Elvis The Searcher (2018)

EvlsitThe new HBO documentary, Elvis The Searcher, sets itself apart from so many other takes we have seen on the man. True, it is was authorized by the Presley estate, Priscilla Presley is one of the producers, and they do tread lightly on his “legal” drug use, and there is no mention of other women. That all said, the film takes a mostly honest look, a discourse, at Presley’s life and his place in the history of popular culture. Since his sad final years, his death and his afterlife, Elvis has become something of a laughing stock,  known more for being a fat, pathetic, over the hill, jumpsuit wearing laughing point than the pop culture subversive artist he was. The documentary attempts to correct this by putting Elvis, his talent, his revolutionary influence back in its proper perspective. It’s also, intentionally or not, a look at the sad failure of the American Dream. Continue reading

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Elvis – The Florida Films

followthat

   Elvis Presley made three films set in Florida. Of the three, only one, Follow That Dream, was actually shot in the Sunshine State. Girl Happy and Clambake, except for some second unit work, were shot in California with west coast beaches substituting for the pristine Florida beaches. You know how the thinking goes, put a couple of strategically placed Palm trees around and who can tell the difference? Well, maybe some will not, but some folks will recognize in Clambake that Florida has no mountain ranges that we clearly see in some shots. Continue reading

Jailhouse Rock (1957) Richard Thorpe

Many true heart Elvis fans consider “Jailhouse Rock” one of his best films. As a movie, I much prefer “King Creole” with its better cast, script, director and overall a better musical score. However, Elvis never looked as good as he did in “Jailhouse Rock,” young, sensuously dangerous, and still wildly untamed from what would soon become the chain around his neck, his manager Colonel Tom Parker.  It was only Elvis’ third film, first came “Love Me Tender,” a film already in the works at 20th Century Fox before Elvis came on board, and originally was going to be called “The Reno Brothers.” With Elvis’ involvement, the title was changed to one of his hit songs. The film starred Richard Egan and the lovely Debra Paget, Elvis’ credit read “introducing Elvis Presley.” It was a fairly typical low budget western except for the four songs tossed in for Elvis to sing, along with a bit of shaky legs, and some girls in the crowd giving in to some half hearted screams that all seemed totally inappropriate for the Civil War setting.  Then there is Elvis’ horrible death scene, a guilty pleasure all itself, his acting is just dreadful; I believe he really died here of embarrassment and not from the gunshot wound. His next film, “Loving You,” would in many ways mirror Elvis’ life up to that point, that of a young country boy who becomes a big time singing sensation.  The film was a step up from his first feature; it even had an older woman, film noir favorite Elizabeth Scott, getting the hots for the young rock and roller. Still it was all very wholesome, even had Elvis’ mama in the audience for one scene while he is on stage singing, “Got a Lot of Livin’ To Do,” and his true love in the film was the virginal and future real life nun, Dolores Hart.  

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Short Takes: Elvis on Tour (1972) & No Name on the Bullet (1959)

Elvis on Tour (Malcolm Leo and Andrew Salt)*** By the time this film came out the fat Elvis was still in its incubation stage, here he is not fat but there is a puffiness in his face and a bit of a double chin that reveals to us a sign of what’s soon to come. In the concert footage what has disappeared is any sign of the youthful rockin’ rebel who changed the music world. By this time his shows were fully staged with the King dressed in his Liberace sequined outfits and on his way to becoming a Las Vegas icon. Any signs of youthful rebellion have been drained from his body as surely as Dracula sucked the blood out of his victims. Yet the fans and audience remain faithful, screaming, fighting for a tossed scarf or the thrill of wiping some sweat from his brow. As for the music he sings most sincere when he does anything but the rock and roll tunes that made him famous. They are rushed through like unimportant throwaways, even his latest single at the time “Burning Love” he has to read the lyrics from a piece of paper.  Yet there are glimpse  of what once was, a montage sequence of old clips from the Ed Sullivan shows among others show the young Elvis and his impact.

It is not a bad film, in fact it won a Golden Globe for Best Documentary (tied with another film). What I found sad is the direction that he took in his career becoming almost a joke of what he once was and what he could have been. FYI – Martin Scorsese  was the montage supervisor on the film.

No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold)***1/2 By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Audie Murphy’s film career mainly consisted of low budget westerns destined to be the bottom half of a double feature. Most of them were ordinary films that served their purpose without standing out from the crowd. “No Name on the Bullet” was made and released in the same pattern as all the others. Reviewers at the time noticed nothing special and the film came and went without a ripple.

Examining this film a little more closely one finds an intelligent story of good and evil. Here we have a town full of “good” folks many who  seem to have something to hide. When John Gant (Murphy) a well known gunfighter comes to town everyone knows someone is going to die. Half the town seems to fear they are his intended victim.

Audie Murphy is the most decorated soldier from World War 2 and yet to look at him you would think that is impossible. Small in stature with delicate features he does not appear to be the gunfighter type. I personally kept seeing Clint Eastwood in this role (shades of High Plains Drifter). That said, Murphy does bring a quiet intensity to the part. Directed by Jack Arnold best known for some of the 1950’s best science fiction films (Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man) Arnold directs the impressive script with an unobtrusive style letting the characters  tell the story. Unlike most of Murphy’s westerns, this film is a psychological study of a outwardly peaceful town  filled with decent people but as the film moves along we discover many have dark secrets that they fear will be revealed. Arguably this is Murphy’s most impressive film.

King Creole (1958) Michael Curtiz

     “King Creole” is arguably Elvis Presley’s best film. This may sound like a dubious achievement but “King Creole” is a movie that you do not actually have to be an Elvis fan to like. The film has a lot more going for it than most Elvis films. A good solid Hollywood director in Michael Curtiz, the man responsible for made “Casablanca,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and so many others.  A cast of actors that would do any film proud including Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Dolores Hart and the wonderful sexy off beat Carolyn Jones…and of course, Elvis. Also contributing is Russell Harlan’s moody photography that captured the seedy French Quarter atmosphere so well.

    “King Creole” was only Elvis’ fourth film and the last before military service cut his hair and other more vital organ parts, at least symbolically. The music was still good (King Creole, Hard Headed Woman, Trouble) and had yet to disintegrate into fetal filler like “It’s A Dog’s Life” and “Song of the Shrimp,” that would become typical of his movies within only a few years. The movie was based on an early novel by Harold Robbins, one of the most successful authors or the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Robbins works included “The Carpetbaggers,” “Never Love a Stranger,” “Where Love Has Gone” and “A Stone for Danny Fisher,” all eventually made into movies. “A Stone for Danny Fisher” was retiled “King Creole” when adapted into a screenplay (co-written by Michael V. Gazzo) for Elvis. The location was changed from the streets of New York to New Orleans to accommodate Elvis’ southern accent and of course, now Danny can sing.

     Danny Fisher is a high school student just about to graduate when family problems, his dad is out of work, and a hot temper result in Danny dropping out of school and falling in with a group of young punks who plan to rob a five and dime store using Danny’s singing skills as a diversion. The punks, lead by Vic Morrow, as Shark,  work for Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau) a minor local hood who owns a club where Danny works mopping and sweeping because his father can’t hold down a job.  Danny leads a double life. There’s Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), Maxie’s kept woman, who is attracted to Danny and Danny is attracted to her, as he is to Nellie (Dolores Hart), a nice girl Danny meets at the five and dime store he was mixed up in robbing. There’s also, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), a honest rival club owner (he owns the King Creole) of Maxie’s, who gives Danny a break singing there, and then there is Maxie Fields, a viciously vile and abusive thug representing the dirtier underworld  side of the nightclub life. Danny is pulled in both directions; the unhappy Ronnie abused and used by Maxie and the sweet more innocent Nellie, the nice girl who a good life can still be possible with.

“King Creole” would be Elvis’ last ‘rebel without a cause’ style film. He would go into the army an anti-hero and when he came out two years later, like Samson once his hair was cut, he lost that rock and roll spirit. He turned into a cleaner cut friendly all American Elvis, a pod that would carry him through approximately thirty more films with little or no redeeming value.           

  King Creole has plenty of good moments in it like the opening scene; we see the wet empty streets on an early New Orleans morning. A black woman, riding in a wagon calling/singing out “Crawfish” as she slowly strolls the empty street. “See I got’em, see there size, stripped and cleaned before your eyes”.  A bongo beat begins and suddenly from up on a balcony above we hear Elvis sing out “Crawfish,” back and forth with the black woman.  What great opening scene. There a lot of other good stuff in this film, Elvis in a switchblade fight with Vic Morrow and his gang; Walter Matthau’s performance as the slimy hood Maxie Fields;  Elvis singing “Trouble” on top of a bar proving to Maxie that he can sing and Carolyn Jones giving another great performance as a sensitive good-hearted loser.  

It’s sad that Elvis rarely got to use his acting chops again (only in Flaming Star did he have that chance). In “King Creole” he shows flashes of acting talent that if nurtured could have potentially gave us some memorable performances. At one time or another Elvis was considered, or offered such roles as Joe Buck in “Midnight Cowboy” and the Kris Kristofferson role in the Streisand remake of “A Star is Born.”  It would have been interesting to see what a director the caliber of a John Scheslinger could have done with Elvis.