Reel Elvis: The King in Hollywood

elvisopener2After writing about the Elvis Presley musical Kissin’ Cousins for last Monday’s post, the King was on my mind—and in the ether. I couldn’t help notice how many times Elvis’s name or music popped up in conversation, on television, or on the radio. Maybe it was just one of those weeks, but I was impressed that someone who has been dead for 37 years still has that much cultural cache. I was also pleased that readers responded to the Kissin’ Cousins post with their own favorite Elvis flicks and observations about his often-maligned movies. With that in mind, I thought I would offer some tantalizing tidbits, astute asides, and fascinating facts on Elvis’s film career.

He Wasn’t Always a Singing Race-Car Driver, Plane Pilot, or Boat Captain. Critics are quick to poke fun at the musical comedies, which Elvis dubbed “Presley travelogues,” but there is more variety in his 33 films than detractors realize. Elvis made three westerns (including the Civil War drama Love Me Tender), one straight drama, five musical dramas, two satires, and two documentaries. Even the musical comedies vary in tone and approach—from the sublime Viva Las Vegas to the ridiculous Harum Scarum.

What’s in a Name? Films often go through title changes during production, but Elvis’s movies were downright notorious for this. In 1958, 20th Century Fox purchased the novel Brothers of Broken Lance by Clair Huffaker before it was published. The studio wanted a title change, so the publisher agreed to release it as Brothers of Flaming Arrow. The studio changed its mind again, and the book was finally published as Flaming Lance. Publicity for the upcoming western claimed that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra had signed for the key roles, but that was premature. Neither actor agreed to the film, so the property was shelved for two years. In 1960, Fox signed Elvis for the main role, and shooting began in August for Flaming Heart, which was changed almost immediately to Black Star, thent Black Heart. In September 1960, everyone finally agreed to Flaming Star.

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Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal

If there’s one subset of movies that not only doesn’t require a big budget and big stars but actually benefits from lower budgets and lesser known stars, it’s film noir.  It doesn’t mean you can’t have great noirs of the big budget variety, and we have, from The Maltese Falcon to Out of the Past and dozens in between, before, and after.  It just means that sometimes noir can function exceedingly well when done on the cheap.  One of the best noirs of the forties is Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal.  In the best decade ever for noir, it stands out even among the greats.  That it didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time now feels like Anthony Mann’s other raw deal.

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SeaMonsterGodzilla
March 29, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Shinichi Sekizawa: the guy behind the man in the suit

One of the things about being known as “the guy that wrote that book about Godzilla,” is that when something like this new Godzilla movie comes along, everyone assumes that’s what you want to talk about.  The fact is, I’ve written more words and spoken on more total audio commentary tracks regarding silent and early talkie comedy, but Godzilla made my name.  And with TCM’s screening of the 1954 original today, and the Bryan Cranston version on its way, I guess I have to live up to that name.

Well, the new film certainly looks well-made and serious, and I expect it will be as dramatic and intense as the trailer suggests.  It certainly strains no one’s credulity to claim that the original 1954 Godzilla movie is also serious and intense, an allegory about Japan’s experience with nuclear horror.  It is not subtext, it is plainly text, with nothing sub- about it.  Thinly disguised images of and openly direct references to the firebombings of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon incident are spread liberally throughout the film.

But… that isn’t Godzilla, not my Godzilla.  Godzilla may have originated in austere political metaphor, but he was popularized as a rubber-suited superhero.  He dances happy jigs, imitates rock stars, acts like a wrestler, talks with his pals, sometimes even flies—all while saving the Earth from such menaces as a monster made of living pollution, a ginormous bionic cockroach, or even a giant killer rose.

To pretend that Godzilla movies did not veer into absurdity and rampant silliness is futile.  The filmmakers admitted it themselves—with screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa a chief architect of this change in direction.

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KEYWORDS: Godzilla, kaiju, Movie Monsters, shinichi sekizawa
COMMENTS: 6
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The only think-piece THE CORPSE VANISHES is ever likely to get

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I was watching THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) again recently and I forgot to laugh. I understand that laughter is the proper response because just about every critic — even the ones predisposed to horror, to Bela Lugosi, and to the inconsistent charms of Poverty Row cinema — tell us that the movie is no good, that Lugosi is no good in it, that the celluloid used to make it would have been better used for guitar picks, and that the only proper response is yuks. Ask most people in their 30s and 40s if they’ve ever seen THE CORPSE VANISHES and they’re likely to tell you “Yeah, that was one of the best MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000s ever!”  [...MORE]

The Nightmarish World of Maya Deren

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Those of us who appreciate the eclectic programming on TCM Underground are in for a real cinematic treat on Saturday, March 29th. At 12am (PST)/2am (EST) TCM will be airing Pip Chodorov’s 90 min. documentary FREE RADICALS: A HISTORY OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM (2010) followed by two hours of groundbreaking, experimental and avant-garde short films made by some of the mediums most accomplished directors including Maya Deren’s seminal classic, MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943).
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The Sixties, or, When Being Dated Works in Your Favor

I like period movies.  In fact, if a movie takes place in a favorite period, I can pretty much watch it just for that, the period.  The costumes, the hairstyles, the cars, the houses, and everything else that makes that period so unique.  Of course, if the movie really has little else to offer in the way of story or acting, I probably won’t return to it.  But if a movie isn’t a period piece, it shouldn’t call too much to its period, right?  It shouldn’t mire itself down in up to the second fashions, it shouldn’t rely too heavily on up to the minute cultural references, or make social commentary that might be embarrassing in a few years.  But in the 1960′s, the movies were changing.  Attitudes were changing, what was allowed on the screen was changing, and the generation gap was growing.  As a result, movies from the sixties tend to look and feel more like their decade than other movies from other decades look like theirs (if that makes sense to anyone but me, let me know) and it doesn’t bother me at all.  I can watch any movie from the sixties if it’s good, but if it also screams “the sixties” in every cliche, costume and cultural reference, I can watch it even if it’s bad.  If it happens to be good, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

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Fear and Self-Loathing in Mexico: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

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The story of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is told through the fabric of Warren Oates’ white polyester suit. It’s a flamboyant object covering up a quivering, self-loathing mass of flesh. And soon it gets covered in enough blood to match his insides. Director Sam Peckinpah dove right into production on Alfredo Garcia after the scorched earth war that was the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid shoot, on which he battled MGM head James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey over final cut and lost. Thanks to producer Martin Baum, he had complete freedom on  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and what he produced is a bloody burlesque of his own delusions of masculine grandeur. Now out in a limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time (available exclusively through Screen Archives), which faithfully reproduces the rotting browns of Peckinpah’s Mexico City, the movie remains one of the grimmest self-portraits in movie history. Or, as Howard Hampton memorably put it, “the picture glows with the dying light by which failure sees its true reflection.”

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A Salute to ‘Kissin’ Cousins’—Sort Of

kissinopenerOver the years, Kissin’ Cousins has grown on me—sort of.  Elvis Presley’s fourteenth feature film, which airs next Sunday (March 30) on TCM at 8:30am, is a musical comedy that is even more ridiculous than most of his films. And yet, Kissin’ Cousins manages to be interesting—sort of. It is the only one of his 31 narrative films to feature the King in a dual role. In KC, Elvis stars as dark-haired Josh Morgan, a member of the Air Force aerobatic team the Shooting Stars, and blonde Jody Tatum, a member of the hillbilly Tatum clan of rural Tennessee. Josh finds out that he is a distant cousin to Pappy Tatum, so he is assigned to persuade the stubborn patriarch into allowing the Air Force to build a missile base on his mountain. While the story doesn’t seem like it would inspire much to sing about, the 96-minute film includes eight musical production numbers.

Kissin’ Cousins marks an important but dubious point in Elvis’s Hollywood career. The musical is his first film with Sam Katzman, known as “the King of the Quickies.” Katzman had been producing low-budget, rock ‘n’ roll musicals since the 1950s, and he was notorious for his short shooting schedules and penny-pinching methods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that his films are not entertaining or enjoyable; I love his teen musicals (Get Yourself a College Girl; Twist Around the Clock) as well as some of his other productions (Your Cheatin’ Heart). But, when Elvis’s manager, the equally notorious Colonel Tom Parker, teamed up with Katzman, it represented a turning point for Parker’s approach to Elvis’s film career.  Parker was unhappy with Elvis’s previous film, MGM’s Viva Las Vegas—which would be released after Kissin’ Cousins—because its budget surpassed a million dollars, and it went over its shooting schedule. He felt that the money spent to ensure high-quality production values was unnecessary. Though Elvis would make only two films for Katzman, thereafter, Colonel pursued deals with other small production companies, because he was determined to keep production costs down and increase Elvis’s salary by asking for a percentage of the profits. He also learned other methods for decreasing production costs, which he employed on Kissin’ Cousins. While on location near Big Bear Lake in California, he struck deals with local hotels and restaurants to put up the cast and crew at a cut rate in exchange for promotional opportunities.

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Shanghaid

"Before and after" frame reconstruction of typical damage.

Last January while attending the Arthouse Convergence in Midway, Utah, I was privy to a digital 4K restoration of The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). It was introduced by Leonard Maltin, and the screening preceded the official Blu-ray release by a couple weeks. It comes to mind now because I see it coming up on TCM and also because next month anyone lucky enough to be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival can watch another one by Welles with the “world premiere restoration reconstructed from the original camera negative” of Touch of Evil (1958). Restorations are a tricky business; hard work and, if all goes well, all that work should be invisible to the viewer. [...MORE]

SVOD-L-The-Pink-Panther
March 22, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Think Pink

Recently I’ve been reading Sam Wasson’s wonderfully spirited biography of Blake Edwards.  Wasson argues eloquently that Edwards is long overdue for a significant critical rehabilitation as one of comedy cinema’s great directors, to be spoken of in the same breath as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or Woody Allen.  But here’s the thing: even in this gloriously pro-Edwards manifesto, even here we find the Pink Panther franchise getting slagged off.  Sure, Wasson celebrates the original Pink Panther (on TCM tonight!) and its brilliant follow-up A Shot in the Dark, but of the others he writes: “the Panther franchise did little to enhance anything but Edwards’ bank account.”

Well, golly.  If you aren’t gonna find love for the Pink Panther franchise in the book that calls Blake Edwards an unsung genius, then where are you gonna find it?

Here, of course!

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KEYWORDS: Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther
COMMENTS: 14
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