Saturday, October 22, 2011

Is Harum Scarum The Best Movie Ever? Good Grief, NO!

The Good: Camp value, Michael Ansara
The Bad: Acting, Plot, Sets, Direction, Character, Lack of decent DVD extras
The Basics: From the first Technicolor opening credit flashes through the closing song, Harum Scarum is purely awful Elvis Presley camp.

A few years back, when I went to Las Vegas for my annual Star Trek convention pilgrimage, I scheduled the trip such that we overshot Vegas and went to California. This meant I was going to be on the road a few extra days and for the first time, I did not plan out all of the stops. This meant that I played by ear on finding hotels on the way out to California (never doing that again!) and in Missouri, I discovered a wonderful, out of the way, 50's diner that was probably made better by my complete exhaustion when crashing there. On the wall of the diner was various 1950's memorabilia and collectibles and I had to laugh at one of them. There on the wall was "Elvis goes to Afghanistan!" Yes, the movie poster for Harum Scarum, advertised this and I told myself if I ever had the opportunity to see the movie, it was now on the list.

That opportunity came yesterday when I discovered my local library system had Harum Scarum on DVD and I could get it via interlibrary loan. Having now watched Harum Scarum, I think writing a review is the best possible public service I could do. Yeesh! This movie is terrible! In all of the most wonderfully campy ways, this film is just awful and it was a delight to watch it, as I had never seen an Elvis Presley movie before.

Johnny Tyronne, international movie star of action-adventure films, is in the Middle East promoting his new musical, action-adventure film when he is abducted! Taken to a nation that has been isolated for 2000 years, Johnny finds himself in the company of a thief, a gaggle of bellydancers and a mysterious woman who wants Johnny to use his talents to kill the king. Threatening the lives of the thieves and orphans against his cooperation, Johnny reluctantly sets out to kill the king of the small nation while realizing that the woman of his dreams may be the king's daughter!

Harum Scarum is - from what I've heard - a pretty typical Elvis Presley movie; Elvis plays an Elvis-like character as an excuse to break into song periodically and run around mock-fighting, kissing various women and wearing parachute pants (very flattering on the King, by the way!). Opening with the movie within the movie, one of the immediate problems with Harum Scarum is that it presents something of a spoof of itself to open the film, then basically duplicates that for the rest of the film.

The plot is so simple and canned it's amazing to think that even in 1965 when the movie was originally released, it was not considered passe. Johnny Tyronne, played by Elvis Presley, is abducted by The Assassins, to kill a king with his martial arts abilities (which are vastly overstated in the movie). He is extorted to betray his principles of "only in self defense" with the defense of women, children and lovable marketplace thieves. And, of course, there is the most obvious trick in the book to smoke out the real culprits behind the plot to kill the king.

And here's what keeps Harum Scarum from being a total waste. Writer Gerald Drayson Adams uses the best possible villain for the film. Yes, it's the oil companies! Apparently, even in the mid-'60's, Adams was concerned over the international dependence on oil and the unmasking of the villainous oil conglomerates becomes the high point of the film.

The problem is, most of the film is actually about Elvis Presley running around, doing the most fake martial arts in the world, and cozying up to many women in bellydancer outfits. None of that is truly a complaint, it just is what it is. Harum Scarum is an obvious vehicle for Elvis to continue to grow his music career using the film as a pretty blatant advertisement. He sings "Kismet," "Harem Holiday," "Go East, Young Man," a bevy of songs from a pool to his desirous lover, and a Las Vegas song at the end that served only to close the film and remind me that "Viva Las Vegas" was not included in the 30 #1 Hits album of Elvis's that I recently heard and reviewed.

And when he's singing, Elvis is fine. But yes, there's a "but . . ." after that. I am all for historical accuracy, but there's something troubling about watching a film on DVD on my HD-TV only to see the lips not matching the words. When Elvis is singing, often the lips and words do not match precisely. This is not a hardware issue on my end, I soon discovered, but rather a problem with the original print that was not fixed for the DVD release. That seems especially lazy of Warner Brothers, to me.

But when it comes to acting . . . Harum Scarum is universally bad. I get that Elvis has great eyes; they are blue and clear and one wants to call them radiant, but in this film, they are vacant. Elvis looks around and never seems to connect with anything or anyone he is seeing, so the entire film, his eyes carry a glassy, inexpressive expression that makes one wonder if he he had been replaced by a robot. Especially when he is singing, Elvis as Johnny seems disconnected from all around him and that is distracting.

The only acting coup in the film is that of the Prince, played by Michael Ansara. A genre fan like myself knows Ansara from his performance of Kang in Star Trek's "Day Of The Dove" (reviewed here!) a few years after this film, but it's refreshing to see (and hear) Ansara here. The problem with watching Harum Scarum now is that just like Elvis's presence clearly indicates a hero character, Ansara's presence indicates a very specific type of character and he lives up to that expectation, though he does it quite well.

In the end, Harum Scarum is completely mindless fun, less some of the fun for serious cinephiles. It's the type of movie where Elvis takes out a tiger using his martial arts ability which is indicated by a series of cuts that never actually put Elvis or the tiger in a shot together. It's campy and the most troubling aspect of it is that it isn't even smart camp.

Elvis plays Johnny Tyronne, a movie star. Certainly, this is not a stretch for Elvis. I can live with that. But when Tyronne is kidnaped by the Assassins, he never uses the tried and true, "Umm . . . I'm just an actor" excuse. I mean the Assassins, who by their name ought to be able to carry out a simple coup, extort and actor and the film is so desperate to maintain the illusion of movie magic that Tyronne never says, "Yup, didn't really kill that tiger, it's just a movie," which might well have saved him a lot of trouble.

And the viewer from having to suffer through this 85 minute advertisement for Harum Scarum: The Soundtrack.

On DVD, Harum Scarum is presented with minimal bonus features, in fact there are only trailers for other Elvis Presley movies. There are no commentaries, nor featurettes, making this a poor use of the medium.

For other completely hokey, contrived comedies, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Bride Wars
Couples Retreat


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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