Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Trouble With Girls (1969, Peter Tewksbury)

If The Trouble With Girls starred Paul Dooley and was directed by Robert Altman it would have been unfairly praised for its affectionate quirk.  If it starred Burt Reynolds and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it would have been unfairly harpooned and left for dead as a too-self-conscious piece of pedanticalness.  Predisposed bias is an odd thing in film criticism and, instead, helmed by TV director Peter Tewksbury, The Trouble With Girls is a forgotten, if altogether pleasant, picture that doesn't fall too far from either of these two trees.  

That is to say, The Trouble With Girls is a director's picture rather than an acting vehicle.  The cast is a delight, but more ensemble than showcase.  Elvis's post-Charro! "starring" roles were in name only.  In both this and his final role (Change of Habit), his screen time is greatly diminished which, of course, is going to seem sizable after films like Paradise, Hawaiian Style where he was literally in every scene.  The film is a period piece of 1920s nostalgia, but succeeds in avoiding sentimentality.  And when the film is funny (which, all too often, means "cute"), it's not in a knowing, post-modern sendup, but in a genuine, observational sort of way.  The subtle comedy works in scenes where an English Channel swimmer demonstrates coating her body with axle grease and Cindy Brady lisps through "When You Wore A Tulip" while Marlyn Mason plays the piano with a collie in her lap. 
Tewksbury doesn't get it right every time-- a particularly annoying scene involves the film's two child stars (Anissa Jones and Pepe Brown) enjoying a front-porch country jamboree while crossing their eyes, blinking frenetically and tilting their heads.  The camera feels it needs to show us what this would look like, and doubles each shot with double exposures, upside-down cameras and pulsating apertures.  But I'll take the err of trying too hard than the alternative.  Though the source material was largely to blame for Tewksbury's interpretation of Stay Away, Joe, his phoned-in direction did nothing to rectify the situation. 

Elvis plays Walter Hale, a Chautauqua charlatan trying to keep all the balls in the air at once.  He is surrounded by ballerinas, chefs, lecturers, bands, singers and pageanteers and doesn't care to keep an eye on them as much as he wants to prevent them from joining a union.  Marlyn Mason's Charlene is a jill-of-all-trades: Walter's assistant, union representative and would-be love interest when she's not trying to direct the children's musical.

An oddball murder plot sneaks into the shenanigans involving a crooked druggist that draws an unfavorable public eye upon the Chautauqua.  The big reveal happens amid the pageant, much to the choreography of Walter who uses the murder for publicity, much to Charlene's disapproval.  Walter's smooth-talking ways expose a dark (if playful) undercurrent: he's not an altogether likable character, and seems to relish the role.

But that is all beside the point.  The film isn't so much about the individual goings-on as it is about the tone, and the title is a bigger misnomer than Girls! Girls! Girls!  The ado is sporting, non-ironic, and for the first time in a light-hearted Elvis movie, the filmmakers seem to actually care about what they are doing.  It's a film that relishes in being slight; an adoring throwback to a buoyant era.  Unlike the stiff Frankie and Johnny, The Trouble With Girls feels at home in its breezy Americana, and Elvis has a depth to his persona that comes without having the shoulder the entire picture.

Should The Trouble With Girls have been more?  Probably.  The thing was cast several times, sold to Columbia Pictures and then back to MGM, and rewritten ad nauseum since 1960.  It's a film that, it seems, no one had too much invested interest in, but the ensemble had a helluva time filming.  Though it seems dull-edged given the political climate of 1969, it is told straight-faced and apolitical, making it a welcome nostalgia.  Less-meta and, by extension, less-smarmy than a "Glory Days" American Graffiti or Diner, that alone is a recommendation. -- **½ / four stars

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