Saturday, April 23, 2011

Harum Scarum (1965, Gene Nelson)

Harum Scarum follows a trend common in early, ill-advised cartoons (Insultin' the Sultan, Tokio Jokio) in which not only is racial stereotype used to vilify an entire group of people, but the condescending play-on-words presumes a superiority over them as well.  Elvis plays action movie star Johnny Tyronne who, touring his film through the Middle East, is invited to "[step] back 2000 years" into a backward, primitive society.  The men are short, stocky and as harsh as their desert landscape (the shorter, the more vile, as a dwarf is a comedic thief) unlike Elvis who is taller, more suave and savior to orphans.  The women often don belly-dancing outfits and are equal parts exotic and disenfranchised.  Chaos is the natural order, as law operates like the Keystone Kops and slavery and assassins are commonplace. The villains fit the stereotypical mold and the innocents are infantile, in need of a white savior. 
Not only is their society unprogressive, they are underdeveloped mentally as well.  Johnny Tyronne is kidnapped by assassins because of his prowess in film.  In his movie he karate chops a leopard in the neck, so he must be a valiant real-life warrior. Such logic is also what allows Johnny to fool an Arab in a fight by saying "hey, look over here" before punching him like one of the Three Stooges.  The "otherness" of the Arab people is accentuated in that the film takes place in the fictional nation of Lunarkand.

Perhaps it is unfair, but I have an easier time forgiving films that make stereotypical use of foreign cultures the further you go back in film history.  In my mind, Sex and the City 2 is worse than Carry On Up The Khyber is worse than Gunga Din is worse than The Son of the Sheik is worse than Birth of a Nation, and that's a moralistic statement as well as an artistic one.  As insulting as these films are on a human level, there is an increased indictment of "should have known better" the further you crawl along film's short timeline.  If D.W. Griffith was already trying to atone by 1916's Intolerance, it is difficult for me to imagine a group of film executives giving the green light to Harum Scarum in 1965 amid the ideological shift of the civil rights movement.

The cheap production values make it seem lost in time.  The film was shot in the studio, reusing sets from Cecil B. DeMille's 1925 film The King of Kings and borrowed costumes from 1944's Kismet.  Physically, Elvis looks worse than he did in Roustabout and the lighting and makeup don't help.  The film was helmed by producer Sam Katzman and director Gene Nelson, the same quickie team that relied on stereotype and elitism for laughs in the nearly-as-atrocious Kissin' Cousins.  Elvis was excited to play an updated Rudolph Valentino, so much so that Priscilla recalls him coming home in full costume and makeup to get into the role. 

It's amazing to me how many times Presley hoped that something more would come of his pictures, never fully realizing that he was had.  Harum Scarum marks one of the only times that both Presley and Colonel Tom Parker saw eye to eye regarding the insipid nature of the screenplay.  Presley did return to the studio to record and uninspired soundtrack, but the creative genius that was Colonel Parker (who must have still been laughing at the singing horse in Tickle Me) went so far as to suggest that the screenplay could benefit with the addition of a talking camel.

Harum Scarum insults the core of what it is to be human.  On the surface, it's moronic, lightweight and full of bad songs.  Cutting deeper, the film is racist, elitist, condescending, misanthropic and hateful.  Worse, it was a success in 1965.  The nadir of Presley's film career would bottom out just schist layers from this one in Stay Away, Joe.  It is a film guilty of the same bad taste executed with the same shit-eating grins.  You know, I take it back:  Stay Away, Joe at least employed Native Americans rather than greasing up English-speaking white guys named Joey Russo, Billy Barty and Phillip Reed playing characters named Yussef, Baba and Toranshah. -- ZERO/four stars

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