Elvis Presley – B-Movie King
Rodeo rider Lonnie Beale (Elvis Presley) gets a job singing at a local nightclub, but loses it just as quickly when a fight with a jealous boyfriend wrecks the place. He isn’t unemployed for long, though, having impressed Vera Radford (Julia Adams) the owner of a local health spa dedicated to helping models, actresses and other beautiful women become even more beautiful. Hired to tend to the horses, Lonnie’s singing and good looks quickly gets the attention of every one of the ranch’s young, attractive customers (and Vera), but he remains professional and only has eyes for Pam (Jocelyn Lane) the gorgeous fitness instructor who spends her free time searching a nearby ghost town for her grandfather’s hidden treasure. Her search has attracted the attention of the local criminal element and Lonnie has to repeatedly save her from attacks and kidnappings, which earns him some romantic attention from her that’s cut short when she catches him kissing their very persistent (and hot) boss.
Lonnie returns to the rodeo circuit, but is so distracted by his feelings for Pam, he quickly goes from being a legend to a joke. He returns to the ranch, desperate to patch things up with her. With his goofy sidekick, Stanley (Jack Mullaney), he follows her to the ghost town, where a sudden downpour convinces them to seek shelter in the local historical renovated hotel. There they are confronted by Pam’s wannabe kidnappers, who pose as ghosts, monsters and a werewolf to scare them away. The three of them eventually end up in the hotel’s basement, where they find the gold and discover that the criminals after Pam are actually employees of the ranch in cahoots with the corrupt local sheriff. A newly rich Pam forgives Lonnie and the two of them get married on the ranch and drive away happily with Stanley stuck in the washtub their car is dragging behind them.
Calling the Shots: Director Norman Taurog was a Hollywood veteran who’d been making movies since the silent era. Rumour has it that by the time he reached his 60s and started working with Elvis (Tickle Me was their fifth film together), his eyesight was pretty much gone and he had become a literal representation of that old joke—a blind director.
Swimsuit Beauty: Elvis’ boss in the film is played by Julia Adams, a gorgeous brunette best remembered for her role as the object of desire in Jack Arnold’s classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, making her the only person in this movie who I have in action figure form.
Lasting Hits?: Elvis performs 9 songs in Tickle Me, but none of them went on to become memorable entries in his classic song catalogue.
The legend of Elvis Presley lives on strong, even if it isn’t quite as strong as it used to be back in the 80s and 90s. Chances are these days it wouldn’t be that hard to find a person in their 20s who couldn’t name a single one of his songs and who would insist they had never heard mention of him before (they’d be lying of course, the blame for their lack of knowledge being their own narcissistic obliviousness, not any major decline in Presley’s cultural relevance). But as that legend goes on, it is Elvis the first true rock star that people remember and celebrate, forgetting that for a significant part of his career he worked exclusively as a singing movie star rather than a touring performing.
This is despite the 31 movies he starred in between 1956 and 1969, starting with Love Me Tender and ending with Change of Habit. Why are people so quick to forget this part of his career? Well, mostly it's because—with a few exceptions—the films Presley was forced to appear in were not built to last, but were instead the most trite of possible concoctions, designed to sell soundtrack records and get his young screaming fans into movie theatres. In other words, they mostly suck.
As popular as they were, very little money or effort was put into making them, with the result that today they mostly come across as the kind of cheesy teen exploitation movies that A.I.P specialized in. That’s why I believe that Elvis, beyond being the King of Rock and Roll, can also claim the title of King of the B-Movies—his presence being the only thing that rose his films up to A-level status.
For this reason I thought it would interesting to take a look at the more obscure entries in his canon and see where exactly they fit in the B-Movie pantheon. And I thought I’d start around the middle of the pack with a film so obscure I hadn’t even heard of it until a few minutes before I sat down to watch it—his 18th film, 1965’s Tickle Me.
Having watched it, I can now appreciate why the film isn’t better known—it’s so slight and weightless, I can understand how it would float out of the public and critical consciousness until it hardly seemed like it was ever there in the first place—while also feeling comfortable enough to praise it as an entertaining, surprisingly self-aware trifle that combines occasionally funny goofiness with genuine sex appeal in the same way that makes the Frankie & Annette beach movies so fun to watch today.
That is to say, it’s not for everyone. Or even most people. Tickle Me is a cartoon fantasy that makes no attempt to even dip its toe in any form of recognizable human reality. Though never as overtly absurd as a Frank Tashlin film, it has the same overall spirit, which isn’t surprising since director Taurog—like Tashlin—worked several times with Jerry Lewis (both solo and with Dean Martin), who pretty much set the standard for this sort of thing.
I knew I was going to like it as soon as I saw the trailer, which immediately establishes its complete lack of substance and hilariously exploitative “Elvis is surrounded by gorgeous girls” gimmick.
It’s such an absurdly blatant grab for viewers that it’s actually easy to understand why the movie ended up being one of Presley’s rare flops. My guess is that the “all girl dude ranch” plot was dreamed up to appeal to teenage boys, who were more reluctant to see these movies than their female peers, but instead it alienated the female audience, who didn’t mind seeing the object of their adoration with one or two beautiful women, but resented seeing him surrounded by them. The end result being one of those films designed to appeal to everyone that actually appealed to none—except me.
I admit that my appreciation was also affected by the appearance of Jocelyn Lane, an actress I was previously unaware of until now (she retired from show business in 1970, five years before I was born, and Tickle Me appears to have been her most significant feature). In a film filled with beautiful actresses, she manages to stand out and easily allows us to accept that Elvis’ character would choose to chase after her when every other female character is happy to literally leap into his arms if he so much as looks at them.
But even the presence of a super sexy co-star wouldn’t have kept my attention for the whole 90 minutes. Tickle Me tickled me with its small moments of self-awareness—especially the way it refused to pretend that its star isn’t who he is. Rather than portray him as a normal everyman, the film acknowledges the reality of its star’s life and has fun with it. Despite its disdain for authenticity, the fact that the film has its female characters throw themselves at him and go nuts whenever he sings, actually makes it more realistic than a lot of his more sober, less comedic films.
The truth is that Tickle Me isn’t a lost classic or even very good, but it’s lame in all of the ways that make it loveable rather than regrettable. The cast is game, the production is bright and cheerful and Lane is smoking hawt. Sure, the songs all suck, but—in a strange way—I found that helped more than it hurt. Better music might have put a spotlight on the film’s many flaws, instead of just fitting right in.
Elvis Has Left the Rating - 3 Scarves out of 5