Thursday, April 21, 2011

Girl Happy (1965, Boris Sagal)

Girl Happy is the movie Girls! Girls! Girls! should have been: a pleasant spring break romp light on consequence, but playful rather than insulting.  Girl Happy is a thematic combination of Some Like It Hot and Chasing Liberty.  As the former is a four-star movie and one of the best films of all time, and the latter is a zero-star movie and (no hyperbole) one of the worst of all time, it seems appropriate that Girl Happy placidly plateaus out as a two-star affair.

Elvis plays Rusty Wells who, along with his band of indistinguishable doofuses, is starting to make it big in the nightclub scene in the chilly Chicago spring.  Desperate to escape the cold, they pack their bags, ready for their annual trip to Fort Lauderdale for spring break; the only problem is, the boss wants to sign them for an extension.  Lucky for them, he has a college-aged daughter who wants to go to Florida rather than come home for Easter weekend and Rusty and the boys are sent down to keep an eye on her.  You know full well they fall in love and, like G.I. Blues, the girl is going to be none too pleased when she hears the backstory.  Chances are, they'll probably work it out.

The screwball antics (like the early '60s Presley persona) are pandering but pleasant.  There are a few moments of true chaos that do the genre justice (highlights include a Long, Long Trailer-style sequence that ends with a boat docking in a swimming pool and Rusty having to entertain two dates at the same time without letting on about the other).  More significant is Presley's ability to play the comedy rather straight despite his personal conflict with the material.  This film, as well as his next, Tickle Me, showcase Presley as comedic actor rather than phenomenon, and they are better for it.

Though billed as a beach movie, the low budget has most of the film take place at a pool outside a motel.  The film is not shot on location and, as such, the shadows look weird a lot of the time.  And although there are plenty of bikinis, Elvis is often wearing long-sleeves.  I feel like the female audience was a little disenfranchised as Girl Happy again waxes (slightly) misanthropic despite its female target audience.  It certainly isn't as insulting or mean-spirited as Girls! Girls! Girls!, but the eye-candy gets wearisome and isn't consummated.

While Hal Wallis didn't back out of the Elvis franchise until after Easy Come, Easy Go, in many ways Girl Happy was the beginning of the end for the Elvis musical-comedy.  It was the last film in Elvis's career to produce monumental returns and, while every Presley film was profitable, box office returns and soundtrack sales rapidly declined after Girl Happy.  It's difficult to say whether audiences grew tired of the formula, or it was a product of changing times, but the formula didn't adapt.  Strangely, as Girl Happy came at the height of Beatlemania in America, the film's quick fix to reach the youth demographic was to slightly speed up the songs.  None of the six singles Presley released in 1964 cracked the top ten, and the changes are something of a fundamental misunderstanding by the fogeys in charge of what was driving youth culture.  The film's single, "Do The Clam", only reached 21 on Billboard's Pop chart despite the Chipmunk treatment.  Masking the symptoms doesn't cure the disease, and even Elvis knew what that was.  Frustrated with the sub-par material in the recording sessions, Elvis walked out of the studio after 36 takes of "Do Not Disturb" and didn't record again for eight months. 

The narrative also bears last ditch efforts at marketability.  The kids loved George Harrison shaving in A Hard Day's Night, so now Elvis is teamed with a full group of lunks who fight with shaving cream in the dressing room.  There is something to be said for the success of "The Monkees", but Girl Happy fails to even make its minor characters distinguishable, let alone fleshed out.  The strongest characters in Girl Happy are its women.  Shelley Fabares is striking and spunky, and her innocence runs diametric to Mary Ann Mobley's knowing sultriness.

Ultimately, Girl Happy is a mild success because the situational comedy is punched up.  The film doesn't follow the typical travelogue formula and, while nothing is fully developed, there is enough groundwork to make the lark enjoyable.  The dominoes were lined up for the end of Presley's film career (even the idea of Elvis living in a state of arrested development as a 30-year old still going to spring break is a stretch), and the more successful Elvis pictures from here allow him to be an adult.  Much to the Colonel's approval, old hat worked one more time here. -- **/four stars

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