Friday, October 17, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Loving You (1957)

Directed with real panache by the very able Hal Kanter and featuring one of the best soundtracks of the fifties, the first proper Elvis Presley vehicle, Loving You , would set the stage for not only the rest of Presley's cinematic career but also the rock n’ roll film genre itself.
Kanter got his start in the late forties as a writer for a number of television variety shows and series including Ed Wynn’s show as well as Amos n’ Andy. Loving You marked the first time Kanter had stepped up to the plate as director though and he redeems himself quite nicely, delivering a colorful and exciting film that knows exactly what it is and it still plays brilliantly.

The writer turned director had initially been a little hesitant to work with the controversial rocker but early on in their collaboration he felt himself won over by Presley’s charm, wit and seriousness. Hal Kanter saw what few others saw early on in Elvis’ career, namely that he had the talent to become a serious actor.

Loving You wouldn’t be the film to take Elvis to the places he needed to go as a top of the line actor and Kanter knew it, but it was a major step towards placing Elvis among the top and most charismatic screen stars of his or any other time.
Loving You centers on a very Presley like character named Deke Rivers who quickly finds fame as a traveling rock and roller after being discovered by a shrewd promoter and manager (played intriguingly by Lizabeth Scott). If the plot seems contrived and predictable today, that is just because it has been copied so many times. Loving You practically invents a genre in its 100 minute running time and if the imitators have taken some of its boldness away then that is perhaps the inevitable drawback to being so influential.

Surrounding Elvis in this eye popping color production, shot by legendary Oscar winner Charles Lang, is a really special cast filled out by a number of veteran actors and a couple of really fresh faces who would soon become stars in their own right.
Lizabeth Scott is best remembered today for her appearances in a number of top film noir productions of the forties, including the great 1947 Humphrey Bogart vehicle Dead Reckoning. Not a traditional beauty, Scott managed to carve quite a place for herself for a while in film with her rather hypnotic intensity and mystery. She is really splendid in Loving You in a part that would have typically been played by a man and her scenes with Elvis are very nicely done.

Other well known cast members include prolific character actor Wendell Corey, talented James Gleason (who tragically passed away just a couple of years after production on Loving You wrapped) and scene stealer Jana Lund who claims her place in history here as one of the first rock and roll groupies ever presented on film.

Lots of other familiar faces pop up as well including future television actress Yvonne Lime, and many familiar faces Elvis fans will recognize including his parents in a crowd scene. The real story of the film though is young Dolores Hart, who makes her feature debut as Elvis’ sweet love interest, Susan Jessup.

Chicago born Hart was nearing her twentieth birthday when she shot Loving You for Kanter and it would marked one of two very memorable roles opposite Elvis (the other being 1958’s King Creole) and she is simply smashing in the both parts, projecting the kind of warmth and goodness most actors wouldn’t even be able to come close to. Hart would become quite close to Elvis during the production and some endearing home movies exist of the two of them palling together after it wrapped. She would shock everyone less than ten years after Loving You when she abandoned an incredibly promising screen career to be a nun. Her role as Susan here is one of her finest and her scenes with Elvis mark some of the best in his entire canon.
Loving You is at its best during the many song sequences and the legendary soundtrack is just astonishing. Songs like the title track, "Mean Woman Blues" and "Teddy Bear" seem a part of our national collective conscience but even better are the lesser-known tracks like the exciting "Got A Lot Of Livin To Do", "Party" (a favorite of the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and the eerie "Lonesome Cowboy"(one of the film’s original titles, all of which mark some of the finest studio work Elvis did in the fifties. Anyone who has ever stated that all of Elvis soundtracks songs are bad have either never heard the Loving You soundtrack or are completely deaf when it comes to great music as every cut on here is a killer.

Kanter directs the film and its musical sequences with a lot of style and inventive drive and it’s a shame his directorial career wasn’t more prolific. Loving You is almost a complete success for the first time director and with perhaps a little tightening (especially in the latter half) it could have been one of the truly great musicals of the fifties.
The 'future great actor' in Elvis that Kanter predicted doesn’t appear here but what is in its place is no less incredible. Gone are the jitters of Love Me Tender as Elvis appears totally at ease and he has already nearly mastered the relaxed on screen charm and charisma that has gone on to influence everyone from Kurt Russell to Vince Vaughn. Loving You is one of the great early chapters in Elvis’ career and one that has never fully gotten its due.
The film is available on a decent widescreen DVD with virtually no extras, although thankfully a wonderful book called Inside Loving You is out that details the film's production.. Adding insult to injury, the film is surprisingly one of the hardest to find with online vendors being the only real prerogative as very few stores seem to stock it. Pity, as Loving You is one of the best films in Elvis ‘ catalogue and one of the most delightful and underrated Rock films of the fifties.

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