One Hit Wonders #28: “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles (Atlantic Records 1989)

Thirty years ago, Canadian songstress Alannah Myles glided to #1 on the charts with her sultry hit single”Black Velvet”:

Alannah Myles was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and before breaking through with “Black Velvet” she was fairly well known in her home country, even getting a guest shot as a single young mom on a 1984 episode of the popular Canadian TV show THE KIDS OF DEGRASSI STREET.  When her hit tune stormed the charts, that smoky voice and those sexy good looks catapulted her to stardom, thanks in large part to constant airplay on MTV.

She won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance and three Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent to the Grammies), but her subsequent LP’s and singles went nowhere in America, and just as meteorically as she rose, Alannah Myles tumbled off the radar here. She has retained a fan base in Europe and her native Canada though, and is still making music, which can be found via iTunes if anyone’s interested. Be that as it may, Alannah Myles will always be remembered for “Black Velvet”, a song that still gets airplay today on classic rock stations, a tribute to the guy with “that little boy smile” and “that slow Southern style”…

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #13: Elvis Presley in KID GALAHAD (United Artists 1962)

Let’s face it – with a handful of exceptions, most of Elvis Presley’s  post-Army 1960’s movies are awful. They follow a tried-and-true formula that has The King in some colorful location torn between two (or more!) girls, some kind of vocational gimmick (race car driver, scuba diver), and a handful of forgettable songs. KID GALAHAD is one of those exceptions; although it does follow the formula, it’s redeemed by a stellar supporting cast, a fair plot lifted from an old Warner Brothers film, and a well choreographed and edited final boxing match.

The movie’s very loosely based on 1937’s KID GALAHAD, a boxing/gangster yarn that starred Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Wayne Morris in the role now played by and tailored for Presley. He’s a young man fresh out of the Army (how’s that for typecasting?) who returns to his upstate New York hometown of Cream Valley looking for work as a mechanic. He wanders into in a boxing camp run by glib Gig Young, who has a penchant for betting on horses, and gets roped into being a sparring partner, despite the fact he has little ring experience. Gig throws Elvis to the lions and discovers the kid has a devastating right and so, together with trainer Charles Bronson , begins grooming the naïve youngster for pugilistic stardom.

There are subplots galore, as Gig has run afoul of some crooked fight promoters, and has issues with his ladylove Lola Albright to boot. Gig’s kid sister Joan Blackman (costar of Elvis’ hit BLUE HAWAII) comes to camp to straighten out her brothers finances, and of course falls in love with Presley, to big bro’s displeasure. Trainer/cornerman Bronson has his hands broken before the eve of the big fight by goons, but you just know Presley’s gonna come out on top, and win the girl as well… you do know that, right?

The supporting players make the film a cut above the usual Elvis pic. Gig Young’s fight manager is a smooth-talking hustler, in up to his neck with trouble from both the mob and the feds, and takes gal pal Lola Albright for granted. Young gives a good performance, as does the sexy Lola, an actress who deserved a better career than she had. Charles Bronson was still a second-stringer at the time, and is totally believable as the veteran fight trainer. He and Presley work well in their scenes together; it’s too bad they never costarred again, preferably in a Western (Curse you, Col. Tom Parker!). Joan Blackman, making her second appearance with The King, had a few good roles (GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING, CAREER, TWILIGHT OF HONOR), but like Albright never reached the heights her talent deserved. Some Familiar Faces bobbing and weaving through the plot include Edward Asner , Michael Dante, Richard Devon, Robert Emhardt, David Lewis, Bert Remson, and Roy Roberts.

As for Elvis… well, he’s basically playing Elvis, and as such he’s fine. There are echoes of some of his earlier characters, but after 1960 his screen persona had mellowed. No longer the hot-headed rebel of JAILHOUSE ROCK or KING CREOLE, here he’s just a good ol’ country boy who wants to work on cars, and happens to have a powerful right hook. The songs aren’t all that memorable, but I did like the jaunty “I Got Lucky” (co-written by Ed Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller!) and the wistful “A Whistling Tune”. The boxing scenes were staged by former welterweight turned bit player Mushy Callahan, who plays the referee in Elvis’s big bout with “Sugar Boy Romero”, played by then-current welterweight champ Orlando De La Fuente. And yes, that’s renowned boxing announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. as the ring announcer.

All of this is put together with style by veteran director Phil Karlson , who I’ve discussed several times and whose filmography is worth looking into. KID GALAHAD is the last really good Elvis movie, thanks to that cast and crew, before he settled into the predictable formula for the rest of the 60’s. It’s a pity Col. Parker didn’t let Presley spread his thespic wings, because Elvis coulda been a contender with the right balance of script, cast, and direction. But as they say in Hollywood, that’s show biz.

Happy Birthday Elvis!: THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS (MGM 1969)

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Elvis Aron Presley was born on this date in 1935. The King of Rock’N’Roll got the older generation “All Shook Up” when he burst on the national scene in 1956 with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”. He also made his first film that year, the Western LOVE ME TENDER, and was an immediate box office sensation. His following three films, LOVING YOU, JAILHOUSE ROCK , and KING CREOLE, were well done, but after his stint in the Army, and the success of 1961’s BLUE HAWAII, Presley’s 60’s movies followed a strict formula, thanks to manager Col. Tom Parker, with interchangeable titles like KISSIN’ COUSINS, HARUM SCARUM, and DOUBLE TROUBLE.

By the late 60’s, things had changed. The Beatles  were top of the pops, the psychedelic revolution was in full effect, and Elvis hadn’t had a hit record in a few years. The movies were still profitable, but lacked energy. Presley’s 1968 Comeback TV Special put The King back on his throne, and he ready to move with the times. Reportedly, he was offered the Jon Voight part in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, which the Colonel adamantly refused to let him do, and Glen Campbell’s role in TRUE GRIT, the Colonel again vetoing on the basis of being billed lower than John Wayne (really, Colonel?). One of Elvis’ last movies was THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, a departure from the usual formula casting Presley as the boss of a traveling Chautauqua show in 1927 Iowa.

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Elvis is the white-suited, cigar smoking Walter Hale, leader of the troupe of actors, orators, and musicians who pull into the sleepy town of Radford Center. His “Story Lady” who runs the children’s pageant, Charlene, is a union-advocating proto-feminist, refusing to give the mayor’s daughter the lead, preferring the much-more talented Carol. Carol’s mother Nita is constantly being sexually harassed at work by her druggist boss Wilby, and wants a better life for her kid. Young Betty wants to leave small town life behind too, and is eager to get noticed.

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There’s also an illegal blackjack game going on by the riverbank, run by Chautauqua worker Clarence, and when Wilby gets in a fight after accusing the dealer of cheating, his body’s found floating in the river the next day. Clarence is arrested for murder, but Walter discovers Nita did the deed, and finds a way to help her and profit from it by having her confess before a live audience. Charlene is appalled at his exploitation of her, and Walter’s charlatan attitude in general, and quits the company, but sly Walter figures out a way to get her thrown out of town and back on the train for the next stop.

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Walter Hale is a change of pace role for Elvis, as is the film. He does get to sing, but his musical moments are few and far between. His lead Bible Singer gets ill, so he fills in on the traditional Gospel number “Swing Down Sweet Chariot”. He does a bluesy rendering of “Clean Up Your Own Backyard”, and does an introspective “Alone” at the piano near the end. There’s a few bits and pieces of vocalizing, but mainly Elvis acts, and while Walter Hale’s no Joe Buck or Ranger LaBoeuf, it’s certainly different than his usual leading roles, and Elvis does a fine job.

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Presley’s surrounded by a cast of pros. Marlyn Mason (Charlene) is best known for her TV roles. Sheree North (Nita) was a 50’s starlet in HOW TO BE VERY, VERY POPULAR and THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS, and later appeared as The Duke’s ex-love in THE SHOOTIST Edward Andrews (Walter’s assistant Johnny) is always good. Dabney Coleman’s at his sleazy best as Wilby. Nicole Jaffe (Betty)may not look familiar to you, but you’ll recognize her voice… she’s the voice of Velma from SCOOBY DOO! (Frank Welker, who voiced Fred, is also in the cast) Anissa Jones (little Carol) was Buffy on TV’s FAMILY AFFAIR.

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There are some fun cameos here. Vincent Price plays the erudite Mr. Morality, giving the crowd a lecture on the evils of sin as only Price can. John Carradine pops up as Mr. Drewcolt, a Shakespearian actor (Betty: “Do you think Romeo and Juliet had pre-marital relations?” Drewcolt: “Only in the Des Moines company”). Carradine even gets to recite a snippet of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet”, which must’ve pleased him no end! Joyce Van Patten is comical as distance swimmer Maude, who discovers Wilby’s body.

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THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS is entertaining, though anachronistic in places (all the women wear mini-skirts, for example), a solid comedy-drama that gave Elvis Presley a chance to break out of the formulaic “teen musicals” he was getting too old for anyway. There was one more movie on the way, CHANGE OF HABIT with Mary Tyler Moore, before his film career ended, with only a couple of tour documentaries in the 70’s before his tragic death in 1977 at age 42. Elvis left an indelible mark on the world of music, but in movies only a handful tested his mettle as an actor. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS tries to break the “Elvis movie” mold, and will satisfy even non-Presley fans. Happy birthday, King Elvis, long may you reign!

Happy Birthday America- You Rock!

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It’s the 240th birthday of the United States of America, birthplace of liberty, baseball… and rock and roll! To celebrate, here’s three distinctly AMERICAN artists with some distinctly AMERICAN music!

Let’s start with Grand Funk Railroad, heavy metal forefathers, singing about life on the road with their hard rockin’ 1973 hit “We’re an American Band”:

  

Next, The Charlie Daniels Band doing their 1980 anthem “In America”:

And finally, who better than America’s King of Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley, and his stirring “An American Trilogy” from the 1973 TV special ALOHA FROM HAWAII:

Enjoy your birthday, America! Everyone have a safe and Happy 4th of July!

happy family standing on the hill and watching the fireworks

Rockin’ in the Film World #5: Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK (MGM 1957)

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It’s hard for younger audiences to understand what a truly subversive figure Elvis Presley was in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1960’s he made safe, sanitized films that seem quite tame today, and his later Las Vegas persona has been parodied to death (and indeed, Presley became a parody of himself in the 70’s). But back in the day, Elvis was the original punk rocker, his gyrating hips and perpetual sneer causing quite a scandal among adults brought up on sedate Bing Crosby-type crooners. Teenagers were attracted to this new, rebellious musical style, and Presley became their King. Hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up” topped the charts, and a plethora of rock’n’roll artists jumped on the bandwagon. Elvis had already done two films by the time JAILHOUSE ROCK was released, a triumph of punk attitude about a convict’s rise to the top of the music heap.

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Young hothead Vince Everett (Elvis) kills a man in a bar fight over a woman, getting him ten years in jail for manslaughter. The cocky Vince is schooled in prison life by his cellmate Hunk, an ex-country singer who runs the prison’s black market economy where cigarettes are “the coin of the realm”. Hunk finds out Vince’s a pretty fair singer himself and lands him a spot in the warden’s talent show, being broadcast coast-to-coast to promote a good image. Vince sings “I Want to Be Free” and the jail’s flooded with tons of fan mail. Hunk has it all withheld and concocts a scheme to draw up a 50/50 contract with the brash younger con.

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Eventually Vince is released, and the warden gives him his sacks of mail. Hunk has arranged for Vince to work at the Club LaForito, which turns out to be a sleazy strip joint, whose owner wants him to bar back. He bombs onstage, but PR lady Peggy takes a shine to him, and soon he’s in the studio recording “Don’t Leave Me Now”. Peggy takes Vince to a swanky party hosted by her parents. To say he doesn’t fit in is an understatement, as the guests are discussing the latest in modern jazz. Vince leaves after insulting everyone, and when Peggy follows, he gives her a rough kiss, stating “It’s just the beast in me”.

“Don’t Leave Me Now” becomes a hit, but not for Vince, as the Geneva Records owner steals the arrangement and gives it to his biggest star Mickey Alba. Hotheaded Vince gets hot again and beats the tar out of the weasel. He and Peggy hire a lawyer and begin their own label. Vince records “Treat Me Nice” (one of Presley’s 50’s hits) and go out on the hustle, promoting the disc with DJ’s and stores. The song breaks big, and next thing you know Vince is a national star.

Television comes calling, and Vince is booked to appear in a number titled “Jailhouse Rock”. This is probably Presley’s finest moment in movies, an uptempo rocker set in a cellblock. Elvis choreographed his own dance moves, and though the tune’s a bit Hollywoodized compared to the original recording (adding a con’s chorus and some horns), it captures the spirit of young Elvis Presley at his best:

Success goes straight to Vince’s head. Hunk is released and, learning their jailhouse contract isn’t valid, is made into Vince’s flunky. His womanizing with starlet Sherry Wilson causes a rift between him and Peggy. When Vince wants to sell out his company and leave Peggy in the cold, Hunk loses it. A fight between to the former cellies winds up with Vince getting punched in the throat, unable to breathe. He’s rushed to the hospital with a damaged larynx, and may never sing again. But who are we kidding, of course he does, and we get a happy Hollywood ending with Vince reprising the song “Young and Beautiful”.

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Elvis’s surly demeanor as Vince is right on target. Of all his films, JAILHOUSE ROCK is right up top (along with KING CREOLE and FLAMING STAR ) as showcases for his acting ability. Not only that, he gets to sing some great Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songs. Besides those I mentioned earlier, The King does another of his great rock anthems, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”. The music here’s better than the sappy tunes he sung in his sanitized 60’s films, and only KING CREOLE comes close in the soundtrack department.

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Pretty Judy Tyler (Peggy) was known to 50’s children as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the pioneering TV show HOWDY DOODY. After filming JAILHOUSE ROCK, she and her husband were tragically killed in a car accident, causing Elvis so much grief he never watched this, his best movie. Mickey Shaughnessy (Hunk) was a dependable comic character actor who appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Future Disney star Dean Jones has a role as a friendly DJ, while other Familiar Faces are Vaughn Taylor, Bess Flowers, Percy Helton, Bill Hickman, Donald Kerr , and Glenn Strange. Elvis’s backup band Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana play Vince’s band, aided on keyboards by songwriter Stoller.

Guy Trosper’s screenplay was based on a story by blacklisted former actor Nedrick Young, who would come back the next year working with Stanley Kramer. Director Richard Thorpe was an old MGM warhorse dating back to the 20’s who lensed everything from Tarzan’s swinging adventures to Esther Williams splashtaculars. Producer Pandro S. Berman, another of Hollywood’s old guard, was coaxed into making an Elvis movie by his wife. Berman put his usual care into the production, and came up with another big hit for both the studio and Elvis. Critics of the time ripped JAILHOUSE ROCK apart, but today it’s seen as a milestone of the rock’n’roll movie, and Elvis Presley’s brightest, shiningest moment on the silver screen. Those of you who only think of Elvis as a bloated, jumpsuited Vegas lounge singer need to see JAILHOUSE ROCK to discover why he’s called The King. His loyal subjects (including yours truly) already know.

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 3: Those Swingin’ Sixties!

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The 1960s were turbulent times, and nowhere was that more evident than in the decade’s pop culture. Hair was longer, skirts were shorter, music was louder, and The Silent Majority was pissed! Rock and roll, superspies, and sexual swingers ruled the screen. Here are five short looks at five films from The Swingin’ Sixties:

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VIVA LAS VEGAS! (MGM 1964; director George Sidney)

Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret sing and dance their way through this romp set in America’s gambling capital. Elvis is a race car driver, Ann’s an aspiring singer, and Cesare Danova plays Elvis’s rival on the race track and in Ann’s heart. Veteran musical director Sidney helps make this one of Presley’s better vehicles. Lightweight fluff for sure, but damn entertaining! Fun Fact: Danova was MGM’s first choice to play the title role in their 1959 epic BEN-HUR.

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WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (United Artists 1965; director Clive Donner)

Peter Sellers is a lecherous German psychiatrist, Peter O’Toole a fashion magazine editor who’s irresistible to women, and Romy Schneider is the one girl O’Toole’s in love with in this zany sex farce written by Woody Allen. Woody also makes his screen debut as O’Toole’s pal who also loves Romy. Woody’s his usual neurotic self, and his screenplay skewers his usual targets (relationships, sexual mores, therapy). Still fresh and funny, with songs by Dionne Warwick, Manfred Mann, and that great Tom Jones title tune. Fun Fact: Watch for Richard Burton in a quick cameo at a strip club!

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MODESTY BLAISE (20th Century-Fox 1966; director Joseph Losey)

A colorful but minor spy spoof based on the British comic strip. Thief turned adventuress Modesty Blaise (Monica Vitti) and her partner Willie Garvin (Terence Stamp) are hired by the British Crown to stop a diamond heist by archvillain Gabriel (Dirk Bogarde). Rossella Falk and Clive Reville add to the fun as Gabriel’s criminal cohorts. Campy piece of pop art from overrated director Losey. Bogarde does make a marvelous bad guy, though. Fun Fact: One of only two English speaking films for Italian icon Vitti (the other being 1979’s AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR)

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IN LIKE FLINT (20th Century-Fox 1967; director Gordon Douglas)

More spy camp with supercool James Coburn as superspy Derek Flint. This sequel to OUR MAN FLINT finds our hero battling an organization of females bent on world domination. Lee J. Cobb is back as Lloyd Kramden, head of intelligence agency ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage), and a chance to see him in a comedic role…not to mention in drag! Full of gadgets, girls, and improbable situations, IN LIKE FLINT is okay, but not as good as its predecessor. Fun Fact: The late Yvonne (Batgirl) Craig has a small role as a Russian ballerina/spy.

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THE SWEET RIDE (20th Century-Fox 1968; director Harvey Hart)

THE SWEET RIDE tries to be too many things – a surf movie, a biker flick, a mystery, a love story, a comedy – and fails on all counts. I liked it when I first saw it years ago, but on rewatching, it just didn’t click with me. It does have some good points: Jacqueline Bisset’s hot, Bob Denver’s pretty cool, and psychedelic rockers Moby Grape make an appearance. But Tony Franciosa is just annoying in his role as an overaged tennis bum, and the rest of the cast is so-so, except for the great character actor Charles Dierkop as biker ‘Mr. Clean’. Fun Fact: Dierkop also played the Killer Santa in the exploitation classic SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.

Now here’s a link to  the bombastic Tom Jones singing his hit, the theme from WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?:

https://youtu.be/VBdSqk78nHw

More in the series:

  1. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 1
  2. Cleaning Out The DVR Pt 2

But Could He Act?: Elvis Presley in FLAMING STAR (20th Century Fox, 1960)

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Elvis Presley left this Earthly building on August 16, 1977. The King was undoubtably one of the greatest entertainers of his (or any) generation. He brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream, recorded country and gospel albums, and his stage shows were legendary. The movies, however, were another story. Critics complained about him being a ‘one-note’ actor in a series of formulaic musicals. But Elvis’s early films tell another story. Case in point: the 1960 Western drama FLAMING STAR.

Directed by Don Siegel (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, DIRTY HARRY, THE SHOOTIST), Elvis gives a well-rounded performance as Pacer Burton, a half-breed youth caught in the middle of a war between white settlers and Kiowas in 1878 Texas. Pacer’s father Sam (John McIntire) is white, his mother Neddy (Dolores Del Rio) Kiowa. He has a half-brother, Clint (Steve Forrest), who chooses family over factions. When the neighboring Howard clan is attacked by a Kiowa war party led by bloodthirsty new chief Buffalo Horn (in a pretty violent for its time scene), the local townsfolk shun the Burtons. Buffalo Horn wants Pacer to renounce his white heritage and join with the Kiowas, but the youngster refuses. Neddy and Pacer go to the Indian camp to talk with their relatives, but they’re shunned by the tribe as well.

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When the two are escorted back to their ranch by Pacer’s friend Two Moons, they’re ambushed by the lone Howard survivor, who kills Two Moons and mortally wounds Neddy. The brothers race to town to get a doctor. The townsfolk refuse to help until Pacer grabs the doctor’s little girl and forces the doctor to accompany them. But they arrive too late, as Neddy sees “the flaming star of death”, and wanders outside to die, where she’s found by her husband in a heart wrenching scene well-played by veterans Del Rio and McIntire.

Pacer blames the doctor for wasting time back at town and goes after him with a knife. Clint restrains him, but the headstrong Pacer has had enough. Tired of dealing with white prejudice, he leaves to join the Kiowa, bring the body of Two Moons with him. Pa Burton is killed by marauding Indians, and Clint goes after them alone. He kills Buffalo Horn, but gets shot by arrows. Brother Pacer saves him, hiding him under a tree, and draws the Kiowa away. He ties Clint to a horse and sends him to the white town while vowing to fight the Kiowa alone at their ranch. Later we see Pacer ride into town, bloodied, shot, dying. He too has seen “the flaming star of death”, but wanted to see his brother one last time before going to the hills to die.

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Director Siegel was noted for his violent action movies, and FLAMING STAR doesn’t disappoint. Siegel, who guided young Clint Eastwood early in his career, gets a good performance out of Presley. Elvis shows a wide range of emotion as the conflicted half-breed torn between the whites and the Kiowas. The rawness of his reaction to the death of his mother was probably real, as Elvis’s own mother Gladys had died just two years previous to the making of this movie.

Given a sure-handed director like Siegel, a well written screenplay (by Nunnally Johnson  and Clair Huffaker), and surrounded with seasoned pros like Del Rio, McIntire, and the rest of the cast (Forrest, Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolpho Acosta), Elvis proves he had what it takes to be a fine dramatic actor. In films like this,KING CREOLE, and WILD IN THE COUNTRY, Elvis more than holds his own in the thespic department. It was only later, in fluff like PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE and SPEEDWAY, that The King chose to sleepwalk through his roles. Can you blame him? He must have been bored to death with the lame scripts. It was rumored Presley was up for the part of Joe Buck in 1969’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, but it was nixed by his manager, the carny con man Col. Tom Parker. That’s a shame, because Elvis could’ve done so much more with his film career. At least we’re left with his terrific showing in FLAMING STAR and a handful of others.

Long Live The King!!