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From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Clambake

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Clambake

If Martians learned about Elvis through this movie, they might wonder how such a talent could be wasted so thoroughly.

“You know, those masters of yours have hidden motives. They’re trying to control people’s minds and use them for their own damn purposes.” This perhaps prescient bit of paranoia comes from no less than Elvis Presley, who, according to biographer Peter Guralnick, launched into this rant during the inauspicious filming of the 1967 feature Clambake.

Shooting was delayed for a month after Elvis fell and suffered a concussion. If it was self-sabotage, there may have been a reason; Elvis had grown weary of the formulaic product that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had enlisted him to keep churning out, and this, the 25th feature film Presley had made in little more than a decade, was too much. For moviegoers who look upon the King’s body of feature films as one big mediocre blur, this may be both the nadir and Platonic ideal. Although Presley himself considered it his worst movie, it has its momentary pleasures, as well as stretches of pain.

The threadbare plot perhaps inadvertently reveals how tired he was getting of his own myth. It begins promisingly, with Elvis in a fantastic white suit decked with what looks like oversize baseball stitching. Designed by legendary Hollywood clothiers the Nudies (founded by Russian-born tailor Nudie Cohn in the 1930s), the suit sold for $110 grand in 2008, and is more than worth the free price of admission already.

Elvis stars as wealthy playboy Scott Heyward, the son of an oil tycoon (James Gregory) who takes his kid’s genius for granted. On the road (or running away), the younger Heyward stops at a gas station lunch counter, where he meets Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins), on his way to start his job as a water-skiing instructor at a Miami hotel. The lunch counter waitress hits on Heyward, apparently because of his expensive sports car. As the men start talking, Heyward wonders what it would be like for women to actually be interested in him, not just his money, while Wilson only wishes he had a problem like that. So in a Prince-and-the-Pauper pact, the two trade places, Wilson borrowing Heyward’s eye-catching suit (it doesn’t do anything for Hutchins) and while Heyward puts on Wilson’s working-class threads (which still make Elvis look like the King), and hijinks ensue. Sort of.

As much as it may be difficult in principle to feel sorry for Elvis Presley, much of the King’s persona comes out of an alienation. He wasn’t like everybody else when he was poor, and that didn’t change when his ship came in and swept away everything in its wake. Themes of identity and authenticity run through Elvis movies at their best (King Creole, Jailhouse Rock) and their worst (Kissin’ Cousins, Harum Scarum). As bad as Elvis movies can get—which is pretty bad—it can be fascinating to watch this singular talent at some stage of his long, inevitable downfall.

Even when Clambake begins to tumble with “Who Needs Money,” a terrible duet between Presley and Hutchins, the absurd lyrics are still pretty hysterical: “Stocks and bonds/ They only bore me/ Interest holds no/ Interest for me!” Add colorful mid-century interior décor and Shelley Fabares, one of Presley’s most endearing and engaging leading ladies, the movie still has a chance to work. But for the most part, Arthur H. Nadel, a journeyman TV director, can’t make magic out of this formula—few could. Hutchins’ total lack of charisma is painful to watch next to even a diminished Presley, and when the action turns to a waterskiing adventure with pajama tycoon James Jamison (Bill Bixby), any spark the movie might have lit is gone. The movie turns into another example of Elvis-as-unheralded genius, in this case, with chemistry, as, in shades of Viva Las Vegas, he develops a racing yacht that might, just might, emerge victorious over Jamison’s high-priced vessel.

Clambake was the last Elvis movie for which Col. Parker could get his star a million-dollar paycheck. Gone were the early Elvis years where he had the confidence to allow his feral nature to come through onscreen. As suits its cultural infamy, the movie isn’t streaming on one of the major services; you can see it in parts on that forgotten stepsister of unauthorized content, Dailymotion. If Martians learned about Elvis through this movie, they might wonder how such a talent could be wasted so thoroughly. But still, the magic comes through, intermittently emerging from the shadows of failure.

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