Friday, April 22, 2011

Tickle Me (1965, Norman Taurog)

Tickle Me is an exercise in how I have no qualms, whatsoever, with eye-roll inducing, ludicrous plots as long as the film is comfortable in its own skin.  In what boils down to an episode of "Scooby Doo" taking place at a fat camp, Tickle Me is a more immature The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with an entirely forgettable soundtrack.  Even the title is nonsensical.
After putting his foot down in a string of disillusioning studio sessions during the filming of Girl Happy, Elvis refused to record.  Tickle Me features no new recorded music and probably suffered for it.  The soundtrack is a hodgepodge of earlier, non-film recordings (some from as far back as 1961), and didn't have a conventional LP release.  As such, the songs in the movie are odd.  The lip-syncing efforts are not the greatest, and although a number of the songs aren't bad per se, they have little narrative purpose.  Ironically, "Such An Easy Question" and "I'm Yours" both charted higher than anything Elvis did since before Kissin' Cousins (including "Viva Las Vegas"), and better than any movie single for the remainder of his career.

Elvis's Lonnie Beale shows up in Western Podunk only to find out that his would-be employer skipped town.  In a moment of rare self-reference, Lonnie acknowledges that he needs to find a way to eat before the possibility of earning money at an upcoming rodeo.  "Don't tell me.  I know,"  Lonnie tells the local bartender before a smash cut close up of him performing with a guitar.  Speaking of self-reference, Lonnie soon gets in an extended fist-fight with a drunk patron which would have us rolling our eyes, only it is a saloon. 

Tickle Me is not afraid to take jabs at itself, and works because of its sense of humor.  Its success comes in how wildly the film goes off the deep-end compared to the accustomed formula.  Take the premise:  Former rodeo-rider Lonnie arrives in a new town, moonlights as a nightclub singer, works the day at a ranch.  Here, women fall over each other, biding for his attention and we expect a rehash of one of two typical Elvis plotlines.

1) Rebel Elvis works his way out of these hard knocks, stands up for a woman who he wins over before also winning the big rodeo.

2) Romeo Elvis fraternizes with a number of the women, behind each others' backs in sticky situations before (as Westerns so often teach us), he becomes a man of his own needing only his horse and riding off into the sunset.

Instead, the film takes a left turn and we get a third, unpredictable scenario.

3) Elvis takes a shine to a single woman at the ranch who enlists him into snooping around a local ghost town for clues to her deceased grandfather's hidden gold.  The team are frightened by locals after the same treasure, and they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for the meddling kids.  Elvis celebrates by getting married, forgetting about the rodeo and fighting a ninja.

There are shades of Jerry Lewis in Lonnie's sidekick Stanley (Jack Mullaney), and Elvis is given slapstick that is entirely new to his range.  I'm not overstating the "Scooby Doo" stuff-- "ghosts" show up, only to disappear when Stanley makes Lonnie double-check them, the perpetrators are characters we knew all along, and it concludes with a grand unmasking.  Multiple characters fall out of a fake door into a mud pit and a horse even sings part of a song.  Seriously, have I not sold this thing already?  -- ***/four stars

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