Quick, Presley, the needle!
Aunt Fay had the hots for Elvis, and little Scotty loved going to the movies. So it was that many a Saturday afternoon found us hopping the 96 Lunt Ave. bus to Chicago’s Adelphi Theatre where we would spend hours basking in the presence of the King. Between Roustabout and Speedway, Fay dragged me to every Elvis release with the exception of one: we stayed away from Stay Away, Joe. The fascination was all hers; I was in it strictly for the hot buttered corn.
Given the constant exposure at such a tender age, one would half expect Elvis to have left an indelible imprint similar to those planted by Groucho, Bugs, Jerry, and Larry (Fine). Forget it. Fickle Fay lost interest after Clambake. When it comes to Presley, I side with noted American mass murderer Richard Speck who told a Chicago newspaper, “If Little Richard or Chuck Berry were white, we wouldn’t be calling Elvis Presley the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
With the exception of a few films (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Kid Galahad, and Scorsese’s montage wizardry on Elvis on Tour), the term “Elvis picture” holds the same critical cache as a Blondie or Bowery Boys sequel. At least Columbia’s Blondie series came complete with Three Stooges sound effects. I could stand a few “UHHHS!“ to punctuate the pervasive fistfights that eat up almost as much screen time as the musical numbers.
The Unisphere was calling. I begged my parents to make the 1964 World’s Fair our summer vacation destination. Dad responded with, “I’ll take you to Shopper’s World, is that fair?” (Now you know from whom I inherited my rapier wit.) The fleeting fascination began with a “comic souvenir” documenting The Flintstones visit to the 1964 World’s Fair. Not since Sherlock Holmes boarded a propaganda powered time machine to do battle against the Nazis had the entertainment industry been rocked by a metachronism such as this.
The idea was the brainchild of former governor of Washington, Albert Rosellini, who pitched the concept of Elvis and the Fair to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer execs. Elvis had the looks and the voice, but Helen Keller would have picked better scripts for him than manager/goniff, Col. Tom Parker. Since they couldn’t bring the World’s Fair to Elvis, much of the “location work” was done in Culver City. This is instantly made clear during the credit sequence when the lovely open-air second unit work is jarringly intercut with claustrophobic studio inserts of Elvis piloting a mock cockpit while crooning the opening tune.
Elvis plays crop duster jockey Mike Williams. Clad in a leather jacket and butch flyer's cap, the King looks more like the Queen ready to disco the night away at the The Cockpit on Little Santa Monica. Mike has to save up enough dough to prevent the bank from repossessing Bessie, his beloved bi-plane, but Mike squanders his earnings on “duds and dames.“ Mike’s partner, Danny Burke (Gary Lockwood), is an inveterate gambler who absconds with the company’s savings the moment the big dumb hillbilly’s back is turned. Fortunately for Danny, he is a master in the art of sycophancy and, not unlike Elvis’ Memphis Mafia, Mike keeps him around as part of his entourage.
Elvis consults with director Norman Taurog
There are plenty of chicks to keep Mike happy and director Norman Taurog’s anamorphic coverage of the love scenes proves him to be the anti-Minnelli. (Vincent, not Liza.) Those unfamiliar with the term “TV-safe compositions” need look no further than Taurog for enlightenment. He couldn’t stick two characters any closer together at the center of a Panavision frame if he used Crazy Glue. There is enough extra side space to park two grip trucks! IMDB credits a whopping 179 features and shorts to his name. Taurog was best known for Boy’s Town and its mind-stultifying sequel in addition to a handful of lesser Martin & Lewis vehicles. He was the recipient of two, count ’em, two Academy Awards (Skippy and Boy’s Town). Further proof, as if any is needed, of Academy dispensibility.
After a quick perusal of his little black book, Mike decides to pay a call on a pre-Batgirl Yvonne Craig. One of the film’s biggest inadvertent laughs is the casting of the generally compliant Olan Soule in the role of her rifle-toting father. This goober could barely figure out the logistics of sexual intercourse, let alone produce a child as fine as Craig. The ensuing musical number — Mike serenades the comely Craig while chasing her around the living room — is as fine an example of the Taurog touch.
Thanks to Danny’s gambling debts, the Sheriff marks time on the runway while waiting to attach Bessie. With only a guitar and garment bag to their names, Danny and Mike exercise their hitchhiker’s thumbs and in no time flag a ride on a produce van containing Sue-Lin (Ginny Tiu) and her know-nothing Uncle Walter (Kam Tong). For ease of plot convenience, they just happen to be heading to the World’s Fair!
Something’s not right about this kid and her uncle. She wears more rogue than a Chicken Ranch strumpet and is instantly attracted to Mike. This fresh off the boat peon would trade his poor niece for a sack of rice. Study Taurog’s direction of Ginny as she sits between Mike and Danny listening to them talk. Imagine a kid watching a tennis match in slow-motion.
Dumbsock Uncle Walter drives all the way to Seattle only to make a phone call and have to turn around to do a “special job” for an “important customer.” And Sue-Lin did so want to ride the monorail. Wait a minute! Here’s an idea: Why not leave your eight-year-old niece in the care of two flyboy greaseballs you just met? Didn’t he hear what happened to Elvis’ pet chimpanzee?
Mike and the kid take us on a panoramic tour that’s part historical artifact, part travelogue, and all picture-postcard views, and for five minutes the film comes to life. After plying the girl with an eggroll and a slice of pepperoni, Mike rushes her to the dispensary where he meets nurse Diane Warren (Joan O’Brien). What a stiff! She worked for Blake Edwards (Operation Petticoat), Frank Tashlin (It’$ Only Money), and The Duke (The Alamo), and yet I still couldn’t pick O’Brien out of a lineup.
"Rock-A-Hula-Baby" Elvis Presley
A wide-angle unbroken take filmed from inside the monorail during the “magic hour” sets the scene for one of the laziest musical numbers on record. Sue-Lin lies passed out in a food-induced coma between a huge red stuffed dog and Mike. Elvis doesn’t even bother singing this one. His lips remain still as telepathic viewers study with rapt ardor as the song runs through his head. For a moment I thought the plush pooch was a ventriloquist. Another comatose number, “One Broken Heart for Sale,” shows Mike walking around a trailer park entertaining the trash.
Uncle Walter — who probably spent his afternoon violating the Mann Act — waits for them at the foot of the elevated railway to claim his dead-to-the world niece. Without Sue-Lin or the Fair to look at, the experience begins to resemble something akin to skiing through wet cement.
Elvis gets a kick out of Kurt Russell
There is one intriguing bit of trivia I'm obliged to pass on. This was the first of three features to permanently join the King and Kurt Russell together at the hip. On screen for all of two minutes, It Happened at the World's Fair marked Russell‘s screen debut. He is assigned the enviable task of running up to Mike and kicking him in the shin. Years later Russell said that he didn't want to give Elvis the boot and that the King paid him five dollars to do so.
Russell went on to portray the King in John Carpenter’s TV biopic Elvis as well as an Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland. The latter spoofs It Happened at the World's Fair when a young boy runs on screen and kicks Russell (clad in full Elvis attire) in the shin.
There’s a rear-projection pedicab ride that forces perspective down our throats. A romantic dinner atop a studio duplicate of the Space Needle’s revolving soup kitchen is quickly shattered when Russell reenters the picture and blows Mike’s cover. Mike then proceeds to walk from one side of the bed to the other as he sings Sue-Lin (and the audience) to sleep.
Come the dawn and Sue-Lin overhears Danny’s suggestion that they deposit the kid with a social worker and split. Pressing her face against a space heater fools Mike into thinking Sue-Lin has a fever. It also advances the romantic subplot when she tricks the dupa into phoning the Mount Sinai wing of the World‘s Fair to summon what appears to be the only nurse on call in all Seattle. By the time Diane arrives, Sue-Lin is medium rare. After putting the cutie pie to bed, Diane smokes, Mike sings, and together they walk no more than ten paces across the porch. Elvis didn’t want to needlessly exert himself.
With Walter still out of the picture, Mike dispels any notion of Sue-Lin missing her uncle with a quick reassurance that she now has new friends who will look after her. To prove it to her, Mike walks around the trailer singing. Danny gets a paying gig and it‘s time for Mike to strap on a parachute and once again take to the air. One catch: they‘ll be transporting err…uhh…freight for the nefarious Vince Bradley (H.M. Wynant).
Florence Nightingale blows the whistle on the boys. Enter Miss Ettinger (Dorothy Green), the Elvira Gulch in the piece. She’s a willowy, Chesterfield-marinated spinster from the Child Welfare Board who appears to dine on little Asian girls for breakfast. At least the old Prop 8 denouncer adds a hint of chlorophyll to the conversation by pointing out that it’s wrong for a little girl to be living in a trailer with two unemployed bachelors. With visions of internment camps looming in her head, Sue-Lin’s ensuing escape fills Mike with righteous indignation, thus allowing Elvis a shot at some real acting.
So what is it exactly that Vince is trafficking in? Drugs? Munitions? Human lives? No. A bunch of mangy animal pelts. BFD! Uncle Walter stands guilty of worse crimes starting with child abandonment and endangerment, but as we'll soon learn the old buzzard was hospitalized after his truck skidded out of control and went into the Sound.
The snapcases of Tickle Me and Speedway remain un-cracked and will probably stay that way for some time to come. Over 50 years since its release, and still nothing’s happened at the World's Fair.