Saturday, April 16, 2011

It Happened At The World's Fair (1963, Norman Taurog)

It Happened At The World's Fair is a showcase of the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle, Washington thanks to then governor Albert Rosellini's suggestion to MGM.  As such, a lot of it plays like newsreel: extended shots up the Space Needle, a showcase of the monorail, and other fair attractions that serve no other narrative purpose.  The titular "it" in question is a bit of a mystery as three circumstantial storylines surrounding Elvis's Mike Edwards don't really converge (nor in some instances, resolve.)

Mike and his crop-dusting buddy, compulsive-gambler Danny (Gary Lockwood) hitchhike to Seattle after their plane is confiscated due to gambling debts.  While there, Mike plays babysitter to a young Chinese girl, Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu, the third Tiu sister in two consecutive Elvis films) who gets separated from her uncle, and at the same time snakes his way into a relationship with a nurse at the fair, Diane Warren (Joan O'Brien).

Sue-Lin immediately (and rather inexplicably) takes a shine to Mike, calling him the nicest man she's ever known.  Strange, as Elvis's characters become increasingly unlikable as the his films progress.  Women exist, largely, to fulfill any need Mike might have.  No matter if it interferes with a woman's honest work through charlatanism, that's the least of Mike's infractions.  In an opening scene riffing North By Northwest, Mike swoops his plane down dangerously low to the ground to check out women, immediately dismissing the "one in the red dress" whose "ankles are a little thick" (a strange erratum as, not only is neither girl overweight, neither is wearing a red dress).  Worse than mere objectification, Mike later guffaws at Dianne "it must give a girl like you a wonderful feeling to know she can do something useful" when he learns she has applied for a job in the government space medicine program.  The Elvis musical-comedy formula is never a matter of the woman setting the man straight-- the film never allows for any culpability on our hero's part.  In fact, Dianne is painted the villain for (supposedly) calling child protective services when Sue-Lin is living in a trailer with two unrelated bachelors, one of whom being dangerously drunk.

Instead the film tries to make Mike the likable hero by sticking him with an adorable little girl (who has the savvy to help his courtship, unbeknownst to either of the two parties involved), and by partnering him up with an even worse male.  Danny gets involved in illegal gambling rackets, runs his mouth off as a drunk (despite the bar setting in many an Elvis movie, Elvis is never inebriated), and his plan to avoid financial ruin involves running illegal furs, almost getting Sue-Lin shot.  Any real-life red flags that would go up involving the character Mike keeps is shooed away in the musical-comedy.

The film is an odd affair; as calculated as ever, the songs come every ten minutes and have little to do with the narrative.  And they don't even try to hide it.  The musical is also guilty of some of my favorite anachronisms: people pretending to play musical instruments, songs appearing to be played naturally though they contain more instrumentation than pictured, and songs fading out while being performed.  To make it even more surreal, Elvis is wearing a lot of noticeable makeup throughout the picture, and when Mike and Dianne sing a song about happy endings as the closing credits come up, we wonder what they are talking about:  last we could tell, Mike and Danny never got their plane back.

The songs are merely adequate, and, like much of It Happened At The World's Fair, are forgettable but never overtly insulting.  The package is wrapped up a little too neatly considering we're left with more questions than answers, but as is the case with the streamlined Elvis affair, his charisma carries the character flaws.  The commercial for Seattle bears higher production values than many of the Wallis pictures that came before and after this Ted Richmond production, and while Elvis Orphans tend to be obnoxious in these pictures, the adorable Vicky Tiu is much more winning.  The film does little to sidestep the formula that was becoming apparent in Presley's musicals, but, if for nothing more than the change of locale, It Happened At The World's Fair is one of the more likable of the lightweights.  -- **/four stars

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