Four New To Me Classic Movies This week

Viva Las Vegas, 1964

Viva Las Vegas. Directed by George Sydney for MGM in 1964.

The pandemic has me doing things I wouldn’t normally do. Like watch Elvis movies. I’m surprised that, so far, I’ve enjoyed what simple fun they can be when I give them my undivided attention.

Viva Las Vegas opens with us being introduced to race car driver, Lucky Jackson (Elvis Presley) at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Seems he’s trying to qualify for the Las Vegas Grand Prix there, but he needs a new engine in his car to do it. I assumed that would be the plot. Wrong! We lose sight of that story line pretty early in the movie. Too bad, it might have been interesting. Lucky does spend the rest of the movie at jobs that are supposed to pay him enough money to buy that engine, but it seems like no one really cares about that anymore. Writers and director anyway. Instead, the whole movie now focuses on Lucky’s relationship with Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret). It’s the typical boy gets girl, loses girl, gets girl back, plot. But, for me anyway, it’s filled with mid-century eye candy and stellar acting (just kidding, there’s no stellar acting), that I can’t stop watching. Even I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 85 minutes with Viva Las Vegas. The 1960’s Las Vegas style  that fills up my eyes in every single scene feels magical after three months of quarantine. The lights, decor, hotel swimming pools and dance floors, wardrobes, etc., etc……it’s all beautiful, colorful and pleasing. Elvis and Ann-Margret are beautiful too. I love that in some scenes they are the only two people onscreen dressed in yellow while all the others wear darker, drabber colors. I get it, they shine through this way, but they would have without it. They’re singing and dancing makes sure of that. If you like Elvis music, there’s a lot of it here. Ann-Margret’s dancing made the movie for me. Even though the plot was a yawn, and the script less than worthy, it was still a fun trip into 1960’s Las Vegas. And boy oh boy does it look like fun.

Elevator to the Gallows, 1958

Elevator to the Gallows. Directed by Louis Malle for Rialto Pictures

Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is in love with his boss’s wife, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). Simon Carala (Jean Wall) is in their way of a life together, so they’ve concocted a plan to murder him, making it look like a suicide. Julien uses a grappling hook and rope to climb to the upper floor where Mr. Carala’s office is in the building they work in. No one saw him and he murdered his boss. It worked. Instead of using the grappling hook and rope to get back down to street level, he takes the elevator instead. As he’s getting into his car in front of the building, he notices that he forgot to take down the grappling hook and rope. So in a panic, he leaves the car running and rushes back in to take the elevator to go up and retrieve it. While he’s in the elevator, the superintendent of the building, who doesn’t notice him, shuts the power off to the building for the night.  Tavernier is stuck in the elevator and can’t escape. He realizes he left his car running in front of the building and fades into the reality of his situation. In the meantime, his car, along with his gun, is stolen.

We’re just getting started.

This is the best new movie I’ve seen this week. Honestly, it’s the best new to me classic movie I’ve seen in a while. Elevator to the Gallows is a French film that tells its story, in this case, with English subtitles. This unique suspenseful drama, coupled with terrific writing and acting, kept my mind busy from the first scene. I keep telling myself for some reason that good, light-hearted comedies are what the doctor ordered for me right now, but this movie proves that spending time with a riveting, engaging, dark, dramatic movie can be just as helpful. An escape is an escape, right? This movie is that and so much more. Bonus: the Miles Davis soundtrack is fantastic.

I loved this one!

The Doughgirls, 1944

The Doughgirls, 1944. Directed by James Kern for Warner Brothers.

I don’t care how many years it was on stage or how many laughs were on screen. With this cast, (and I sincerely I love them all!), I expected so much more. Like a plot.

I don’t even want to talk about it……

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939

Fifth Avenue Girl, 1939 – Directed by Gregory LaCava for RKO

Fifth Avenue Girl is that light-hearted comedy I’m drawn to right now. It stars Ginger Rogers and Walter Connolly, and reminds me an awful lot of Easy Living, 1937, with Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold, (the other well-to-do businessman and father that shows up in so many late 1930s comedies).

In the opening scene of Fifth Avenue Girl, Millionaire Timothy Borden (Connolly) meets unemployed and hungry Mary Grey (Rogers) in a park. Borden is distraught. His business has problems, his wife, Martha (Verree Teasdale) is out with a playboy, his kids ignore him…and, it’s his birthday. He’s lonely and depressed and somehow convinces Mary to help him celebrate his birthday at a nightclub. The next morning, everyone’s surprised that Mary has slept in the guest room for the night. Timothy notices that this piques Martha’s interest in him again so he hires Mary to stay at the house as an employee so they can go out on the town every night to hopefully gain Martha’s affections again. Meanwhile, Mary, though not thrilled with the situation, has a positive effect on other members of the household too. But not before complications arise with various family members and love interest struggles. Of course, Mary gets caught in the middle of it all. It’s funny and fun to watch. Ginger Rogers as Mary is terrific. I still like Easy Living better, but this one will do too.

Frankie and Johnny – 1966

First, let me admit that I’ve never seen a complete Elvis Presley movie.  Second, let me admit that, until this past year (thank you Overture Center), I went out of my way to avoid musicals in general. This movie is both. As I was scrolling through the On Demand section of the TCM schedule on Sling yesterday, I came across Frankie and Johnny.  As I write this, we’re in the middle of the Covid-19/coronavirus pandemic and I’m taking advantage of all this stay-at-home time it’s providing us to broaden my movie horizons. I dove head first into this one and in the end, it felt pretty darn good.

Johnny, Frankie and the Redhead.

Frankie and Johnny is a musical set in the 1800s on a Mississippi riverboat. It stars Elvis Presley, Donna Douglas (Beverly Hillbillies) and Harry Morgan (Mash). This is a big, colorful, happy movie that’s chock-full of music. It has worked its magic on me.

Johnny (Presley) and his girlfriend, Frankie (Douglas) are actors and singers performing shows for the guests on the riverboat. Johnny has a gambling problem and he’s in debt. Of course this discourages Frankie from going too far into a relationship with him. She hates gambling. Always looking for a sign of good luck, Johnny’s friend Cully (Morgan) suggests they go see “Zolita” (an uncredited performance from Naomi Stevens) a gypsy fortune teller at one of their riverboat’s stops. When they do, she insists Johnnie will come in contact with a red head that will bring him good luck.

Remarkably, a red head, Nelly Bly (Nancy Kovak), joins the cast of their productions and appears to bring Johnny good luck at the riverboat’s roulette table just like Zolita said she would. Nelly has just broken up with the owner of the riverboat they all work on and Johnny catches her eye. It turns into a nasty little spat between Frankie and Johnny that culminates with her throwing all the gambling winnings he so desperately needed to pay off his debt, out the window.

Is it the best movie I ever saw? No. Is it the funniest? No. But it did the job for me. It felt good to spend time with it right now. Frankie and Johnny is fun. It gets bonus points for somehow being able to take my mind off of things for 87 minutes. This movie is full of bright colors and happy, 19th century styles. The costumes were beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much yellow….well, ever. Nor have I ever listened to so much Elvis Presley music….ever.  I’m a little ashamed of that, but I can admit now that I thoroughly enjoyed his singing here. I think my favorite song was near the end where he sings “Hard Luck” with the harmonica played by a boy on the street. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Frankie and Johnny was directed by Frederick De Cordova in 1966 for Frankie and Johnny Productions and United Artists. It’s On Demand on TCM right now and available to rent, streaming on Amazon.  Now, I might need to find another Elvis movie to try. Any suggestions? Or should I quit while I’m ahead?