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Month: July 2017

Kid Galahad (1962)

Kid Galahad (1962)

“Make sure this pigeon don’t get away.”

Synopsis:
A debt-ridden promoter (Gig Young) convinces an Army veteran (Elvis Presley) to work with a trainer (Charles Bronson) and box a few rounds so he can save up for his dream of working as a mechanic. When Presley falls in love with Young’s sister (Joan Blackman), Young expresses his dismay, angering his long-suffering girlfriend (Lola Albright) — but soon the demands of gangsters requesting payment dominate Young’s concerns. Will Presley be set up for a beating?

Genres:

  • Boxing
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Gangsters
  • Gig Young Films
  • Musicals
  • Phil Karlson Films
  • Veterans

Review:
Elvis Presley’s tenth feature film (he made a total of 31 between 1956-1969) was this musical remake of Michael Curtiz’s 1937 film starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Bette Davis. While he does sing a few (fairly unmemorable) tunes, Elvis’s musical gifts are a sidebar to his k.o. talents here, and perhaps his fans were excited to see him shirtless in a ring. But overall, there’s not much to keep one engaged, given that Elvis’s Walter Gulick is a straight-arrow, small-town veteran and would-be mechanic who simply wants to marry his girl (Blackman is pretty, but also pretty bland). Young’s despicable promoter and his put-upon female companion (Albright) are the most complex characters in the screenplay, but there’s not much enjoyment in watching them work out their neuroses and challenges; and Bronson’s role is too small to count for much. Will Elvis emerge triumphant by the end? Well, this isn’t Love Me Tender (1956)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Some nice location shooting in Idyllwild, California (with cinematography by Burnett Guffey)

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Presley fans.

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Flaming Star (1960)

Flaming Star (1960)

“We have no place to go: we have to fight, or we die.”

Synopsis:
A “half-breed” Kiowa (Elvis Presley) living on a ranch with his father (John McIntire), mother (Dolores del Rio), and half-brother (Steve Forrest) finds his loyalties divided when a local Kiowa tribe led by Buffalo Horn (Rodolfo Acosta) seeks revenge for stolen land by massacring a neighboring homestead family.

Genres:

  • Don Siegel Films
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Native Peoples
  • Race Relations
  • Revenge
  • Westerns

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, “Don Siegel directed this action-packed western, which features what is generally accepted as Elvis Presley’s best performance” (though he himself believes “Presley’s performance is adequate, no better”). He notes that the “racial-prejudice theme was unusual in westerns until this film and the same year’s The Unforgiven,” but argues that the “the film is as unkind to Indians as it is to racist whites”. However, I don’t think Peary’s review gives quite enough credit to this western. Presley’s work here is likely his best: he’s invested and highly believable as a perpetual outsider attempting to navigate between two worlds. The movie’s exploration of Indians and whites’ tenuous attempt to co-exist goes beyond what we normally see in such films, and it’s easy to sympathize with both sides. The “frightening first appearance of Indians” may be, as Peary writes, the “film’s best moment” — and swiftly establishes tensions borne out throughout the film, as family members turn on one another, loyalties are consistently tested, and numerous likable characters die — but it’s not the only memorable scene by far. Flaming Star isn’t easy viewing, but it is worthwhile, and often poignant.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elvis Presley’s committed performance as Pacer
  • John McIntire as ‘Pa’ Burton
  • Strong direction by Siegel
  • Beautiful Cinemascope cinematography
  • A surprisingly hard-hitting script by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson

Must See?
Yes, as a fine Elvis vehicle.

Categories

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Loving You (1957)

Loving You (1957)

“Who’s fighting sex? It’s a healthy American commodity. It sells Coke, cream, steam engines, shampoo, real estate, and toothpaste. It can sell singers, too.”

Synopsis:
A traveling music producer (Lizabeth Scott) and her ex-husband (Wendell Corey) nurture the talents of a delivery boy (Elvis Presley) whose singing is a huge hit with local teens. Scott does everything she can to promote Presley, but his loyalties are torn between fame and romance with a young singer (Dolores Hart).

Genres:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Lizabeth Scott Films
  • Singers
  • Wendell Corey Films

Review:
Elvis Presley’s second feature film — after his debut in the western Love Me Tender (1956) — was much better suited to his talents and persona, essentially telling a variation on his own rise to fame and manipulation by an ambitious producer. The most interesting character is Scott’s husky-voiced, middle-aged promoter, who is still clearly enamored with her singing ex-husband (Corey) but equally determined to take advantage of Presley’s explosive popularity; she’s a relatively complex figure and we’re kept guessing what moves she’ll make next. Hart, in her debut film, is sweet and sympathetic as Presley’s friend and would-be lover, and Presley is in top crooning form. The storyline itself isn’t original enough to merit much attention, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lizabeth Scott as Glenda
  • A fun, early glimpse at Elvis’s meteoric fandom

  • Nice incorporation of numerous foot-tapping tunes

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if you enjoy Presley’s early on-screen presence.

Links:

Love Me Tender (1956)

Love Me Tender (1956)

“Maybe the South is licked — but not us!”

Synopsis:
With help from their compatriots (including Neville Brand and L.Q. Jones), three Confederate brothers (Richard Egan, William Campbell, and James Drury) steal an army payroll from a train, unaware that the Civil War has just ended an hour earlier. Deciding to keep the cash as spoils of war, the brothers return home to their mother (Mildred Dunnock) and Egan’s sweetheart (Debra Paget), not knowing that Paget — believing Egan dead — has married their younger brother (Elvis Presley). When the feds catch up with Egan, he and his team must decide whether to surrender the money or stay on the run.

Genres:

  • Debra Paget Films
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Siblings
  • Veterans
  • Westerns

Review:
Elvis Presley’s debut film was rather uncharitably described by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times as “a slight case of horse opera with the heaves”. While it doesn’t quite deserve that level of disparagement, it’s true that not much distinguishes this tale from standard B-level oaters, other than the presence of Presley (and stellar Cinemascope cinematography). The storyline puts Presley in an unenviable position from the start: he’s clearly standing right in the way of Paget and Egan’s unrequited passion (their forlorn moon eyes are unmistakable), and his naive ignorance of their interest in one another posits him as an easily duped fool; meanwhile, his sudden transformation into jealous third wheel near the end of the film smacks of plot convenience. The songs Presley duly performs are noticeably patched into the script, and in one instance (when he gyrates his hips in front of an audience of bonnet-clad prairie gals) laughably anachronistic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Leo Tover’s cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course it maintains historical curiosity as Presley’s film debut. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

“That ain’t tactics, honey — it’s just the beast in me!”

Synopsis:
After accidentally killing a man in a barfight, a construction worker (Elvis Presley) is sent to jail, where his cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy) — a former country-and-western star — teaches him to play the guitar and offers him a chance to perform. Upon his release, Vince (Presley) connects with a beautiful juke box representative (Judy Tyler) and soon becomes a rising star — but will thirst for fame and money corrupt his humble beginnings?

Genres:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Musicals
  • Prisoners
  • Rock ‘n Roll

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while Elvis Presley’s third film is “not on the high level of Flaming Star or King Creole“, it was “one of his biggest commercial successes” and “is still quite enjoyable”. He notes that “young Elvis is handsome and charismatic playing the troubled, misunderstood, quick-fisted character that best suited him in his movie career”; that “his singing is strong and smooth”; and “the Leiber-Stoller numbers… are first-rate”, with “the wildly choreographed ‘Jailhouse Rock’ production number” a true “classic”. He further adds that the film “benefits from the sweet presence of Judy Tyler, an actress who died young but is remembered fondly.” Peary’s assessment is fair but overly generous. The major themes of the storyline — show business is brutal, fame easily corrupts — aren’t unique or compelling, and it’s difficult to care too much about Presley’s “backwoods lad who trusts no one and carries a chip on his shoulder” (I don’t find him particularly charismatic). This flick will, of course, be of major interest to Presley fans — but all-purpose film fanatics can simply watch the title number on YouTube.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine musical numbers

Must See?
No, though the “Jailhouse Rock” number is certainly worth watching on its own.

Links:

Loved One, The (1965)

Loved One, The (1965)

“You’ll be the death of me yet, Mr. Barlow.”

Synopsis:
A penniless British poet (Robert Morse) arrives in Los Angeles to visit his uncle (John Gielgud), who works as an artist for a movie studio run by a young producer (Roddy McDowell) and his junior executive (Jonathan Winters). When Gielgud dies unexpectedly, his British compatriot (Robert Morley) arranges to have him buried at Whispering Glades, a mega-funeral home run by Winters’ brother (also played by Winters), where Morse romances a young beautician (Anjanette Comer) being pursued by a middle-aged mortician named Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel — co-scripted by Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern — is beautifully shot by DP Haskell Wexler, headily surreal (“Let me explain the dream to you — this entire place is a dream.”), and has “a scene to offend everyone”, but (as Peary notes) features “plodding” direction and fails to pack a satisfying overall punch. Part of the problem lies in failure to connect with Morse, who lacks charisma and doesn’t inspire much investment. There are also far too many cameos and sub-plots, including several not present in Waugh’s original novel (i.e., the final outrageous twist about Winters’ nefarious plans for the corpses in his care). Scenes of excess and grotesque greed — such as “Comer’s visit with embalmer Joyboy’s (Rod Steiger) grossly fat mother [Ayllene Gibbons], who’s pigging out on food and salivating over food commercials on television; a woman (Margaret Leighton) battling her husband (Milton Berle) over giving up their beloved dead dog; and a gravelly-voiced huckster (Lionel Stander) pretending to be a sage guru-by-mail — seem merely calculated for shock. By the time Dana Andrews shows up in a small role as a general, the story has twisted too many times to maintain interest. Ultimately, the excesses of both Hollywood and funeral preparations in California have been more effectively portrayed in other cinematic efforts — see, for example, John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) and Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978).

P.S. As Peary notes, “one of the best scenes has Morse visiting Comer’s unsteady house-on-stilts, which is built in a slide area” (see still below).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Haskell Wexler’s cinematography

  • Some effectively satirical scenarios and sets
  • Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy
  • Liberace’s too-short cameo role: “Rayon chafes, you know. Personally, I find it quite abrasive.”

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly worth a one-time look.

Links:

King Creole (1958)

King Creole (1958)

“The boy was born with an unusual talent — he has the right to think for himself!”

Synopsis:
A troubled teen (Elvis Presley) disappoints his father (Dean Jagger) by failing high school and choosing to work in a nightclub owned by a man (Paul Stewart) who his sister (Jan Shepard) falls for. But will Danny’s (Presley’s) new singing career and romance with a sweet clerk (Dolores Hart) be jeopardized by his association with a thug (Vic Morrow) working for a gangster (Walter Matthau), whose seductive moll (Carolyn Jones) makes continual moves on him?

Genres:

  • Aspiring Stars
  • Carolyn Jones Films
  • Elvis Presley Films
  • Gangsters
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Love Triangle
  • Michael Curtiz Films
  • Musicals
  • Singers
  • Walter Matthau Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this loose adaptation of Harold Robbins’ novel A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952) remains “Elvis Presley’s best film”, noting that “Presley gives a strong, tough performance and his singing is terrific”. Peary further points out that “he is ably supported by a fine cast” and “the direction by Michael Curtiz is very efficient”, “styled much like his Warner Bros. biopic-musicals.” Peary concludes his review by noting that the film is a “solid piece of entertainment and certainly one of the top juvenile delinquent pictures of the fifties”. Presley — in his final movie before entering military service — does indeed seem to be at the top of his game, singing numerous nifty, lively ditties (all well incorporated into the storyline), and toggling his bad-boy impulses between “pretty Dolores Hart” and “Carolyn Jones, Matthau’s unhappy mistress”. Jones makes a strong presence as well: she’s amply seductive, pulls no punches (except when forced to under duress), and is clearly a damaged soul simply hoping for relief, which leads to plenty of genuine tension about which girl — and path — Presley will choose. Russ Harlan’s cinematography is top-notch, and fine use is made of New Orleans locales.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elvis Presley as Danny Fisher
  • Carolyn Jones as Ronnie
  • Several lively musical numbers
  • Fine use of New Orleans locales
  • Russ Harlan’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical significance.

Categories

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I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

“I’ll be a model prisoner if it kills me!”

Synopsis:
A decorated World War I veteran (Paul Muni) disappoints his parents by wanting more out of life than his small-town factory job, and sets off in search of engineering work. After a series of hard times, he is accidentally implicated in a fatal robbery committed by an acquaintance (Preston Foster), and sent to work in a Southern chain gang. Life as a prisoner is so unbearable that Muni seeks help from a fellow inmate (Everett Brown) in breaking his chains and escaping, and soon makes a reputable life for himself under a new identity. However, when his scheming landlady (Glenda Farrell) forces Muni to marry her and exposes his past, he’s on the lam once again, ending up back in prison with hope of parole. Will he finally achieve justice?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that Warner Brothers’ adaptation of an autobiographical serial story by Robert E. Burns — directed by Mervyn LeRoy — is not only “one of the earliest social-protest films” but “one of the strongest”, given that “Muni’s hardened, desperate face and his angry, scratchy voice are powerful reminders that decent men could be destroyed by the injustice and insensitivity that had come to characterize America”. He writes that the “ending is shockingly depressing”, and that the film “is daring, not only because of its socially conscious theme but also because of its pre-Code depiction of sex”. However, while this film is almost universally lauded as a classic, I’ll admit to finding it both somewhat dated, and over-acted by the Oscar-nominated Muni. Most powerful are the graphic scenes of chain gang life, which we take for granted now after multiple cinematic depictions inspired by this one — i.e., Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969), among others — but otherwise, everything about the screenplay too-neatly telescopes corruption, injustice, and hard knocks. The film does deserve points for not pulling any punches, and also for Sol Polito’s impressive cinematography — but otherwise, it’s primarily worth viewing for its historical significance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • An effectively bleak depiction of chain-gang subsistence

  • Sol Polito’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly worth a one-time look for its historical significance. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Alternate Oscars, where he also nominates Muni as one of the Best Actors of the Year. Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1991 by the Library of Congress.

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Set-Up, The (1949)

Set-Up, The (1949)

“Don’t you see, Bill? You’ll always be just one punch away.”

Synopsis:
An aging boxer (Robert Ryan) whose wife (Audrey Totter) desperately wants him to quit decides to give his all in a final match against a corrupt young upstart (Hal Baylor) — not knowing that his own manager (George Tobias) has taken money from a gangster (Alan Baxter) in return for Stoker (Ryan) throwing the fight.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “low-budget gem” — based on a 1928 poem by by Joseph Moncure March — “unforgettably portrays the sad, sleazy world of run-of-the-mill and over-the-hill boxers”, with the milieu director Robert Wise creates — “Stoker’s cheap hotel room, the carnival-like street scene, the dingy, overcrowded dressing room, the hostile arena” — emerging as both “atmospheric and believable”. Peary notes that “director Robert Wise matches the 72 minutes of screen time to real time, building tension and authenticity”; particularly effective is a ~2 minute tracking shot near the beginning of the film, in which the camera pans from a blind spectator (Archie Leonard) to a woman (Helen Brown) falsely claiming a queasy stomach over the fight (“Last time I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!”) to a pair of wisecracking bettors who laughingly note that Stoker Thompson (Ryan) has been around since one of them was a kid — and finally to Stoker’s manager (Tobias) striking a match against his name on a sign and lamenting to Stoker’s trainer (Percy Helton) that Stoker — resting in his hotel — already “gets enough sleep in the ring”.

Just three minutes into the movie, we’ve already internalized the seedy, hope-for-the-stars, dog-eats-dog landscape in which Stoker lives and survives (Paradise City Wrestling and Boxing Arena sits right next to Dreamland bar and a Chop Suey joint); watched a young newspaper hustler mercilessly crowd out an older one (“Hey — I gotta make a buck too…”;”Ah, go take a walk!”); witnessed the hypocrisy of boxing fans who feign horror but not-so-secretly love the vicarious thrill of violence; and learned that nobody but Stoker himself seems to believe in his ability to win another fight. Indeed, when Tobias and Helton “promise a local racketeer that [Stoker will] lose, they simply take the payoff money without bothering to tell Stoker he’s expected to take a dive”, since they “figure he’ll get knocked out anyway” (!). As Peary notes, Wise seems to show “sympathetic feelings towards fighters, who he realizes are victimized because they haven’t other options in life” — and Wise appropriately shows “fight fans” as “each more monstrous than the other”.

Ryan (a real-life heavyweight champion in college) is perfectly cast as the rangy boxer who refuses to go down without a legitimate fight, and the supporting cast is excellent as well. Equally of note are the fine b&w cinematography (by Milton Krasner), the highly atmospheric sets, and (as mentioned above) the seamless use of real-time narrative timing, several years before this was showcased as a distinctive feature of High Noon (1952). While it’s frustrating that much of the intent of March’s poem was lost by making significant changes — including shifting Stoker’s race from black to white — the film stands on its own as a minor classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Ryan as Stoker (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Masterful direction and editing
  • Atmospheric sets
  • Milton Krasner’s stark cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a somewhat forgotten classic.

Categories

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