Posted by Susan Doll on January 4, 2010
Elvis Presley would have been 75 years old on this Friday, January 8. During his lifetime, Elvis conquered many arenas of entertainment, from the recording industry to television to the movies; after his death, he became an icon of both the best and worst of 20th-century pop culture, from rock ‘n’ roll innovator to victim of show-biz excess. Of the thousands of photos and clips of Elvis as the notorious 1950s rock ‘n’ roller, the clean-cut leading man, or the Vegas superstar, none show him past the age of 42—the age at which he died in 1977. As with Monroe, Garland, or Dean, it is downright eerie to contemplate Presley as a senior citizen; I prefer to remember all of these icons in their prime.
To celebrate Elvis’s 75th birthday, TCM has programmed an entire day of Presley movies, which encompass all phases of his career. Jailhouse Rock represents the notorious Elvis the Pelvis era, while Elvis on Tour and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles the King during the Vegas years. The rest of the films are those much-derided vehicles from the 1960s in which Presley most often played a handsome race-car driver, airplane pilot, or boat captain passing through some vacation spot or exotic locale. Elvis’s flicks have gotten a bum rap over the years, but I appreciate them as light and breezy representations of 1960s fads, crazes, and trends. For example, the colorful location work in Blue Hawaii, the prototypical Presley vehicle, shows off the beauty of America’s newly adopted 50th state, while Girl Happy celebrates the 1960s teen ritual of vacationing in Florida over Easter break.
Still, there is no denying that the Presley filmography includes several misfires and clunkers, and I couldn’t help but notice that two of his most scorned musicals, Harum Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins, are scheduled for the less-than-prime-time slots of 6:15am and 7:45am on January 8. These two movies share in common the same producer—Sam Katzman, who was dubbed the King of the Quickies because of the extremely short production schedules he preferred. Actually, “King of the Quickies” was only one of many nicknames given to Katzman. He was also known as the Schlockmeister (because of the low-budget, low-brow nature of his movies), Jungle Sam (because he produced the Jungle Jim series as well as titles like Jungle Moon Men), and the Bossman (because no matter who directed or starred in his films, Katzman was definitely in charge financially and creatively). Despite his reputation for producing schlock, I like and appreciate many of Katzman’s quickies for reasons only movie lovers can understand.
Katzman began his movie career as a teenager, working as a lab messenger, mail carrier, and prop boy for Fox Film Corp. in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At their Fort Lee studio, Fox produced low-budget shorts, so that Katzman learned cost-effective film production from the bottom up, eventually becoming an assistant director. He was let go from Fox just before their merger with 20th Century Pictures and after working as a production manager for National, Cosmopolitan, and other small companies, he opted to become an independent producer. He ground out his first independent feature film in six days for $13,000. Titled His Private Secretary, this 1933 romantic comedy costarred a young John Wayne. Katzman worked as an independent with his own companies, Victory Pictures and Puritan Pictures, before signing with Monogram just before World War II. In 1945, he contracted with Columbia to make adventure serials and then moved to Columbia permanently in 1947. In the 1960s, he returned to independent filmmaking with his company Four-Leaf Productions, distributing his cost-effective movies through MGM. Katzman’s career trajectory from Monogram to Columbia to MGM, bookended by independent status, is impressive.
Katzman’s cost-cutting measures included shooting outdoors on location or on existing outdoor sets, limiting the number of main settings, using pre-existing costumes and props, limiting rehearsal time to a few days, using stock footage or existing footage, shooting scenes in one take, cutting in the camera, and implementing the shortest schedules in Hollywood. The serials Blackhawk (1952), Lost Planet (1953), Riding With Buffalo Bill (1954), and Adventures of Captain Africa (1955) were all made on a typical Katzman schedule. Each serial featured 15 episodes, which were shot in 17 days. Katzman used to walk around carrying a riding crop or a cane, and when the scenes were not being shot fast enough, he would bang on the floor, the wall, or the set with the crop or cane to stir up the cast and crew. Herman Brix (aka Bruce Bennett) recalled sleeping on a cot on the set during the making of the serial Shadow of Chinatown (1936) because they shot from morning till night, and he was in every scene. There was just no point in going home. Joan Woodbury was cast as the lead in the serial Brenda Starr (1945) because during the auditions, she could memorize dialogue quicker than the other actresses and then recite it line-perfect in one take. My favorite story involving Katzman’s determination to stay on budget and on schedule involves the production of The Houston Story (1956) in which Lee J. Cobb was hired as the lead actor and William Castle as director. After three days of shooting in Texas, Cobb suffered a heart attack. Katzman informed Castle that the film’s schedule would not change, so Castle himself stepped in to take Cobb’s place. To hide the switch in actors, Castle either filmed the scenes in long shot, or he filmed with his back to the camera. When the location work was finished, the production moved back to the studio in Hollywood, but Cobb was not well enough to return. Rather than hold up production, Katzman hired actor Gene Barry to finish Cobb’s scenes. Katzman then handed all the footage over to veteran editor Edwin H. Bryant and told him to do the best he could. In the 79-minute film, Lee J. Cobb, William Castle, and Gene Barry all play Frank Duncan, though only Barry is credited.
During his career, Katzman produced every popular genre known to movie-goers, from westerns to serials with comic-book action heroes to thrillers to jungle pictures to comedies to musicals. I discovered that Jungle Sam seemed to have an innate talent for latching onto a genre, fad, or trend and then riding the crest of its popularity. He started by making western serials during the Depression (as many other studios did), branched out into crime series and thrillers during WWII, and then moved into comic-book heroes after the war, peaking with the Superman serial in 1948, which earned a $1 million at the box office. At Columbia, he developed jungle adventure stories, most notably Jungle Jim starring Johnny Weissmuller. When major studios began to make more films in color in the early 1950s, Katzman launched a series of low-budget westerns in color based on historical figures. To keep the costs low, the films starred unknown actors. Instead of using name actors to bring audiences to the theaters, he used “name” characters such as Jesse James, the Daltons, Billy the Kid, and Buffalo Bill. In 1953, Katzman jumped into science fiction craze with Lost Planet before peaking in that genre with Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). After the Kefauver Committee revealed the existence of organized crime to the average American, the wily producer made The Miami Story (1954), Inside Detroit (1956), Miami Expose (1956), and The Houston Story to capitalize on the organized-crime-related headlines in the newspapers. The 1950s proved to be Katzman’s career high point; not only was he prolific but he managed to make some fascinating, albeit low-budget, contributions to key genres.
Perhaps his savviest move was to take advantage of the burgeoning teenage audience in the 1950s by making musicals based on pop-music genres beginning with Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock in 1956. Those films were followed by Calypso Heat Wave (1957), Twist Around the Clock (1961), and Don’t Knock the Twist (1962). Two years later, he capitalized on the popularity of folk music with Hootenanny Hoot. I saw all of these movies when I was a kid, and I responded to the way they unfolded from the perspective of the young characters who were forced to defend their music from disapproving adults. The films created sympathy for the misunderstood music and its fans. Because Katzman worked so quickly, these movies were written, produced, and in the theaters while each film’s corresponding musical craze was still red-hot. This series of films by Katzman actually launched the teen musical, which, by the 1960s, had evolved to include the Frankie and Annette beach movies as well as Elvis’s musical vehicles. It seems inevitable that the two Kings should get together and make a couple of movies.
Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager, and Katzman shared similar views on cutting costs to the bone to maximize profits. In that way, they were a match made in heaven. Parker made the two-picture deal with Katzman in the mid-1960s after Elvis had appeared in Viva Las Vegas. Viva’s glossy production values, high-profile costar Ann-Margret, and location shooting had driven up the costs of that movie, and though it made a handsome profit, Parker felt too much money had been wasted on “frills.” The deal with Katzman marks a shift in the Presley pictures in which the Colonel was determined to keep the budgets low and profits high, though he didn’t seem to care that production values suffered.
Kissin’ Cousins was given a 15-day shooting schedule by Katzman. When director Gene Nelson ran two days over schedule, tensions escalated on the set between him and the producer. Elvis found it difficult to work under the stress, and he offered to call in sick to give both him and Nelson a break. The experience was nerve-wracking for Nelson and Elvis, and needless to say, the resulting film is not very good. However, Kissin’ Cousins is interesting to ponder in relation to its ultra-famous star and his image. The story features Presley in a dual role—two Elvises for the price of one, which delighted the Colonel. Elvis stars as Air Force officer Josh Morgan who tries to persuade the Tatums, a Tennessee mountain family, to allow a missile base to be built on their land, and he plays Jody Tatum, the handsome son of the backwoods clan. As Josh, Elvis wears his hair jet-black, which was typical for him in the 1960s; as Jody, he wears a dark-blonde wig, which was closer to his natural hair color. The other characters are exaggerated Southern stereotypes still found in Hollywood movies, including barefoot hillbillies, moonshiners, lazy hound dogs, man-chasing mountain girls, and pipe-smoking mountain mamas. The film features some horrific songs that Katzman and Parker thought should be recorded in RCA’s Studio One in Nashville to give them a country-music flavor. But the songs are nothing like country music; instead they are a pop songwriter’s pastiche of country music.
Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and reared in Memphis, and his rockabilly music from the 1950s was an integration of regional Southern sounds. During the 1950s, his Southern background became a source of bad publicity as the mainstream press worked overtime to find reasons to criticize his regionally based music, dangerous image, and sensual performing style, which threatened to overshadow the Tin Pan Alley or Hollywood entertainers they were accustomed to. After Elvis was released from the army in 1960 and set on the path to movie stardom, much care was taken to extract the “Southerness” from his star image. Little reference was made to his background in the publicity generated for his movies, his musical style had shifted to a pop idiom, and the characters he played rarely hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Were Katzman and Colonel ever concerned that the plot, characters, and setting of Kissin’ Cousins might remind the press of his Southern heritage? Not likely, since these elements are painted in such broad strokes, they don’t recall the real South in the least. Instead, Tennessee is rendered as some storybook land filled with scantily clad girls and child-like characters who are not the least bit threatening. And, oddly enough, one of the characters Elvis plays, Josh Morgan, is part of the “normal” world who views the Tatums and their ways as something “other,” along with the rest of the movie’s characters.
In Harum Scarum, Elvis stars as a Valentino-like movie star named Johnny Tyrone, who is kidnapped while making a public appearance in the Middle East. He escapes and joins a troupe of pickpockets and rogues, which gives amble opportunity for Elvis to sing. Released in 1965, Harum Scarum had an 18-day shooting schedule, but the extra day in comparison to Kissin’ Cousins did little to improve it. Like most of Katzman’s movies, few–if any—sets, costumes, or props were made especially for the film. The temple set was first used on the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille epic King of Kings; many of the Middle Eastern costumes were used in the 1944 and 1955 versions of Kismet; and the dagger that Johnny Tyrone carries was first used by Hedy Lamarr in Lady of the Tropics. Hastily plotted, Harum Scarum is a confusing hodge-podge of stereotypes—sheiks, menacing Arabs, vaudeville performers, and dwarfs—who all seemed to be performing in a different movie. Even the Colonel had his doubts about the final version and advised MGM to release it quickly and quietly. In his attempt to “fix” it, he suggested to Katzman and MGM that they record a voice-over from the perspective of a talking camel.
Actually, the Colonel may not have been too far off the mark, because as with much of Katzman’s low-budget fare, these two films create sealed-off, hermetic worlds in which no character is too exaggerated and no event too implausible. Both Harum Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins are so amplified that they actually work as parodies of Hollywood genres, stereotypes, and storytelling conventions. In other words, filmmaking cliches are made noticeable as clichés through their exaggeration, which serves as a kind of commentary on their use in popular culture—a bit of self-reflexivity beyond the intent of Katzman and his scriptwriters and directors.
After Harum Scarum, Elvis and the Colonel parted ways with Katzman. Presley’s movies did not improve, though he did veer from his usual musical vehicles during his last months in Hollywood. Katzman continued to make films throughout the 1960s, earning a new nickname, Psychedelic Sam, for his foray into counterculture storylines like Riot on Sunset Strip (1967) and The Love-In (1967). Always able to capitalize on the latest industry trend, Katzman ended his long career by taking advantage of the demise of the Production Code and the loosening of censorship to produce a handful of sexploitation movies, including the bluntly titled How to Succeed with Sex (1972). Well, there was never anything subtle about the King of the Quickies.
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