Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It Feels So Right: Elvis Presley in Tickle Me (1965)

Of the 32 films Elvis Presley shot between 1956 and 1969 none are quite as strange as the oddly effective Tickle Me (1965), the one picture in Presley’s filmography that can be viewed as a deliberate parody of the typical 'Elvis Movie'. Tickle Me is a deliciously sly and wickedly funny film that takes the Elvis film formula and turns it up to eleven.

Elvis plays Lonnie Beale, an injured rodeo rider who makes cash on the side playing his songs in whatever roadside dive will have him. Lonnie’s freewheeling life takes an unexpected turn when he lands a job at an all-female spa designed to turn out of shape starlets into sex-bomb glamour queens. Things get even weirder when Lonnie gets involved with a beautiful instructor named Pam, who is searching for some hidden gold her Grandfather left in a local ghost town called Silverado.

Author Bill Bram notes in the excellent Elvis in Tickle Me book from JAT Publishing that Tickle Me was designed as a vehicle to save the nearly bankrupt Allied Artists, an independent Distribution and Production Company that had been active since the forties. After an incredibly prolific and successful run in the fifties, things had begun to dry-up for Allied Artists and they hadn’t had a hit since Billy Budd in 1962. Producer Ben Schwalb was convinced that a quickie Presley picture could give Allied Artists the profit-making film they so desperately needed and he approached Colonel Tom Parker about the possibility in late 1964.

It has often been reported that Tickle Me was made possible by the fact that Parker and Presley took a major pay-cut to make the film for Allied Artists but Bram dismisses this as “unlikely”. Instead Parker helped the company cut-costs with the novel idea of using previously released Elvis songs for the soundtrack instead of commissioning, and producing, new ones. This, combined with the fact that the film would be shot in less than a month on a shoe-string budget, allowed Allied Artists to get their Presley picture and save their company in the process.

Elvis wasn't the only major icon Allied Artists had in mind for Tickle Me, a slapstick comedy based on an original script from former Three Stooges writers Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds, as the idea of bringing Brigitte Bardot on board had been seriously approached. Sadly Bardot simply was not interested in coming to America to make a film, so Schwalb got the idea to cast a young up and coming actress who had been christened ‘The British Bardot’ to play Elvis’ love-interest and stunning Jocelyn Lane was cast as Elvis' leading lady.

Unforgettable Jocelyn Lane remains a bit of an enigma in the realms of sixties cinema. Austrian born, but British raised, Lane should have without question become one of the biggest stars of the era but, by the early seventies, her film career was over after she married a Spanish Prince! Tickle Me remains one of the most well-known films in Lane’s career and she is a real stunner in it. Sexy and witty with a detachment that might be mistaken for snobbishness if she wasn’t so damned charming, Lane was one of Elvis’ great, if often unheralded, co-stars and the two got along well on the set (and were even rumored to have briefly dated according to some of the vintage articles uncovered in Elvis in Tickle Me).

While it is hard to take your eyes off Jocelyn Lane (and, of course, Elvis) while watching Tickle Me another great icon is also on board for the fun. Playing the head of the all-girl ranch is none other than beloved genre-icon Julie Adams, captured here just over a decade after her timeless turn opposite The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Elvis in Tickle Me) publisher Joe Tunzi located some splendid pictures of a laughing Adams and Presley behind the scenes of Tickle Me and Adams apparently had a great time making the film and working with Presley, whom she would later recall did everything “beautifully” during the shoot.

Bill Bram writes in Elvis in Tickle Me that the set was, “very easy going and relaxed” and that comes through while watching the film, as it is so delightfully breezy and fun. It’s the one film in Elvis’ career where he was allowed to poke fun at his, at times, slightly ridiculous screen persona. Former Martin and Lewis director Norman Taurog even allows Elvis to give a sly look directly at the audience at a couple of different times during the film; breaking that fourth wall with a daring admission of silliness thereby allowing the audience to know that he and Elvis are, this time at least, in on the joke. Tickle Me is downright subversive at points with its ramshackle structure (I have always suspected the script was written to correspond to pre-existing sets Allied Artists already had) and its devil-may-care attitude. Hell, the damn thing features songs, fights, bikini-clad beauties, a fantasy western sequence and a haunted house! In other words, it has everything a lover of lightweight sixties cinema could ask for.

Bram credits a good part of the good-natured fun at the center of Tickle Me to Michael Hoey, a writer who was on set the whole time working with the dialogue and story. Credit also goes to Presley himself, who was such a wonderfully intuitive actor in the first-place, as he improvised throughout the film. The wonderful Kentucky born Ed Faulkner, who would tell Bram that working with Elvis was, “one of the highlights” of his career recalled that Taurog, “knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it out of his actors”, and Elvis delighted in playing the straight man to the insanity around him.

Perhaps the most genius thing about Tickle Me is Colonel Parker’s original suggestion that they pick some relatively unknown Elvis songs to use as the film’s soundtrack. Parker, who made a lot of awful choices regarding Elvis’ career in the sixties especially, really hit gold with this idea and the soundtrack for Tickle Me is nothing short of extraordinary. The nine songs chosen for the film (including “It’s a Long Lonely Highway”, Night Rider” and “It Feels So Right”) are all masterful works and they bring a real spark to the musical sequences in the film. Elvis is still clearly enjoying himself here (compare the way he looks and acts here to his performances in Paradise Hawaiian Style and Clambake just a couple of years later) and he would eventually call Tickle Me one of his favorites in the uber-personal Elvis on Tour (1972).

While it certainly didn’t capture audiences the way Viva Las Vegas had a year before in 1964, Tickle Me was hit with audiences (and even some critics) when it premiered at the end of June 1965. Armed with an aggressive and fun Allied Artists advertising campaign (theaters were sent colorful tickle feathers with the press materials), Tickle Me scored with fans who saw it for what it was, a smart comedy that delighted in being as silly as it could possibly be.

Elvis Presley’s film career would sadly slip badly by the end of 1965 and it wouldn’t be until 1968’s wonderful Live a Little, Love a Little that it would begin to creatively spark again but, by then, it was too late as dreadful works like Easy Come, Easy Go and Double Trouble (both 1967) had already done too much damage. Tickle Me was a relatively forgotten film in Elvis' catalogue up until its DVD release a few years back.
While there are certainly a number of Elvis films I value more, I highly recommend Tickle Me for fellow lovers of Elvis Presley who perhaps haven't seen it, or to films fans who have a love of lightweight comedies of the sixties that served up equal helpings of goofiness and subversion.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Mod Squad (Episode 17) "Fear is the Bucking Horse"

First off, a quick thank you to the several folks who left comments and sent emails asking me to continue this series. I have really appreciated hearing from folks who have dug these posts and I am sorry it has taken me awhile to write a new one.

The Story: When a former cowboy star's life is put in danger by a crazed sniper, Pete, Linc and Julie go undercover as hired rodeo-hands to protect him.

The Crew: The best thing "Fear is the Bucking Horse" has going for is the fact that director George McCowan is back on board for it. One of eleven episodes directed by the future director of the cult-classic Frogs (1972), "Fear is the Bucking Horse" is an extremely well-directed hour of television and it stands (technically at least) as one of the more stylish episodes of season one. Sadly McCowan is let down by a lackluster script credited mainly to Tony Barrett.

The Guest-Stars: "Fear is the Bucking Horse" might not be one of season one's stronger episodes but the supporting players are fine. Ed Begley makes an appearance as does the always terrific (and quite prolific) character actor Monte Markham. Former member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, Ross Elliott, who shot this just before he began appearing regularly on Ironside, is also on hand and he is his usual splendid self. Film and television actor Richard Karlan also appears as does stunt-man extraordinaire Chris Howell. The instantly recognizable television player Nina Shipman can also briefly be seen for those on the look-out.

The Verdict: Outside of some nice directorial touches by McCowan, "Fear is the Bucking Horse" is kind of a blah episode. Linc's undercover role as a rodeo clown is a bit cringe-inducing and, even though Tige Andrews looks like he is having a blast, few needed to see Captain Greer in Cowboy gear. Still, it is nice to see Peggy Lipton on horseback, as she projects an obvious ease (and looks smashing), and the episode is finally not a bad way to spend an hour. One wishes though that the script would have been a bit more interesting (or humorous) considering the slightly laughable circumstance our Squad find themselves in.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peace Go with You, Brother: Gil Scott-Heron R.I.P.

Earlier today I heard the terrible news that one of my favorite artists and major heroes, Gil Scott-Heron, had passed away at the age of sixty-two. I was first introduced to the music of Scott-Heron a decade or so ago, and since then he has become one of my great artistic and life inspirations. The hours upon hours I have spent absorbing his ideas, via the grooves of the records I have collected, have been so extremely valuable to me. With Gil, I found a voice that expressed so much of the frustration and pain I have felt in my own life, as well as the sense of hope, strength and vitality that I have always strived for. His words mirrored my own strong liberal beliefs and rage at the systems in place that I feel on a daily basis. Gil Scott-Heron was one of America’s bravest and most daring icons, as well as being one of the most important, trailblazing and vital artists we have ever known.

Like many of my major musical heroes, ranging from Lou Reed to Bobby Womack to John Cale, the record sales of Gil Scott-Heron never matched the huge influence he had on those who followed. To say that Scott-Heron belonged to a generation of vital voices that has been routinely capitalized on, and flat-out ripped off, is an understatement. Artists without even a fourth of the vision Scott-Heron possessed built a career on the strides he made, and for a lot of younger folks I am sure the name Gil Scott-Heron has, thus-far, probably proven elusive.

Along with being one of our most gifted lyricists, Gil Scott-Heron was also one of American music's most consistently dangerous artists. While many of the rappers that Scott-Heron has inspired over the years have spent most of their lives attempting to cultivate a rebellious spirit, Gil was the real deal…he was an angry and provocative poet who stood as one of the most genuine ‘protest’ singers America ever had. From relatively well-known compositions like "The Revolution Will be Televised" to "The Bottle" to "We Almost Lost Detroit" to angry epics like the lesser-known "B-Movie" (one of the most brutal and dead-on indictments of the Reagan administration ever layed down on vinyl), Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t afraid to question and he wasn’t afraid to piss people off. His best work, some of it recorded four decades ago, now sounds like a clear warning against the conservative minded powers that have all but ruined America.

Perhaps the thing I most valued about Gil Scott-Heron was that his biting honesty didn’t end at the corruption around him, as he never let himself off the hook. Like John Lennon, Scott-Heron had an unnerving way of facing his own demons with his work and anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and perhaps not recognized the person staring back will find major solace in the grooves of albums like Pieces of a Man, Moving Target and I’m New Here.

Gil Scott-Heron was far too young to leave this planet and his most recent work showed him as an artist with still so much to give. For anyone who is perhaps not familiar with his work, I highly recommend searching out the following albums to have your mind expanded and blown:

Pieces of a Man
Winter in America
The First Minute of a New Day
From South Africa to South Carolina

Those are just six of his greatest albums, although any that you can track down can be life-altering. Gil Scott-Heron was also an award-winning novelist, with his first work The Vulture being particularly brilliant. For those who wish to see live footage of Gil defiantly check out Robert Mugge’s terrific Black Wax from 1982, where you can witness Scott-Heron during one of his more biting if less known periods. Also, seek out Scott-Heron’s legendary stand on Saturday Night Live (with Richard Pryor hosting) where he unleashed his extraordinary "Johannesburg". Sadly, the No Nukes concert film (in which my favorite song from Gil, "We Almost Lost Detroit", played such a pivotal role) is way out of print.

2011 has been a rough year that has seen so many of our great artists and icons fall. For me the loss of Gil Scott-Heron is the absolute worst, as we so need an artist willing to compromise his commercial viabilty (and even personal well-being) to fight the good fight. Gil Scott-Heron wasn't just a poet, he was a fucking warrior who possessed the rare capability of pointing out what is wrong with our society, as well as offering up solutions to save it.

I loved the man, his music and his spirit and mourn the fact he is no longer with us.