My Elvis double feature
It was the summer of my seventh year. I sat in front of an old Magnavox television when the familiar introduction to The 4:30 Movie, a popular series shown in the New York City area from the 1960s to early 1980s, came on. That entire week’s schedule was dedicated to the films of one star. It was a Monday when I discovered Elvis Presley. The film shown on that particular day was Boris Saga’s, Girl Happy (1965). I’d never seen anything as beautiful as Elvis before – or since.
Girl Happy is one of the many cookie-cutter, fluff films Elvis made. At best it’s silly fun. But when Elvis is on-screen I can’t take my eyes off him. Yes, even while he’s singing this unfortunate song…
Elvis plays Rusty Wells in Girl Happy, a rock and roll singer who’s playing in a Chicago nightclub with his band when the film opens. Complaining about the bitter Chicago winter cold, Rusty and his band – a trio of “girl happy” misfits played by Gary Crosby (Bing’s son), Joby Baker and Jimmy Hawkins – are approached by the club’s owner and mobster, Big Frank (Harold J. Stone) with a proposition that they stay on to headline for another six weeks because the crowd loves them. The boys are dying to get out of Chicago and head South to the warm weather and girls in bikinis – it’s Spring break time and Ft. Lauderdale awaits.
Petrified of Big Frank and not willing to lose life and/or limb, the band agrees to stay in Chicago but Rusty will have none of it. He goes in to let the mobster know they are set to play Fort Lauderdale, Florida and that’s that. Well! Lo and behold, the mobster’s daughter, Valerie (played by Shelley Fabares) wants to spend spring break in that same city with some friends. Big Frank will not let her go. Overhearing the conversation between father and daughter, Rusty gets an idea that sends him and the band to the Florida city – they are hired by the mobster to go to Ft. Lauderdale to keep an eye on his daughter, ensuring she gets into no trouble of any kind.
That’s the premise. One that ensures some zaniness mixed in with the campiness. But there is some fun to be had here. First of all, the ultra-cool gorgeousness of Elvis. You can’t hide him behind bad songs and a silly script. There’s some slapstick, outrageous fun (of the beach movie variety) that ensues as Rusty and his band go to extremes to follow Valerie as she tries to have fun and/or find romance in Ft. Lauderdale. At one point, as a means of keeping Valerie close, she even joins the band. In another scene, she manages to get out of their site so the four-some invade a lovers lane/country block party where Elvis finds a hill, sings a song called “Do the Clam” and Valerie comes forth like a moth to a flame. (OK, so Shakespeare it ain’t.) The pursuit of ensuring Valerie’s virtue really cramps the boys’ “love-making” style.
Since the entire agreement with Big Frank was Rusty’s idea and his pals complain that they’ve had no chance to establish any “meaningful” relationship because they’re forced to follow Valerie around, Rusty agrees to take on the responsibility himself. It’s only fair. Well, one thing leads to another and Rusty and Valerie fall for each other but I won’t say what happens in-between or when Big Frank finds out.
Elvis and Shelley Fabares look really cute together in Girl Happy. It’s worthy of note Fabares has the distinction of being the only woman who was Elvis Presley’s love interest in three films. A fun fact – the lucky girl!
Also, Rusty has another love interest in the movie, the bombshell to contrast with Valerie’s “good girl,” which adds more zaniness to the romantic complications and vice versa. The hot-to-trot Deena is played by beauty queen, Mary Ann Mobley.
Girl Happy also offers film fans the added joy of seeing John Fiedler and Jackie Coogan in this albeit in bit roles. Fiedler and his distinctive voice, veterans of unforgettable classics like 12 Angry Men and A Raisin in the Sun plays the owner of the Seadrift Motel, where the gang stays in Ft. Lauderdale. Coogan plays Sgt. Benson, the (somewhat) bumbling authority of the town jail where almost the entire cast ends up after some high jinks.
Two interesting bits of trivia about Girl Happy: Some of the Fort Lauderdale beach crowd sequences were lifted from the 1960 movie, Where the Boys Are. Girl Happy was filmed in California, not Ft. Lauderdale with the exception of a few exterior shots but the actors didn’t go there. Also, the three band member buddies of Elvis’ in Girl Happy were added to the script due to the influence and popularity of “Beatlemania” and “The British Invasion of 1964.” Rock groups were the latest trend, putting many solo performers at a disadvantage. With the box-office success of A Hard Day’s Night and the expected success of Help!, a band was added to the plot in order to enhance the film’s appeal to a “newer’ generation of rock fans and “teenyboppers”. (IMDB)
Girl Happy was Elvis’ seventeenth movie and my first starring this amazing man, as I mentioned. It will forever be special to me for that alone but also because I just love to watch and listen to Elvis. If you happen to be the type of classic movie fan that considers watching only Oscar-worthy performances or ground-breaking music, it’s too bad. There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in camp! And if you want to make it a point to watch camp then watch Girl Happy. It’s Elvis camp! You get Elvis lip-syncing to God-awful songs. You get a band that plays electric guitars that are not plugged in and a drummer that strikes at the air. You get a cookie-cutter script. But you also get Elvis and fun. For all those reasons this is my choice for the first entry of the ideal Elvis double feature.
I can’t remember if I watched Viva Las Vegas for the first time as part of the line-up of that same week’s The 4:30 Movie schedule. My earliest memory of this one is from a showing of it on the The Late Show on a Saturday night. The Late Show used to feature many made-for-TV movies and popular, “old” theatrical films often in the science-fiction or horror genre. But they’d also throw in an occasional musical and Elvis was a fairly frequent featured star, if memory serves. In any case, that’s when I first saw Viva Las Vegas from 1964, made the year before Girl Happy but what I’d watch second in my double-feature. Of all the Elvis-meets-girl-loses girl-ends up with girl films, this is the best, probably due to the fact that Ann-Margret, who co-stars, is a certified talent in her own right. This one doesn’t depend solely on Elvis singing inane songs.
Elvis and Ann-Margret first met in the beginning of July in 1963. Elvis was 28, Ann-Margret 22. Both were on top of the world from recording and movie fame and she was starring in the hit, Bye Bye Birdie. It’s no wonder that when the prospect of them starring in a film together, both Elvis and Colonel Parker agreed to have a ‘leading lady’ starring with Elvis in a film for the first time.
Yep, these two steam up the screen. As the trailer asserts, Elvis “meets his love match.” There’s some serious chemistry between them, which no doubt enhances the film.
In Viva Las Vegas, Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a talented, race-car driver. When the film opens Rusty arrives at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas with his race car in tow (literally). One night at the roulette table and Lucky wins the money he needs to purchase a new engine so he can enter the Las Vegas Grand Prix. While Lucky’s in the racecar garage the next day where he runs into Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Danova), an Italian racing count, into the garage drives a girl. “I’d like you to check my motor,” she says, “it whistles.” Lucky takes a close look at her motor.
Despite Lucky’s attempt to get her to leave the car so he’d have to drive her around, the Count lets her go without so much as asking for a name. That night, to no avail both men search for her at every single nightclub in Vegas, sure that she must be a chorus girl. The next morning, lo and behold, there she is poolside at the hotel they’re staying at. Turns out she’s not a chorus girl but the hotel’s swimming instructor. Lucky sees her and begins wooing efforts immediately. One of my favorite songs in the film, “The Lady Loves Me.”
By the way, testament to the Elvis mystique – he needs only pick up a guitar and you get the sounds of an entire band. Ultra-coolness has its definite perks.
Anyway – As you saw in the clip, Rusty (Ann-Margret) is resistant to his appeal and ends the number, and his advances, by shoving him off the diving board and into the hotel pool. Lucky’s motor money falls out of his pocket, a kid finds it and, inexplicably, puts the stash into the pool drain. Dumbest kid in the world if you ask me. But, his stupidity drives the action. Now broke, Lucky gets a job at the hotel as the world’s best looking waiter, (I added the obvious there), which gives ample opportunity for scenes and numbers between the film’s stars.
Lucky and Rusty fall in love but Lucky’s determination to get the money for the motor and continue on with his racing career drives a wedge between them. Rusty had heard, from the Count who is also pursuing her romantically, that the greatest race car driver who ever lived died in a crash during a race so she’s adamantly against his racing. Still, it is who he is and, not surprisingly, he gets the money for the motor from an anonymous source, races and proves himself. (As if we’d ever doubt the King).
I might add a few other notables in this film, aside from the entertaining numbers and Elvis beauty. The race sequence at the end is done quite nicely with aerial views of Vegas and surrounding landmarks like Hoover Dam and such. Also, another great character actor plays a small but key role in this film, William Demarest, veteran of so many classic films who later co-starred in the popular “My Three Sons” television series. He plays Rusty’s father in Viva Las Vegas and I love his scenes. It’s always great to visit with these classics in anything.
I think Viva Las Vegas is highly enjoyable even for the non-Elvis fan. Even if my views are biased, it’s certainly eons above “camp,” a legitimately good musical, despite its adherence to the strict and familiar “formula.” Yes, a lot of it makes no sense. For instance, for a guy who just lost all his money, he’s able to take Rusty on a pretty exciting first date (I have to assume he paid since this was the 1960s). They go skeet shooting and rent motorcycles, they water-ski, go for a site-seeing tour on a helicopter and end the day in a fabulous nightclub where he sings “What’d I Say.” I mean, if you’re not in love with him in the morning…well, who cares. I am in love with him in the morning. Also, one has to wonder why a man who is called upon to sing so often and does it stupendously would take a job as a waiter to make quick money, rather than sing. Anyway, you get the picture but I’m highly recommending Viva Las Vegas it in any case. It’s fast-paced and it’s fun! I like all 12 songs featured and others must agree since this remains one of Elvis’ most popular films.
(Isn’t it lucky that they each had an outfit in the perfect shade of yellow? That’s always fascinated me.)
I must share one more memory associated with Viva Las Vegas. I asked for and got a tape recorder for Christmas when I was 9 years old. I wanted it for just one reason, to tape the songs from all my beloved Hollywood musicals. Well, it turns out the first movie I was able to record was Viva Las Vegas except I was too paranoid to miss any of the numbers so I simply taped the entire movie, trying my best to pause during the commercials. I must have listened to that tape a million times and as a result I know the entire film by heart. Every word. To this day I watch it on DVD and remember exactly where the commercial breaks were – almost expect it to still break at some parts. This one is literally etched in my mind.
Anyway, my double feature is now concluded. But if you think I’m Elvised-out, think again. Today I added a third Elvis feature, although one of a different ilk, the highly acclaimed and very entertaining documentary from 1972, Elvis on Tour. I posted a commentary on this one on my other blog. If you’d like, take a look at it here. As much as I love watching Elvis in all forms, camp and not, watching him on stage doing what he was truly born to do is another matter altogether.
Elvis movies never lost money. As legendary Hollywood producer, Hal Wallis once said, ‘An Elvis Presley picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood’. Wallis is all-too-often maligned for being responsible for the unfortunate turn Elvis’ promising movie career took with the seemingly, never-ending array of cookie-cutter, often silly, releases that exploited his talent. And make no mistake, as Wallis biographer, Bernard F. Dick states in his 2004 book, “Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars,” “Allowing Elvis to make thirty-one movies in twelve years (1957-1969) was blatant exploitation.” But Wallis was only responsible for nine of those films. The rest, as a result of the stage Wallis had set for Elvis’ persona on-screen, were the result of decisions made by Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis himself. It’s too bad. Elvis had shown promise as an actor in a few of his early films with his performance in Michael Curtiz’, King Creole (1958) his best effort, many opine. I mention this, however, not as a fan’s lamentation. His legend is secure and I love to watch even the worst Elvis movie simply because he’s in it. Instead, I mention this as proof of the star’s power and enduring appeal.
Elvis’ legend really has nothing to do with his movies. His recordings and several documentaries and concert footage are what sealed his legacy. But to me his movies are as much a part of why I love him as anything else. They are what introduced me to him and the reason why I started listening to all his music. I never had an allowance as a child. That’s not something I was ever familiar with nor were my parents but I used to often translate for my dad while he did maintenance work in the building he managed. If he ever got a tip from people he’d give it to me so on occasion I’d find myself with some money to squander or save for something I wanted. What I wanted most often were either Hollywood movie magazines or Elvis records.
They are such fond memories I have of all of this. Let the Elvis “camp” go on and on.
This year marks the 35th Anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. To the memory of this beautiful man and astounding talent I dedicate this post.
Today Elvis Presley is the featured star on Turner Classic Movies’s Summer Under the Stars (SUTS) and the network will play his movies for 24 hours straight. Both of the films I mention in this post are part of the line-up, which I took as a sign. I couldn’t let this day go by without posting something about Elvis Presley so here it is, my entry to the SUTS blogathon hosted by Michael of Scribehard on Film and Jill of Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence. Please go to either of the host sites to read entries by other passionate bloggers. Whereas I mostly babble, those are sure to both inspire and enlighten.