Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fun In Acapulco (1963, Richard Thorpe)

This late in Hal Wallis's formulaic musical-comedies as a serious business, there was no question that he was in it for the money.  The Beatles, who happened to catch a screening of Fun In Acapulco at a Miami drive-in on their first U.S. tour, later asked Elvis, when they met him in 1965, if he was working on new ideas for his next movie.  "I sure am. I play a country boy with a guitar who meets a few gals along the way, and I sing a few songs."  He and the Colonel laughed before explaining to John Lennon that the only time they strayed from this formula (Wild In The Country), they lost money.

This, of course, is gross hyperbole.  Wild In The Country was a modest success, but considered a "loss" compared to the money that could be made with pictures like G.I. Blues.  In fact, no Elvis movie ever lost money.  Think about that for a second. 

Yet, the Hal Wallis budget began to cheapen with Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Fun In Acapulco is bad teen exploitation filmed in front of bad blue screen.  As films shot in tropical locations that border on travelogues, Wallis often skimped on quality.  Fun In Acapulco looks like a skeleton crew drove around Acapulco for a couple of days to gather enough footage to superimpose Elvis in front of in the Hollywood studio.  The bad matting would become a standard (Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Speedway), but perhaps part of what made It Happened At The World's Fair look so good is that (with a different producer) Elvis was actually there.

No, just as the Colonel never wanted Elvis to leave the States, Presley never visited Acapulco.  The soft lighting and (again) prevalent makeup are particularly unconvincing in a film that routinely offers striking establishing shots of native color, only to thwart it in the closeup. 

Elvis's Mike Windgren is an American working on a boat, but quickly loses his job when his boss's bratty, underage daughter throws him under the bus after he turns down her come-ons.  It's a real double standard in Presley films-- women are vilified for coming on to Elvis too strongly as it costs him his job.  However, when Elvis's characters come on too strongly (say for instance, when he refuses to take no for an answer and is walked in on by the girl's parents early in It Happened At The World's Fair), the threat of a girl's lost honor is played for laughs.  Worse, Mike refuses the girl on grounds of age (she later gets busted with alcohol), which is fine and noble until the camera sexualizes her as she passes by low-angle in a bikini.  The bread and butter of many an Elvis picture involves pairing Elvis with a too-young teenage girl, if only for a moment, as a sort of relatable fantasy for the demographic.

But it was these same movies that began making Elvis passe, and this isn't the only instance in which Fun In Acapulco seems out of touch.  Much of the soundtrack seems to capitalize on the Herb Alpert phenomenon which probably spoke to someone about ten years older than the film's target audience.  As much as I love the mental image of the Fab Four crammed into a car watching this movie at the drive-in, it speaks volumes that when it was Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 covering "Day Tripper" three years later, it wasn't beach party material.  And they wouldn't have (just as Elvis wouldn't have in 1966) gotten anywhere near the A Hard Day's Night treatment.

Mike does meet a few girls along the way (Elsa Cárdenas as a female matador, and Ursula Andress, a social director at the hotel which employs him).  The narrative gains nothing by Mike splitting his time between the two love interests.  Besides, he's got enough on him mind, brooding about his trouble past.  Mike has a fear of heights because of an accident as a trapeze artist he feels responsible for.  The number of shots of Elvis green-screened on a diving board with an over-acted troubled shake of the head is staggering.  The climax builds, not so much as a decision between the two women or a conflict coming to a head between Mike and his rival (Alejandro Rey), but in Mike facing his fear.  The measure of a man in Fun In Acapulco isn't committing to a monogamous relationship, but a death-defying 136-foot cliff dive.  Any rush from this film lasts about as long.

The charm injected into the tame story comes in the form of Mike's eight-year-old "agent", Raoul (Larry Domasin).  The joke is that this orphan has "cousins" all over town.  He wheels and deals, getting Mike a job as lifeguard and nightclub singer.  His songs have a distinct Latin flavor which seems hypocritical considering he pronounces Raoul's name "Ral".  Adding children to the musical-comedy formula was a success in It Happened At The World's Fair (and to a lesser degree in Blue Hawaii), and the Raoul character feels equally contrived.  Domasin's performance is winning, but it's over-the-top saccharine and he emotes one-dimensionally.  A tongue-in-cheek segment features Raoul raising Mike's value by playing two different club owners before demanding 50% of his cut.  "You get half?  That's kinda high for an agent's commission," Elvis answers before increasing Colonel Parker's cut to fifty percent.

Fun In Acapulco isn't.  If it was, Elvis might have been there himself.  Unlike Follow That Dream, the film is inane as well as offensive.  Worse, neither appears to be intentional. -- */four stars

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