Mississippi (1935)

“There’s no excuse for a man not fighting!”

Synopsis:
A pacifist (Bing Crosby) engaged to a southern belle (Gail Patrick) disappoints both Patrick and her father (Claude Gillingwater) by refusing to fight a duel with Patrick’s prior suitor (John Miljan), who she eventually marries. After accepting a job as a crooner on a performance ship run by Commodore Jackson (W.C. Fields), Crosby reunites with Patrick’s younger sister (Joan Bennett), who has not-so-secretly loved Crosby for many years — but will Crosby’s new identity as “The Singing Killer” (earned after he accidentally shoots a man in a fight) spoil their romance?

Genres:

Review:
Bing Crosby co-starred with W.C. Fields for the first and only time in this Rodgers & Hart musical — an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel Magnolia — which showcases Crosby singing a number of ditties, W.C. Fields doing his comedic shtick, and offensive depictions of post-Civil War African-Americans (including a group of singing children referred to as the “Pickaninnies”). Blonde Bennett’s pining for Crosby in earlier scenes (as he’s busy romancing her beautiful but inflexible sister through music) quickly gets tiresome, and we simply find ourselves waiting for the moment when they will finally have their chance to realize they’re destined for one another. The mistaken identity plot is pretty silly, too, making this one only must-see for either Crosby or Fields completists.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A few humorous moments with Fields

Must See?
No. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, though I’m not sure why.

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Mark of the Devil (1970)

“I work to serve God — to rid the world of all evil.”

Synopsis:
After falling in love with a bewitchingly beautiful barmaid (Olivera Katarina) in a European village, a count (Udo Kier) apprenticing as a witch-hunter to a lord (Herbert Lom) is distressed to learn that not only the town’s local witch-hunter (Reggie Nalder) but Lom and his team are deeply corrupt, arresting and torturing townspeople either for financial gain or sadistic satisfaction.

Genres:

Review:
Infamous for garnering a “V for Violence” rating at the time of its release (and for offering vomit bags to audience members) this English-dubbed West German horror film is merely “torture porn” wrapped in the guise of a respectable historical drama a la The Conquerer Worm/The Witchfinder General (1969) or The Devils (1971). Handsome, wide-eyed young Udo Kier displays exactly one expression throughout the film, and it’s humorously ridiculous to hear “sensual music” on the soundtrack every time he sees or interacts with feisty Katarina (who is no great actress, but is appropriately lust-worthy and has fine screen presence). The film’s message — that witch-hunting was deeply corrupt and driven by impulses far removed from religiosity — is well-taken (and likely true), but again, simply a vehicle for scene… after scene… after gratuitous, gory scene… of medieval torture (think stretching racks, Chinese water torture, rape, tongues ripped out, etc.). Naturally, this kind of flick has its fans — but for all other film fanatics it will make for tough viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Nice cinematography and use of outdoor sets

Must See?
Nope. Appropriately listed as Trash in the back of Peary’s book.

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Trouble With Girls, The (1969)

“Stay away from the locals, kiddo. You’re the boss now — don’t forget that.”

Synopsis:
The manager (Elvis Presley) of a travelling Chautauqua show during the 1920s flirts with girls, sings a few songs, and manages various day-to-day concerns while helping to solve the mysterious murder of a local druggist (Dabney Coleman).

Genres:

Review:
Elvis Presley’s next-to-last film was, as Stuart Galbraith writes in his DVD Talk review, “not so much an Elvis movie as a movie with Elvis in it”. He accurately notes that the script is Altman-esque in its meandering focus on various subplots and quirky characters — such as a union-supporting children’s performer (Marlyn Mason) distressed about being asked to cast the mayor’s untalented child instead of the gifted daughter (Anissa Jones) and young friend (Pepe Brown) of a single mom (Sheree North) who’s been carrying on a troubled affair with a slimy pharmacist (Dabney Coleman). Speaking of ‘trouble’, the film’s title (huh?!) makes no sense other than as a false lure for Presley’s fans. North gives a memorable, sympathetic performance as a woman desperate for comfort and relief, but her dramatic role in the film’s final third is ultimately humiliating, and it’s hard to know what to make of the storyline overall.

Note: Watch for (underutilized) cameos by Vincent Price, John Carradine, and ringleted Susan Olson of “The Brady Bunch” fame.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Colorful historic sets

  • Jacques Marquette’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re a Presley completist.

Links:

Humanoids From the Deep (1980)

“It starts out as a fish — but is humanoid in its final stages.”

Synopsis:
In a small fishing town where dogs begin mysteriously dying and a Native American (Anthony Pena) attempts to prevent the imminent arrival of a cannery, a scientist (Ann Turkel) explains to a local fisherman (Doug McClure) and his wife (Cindy Weintraub) that mutant sea monsters are responsible for the killing or raping of numerous teens (including Meegan King, Lynn Schiller, and Lisa Glaser). Can the humanoids be stopped before they ravage the entire town during the annual Salmon Festival?

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Review:
Nearly every review of this Roger Corman-produced horror flick calls out how many other films it either imitates or draws inspiration from — including Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), The Horror of Party Beach (1964), Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), and — in its shock-ending — Alien (1979). It’s beloved by fans of the genre for its no-holds barred treatment of what is only hinted at in all these other films — namely, the rape of nubile, sexually active young women by aliens (yes, that happens here, on-screen). While decent use is made of coastal locales, and a few of the actors put forth reasonable effort, for the most part this film is terribly acted, laughably cliched, and overall simply an exploitative gore-fest. Clearly there’s an audience for all this, but all-purpose film-fanatics needn’t seek it out.

Note: Humanoids…’ female director (Barbara Peeters) is apparently now doing research for a documentary about domestic abuse entitled “Inheritance of Rage”. Go figure.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Good use of on-location shooting

Must See?
Nope — only if this is your cup of tea.

Links:

Say Amen, Somebody (1982)

“When I came up in gospel, we didn’t do concerts — we did revivals.”

Synopsis:
American gospel founders Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith share their histories, talents, and abiding faith in this documentary about the evangelical roots of the musical genre.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of this “warmhearted documentary by George T. Nierenberg about some of the pivotal figures of gospel music”, Peary writes that it’s “wonderfully uplifting seeing aged gospel icons talk about what it means to sing gospel music”, and that “the music’s founding father, the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey — who’s as exciting to watch as Little Richard — and semi-retired Queen of Gospel Willie Mae Ford Smith, give highly spirited performances”. He further adds that it’s “good to see the gospel tradition being carried on by the middle-aged Barrett Sisters and others much younger”, and notes it’s “also interesting to watch revealing interviews and some of the cinema-verite footage showing the performers at home.” However, he argues that “the director doesn’t know how to juxtapose the concert material with the chatter, and the film loses momentum and, amazingly, becomes dull”.

While Peary wishes “the young filmmaker had had a veteran around to help him construct this film better — because the proper footage for a stronger film is there”, the film stands on its own as a uniquely structured ethnographic glimpse. It’s far from linear, but perhaps that’s not a necessity; what we see here is a milieu rather than a history per se (though historical information is woven throughout). Peary writes that “gospel music works when the singers transmit their emotions to their listeners (the church congregation)”, and then complains that “every time we really get into the swing of things and feel intoxicated by the music, Nierenberg pauses for a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter” — however, isn’t that precisely the point? Gospel singers — like all artists — have personal lives and beliefs that are impacted by (and shape) their art, and that’s very nicely highlighted here (particularly in reference to gender roles and expectations). On the other hand, Peary’s right that the film could perhaps have benefited from a bit more focus, simply to help us better understand some of these unique and interesting characters.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine ethnographic footage



  • An interesting glimpse into gender roles and expectations within this historical niche of the gospel world
  • Many rousing musical performances

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly recommended.

Links:

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:

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.

Links:

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 (Don 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:

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)

“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:

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)

“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:

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)

“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:

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: