"Let's see if we can't double-cross the stars."
Anyone who has followed Moon in the Gutter for even a small amount of time knows how much I love and value Elvis Presley, so it's probably not a surprise that I am including his work as an actor on this list. I do hope my choice of performance perhaps is a little surprising as I know that his roles in such dramas as King Creole (1958), Flaming Star and Wild in the Country (both 1960) might indeed be more expected. When thinking about Elvis on the screen though, perhaps the things that mean the most to me are his warmth and humor and these two qualities were never more apparent than they were in his role as photographer Greg Nolan in Norman Taurog's fantastic chaotic comedy Live a Little, Love a Little...a film which showed Elvis could have been a modern-day Cary Grant had anyone at the time been wise enough to notice.
Watching Elvis today in Live a Little, Love a Little will prove an eye opening experience for anyone who has long accepted the myth that this great man couldn't act and that all of his films fell under one certain formula. Taurog's ingenious film not only breaks the 'formula', that had began to fail around 1966 and 1967 with such dreck as Paradise Hawaiian Style, but it smashes it to pieces and it offers Elvis, a wonderfully gifted comedian, the most flexible and engaging role of his career. As Nolan, Presley is ferociously funny, incredibly natural and unbelievably sexy...it's one of the great comedic performances from the sixties and the real 'tragedy' of Elvis Presley's film career is that hardly anyone seemed to notice just how incredibly funny and charming this man was on the screen.
The time has come for a serious reevaluation of Elvis Presley's undeniable abilities as an actor and his film career in general. Today I am pleased to offer an amazing guest-commentary from another writer who agrees with me on this fact, the amazing Sheila O'Malley. Some of you might remember this chat Sheila and I had regarding Elvis' film career over at her essential Sheila Variations, which I was so honored to take part in. Sheila's writing has been a constant source of inspiration for me and I think her many articles on Elvis are absolutely essential for not only fans of the man but anyone interested in American culture in general. I am thrilled and honored to offer up this brand new piece that Sheila has written regarding Live a Little, Love a Little and one of modern cinema's most undervalued great actors.
-Jeremy Richey, 2012-
-Sheila O'Malley on Elvis Presley in Live a Little, Love a Little-
Great American character actress Mildred Dunnock tells a story about the first days of shooting Love Me Tender (1956), which was 21-year-old Elvis Presley's film debut. He played one of Dunnock's sons. He was totally green as an actor. In one scene, Dunnock had to bark at him, "Put that gun down!" The first time they shot it, her tone of command so threw him (and he was, famously, a boy who did what his Mama told him to do) that he put the gun down, although the scene actually called for him to ignore her order and race out the door. They cut, and director Robert Webb said, "Why on earth did you put the gun down?" And Elvis said, guileless, "Well ... she told me to." This anecdote has been used to mock Elvis' ineptness as an actor, but Dunnock had another take: "For the first time in the whole thing he had heard me, and he believed me. Before, he'd just been thinking what he was doing and how he was going to do it. I think it's a funny story. I also think it's a story about a beginner who had one of the essentials of acting, which is to believe."
This is an extraordinary statement from a woman who knew what she was talking about when it came to acting. Extraordinary because Elvis' gifts as an actor have not just been dismissed, but barely acknowledged.
One film you never hear anything about is Live a Little, Love a Little (1968), directed by Norman Taurog, a prolific director who had been around since the 1930s, and directed most of the Elvis formula pics that made Elvis and Colonel Parker so much money in the 1960s. By 1968, Elvis was nearing the end of his movie contract, and he was starting to look forward to live performing again. His movies were no longer drawing the audience they had in the early 1960s, and so Live a Little, Love a Little came and went. It is a forgotten film., and what a pity, because it is a stylish, madcap, ridiculous romp, featuring one of Elvis' funniest performances.
In Live a Little, Love a Little, Elvis plays Greg Nolan, a photographer who finds himself in the crosshairs of a crazy dame named Bernice (or is it Alice?) (played by Michele Carey) who decides that she will have him, come hell or high water. She drugs him to keep him captive in her beach house. When he wakes up, he has been fired, and also has lost his apartment. Greg then begins a madcap race to get another job, all while trying to ditch the insistent unflappable Bernice. The mood here is reminiscent of the great screwballs of the 1930s, where poor elegant Cary Grant loses his mind trying to maintain his dignity in the face of the adorable onslaught of Irene Dunne or Katharine Hepburn.
The Elvis formula pics like Blue Hawaii, Girl Happy, It Happened at the World's Fair took place in what I call "Elvis Land", with stunning locations but no recognizable real-world issues. The only reason to see many of them is Elvis. With Live a Little, Love a Little, the formula loosens quite a bit. The psychedelic grooviness of the 1960s is allowed some room to express itself (there's a wacky dream sequence), and, startlingly, there are only a couple of songs, one being the unforgettable "A Little Less Conversation".
What makes this performance unique in Elvis' career is that he is allowed to be cranky in the face of some dame chasing after him. He plays a normal man, in other words, who happens to look like Elvis Presley. In most of his films, he is pursued by no less than three women (the Elvis formula pics loved the triangulation of Elvis), and he is open to all of them, which causes much mayhem along the way. But here, he is a solitary man, a workaholic, and he feels nothing for this broad in the bathing suit who has kidnapped him. He just wants to get away. This is a normal reaction. His crankiness is what makes the performance so funny. Watch his facial expressions in the sequence where she has shoved a thermometer in his mouth to check his temperature (she gasps when she sees the reading: "98.6!!!" Elvis barks, "Oh, come ON, that's NORMAL!"), as she babbles on to him about her life and her wacko philosophies. He is undone by this woman. What a refreshing change in Elvis' movie career, where Elvis(TM) wasn't undone by anything. He's hilarious when he feels trapped and annoyed. He runs up and down staircases, he hides behind newspapers in crowded elevators, and at one point he mutters to himself out of the corner of his mouth, a la W.C. Fields, "Ya miserable kid." In the Elvis Formula Pics that dominated in the early to mid 1960s, Elvis was rarely allowed the opportunity to play anything remotely human. He played his own image and myth, and he did that better than anyone, being, as he was, sui generis. But it's such a joy to see him tossed into a chaotic situation, involving demanding bosses, impatient clients, chilly secretaries, a ditzy-eyed dame, and a giant slobbering dog. He is harassed by them all.
It was 1968. Elvis was a new father. In the summer of that year, he had filmed a TV special for NBC which would air close to Christmastime, and is now known as his "comeback special". He was in his absolute prime. Elvis was always a good-looking man, but here he is almost otherworldly in his beauty. But it's not a vain performance. Half the time, he is in a terricloth robe, unshaven, chasing Bernice around her house, shouting up the stairs at her like a lunatic. He is forced to eat dog food at one point. Of course he is, deep down, strangely drawn to this weird woman who can't stop pursuing him, but at the same time he just wants her to leave him alone.
What an interesting dynamic: To allow the biggest sex symbol in the world to show annoyance at being pursued by a woman. Elvis was always a good sport about the throngs of women who chased him, from his earliest days performing on the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, Louisiana, where he first started making his name. His car was repeatedly demolished. His clothes were torn off. Women would dress up as maids and try to storm the barricades of the hotels where he stayed. His mother worried that the girls would kill him, but he always knew they just wanted to get close to him, it was okay, they didn't mean any harm. In Live a Little, Love a Little, Elvis is allowed to be annoyed by the fact that women pursued him with a single-mindedness bordering on mania. He is allowed to have some feelings about the fact that nobody, ever, left him alone.
One of the things that Elvis brought to all of his roles was a sense of ease and openness before the camera. Mildred Dunnock saw it in 1956. This young man had the rare ability to believe. The camera picks up honesty and cannot abide phoniness. Elvis never lied, and Elvis was never phony. This was true in King Creole and it was true in Girls! Girls! Girls!. Elvis "showed up" with his honesty intact, regardless of the absurdity of the material. You never feel like he is slumming. This was one of his aces in the hole as a singer and performer, and it is there in his acting roles as well. In Live a Little, Love a Little, he gives a wonderful comedic and realistic performance which is essentially forgotten.