Live a Little, Love a Little
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, starred in 31 motion pictures between 1956 and 1969. He did it because he loved movies, and his management loved money. Every movie rolled out with a tie-in album that promised a lucrative pot of gold, and while Mr. Presley desired to be another Brando, his management fashioned him instead as a low rent James Dean. A rebel with a cause, and that cause was a bag covered in dollar signs.
I’ve been watching through the Elvis filmography the last couple of months, half because I find dated cultural artifacts fascinating and half because I’m a total glutton for punishment. The films he’s mostly remembered for are big gaudy musicals like Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, but these are, politely, the tip of the iceberg.
Usually he’s a pretty typical character: race car driver/airplane pilot/bon vivant who is a part time singer and a bit of a sex machine who gets himself in a bit of trouble. If I told you there was a film where Elvis was fighting his brother in the Civil War, would you be surprised? One where he was mistaken for a spy and chased around the world? One where he plays a Native American in redface? One where he plays a dual role and both Elvises chase around a bunch of sexy bumpkins through the Appalachians?
And I’m only listing out ones that I’ve seen. For all I know, there’s an Elvis movie out there where he plays a giant poodle. Hell, this one comes close.
I’m not going to write about every Elvis movie for TarsTarkas.Net, but I wanted to highlight a few of the most unbelievable. Because maybe if someone believed me when I talk about these films, if someone else knew the pain involved in just how bad some of these are… maybe they won’t be quite so painful.
I picked Live a Little, Love a Little to discuss since it’s the penultimate Elvis comedy. It’s the 28th performance of his acting career, so we’re starting to see plenty of wear in his usual romantic formula.
That, and Live a Little, Love a Little contains one of the most disturbing things on film that I. Have. Ever. Seen. But I’ll get to that.
The film is based on a book named Kiss My Firm, But Pliant Lips (whatever the hell that means), and comes from quite a different stripe than a lot of romantic comedies you may or may not have seen.
Let’s start with the concept of the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, a phrase coined for the female lead in a romantic comedy who exists only to be fun and quirky. Her flaws are minor, and her weirdness is portrayed as incredibly attractive.
That’s half the equation. The next half, as my friend Jacob so eloquently put it, appears to be that Live a Little, Love a Little would seem to be a major inspiration for Steven King’s Misery.
These two concepts, finally combined, make more than a certain amount of sense.
The movie begins with Elvis– er, Greg– driving his dune buggy down on the beach. He runs into a beautiful woman who immediately propositions him to make love. Since that’s crazy now let alone in 1968, Elvis backs away, and Bernice has her dog Albert chase Greg into the ocean and keep him out there the rest of the day.
After he’s been battered into submission, she invites him inside to her beachfront house and offers him some warm clothes since, somehow, he’s developed a cold. She also sneaks some cold medicine into him. And by some I mean ‘a lot’.
Greg is knocked out for days. By the time he’s woken up, he has a five o’clock shadow. Bernice laughs it off, and offers him more medicine, but he escapes. Unfortunately, he finds that his apartment was put up for rent and he’s lost his job, the latter resulting in an inexplicable old fashioned Elvis kung fu hustle. Dejected, he realizes he has no one to turn to now but Bernice.
If this sort of behavior creeps you out, I’m ignoring the constant flirtations that Bernice throws at Elvis. She doesn’t attract him so much as wear him down; in real life, this would be stalking.
But she’s convinced him that he needs her, even if her ex-husband keeps showing up and her friends all know her by a different name. Elvis is baffled by all of this and her continued insistence of treating Albert as a person.
This leads to one of the most disturbing things in a film. That I. Have. Ever. Seen.
Are you ready for this?
Elvis, forced to spend the night in Albert’s room, has a dream. Now, not just any dream. First he’s awoken by Albert, but not just normal Albert, but this monstrosity:
Imagine that waking you up in the middle of the night. Imagine that waking you up in the middle of the night and calmly start to discuss your love life.
It then insists Elvis walk through the door to a pit of blackness where he is accosted by the entire cast, each taking turns, taunting him with Bernice’s true identity and motives. Elvis then must sing a song about how her mysterious nature is driving him wild while different women appear and dance with other men, pretending to be Bernice.
It’s a rare good musical number (once the dog thing departs), and really functions well in that wonderful technicolor palate that Elvis movies more or less trafficked in.
But then, Elvis wakes up. And, worse yet, the unthinkable occurs. The movie becomes… boring.
The film is determined to have something happen to poor old Greg besides a raging case of Stockholm Syndrome, so he gets two new jobs at two separate advertising businesses. One is uptight and refined, the other is sleazy and casual!
This detour keeps Elvis busy from his increasing frustrations with Bernice as she and Harry seem to be rekindling their romance, as well as cleverly insert a bunch of scantily clad women in for those of us who continue to be amazed that so many women in the 1960’s managed to look exactly the same and weren’t ashamed to wear such skimpy outfits constantly.
Since the two advertising agencies have managers who loathe one another, we get extended scenes of Elvis moving from one shoot to another. The theme is easy to guess considering the time this was made in, i.e. sleaze is easy and fun, but uptight work may be more effort than it’s worth.
If Live a Little, Love a Little had at least continued it’s nightmare tone, it could have been a truly epic oddity. Instead it reads like someone took act one from a fever dream, act two from a bad Doris Day comedy, and act three from Love Story. Not that anyone gets cancer, but everyone definitely gets a bit mopey over who loves who and how much.
There’s two other scenes worth touching on, with the first being a big party that the sleazy editor puts on at his pool. Since this man is playing Not Hugh Hefner, the place is stacked with hot babes and I could almost swear I heard the word ‘grotto’ tossed out at least once.
What’s remarkable about the scene is that it ends with Elvis singing one tune that’s actually endured, “A Little Less Conversation.” However, while the song is upbeat and fun, it’s probably one of the most joyless numbers we’ve seen in an Elvis picture; he doesn’t even manage a smile while singing it.
Here’s an important note about Elvis movies: when there’s anything to the musical number besides Elvis’s uninspired lip sync to it, it’s a veritable miracle. The producers believe that people are there to see Elvis sing, so the audience is treated to watching Elvis sing. Choreography? Staging? Direction? Pah.
This means that, unless you think every single Elvis song is an attention drawing piece of work that simply sucks you in because of the artistry of his vocal performance, you will get bored for large chunks of most of his movies. The best ones survive because the songs are pretty good, or perhaps because the scenery is enchanting to a point (see Blue Hawaii for the proof positive there).
Live a Little, Love a Little suffers because its best song is its most boring choreography, and its best choreography is to its most boring song.
It also suffers since we’re supposed to become invested in Elvis and Bernice’s relationship when pretty much anyone who hasn’t been found in Paul McCartney’s house at 2 AM with a knife and a bottle of lube is busy screaming, “Run away! RUN AWAY!”
One other scene, briefly, is one in which Elvis is showering and Bernice insists on helping him. While it’s certainly cute to see her constantly try and stick a brush into his rear entrance (is cute the word I’m looking for?), it only further serves the subtext that she’s trying to turn this poor photojournalist into a dependent weakling to serve at her beck and call.
Even the ending, where we learn Bernice really is Bernice and the two have a touching moment on the beach, doesn’t really cover up all of this woman’s copious flaws. I can’t blame actress Michelle Carey, since judging from what’s on screen, nothing could have saved that character.
Elvis, though, remains a good presence in the film, and may be why I keep watching these damned things. He acts because he loves doing it, and the man himself is a big ball of goofy charm. He’s not a good actor, but nothing can hide his innate charm.
Still, though, when acting against a creepy dog man drawn directly from the collective nightmares of all mankind, charm doesn’t count for much.
Rating: 1/10 (ELVIS, GIVE ME YOUR PANTS)
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