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Change of Habit : Elvis’ nadiral farewell to cinema

Nuns and men don’t mix

Change of Habit: A riches of embarrassment.
Change of Habit: A riches of embarrassment.

It has been a year since Erich von Stroheim’s Greed entered the public domain and still the Gods of Cinema remain sound asleep at the switch. More than two-thirds of the legendary 9+ hour epic is forever lost, thanks to the meddlesome intervention of “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production. But even in its current, truncated, 240-minute form, the film’s a jaw-dropper. And yet, to this day, the only worthwhile home video release is a 1990 LaserDisc pressing, while a blu-ray of Change of Habit, Elvis’ nadiral farewell to cinema, has been spruced, goosed, and digitally let loose on Kino Lorber home video. Greed can wait.

Change of Habit (1969)

Elvis stars as John Carpenter, MD, a general practitioner who runs a free clinic in the ghet-to. The understaffed sickbay’s request for assistance is answered in the form of three nuns (Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair, and introducing perky Jane Elliott), cloistered behind civilian garb so as not to reveal their secret identities. Alas, there is someone in Sister Michelle’s (MTM) life other than the ever-concupiscent King, and his name is Jesus.

If the wretched The Trouble With Girls (And How to Get Into It) was his penultimate feature, Presley’s last picture was the howling ultimate in mixed-messaging. Most shocking of all is how much a G-rated film was allowed to get away with in 1969. Sister Michelle says she wants to experience life outside the convent just like other people and Elvis, the doctor with the ice-scraper-shaped sideburns, is poised to give her a crash course in how a chauvinist slobbers. He calls the Sisters “chicks,” and sexual assault is but an occupational hazard. During their job interview, Dr. Elvis cautions that “two of the last three nurses who worked here got raped, one against her will.” Automatically assuming the reason behind their visit is to hire his services as an abortionist, the good doctor sizes the trio up with, “Were you all knocked up by the same guy?“ The bone-headed sawbones even goes so far as prescribing marriage and children to help “turn their hang-ups into something worthwhile.” And it’s not just the new hires that attract Elvis’s attention. He mentally undresses everything in a skirt, and even goes so far as to cop a feel off of a 17-year-old patient.

Nuns and men don’t mix. (Not since The Bells of St. Mary’s had Hollywood tackled a taboo tale of uncloistered courtship with such subtlety and candor.) The issues run deep — autism, drug addiction, sexism, rape, bigotry — but the way in which they’re dealt with never leaves the shallow end of the gene pool. Sister Barbara (Elliott) sexes herself up long enough to get the guys across the street to help her move furniture. Little does she know that the slobs expect a little consensual rape in return for their troubles. When told that daughter Amanda (Lorena Kirk) is autistic, her clueless mom quips, “Artistic? Nah. She don’t even lift up a crayon.” Sister Michelle hears Elvis singing on the way up the steps, and calls his voice “music to exorcize evil spirits by.” A scene in which Elvis and Sister Michelle rely on rage-reduction therapy to help break Amanda like a bucking bronco plays like something out of The Exorcist. (Dr. Elvis can cure autism quicker than Babe Ruth could raise a child from its wheelchair with a, “Hiya, kid!”) And did the 1969 Elvis variant really think he was going to get away with giving Sister Michelle the old arms-around-from-the-back guitar lesson creep?

Veteran character actor Regis Toomey provides many an irreverent sneer as the cantankerous Father Gibbons. One look at the “underground nuns with bobbed hair and silk stockings” and Father Gibbons decries the state of “flappers’ skirts on a bride of Christ who speaks with an arrogant lip.” Racism is presented first in the form of comic relief: McNair is the film’s one bright ray of black power. When a neighbor lady (Doro Merande, her career paved with spinsterish busybodies) spots McNair in the crowd, the cuddly fuddy-duddy is quick to cry “ace of spades.” She later stands up to neighborhood mob enforcer Robert Embardt long enough for heroic Elvis to enter and settle the score with a few haymakers. What would an Elvis vehicle be without a few songs sung and a dozen or so punches thrown? But even with the addition of a few numbers, one can hardly call this a musical. “Rubberneckin,” the show-stopping tune that introduces the audience to Dr. Carpenter, was filmed for an NBC special. (Look carefully in the background and you can see Wall of Sound vocalist Darlene Love.) Elvis was like Popeye, inasmuch as the constant presence of children, particularly in the later features, tended to soften some of the King’s harder edges. The second number comes about an hour in and takes place on a kiddie carousel. The violently insane melange of aimless zoom shots will leave you, well, rubbernecked.

Astonishingly, apart from future sequel assignee William Graham (he went on to direct Sounder, Part 2 and Return to the Blue Lagoon), the technical specs boast a pair of personal deities. Dare I say that at some point in our collective upbringing, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (the creative forces behind such quality family entertainment as Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters) have touched the lives of every American TV viewer? Acting as producer, Connelly flew solo here for the first time since pairing with Mosher. And what can be said of Technicolor sculptor Russell Metty (Written on the Wind, Touch of Evil) other than he was the best DP in the business? Suffice it to say, their contributions are not of particular importance when the one calling the shots was Presley’s manager and notorious skinflint, Col. Tom Parker. And don’t get your hopes up: Sister Tyler Moore and a cop played by Ed Asner never share screen time together.

We close in church, with Elvis hypnotizing the crowd with a blast of gospel. The cross-cutting between sister Michelle, Elvis, and the baby Jesus make for a perfect curtain ringer. See it once and you’ll be back for more. This is one Habit that’s hard to break.

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Change of Habit: A riches of embarrassment.
Change of Habit: A riches of embarrassment.

It has been a year since Erich von Stroheim’s Greed entered the public domain and still the Gods of Cinema remain sound asleep at the switch. More than two-thirds of the legendary 9+ hour epic is forever lost, thanks to the meddlesome intervention of “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg, MGM’s head of production. But even in its current, truncated, 240-minute form, the film’s a jaw-dropper. And yet, to this day, the only worthwhile home video release is a 1990 LaserDisc pressing, while a blu-ray of Change of Habit, Elvis’ nadiral farewell to cinema, has been spruced, goosed, and digitally let loose on Kino Lorber home video. Greed can wait.

Change of Habit (1969)

Elvis stars as John Carpenter, MD, a general practitioner who runs a free clinic in the ghet-to. The understaffed sickbay’s request for assistance is answered in the form of three nuns (Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair, and introducing perky Jane Elliott), cloistered behind civilian garb so as not to reveal their secret identities. Alas, there is someone in Sister Michelle’s (MTM) life other than the ever-concupiscent King, and his name is Jesus.

If the wretched The Trouble With Girls (And How to Get Into It) was his penultimate feature, Presley’s last picture was the howling ultimate in mixed-messaging. Most shocking of all is how much a G-rated film was allowed to get away with in 1969. Sister Michelle says she wants to experience life outside the convent just like other people and Elvis, the doctor with the ice-scraper-shaped sideburns, is poised to give her a crash course in how a chauvinist slobbers. He calls the Sisters “chicks,” and sexual assault is but an occupational hazard. During their job interview, Dr. Elvis cautions that “two of the last three nurses who worked here got raped, one against her will.” Automatically assuming the reason behind their visit is to hire his services as an abortionist, the good doctor sizes the trio up with, “Were you all knocked up by the same guy?“ The bone-headed sawbones even goes so far as prescribing marriage and children to help “turn their hang-ups into something worthwhile.” And it’s not just the new hires that attract Elvis’s attention. He mentally undresses everything in a skirt, and even goes so far as to cop a feel off of a 17-year-old patient.

Nuns and men don’t mix. (Not since The Bells of St. Mary’s had Hollywood tackled a taboo tale of uncloistered courtship with such subtlety and candor.) The issues run deep — autism, drug addiction, sexism, rape, bigotry — but the way in which they’re dealt with never leaves the shallow end of the gene pool. Sister Barbara (Elliott) sexes herself up long enough to get the guys across the street to help her move furniture. Little does she know that the slobs expect a little consensual rape in return for their troubles. When told that daughter Amanda (Lorena Kirk) is autistic, her clueless mom quips, “Artistic? Nah. She don’t even lift up a crayon.” Sister Michelle hears Elvis singing on the way up the steps, and calls his voice “music to exorcize evil spirits by.” A scene in which Elvis and Sister Michelle rely on rage-reduction therapy to help break Amanda like a bucking bronco plays like something out of The Exorcist. (Dr. Elvis can cure autism quicker than Babe Ruth could raise a child from its wheelchair with a, “Hiya, kid!”) And did the 1969 Elvis variant really think he was going to get away with giving Sister Michelle the old arms-around-from-the-back guitar lesson creep?

Veteran character actor Regis Toomey provides many an irreverent sneer as the cantankerous Father Gibbons. One look at the “underground nuns with bobbed hair and silk stockings” and Father Gibbons decries the state of “flappers’ skirts on a bride of Christ who speaks with an arrogant lip.” Racism is presented first in the form of comic relief: McNair is the film’s one bright ray of black power. When a neighbor lady (Doro Merande, her career paved with spinsterish busybodies) spots McNair in the crowd, the cuddly fuddy-duddy is quick to cry “ace of spades.” She later stands up to neighborhood mob enforcer Robert Embardt long enough for heroic Elvis to enter and settle the score with a few haymakers. What would an Elvis vehicle be without a few songs sung and a dozen or so punches thrown? But even with the addition of a few numbers, one can hardly call this a musical. “Rubberneckin,” the show-stopping tune that introduces the audience to Dr. Carpenter, was filmed for an NBC special. (Look carefully in the background and you can see Wall of Sound vocalist Darlene Love.) Elvis was like Popeye, inasmuch as the constant presence of children, particularly in the later features, tended to soften some of the King’s harder edges. The second number comes about an hour in and takes place on a kiddie carousel. The violently insane melange of aimless zoom shots will leave you, well, rubbernecked.

Astonishingly, apart from future sequel assignee William Graham (he went on to direct Sounder, Part 2 and Return to the Blue Lagoon), the technical specs boast a pair of personal deities. Dare I say that at some point in our collective upbringing, Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (the creative forces behind such quality family entertainment as Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters) have touched the lives of every American TV viewer? Acting as producer, Connelly flew solo here for the first time since pairing with Mosher. And what can be said of Technicolor sculptor Russell Metty (Written on the Wind, Touch of Evil) other than he was the best DP in the business? Suffice it to say, their contributions are not of particular importance when the one calling the shots was Presley’s manager and notorious skinflint, Col. Tom Parker. And don’t get your hopes up: Sister Tyler Moore and a cop played by Ed Asner never share screen time together.

We close in church, with Elvis hypnotizing the crowd with a blast of gospel. The cross-cutting between sister Michelle, Elvis, and the baby Jesus make for a perfect curtain ringer. See it once and you’ll be back for more. This is one Habit that’s hard to break.

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Comments
4

Yikes. I don't want NUN of this misogynistic mishmash movie, not even 10 minutes! At least Elvis didn't get into any nun's habit! :-/ That sneaky ex-Dutchman [real name was Andreas van Kuijk] Col. Parker would have sold BBQ dog turds for a living if he hadn't jumped ship to get into America, and later enter the carny biz.

Jan. 13, 2022

I'll be with you in spirit at this weekend's screening of "Elvis."

June 23, 2022

I was planning to go, because I thought it was a bio pic about Elvia Costello [real name Declan Patrick Aloysius Macmanus]. What a disappointment. And Isn't it time for ANOTHER "A Star is Born" movie? It's coming! Starring Taylor Swift and Benedict Cumberbatch, it will be viewable only on Paramount+. Cumberbatch was chosen not based on his amazing movies but rather by his smash appearance on SNL. Who knew he could be so funny? I laughed my nards off.

June 26, 2022

"Elvis" called on account of Covid. It couldn't have happened at a better time. The aches and fever passed in two days. And TBH, I've yet to see Gaga's Blodgett. Something about it is unclean.

June 27, 2022

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