they have a 24-hour Elvis Movie Channel.

I watched all three of these Elvis flicks on that channel in my hotel room, just a few hundred yards from where Elvis lived, loved, and eventually died, which makes this the most authentic edition of Three Flicks to date.

I’d like to believe that the spirit of Elvis was with me as I viewed them. In fact, around midnight I caught the whiff of a peanut butter and banana sandwich and could swear that from the corner of my eye I saw the ghost of The King staring at his blue suede shoes in embarrassment at what was playing on the screen.
The first movie I caught was Speedway from 1968. Elvis stars as Steve Grayson (does it matter what his character’s name is? He’s the same in almost everything), a racecar driver who’s cooler than cool and never gets upset, even when he crashes his expensive car. He also doesn’t get too worked up when he discovers that his manager, played by Bill Bixby several years before he would turn into that giant, green behemoth, has been gambling away Elvis’ winnings. Nancy Sinatra is the IRS agent who is sent to keep an eye on Elvis and make sure the government gets all the money they are owed.

It goes without saying that this is pretty fluffy. There’s also just a few musical numbers, which almost seem like an afterthought. I guess by 1968 the formula had worn pretty thin. There are no exotic locations and there are almost no women for Elvis to woo. Nancy Sinatra is here to serve as the strong, empowered female, but comes across as cold and distant instead. In fact, neither she nor Elvis seemed all that interested in being in this movie, and have almost no chemistry between them.

Bill Bixby, on the other hand, is actually a lot of fun. I’m so used to seeing him in more dramatic roles where people wouldn’t like him when he’s angry than seeing him womanizing, wisecracking, and participating in the dance choreography that closes this movie really surprised me. He and Elvis make a great comedy duo in which Elvis is the straight man and Bixby is the cut-up.
Turns out he’s in another Elvis movie, Clambake, but I haven’t seen that one. Shame on me for not being more familiar with Bill Bixby’s work; his performance is awesome. It may be the ONLY thing that’s awesome about Speedway. Not that it’s bad, because it’s not. It’s completely inoffensive, late 1960s camp entertainment, certain not to upset blue-haired, little old ladies or send children into puberty early.

Blue Hawaii rolls the clock back to 1961 when the formula for these movies was still new and fresh. Blue Hawaii is kind of a classic, or at least one of the Elvis movies that people seem to love, but seeing it for the first time had me wondering why. Thinking about it some more, though, I think I get it.

Presley plays Chad, a guy who has just gotten out of the army and come back home to Hawaii. His mom (Angela Lansbury) wants him to go into the family fruit business, but Chad doesn’t want his future laid out for him. He’d rather stay out late with his friends at luaus and hit the beach with his girlfriend Maile, played by Joan Blackman. This is her first Elvis movie, but she’d be back in 1962 for the remake of Kid Galahad.

Beneath the same, well-trodden plotline that has Elvis refusing to play by society’s rules and insisting that he do things his own way (with as many girls in bikinis as possible along for the ride), I can see that there’s more going on.

First, Hawaii (which is a series of islands named after the popular fruity beverage Hawaiian Punch) had only recently become a state in 1959, meaning that this was a new frontier for America to explore. It was an exotic paradise that was now part of our own union and everyone was curious about it. It’s not everyday your nation adds a Pacific paradise to the country.
Second, Elvis himself had recently gotten out of the army after two years of service. A lot of the world at the time wanted to know if he’d be the same guy that he’d been before he’d had his famous hair buzzed off and he’d been stationed in Germany. In that sense, at least, the plot of Blue Hawaii parallels the life of Elvis himself.

Lastly, there’s a little bit of a subversive message to the movie of which producer Hal B. Wallis was well aware. Here is a guy who was drafted into the US military with no desire to leave his friends or family, yet had to go because it was the law. Two years of his life are taken from him against his will. When Chad comes back home, he feels adrift. The message, VERY far beneath the surface, seems to be that the military strips these soldiers of a part of who they are and robs them of a part of their identity. Blue Hawaii depicts that separation and restlessness honestly.

Unfortunately, a lot of the message seems pretty buried in the reality that these Elvis movies all too often present. Just a few years earlier, Elvis had cast long shadows in Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, but those days were gone for good. Elvis in the 1960s was a Technicolor matinee idol. If he felt dangerous (and sometimes he did), there was no need to worry. He’d always work things out safely in the end.

There’s a pretty cringe-inducing moment in Blue Hawaii when Elvis puts a woman who is depressed and suicidal over his knee and spanks her. Because that’s what women need, right? Just spank them like they’re naughty children and they’ll fall in line, especially if they’re feeling unloved and suicidal. It’s played for laughs, but is anything but funny. Unfortunately, Mad Men wouldn’t come along for another 46 years.

The last film I watched was Kissin’ Cousins, from 1964, notable as one of the movies where Elvis played more than one role. It seems like only Van Damme and Eddie Murphy have had as much success in playing multiple roles in the same movie as Elvis has.
Here Elvis plays a dark-haired military man sent to his hometown in Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains to convince some distant relatives to give up their land so that the government can build a missile site on their property. While there he meets a blonde cousin, who is also played by Elvis. He also meets two attractive country girls (his cousins, too), played by Pamela Austin and Yvonne Craig. Yvonne Craig had earlier starred in It Happened at the World’s Fair with Elvis, which means that all three of the movies in this edition of Three Flicks featured actors who worked with Elvis in two movies. Yvonne Craig would later be Batgirl on the 1960s Adam West Batman and one of the famous green-skinned Orion slave girls on Star Trek. As far as notable roles in the 1960s, she had quite a few.

Having said that, Kissin’ Cousins is a little gross. The people that live in the Smokey Mountains are THIS CLOSE to being inbred hillbillies with buckteeth and painted freckles. They drink moonshine from ceramic jugs that might as well have XXX drawn on the side. And Elvis is all about trying to get in the pants of his cousins. For the most part, the movie manages to steer clear of really being offensive, but it’s walking a dangerous line.

In continuing the trend of having Elvis be as wholesome as possible, he manages to work everything out in the end so that his family in Tennessee keeps most of their land AND the government gets to build their missile site. Hooray for hillbillies and hooray for war!

As much as I’ve explained how these movies are safe and saccharine, I have to be honest with you. I’d watch any of them again in a second. It’s for their very breeziness that makes them so endlessly watchable. They’re full of bright colors and broad comedy. They have likable characters and fun music. No one ever gets hurt and certainly no one ever dies. These Elvis movies from the 1960s are as campy as their reputation claims, but I’m completely okay with that. I’ll probably always reach first for King Creole over Blue Hawaii, but these movies have their place and are only looking for a good time. Sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

You May Also Like:
Three Flicks: Elvis, Vol. 1
Three Flicks: Dolph Lundgren 

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