: Exploitation Movies Need Love Too.
Let’s be straight up, Elvis’ 17th movie Girl Happy
, released 45 years ago this week, was made solely to generate revenue. There was no artistic intent on behalf of the stars, the producers, the director, the writers and the studio. Its plot only intermittently makes contact with reality. Some sexist attitudes are expressed on the screen (although nothing too offensive particularly by modern standards). Its depiction of college age sexuality is dated. And, such a venture is well beneath the talents of its star, one of the most vital performers in 20th century American popular culture. For all that, I must admit that I love
this movie. In its place, it gives me what I need. Sometimes you don’t want to be moved by a movie, or consider profound truths. Sometimes you’re looking for a cheap, breezy, good time and that’s what Girl Happy
In the movie, Elvis is Rusty Wells, the leader of a popular nightclub combo (Gary Crosby, Joby Baker, and Jimmy Hawkins) headlining a Chicago nightclub. The group is so popular that Mr. Frank (Harold J. Stone), the owner of the club (the 77 Club for you trivia buffs) wants to hold them over for another six weeks. This interferes with the groups’ intentions to play their annual Spring Break/Easter gig in Fort Lauderdale Florida. The guys are avidly anticipating chasing women and lounging in the Florida sun, a respite from an early spring snow storm in the Windy City. Mr. Frank, or Big Frank is some sort of gangster and the boys must listen when he talks. Luckily(?), Big Frank’s daughter Val (Shelley Fabares) is heading down to Spring Break with a few of her college friends and Big Frank is worried about her getting pregnant down in Florida, being that she will be surrounded by 30,000 “sex starved boys.” Rusty/Elvis uses Big Frank’s fatherly concern to not only allow the Combo to head to Fort Lauderdale, but to finance their trip under the provision that they will keep an eye on Fabares and keep her out of trouble. By playing at the local Sandbar Club, a popular hangout for the Fort Lauderdale crowd conveniently located near Fabares’ hotel, they can spy on her without her even knowing it.
Down in Florida, Elvis begins to appreciate Fabares’ charm. The pair fall in love, a union temporarily threatened when Fabares/Valerie finds out that Elvis/Rusty was sent there to spy on her. After a big brawl caused by her drunken depression over the discovery, Valerie winds up in jail and Elvis breaks in to explain. She misses him but finds out later. (In a fan favorite scene, Elvis dons a dress to break back out of the jail.) The film never quite 100 percent explains it, but Valerie is so touched by Rusty’s gesture, and by her father’s explanation that Rusty is not a paid boyfriend, that all ends well.
When Dave Marsh reviewed Elvis’ films in 1981, he assessed Girl Happy
with a “What???” Considering the story of the movie, he’s absolutely right. The plot here is absolutely nuts. Can anyone picture Elvis being a Chicago gangster’s son-in-law? Even the execution of the tale asks us to take multiple leaps in logic. Marsh though was missing the forest for the trees though. Girl Happy
is about Elvis, sex, sun, and music in that order. (There's also some low camp comedy, male bonding and romance thrown in.) Not that it has anything important to say about those subjects but that’s what it promises and that’s what it delivers.
In many ways this is the archetypal Elvis formula movie. There’s no attempt to create a picture postcard, nor appease people outside the base with the presence of high salaried character actors. It simply combines two of our favorite things- Elvis and Spring Break and all that comes with them. It does so with professionalism and not a small amount of relish. The end result is a movie that is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Girl Happy
does not wait long to reveal its game. In the opening, we’re shown sunny Fort Lauderdale beach and an inane announcer gives us a quick lowdown on Spring Break. (The 30 seconds or so expended here is all that’s needed since everyone in 1965 knew the score from 1960s Where the Boys Are
, and everyone since has known from its countless imitators.) The narrator practically salivates describing a bikini clad woman sunning herself on a Florida Beach. Then the mood is broken by a nighttime shot of a snow covered Chicago streetscape which is pretty much the current reality. The narrator, in a depressed voice, lets us know that there are pretty girls here too, but how can you tell? Then the camera pulls away from a bundled up woman walking into nightclub to the nightclub’s billboard. On the billboard, we see Elvis’ smiling face. The billboard advertises “Rusty Wells and his Combo,” but everyone in the audience knows it’s Elvis and because of that our mood instantly improves. It's like suddenly seeing an old friend pop up at the door. There is no other reason for this shot than to let us know that ELVIS, not "Rusty," is here as our guide to lead us away from the bondage of a dreary mid-western winter. Sometimes the person you're doing things with is more important than the things themselves.
And, aided by the cast and crew, he does. Director Boris Sagal was no visionary behind the camera but he moves this baby like a locomotive, so much so that we don’t linger on the story’s many absurdities or even the flaws in Elvis’ musical material. He photographs Elvis, his cast and the beach well, and gets lively performances out of his entire cast. The energy level never flags.
Elvis and Shelley Fabares are a joy to watch. Elvis is a nice guy, but not the desexualized creature he was in so many of his movies. He is extremely charismatic here. He is very much the Elvis persona, leaving aside the undercurrent of violence. Elvis pretty much swaggers through the role affecting an unthreatening confidence, the kind that the coolest guy you ever knew had. Freed from any need to project or make a great performance, he reacts as naturally as he did in any movie. He's also obviously enjoys the rest of the cast and is amused at their actions. Fabares, provides a perfect foil, projecting an inner confidence, joy and sweetness. Her freshness elicits some of her co-star's most genuine reactions, penetrating that swagger to provide a hint of vulnerability. Her chemistry with Elvis is not as electric as Ann Margret’s, but it's just as genuine. The couples’ joy in each other is evident in the film’s finale, and when Elvis sings “Do the Clam.”
Just the mere mention of “Do the Clam” may send some discriminating Elvis fans scurrying. It is a terrible song with maybe the worst chorus on any Elvis song. But because of Elvis and Fabares’ chemistry and Sagal’s staging, in the movie, it’s modestly enjoyable. I would say the same about the rest of the soundtrack. True musical highlights are few; “Meanest Girl in Town,” has a funny second verse, and “Puppet on a String” although not a classic, holds up without apology. There are also some numbers like “Do The Clam” and “Wolf Call” that are kind of embarrassing on record. Yet, most of it works in the film because the song’s peppy tempos and attitudes fit the energy level of the film and because the numbers are staged well. The deranged horniness of the title tune is especially appealing when played behind the film’s quick and colorful title credit sequence. The absurd but beautifully sung "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce" receives an equally appealing presentation. It's kind of funny in this context. Fabares' reactions alone justify its existence.
The quality of a movie like this rides as much with the lower level professionals as by the glamor positions and that’s certainly the case with Girl Happy
. The set design by Henry Grace and Hugh Hunt is wonderful, as is the art direction by George Davis and Addison Hehr. The color scheme captured by Director of Photography Philip Lathrop is gorgeous, emblematic of the day glow colors that characterized much pop art of the era.
Even the script by R.S. Allen and Harvey Bullock, marred as it is by its silly story, is not devoid of wit. There are several clever one-liners sprinkled throughout. The most memorable are in Elvis/Rusty’s line of bull. My favorite is when he tells Big Frank the only reason he visited Fort Lauderdale before was to drag his sister back. There’s even some nice little insights into the Spring Break experience such as when the girls describe to each other their first night dates.
My nephew, recently seeing the movie for the first time classed it with the 1960s Batman
television show. I think that’s a fair comparison. Although the TV show was much more ambitious and much better written, Girl Happy
taps into that same kind of immediate flashy cheap pop thrills vibe.
Fans in 1965 certainly responded to the unpretentious virtues of Girl Happy
. The movie was the 25th highest grossing film of the year. That placed it amongst the Top 15 percent of all movies released that year. When I was a kid, it was rerun on television all the time. It still pops up on the classic movie channels once in awhile and received a beautiful DVD release in 2007. How could there still be a market for such an ephemeral film? After all, it’s only Elvis, pretty girls, a glamorous location and a bunch of mediocre songs. The answer is that sometimes that’s enough.
Last edited by likethebike on Fri Apr 09, 2010 3:34 pm, edited 2 times in total.