Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hail and Happy (Belated) 82nd Birthday to the King :: When the Bikini Met the Beat and Bombed Both On Screen and Off in Arthur Nadel's Clambake (1967)

And you all thought I forgot, right? Think not, says I. For it's that time of year again, where we celebrate my man Elvis Presley’s birthday by throwing Moody Blue on the turntable, frying up a peanut butter and 'nanner sammich, with bacon, and taking a look at one of The Big E’s fractured forays into feature film. And today we’re gonna take a look at Clambake (1967), a film I could’ve sworn I had already seen but, turns out, I had not. And so, we went digging for some clams on a virgin beach but all we really found in the sand was big giant cat turd of a movie. Okay, stop me if you heard this one before:

Scott Heyward (Presley), a Texas good ole’ boy through and through, and son and heir to the Heyward oil fortune, is in the middle of an existential crisis that only those with great wealth can have: do people like him for who he is or do they only like him for his ridiculous net worth and all the crap it buys -- including the pretty boss Corvette Stingray he is currently driving along the Florida coast with no real destination in mind. Stopping for some gas and a burger, Heyward relates his tale of woe to the guy one stool down, telling Tom Wilson (Hutchins) how his father, Duster Heyward (Gregory), had his son’s entire future all planned out, grooming him to take over the family business one day; and how he wanted none of that and basically ran away, wanting to make it on his own.

Wilson, like any normal person, scoffs a bit at this, saying he wishes he had those kind of problems; and if Heyward ever wanted to trade places with him all he has to do is ask. And with that, a light snaps on in young Heyward’s head and he and Wilson conspire to do just that: switch identities, with Heyward taking over Wilson’s position as the new water-skiing instructor at some posh hotel on Miami Beach while Wilson takes up residence at the same hotel in the presidential suite. But Heyward barely has time to stash his borrowed gear before his first lesson commences for impatient guest, Dianne Carter (Fabares). But it soon becomes apparent this was all a ruse by Diane to show off some mad aquatic-skiing skills to draw the eye of James J. Jameson (Bixby), a wealthy young playboy and heir to a female undergarment empire (-- whose brand is so sheer it’s hard to tell where the negligee ends and the skin begins).

Seems Diane is a gold digger, who put herself in hoch for this grand scheme to marry a sugar daddy. And, assuming Heyward is just a beach bum out to accomplish the same thing, she convinces him to help her land this big fish. And while he agrees to this, as their scheme unfolds and appears to be working splendidly, the plan soon develops a fatal hitch when Heyward starts to fall for Dianne himself...

You know, I always forget that “Do the Clam” number isn’t in Clambake. Nope, that belongs to Girl Happy (1965), which I believe I mashed up with Speedway (1968) into a false memory of having seen this film. And while the title song “Clambake” is actually pretty catchy, and the production number surrounding it is pretty keen, there really isn’t a whole lot else to recommend in this thing; a rare outing where Elvis just walked through the production as fast as humanly possible. He’s made overall worse films, sure, but he always appeared game in them -- well, at least professional, and put in the required effort while honoring these obligations. Here, though, it is readily apparent Presley just did not give a single shit about anything and would rather be anywhere else but ‘here’.

The run up to the production of Clambake was kind of a watershed moment in Presley’s life both personally and professionally. On the homefront, under pressure from Colonel Parker, Presley’s impending (and slightly reluctant) marriage to Priscilla was fast approaching. And on top of that, a constant state of depression over his floundering film career and plummeting record sales found a despondent Presley binge-eating, with his weight blooming to over 200lbs. When execs at United Artists got a look at him and his sizeable paunch, with the start of shooting on Clambake mere days away, they ordered him to lose some weight fast and by any means necessary, adding a plethora of diet pills to Presley’s ever-growing drug regimen.

Around this same time Presley purchased and started renovating the Circle G Ranch in Mississippi, and there he found a refuge and embraced the life of a cowboy -- so much so he didn’t want to leave. And for awhile, he didn’t, moving his entire entourage there, installing eight house trailers around a central lake on the property. Ensconced there, he blew off recording sessions for Clambake’s soundtrack, and when the first day of shooting arrived he again tried to postpone the inevitable. But the Colonel, feeling pressure from the studio, told his cash-cow that he would need a “note from a doctor” or he would be in breach of contract. And when his regular doctor proved unavailable, a friend of a friend hooked him up with the notorious Doctor “Nick” Nichopoulos and his endless supply of prescription pads for the first time. Here, Elvis got his note. The cause of distress: saddle sores.

Thus, the production was delayed while Presley malingered on the Circle G. And then it was delayed again after five days of filming for another two weeks when the star, under a haze of prescription medication, suffered a minor concussion when he stumbled and fell in the bathroom and cracked his head on a bathtub. This was the last straw for the Colonel, who came down hard on Presley’s enabling entourage, sending several packing, and banishing Larry Gellar, Presley’s hair dresser and newly minted spiritual guru from the group, whom Parker decried as a distracting nuisance, and requiring a 24-hour watch on his money-maker to make sure something like this never happened again for the duration of the shoot. Alas, the damage had already been done.

Sadly, due to it’s delayed and haphazard shooting schedule, as you watch Clambake unfold it’s easy to spot Presley pre- and post-diet, and it’s quite startling the way some scenes are edited together that include both versions of the character, with some obvious costume and wardrobe changes to hide his girth that magically appears and disappears from scene to scene. This is most evident during the “Confidence” number -- which is essentially “High Hopes” with the serial numbers filed off, resulting in one of thee worst musical numbers ever in a Presley picture, and that is really saying something. And on top of that, there are a ton of scenes, close-ups even, where Presley says his lines and then simply zones out while others gyrate around him.

Not helping matters much is the use and abuse of rear-projection shots and obvious doubles. Technically set in Florida, but, aside from a few stock inserts, the film was shot entirely in California. All of the water-skiing is done against a green screen, as is the majority of the climatic speedboat race, which really derails things as the majority of the live-action second unit location work is really quite good.

But all of that was pretty much for naught as Heyward schemes to win the girl away from Jameson by beating him in the big boat race and dethroning the three-time defending champion. And this he accomplishes all on his own by -- well, having a lot of stuff conveniently fall into his lap, starting with befriending a benevolent boat manufacturer (Merrill), who gives him a derelict speedboat to fix up for free, which he does by sciencing the shit out of some “goop," fixing the fatal flaw in this petroleum extract developed by his father’s company, and uses it as a protective sealant to hold the shambling wreck together until he wins the checkered flag. And with that, he wins the race, the girl, and the respect of his father in one soggy swoop.

One of the few bright spots in the production are Presley’s co-stars. Shelley Fabares leveraged her role in The Donna Reed Show into a singing career, where she scored the hit, “Johnny Angel”, and would eventually star in three Presley pictures: Clambake, Spin-Out (1966), and Girl Happy (1966). She is absolutely adorable, and the scene where she loses her top while trying to impress Jameson is a rare comical highlight in this turgid production. James Gregory is always a welcome sight and does a pretty good job as the one note Duster Heyward. As for Will Hutchins, well, I always felt he looked like one of the Midwich Cuckoos all grown up. He’s fine in small doses, but the film calls on him to carry a lot. Bixby is equally fine and manages to make something out of nothing.

Perhaps director Norman Taurog, who always seemed to coax a performance out of Presley no matter how asinine the premise, might’ve been able to salvage something out of Clambake that Arthur Nadel couldn’t. This time, however, most of the blame, I am sad to report, goes on the disinterested star -- though one cannot really blame him as his film career went up in flames around him.

1967 was a pretty dire year for Presley, cinematically speaking, where his movies hit rock bottom with the rock-stupid Clambake, Double Trouble and Easy Come, Easy Go. When he signed up for Clambake, Presley had accumulated so much debt over fixing up the Circle G that he would’ve done just about anything, which, obviously, came back and bit him in the ass. And with this succession of flops and declining box-office, Clambake would also be the last of Presley’s million dollar paydays -- half of which always went to Parker, whose client, through his own meddling and greed and squandered opportunities, just wasn’t as big an attraction as he used to be. Thus, Clambake was a sign; a sign that Elvis Presley’s movie career was done. It was over. And despite a brief comeback, all the earmarks of the impending disaster to come were slowly clicking into place. And then, it was only a matter of time before everything was over. And over for good. 

Other Points of Interest:

Clambake (1967) Levy-Gardner-Laven :: Rhodes Pictures :: United Artists / P: Arthur Gardner, Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy / AP: Ernst R. Rolf / D: Arthur H. Nadel / W: Arthur Browne Jr. / C: William Margulies / E: Ernst R. Rolf / M: Jeff Alexander / S: Elvis Presley, Shelley Fabares, Bill Bixby, Gary Merrill, James Gregory, Suzie Kaye, Angelique Pettyjohn


Tommy Ross said...

Excellent article! Thanks.

W.B. Kelso said...

Slapped and dashed to within an inch of its life, but I thank you.

Unknown said...

This is my sort of personal story about Elvis. In '63 or '64 my Mother and Father were in Las Vegas, my Dad (an avowed Elvis hater) was playing craps, while my Mom (an at the time closet Elvis fan) was playing slots in either The Riviera or The Sands (when she would tell the story, the site changed over the years, but not the details) As she was playing a one-armed bandit, a young man sat on the stool next to her with a number of people behind him. She looked up and saw it was Elvis. He politely said, "Do you mind if I play next to you?" Awestruck, she just nodded. He put a few quarters in and pulled the handle, and made small talk with my Mom, while reporters clicked photos. My Dad looked up from the craps table, and saw a commotion around my Mom, so he strolled over. About that time the photo session, was over, Elvis stood up, kissed my Mom's hand and handed her his cup of quarters and said, "Good luck." My Mom treasured the moment the rest of her life. My Dad, amazingly said. "I never liked the guy, but let me tell you, He was the best looking SOB I ever saw. The King!

W.B. Kelso said...

Nice! Turns out I have an Elvis Vegas story, too. Well, sort of. One of the worst kept secrets around my family is that I was an unexpected souvenir from the folks' whirlwind trip to Vegas back in 1970, where they saw the Big E in concert and *ahem* celebrated after. All I can say is, damn, glad it was a good show.

Unknown said...

I sometimes forget how young you are, my friend. Suspicious Minds is older than you are.

W.B. Kelso said...

All I know is my Mama Bear still gets the vapors whenever "Kentucky Rain" comes on the radio.

Lacey said...

My first and favorite Elvis film.

And W.B., Kentucky Rain is my favorite Elvis song also.

W.B. Kelso said...

Greetings and salutations and welcome!

For me it's a dogfight between Suspicious Minds and Promised Land. Loves me some big horn era Elvis.

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