As a pop music star, Elvis Presley had an unparalleled career (although it is questionable whether his music is much listened to today outside of Memphis). His film career, although financially successful, was a different story altogether—remarkable only in the thirty-plus (mostly wretched) films produced in a scant dozen years. Among the worst, which is saying a lot, are two near the end of his film run. Itching to get back into live performance, Presley was merely fulfilling his MGM contract at this point and, barely mastering any enthusiasm, took whatever script was handed him.
Live a Little, Love a Little (1968, directed by frequent Presley collaborator Norman Taurog and scripted by Dan Greenburg from his novel “Kiss My Firm but Pliant Lips”) is a like the Rankin and Bass cartoon “Year Without a Santa Claus” (1974) in that it contains a single scene of naive surrealism at its most jaw-dropping, “WTF were they thinking?” level, which almost makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.
The Pelvis is a photojournalist here named Greg, working at a “Playboy”-like outfit. Of course, that means he’s going to be taking lots of pinup pics. The blatant sexism would seem woefully dated, except we’ve elected a lot of Neanderthal politicos lately (from both sides), and that unfortunately renders the film more contemporary than it was a few years ago. Greg’s practically stalked by a wacky, bikini-clad gal who might be named Bernice… or Alice… or Suzy…don’t ask. I’m still not sure, but whoever she is, she’s played by Michele Carey, one of those anonymous eye-candy actresses you may recall seeing a lot. (Carey is primarily known for this and the 1967 John Wayne/Howard Hawks oater El Dorado). Bernice also has a Great Dane named Albert who will become for this film what Mr. Heat Miser was for “Year Without A Santa Claus.” Rounding off a weird cast is prolific character actor Sterling Holloway (whom we recently saw as Professor Twiddle/Professor Quinn in “ The Adventures of Superman”) as a milkman (don’t ask—I still don’t know why), Rudy Valle as a Hugh Heffner type (?), and Dick Sargent (best known as Darren #2 from “Bewitched”), who might be Bernice’s husband (just don’t ask).
The Hollywood musical has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Contemporary audiences, corn-fed on laser battles with green aliens and tights-wearing, invulnerable superheroes who defy gravity, somehow find the idea of a film in which actors suddenly burst into song as “intolerably unrealistic!”
The genre’s peak era began at the dawn of sound, in the early 1930s, with Busby Berkeley at Warners and RKO’a teaming of the inimitable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The musical climaxed twenty later, in the 1950s, with the “arty” musicals of Gene Kelly, Vincent Minelli, and Stanley Donan.
Mark Sandrich directed a number of the RKO musicals with Astaire and Rogers. His first teaming with them was The Gay Divorcee (1934). This was followed by Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). Later, he directed Astaire with Bing Crosby in 1924’s Holiday Inn (which some people still confuse with the inferior 1954 remake, White Christmas) and Blue Skies (1946).
Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981).
Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.
Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying. Continue reading
Busby Berkeley co-directed Dames (1934) with ho-hum stock director Ray Enright, and that may be one reason why it is among the most uneven of Berkeley’s films. The plot is threadbare. Oddball moral majority-type millionaire Hugh Herbert is planning on bequeathing ten million dollars to his cousin Zazu Pitts (of 1924’s infamous Greed) and her husband Guy Kibbee. That is, on one condition–that he finds them to be “morally acceptable” (i.e., no smoking, drinking, or mixing up with show-biz types, especially those that do shows with those immoral dames!)
Of course, there has to be a fly in the ointment, and here it is Dick Powell. Powell’s tenor persona wears thin quickly. He is such an all-smiles poster boy that one wonders what in the world that constipated Herbert might have found objectionable in him. A little background info here on Powell: the actor realized the limits of the screen persona that he had been thrust into. He waited out his youth and when he was too old to be prancing on-screen he shrewdly reinvented himself as a hard-boiled forty something private eye in film noir. Here, he is the fellar of Ruby Keeler, daughter of Zazu and Guy. Dick wants to put on a show and gets help from the eternally underrated Joan Blondell (who became Mrs. Powell two years later).
Gold Diggers Of 1933 is Busby Berkeley`s masterwork, assisted in no small way by the astute direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who had previously directed a number of stark, socially conscious films, such as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Like Berkeley, Leroy’s best work was at Warner Bothers and, like Berkeley, MGM would buy his contract and essentially neuter him.
This is the second of the Warners/Berkeley backstage 1933 musicals, beginning with 42nd Street and concluding with Footlight Parade. Gold Diggers is a mix of harsh realism and opulent fantasy, more so than any other musical from the Great Depression. It jump starts in high gear fantasy mode with Ginger Rogers, dressed only in a skimpy outfit made of silver dollars (with one coin strategically placed over her crotch), singing “We’re in the money.” Rogers’ handling of the lyrics morphs into a glossolalia-styled Pig Latin aria that seems like it would be more at home in a Buñuel movie than a Hollywood musical. Behind her, a chorus of babes holding up undulating coins sings “let’s spend it, send it rolling along.” This is Berkeley’s phantasmagoric “F_ you!” to the Depression. And how would you climax such an opening? With a crash, as debt collectors break up the number, taking with them every prop, every stitch of clothing and everything, leaving only a crumb, a crumb even too small for a mouse.