Saturday, April 21, 2018

It Happened at the World's Fair

It Happened at the World's Fair (Norman Taurog, 1963) I'm something of a lunkhead about Elvis Presley, even though I grew up in the Elvisian Era.  Fact is, I was born into the Presley presence—he was a fact of life and nothing revolutionary to me, and by the time I was actually cognizant of him, aware, he had moved on from being a rock n' roll revolutionary to being something of a lounge lizard. He'd evolved on to the Hollywood Elvis period, where there was less emphasis on picking good material and taking chances and more on banking on his success and name recognition, while also taking the edge off his persona to be more acceptable to "Mom and Dad America." The films started out somewhat inspired, even special, then settled into a pattern of sticking the King into formula scenarios pulled from the screenwriters' template that had the feel (and factory precision) of romance novels. They did the job, but had all the nutritional and aesthetic value of a TV-dinner, circa 1960.
Culturally, the U.S. had swiveled away from mambo (Castro's overthrow of Cuba being the main reason, as well as the inevitable momentum of faddishness) and gone Polynesian—the American Eagle had sunk its claws into Hawaii permanently, folding it into statehood, and Tiki had started to invade American dens and Trader Vic's was the big restaurant. At the same time, Seattle was looking to the future, Sputnik having launched America's fledgling space program into a panicky orbit, and the plastic revolution bombarding American kitchens. City fathers (one of whom was my father's employer) started a campaign to bring another World's Fair to the home of Boeing (its first being the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in 1910—on the site of what is now the University of Washington). This one would be more forward thinking, embracing science and technology, and the 1962 Seattle World's fair was dubbed "Century 21." It was surprisingly successful, managing to turn the city's "Warren Avenue slum" where the Armory was housed into a central hub of the downtown era...and—a rarity for World's Fairs—turn a profit.
The organizers were particularly good at attracting celebrities and entertainers to the Fair, and only the Cuban Missile Crisis kept President Kennedy from officiating over the closing ceremonies. They even managed to make a movie deal with M-G-M for Elvis to make a movie, no doubt paying the studio a handsome sum for the privilege, while also getting some of the corporate sponsors of the Fair to contribute towards the film (probably the reason why G-M's "car of the future" figures so prominently in the film—for no apparent reason). If it was to promote tourism and the Fair, they might have worked out the timeline a little better—The film opened in April of 1963, six months after it had closed!
It Happened at the World's Fair (It's rather tough to determine what "it" is) is a fairly lousy Presley programmer, short of plot (Elvis is a pilot of a crop-duster, in partnership with Gary Lockwoodand gambling debts force them to try and raise money to buy their plane "Bessie" back) but it's the gristliest of connective tissue between songs that were barely charting and love scenes for the fans. Director Norman Taurog was an efficient, if uninspired, director who moved from silent pictures through studio series—his peak years were directing the Martin and Lewis comedies before Lewis got the directing bug—who could be counted on to bring things in on-time and under-budget. He was good at logistics, and managed to keep the studio accountants happy that his films were managed enough to be able to make a profit at the box-office. And his experience with comedies made him a good candidate for making things light and airy and moving fast.
Which is what this one needed. Seeing it as a kid, I thought it was the dullest thing in the world and needed more shots of The Space Needle and, frankly, The Fair. Seeing it as an adult is a grim experience when noting that your tastes haven't changed much. There are faint flashes of wit once in awhile, but it goes without for long stretches of obvious, perfunctory film-making. But, face it, the thing was a commercial enterprise that had outlived its usefulness except to sell records for M-G-M, rather than break them.  It does have one oddity worth noting for trivialists: in the role of a kid who kicks Elvis in the shins (to fake an injury to see a pretty nurse) is Kurt Russell, who would play Presley in John Carpenter's biographical film (produced by the late Dick Clark, by the way).

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