Live a Little, Love a Little (1968)
Elvis Presley, Michele Carey, Dick Sargent, Don Porter, Rudy Vallee, Sterling Holloway, Celeste Yarnall, Eddie Hodges, Joan Shawlee, Emily Banks, Susan Henning, Red West, Sonny West and Vernon Presley
Director Norman Taurog
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (90 mins)
Photographer Greg Nolan (Presley) is bombing around the beach in his dune buggy. As he sits on the sand, a gorgeous girl (Carey) and her huge dog show up. The girl says that today she feels like “Alice”. She makes a major play for Greg and, when he rebuffs her, she sics her dog on him and he flees into the ocean. The dog, Albert, won’t let Greg out of the water until almost sundown. “Alice” finally lets Greg out and takes him home. There, she tells Greg he’s burning with fever. She drugs him and he sleeps for three days.
When Greg wakes up and finds out how long he’s been out of it, he’s stressing about his job and wants to leave but “Alice” asks him to stay, saying she wants a little “huggy bear”. “Alice”‘s ex, Harry Baby (Sargent) walks in on them – calling “Alice” by her proper name, Bernice – saying he left some things behind. When Bernice and Harry share a tender moment of goodbye at the door, Greg is disgusted and splits to find out if he still has a job. He doesn’t. He’s also been moved out of his house by “his sister”; Bernice. Now Greg is fuming and goes back to Bernice’s house at the beach to tell her off. He cools down and decides to accept her offer to stay at her house until he finds a job and a place of his own.
Not wanting to be indebted to Bernice, Greg gets two photographer jobs to pay her back; one job has him shooting for Mike Lansdown (Porter) at a girly mag and the other job is at a classy ad agency ran by Mr. Penlow (Vallee). Greg runs himself ragged attempting to keep each of his bosses from finding out he’s dividing his time. When Greg and Bernice take their relationship to the next level, Bernice can’t handle it and splits. Greg runs to the beach to find her and to see if they can work things out.
Live a Little, Love a Little is a hidden gem. Not only in Elvis World but in terms of films of this style made at this time. Released October 23, 1968, it was Elvis’ 28th film and was the first of his final five narrative films that featured limited musical numbers. It was his third film released in ’68 and came four months after Speedway. By 1968, King Movies had a definite stink on them and this film was basically ignored. But Elvis looked spectacular at this point in his life and the script has him engaging in some hip and mature life situations – including smoking one of his favoured cheroots and sipping a screwdriver – which sets this movie apart from his others.
Director Norman Taurog is maybe the most prolific director in Elvis World and he was the man that directed the most King Movies; Live a Little was Norman’s 9th Presley film and Taurog has the distinction of having directed the King in his finest comedic films. Taurog directed his first film in 1920 and would helm 180 films, winning an Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for Skippy. He was the youngest winner of this Oscar until 2017 when Damien Chazelle won for La La Land. Taurog was losing his sight during this time and Live a Little would be his last film. He eventually went blind but lived until 1981 when he died, aged 82. Taurog directed films that starred Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland and Martin & Lewis. And look at the fourteen films he directed in the 1960’s. Nine were Elvis films and the others included All Hands On Deck (1961) starring Pat Boone, Palm Springs Weekend (1963) with Troy Donahue, Stefanie Powers, Connie Stevens and Robert Conrad and two films for American-International, Sergeant Deadhead and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, both 1965. Norman knew how to direct a good time.
Live a Little, Love a Little is one of the few King Movies to be based on a novel. Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips is a satirical 1965 novel from Dan Greenburg, who’s first wife was Nora Ephron. A child from Greenburg’s second marriage is Zack O’Malley Greenburg who, at the age of five, played the title role in the film Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) and would go on to become a senior music editor at Forbes magazine. I own this novel. In the early 1990’s, I sold lamps and rugs at a now-defunct but once-venerable Canadian department store. One of the many slow weeknights I worked, I was strolling through the room settings in the neighbouring mattress section. There were some books in a book case so I scrolled the spines. My mind slowly assimilated the fact that the words I was reading on the spine of one medium-sized green jacket-less book were, indeed, Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips. This unique title caught my eye and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I took the book home that night. It’s quirky, like the film, but much more explicit.
Michele Carey is not the most notable of Elvis’ female co-stars but it must be said that, physically, she may be – after Ann-Margret – the best match for King; they look like they belong together. Carey had been a piano prodigy who was born into a US Navy family. Thanks in part to her lustrous mane of hair, she became a model with the Powers agency but soon turned to acting. Like many actors who appear in King Movies, Carey’s credits are few and minor. Her only other notable credits include the beach films How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) and The Sweet Ride (1968) and also the westerns El Dorado (1966) with John Wayne and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970), one of Frank Sinatra’s last films. So, eleven feature films, three of them with John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.
I have to mention her last two films, horror movies In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro (1986) and The Stay Awake (1988). Shame that so many minor actors ended up slumming in such films. Kilimanjaro‘s plot runs thusly; a drought in Kenya causes 90,000 baboons to go on a rampage, killing humans and animals. Married four times, Michele died in 2017 in Newport Beach. She does really well in Live a Little. My wife is irritated by her performance and that may mean that she plays the part properly. While Bernice is maddeningly manipulative, Carey plays her sweetly but at the same time sexy and experienced in the ways of love. She was 26 years old making this film to Elvis’ 33.
Gidget’s dad, Don Porter, appears as swingin’ Mike Landsown, the health nut owner of Classic Cat Magazine. Porter played Mr. Lawrence to Cindy Carol’s Gidget in 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome and also in Sally Field’s television show, Gidget (1966). Other than that though… He had previously showed up in some films noir and he happened to be in The Last Song (1983), a film I just recently mentioned in an article on the film Blood Song (1982). Rudy Vallee is, of course, interesting casting. Vallee had been ‘Elvis Presley’ in the 1920’s. The first singer in the “teen idol” mold, Vallee was adored by millions in his day. He was also considered one of the first crooners and celebrity pop stars. Having him appear in Live a Little is not exactly a gimmick but it’s certainly clever to have him acting alongside Presley. And Vallee does well and seems comfortable with the material that has his character extolling the virtues of having your “head shrunk”. There is a perhaps somewhat embellished story from the making of this film that has Presley and Vallee standing together and two old gals brushing Elvis aside to get Vallee’s autograph.
See my feelings on Dick Sargent in my review of Bernardine (1957); I can’t bring myself to talk about him again. Sterling Holloway plays the milk man who knows Bernice as “Betty”. Holloway appeared notably in Remember the Night (1940) and was a prolific voice actor for Walt Disney. The wise guy delivery boy (he calls her “Susie”) is played by Eddie Hodges who also appeared in a film with Frank Sinatra, 1959’s A Hole in the Head, which was Eddie’s debut. Something of a singer, Eddie had a #12 hit in 1961 with the cute “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door”. Not much for the industry, though, Live a Little, Love a Little was Eddie’s last film. He eventually became a mental health counselor.
Joan Shawlee you’ve seen in The Apartment (“Thursday?! But that’s The Untouchables with Bob Stack!”) and Sinatra’s Tony Rome (1967). Emily Banks plays a pretty receptionist who has a cute scene showing Greg his new office. It took me awhile but I figured out where I’d seen her; in Bobby Darin’s western Gunfight in Abilene (1967). And Celeste Yarnall plays Ellen, the dish Greg picks up at Mike’s party. The gorgeous Yarnall turned the head of many movie producers in the 1960’s and she made some small films but never broke through. In her later life, she went into real estate and the savvy businesswoman started a firm that was one of the best in the tough market of Los Angeles. Later, she turned her attention to nutrition, earning a doctorate and teaching on the subject at the university level. She then became a breeder of cats and wrote books on nutrition for house pets! This interesting lady died six weeks before Michele Carey did in 2017. Miss Yarnall had battled ovarian cancer for four years. She was 74.
Susan Henning appears as a mermaid at a photo shoot. Henning can be seen in the controversial bordello scene in the “’68 Comeback Special”. She and Elvis dated for a time. Red and Sonny West are on hand to throw the dukes with King and Vernon Presley can be seen as a model at another photo shoot.
The Look: As noted previously, Elvis looks stunning in this film. Shooting began in early March of ’68. Sometime in middle-to-late 1967, Presley began to turn a corner, personally and professionally and this was borne out in his appearance. His wardrobe for Live a Little is classy, hip, exciting. Greg Nolan wears various outfits and all are winners. He starts the film in a great light blue mock turtleneck, similar to those worn by Matt Helm. It zips at the neck. Later, he looks about as cool as he ever has in a film when he gets out of a big, ol’ Imperial – maybe my favourite classic car – wearing sunglasses and a great suit featuring a three-button jacket. He then combines the two looks to sing “A Little Less Conversation” at a swingin’ and colourful party. This film doesn’t list a wardrobe person in the credits so I’m left to wonder if maybe King took a hand and dressed himself, partly at least. Are these suits the creation of Sy Devore?
King Moment: Presley always played “annoyed” really well and he gets the chance to shine often in this film as Greg is constantly miffed at the games Bernice plays. Twice Bernice invites her ex, Harry, to join her and Greg for supper as her neurosis leaves her afraid to be alone with Greg. Greg is angered both times by this intrusion.
The Music: “Wonderful World”, “Edge of Reality”, “A Little Less Conversation”, “Almost in Love”
OK, y’ready? Here we go, we’re gonna fight now; Live a Little, Love a Little contains the best soundtrack of any King Movie. I’ll defend this position all day long though I’ve yet to meet someone who agrees. As noted earlier, near the end of Elvis’ film career, his movies contained less singing. Speedway was made before Stay Away, Joe but released after so starting with Stay Away, he was singing less in the movies. Indeed, Live a Little was billed as a “comedy” as opposed to a “musical comedy”. This film has only four songs and, I maintain, that, song for song, it has the best soundtrack. I win the argument by simply stating the obvious that all the songs work as songs; there are no “plot device” songs. No lullabies or songs about fishing that simply comment on the action. The four songs were recorded under different circumstances and with different people involved.
In charge of the sessions was Billy Strange, a guitarist, songwriter and producer who worked with the legendary Wrecking Crew and played on Pet Sounds (1966). He worked extensively with Nancy Sinatra and famously played the tremolo guitar that distinguished her recording of Sonny Bono’s “Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. For the sessions for Live a Little, Billy brought in his buddies in the Wrecking Crew to play on the tracks, recorded in early March, ’68. Notably, Hal Blaine plays drums, including the stellar intro to “A Little Less Conversation”. Peter Guralnick states that the sessions were “altogether different” from Elvis’ regular recording work but “the results were no more successful…but they did represent a different direction”. It kills me to disagree with Mr. Guralnick but I must.
“Wonderful World” plays over the opening credits. It may seem incongruous, this gentle tune playing while on-screen King makes a menace of himself bombing around in his dune buggy. But the song puts you on the grass under a tree on a bright sunny day – just like songs from the very best King Movies do. This is a good example of a tune that fans and non-fans have trouble hearing Elvis Presley sing – it doesn’t match his rocker persona. However, it is delightful and sounds no different from some of the pop and soft/rock being offered at the time by the likes of Sinatra and Dino, Al Martino and Jack Jones. The song was written by Guy Fletcher and Doug Flett, the duo who became the first Englishmen to have a song recorded by King. Presley first did their “The Fair’s Movin’ On” and later recorded their “Just Pretend”.
“Edge of Reality” is a great, atmospheric song that has been described as “pseudo-acid rock”. Sung during a dream sequence and accompanied by some old school, 1950’s-style dance moves from King, the tune was written by the team of Bernie Baum, Bill Giant and Florence Kaye, a group who had written many movie songs for Elvis. “Edge of Reality” was on the B-side of Elvis’ single of “If I Can Dream”, released in November of ’68 and reaching #12.
“A Little Less Conversation” is my favourite Elvis Presley song and his second-best recording ever. Written by Billy Strange and a young writer name of Mac Davis, the song borders on funk and has an energy not bettered by any other song the King recorded. FTD, the specialty record label devoted to Presley, has put out a great version of this soundtrack loaded with several takes of each tune. I love that you can hear drummer Blaine try out different drum fills on the opening of this tune as the recording progresses. On take 7 of “Conversation”, Hal goes into his great opening and drops his sticks. You can hear them clatter and EP heckle him in good humour; “Atta boy, Hal!”. It’s well known that this song was remixed in 2005 and was a hit in many countries worldwide.
Of all of Presley’s movie songs, “Almost in Love” is the third-best. As a fan of bossa nova, I can appreciate that this tune is based on a song by the legend Luiz Bonfá, “Moonlight in Rio” from 1965. The lyrics are courtesy of Randy Starr. Starr is a dentist and a songwriter – you read that right – who was part of the group the Islanders, who’s “The Enchanted Sea” was a big hit in 1959. “Almost in Love” was the last of twelve movie songs Starr wrote for Elvis. Presley puts in a gentle and sensuous vocal and it’s a crime that this performance is ignored. Again, it is perhaps hard to reconcile Elvis the Rocker with this wonderful song, therefore, the thinking goes, it must be substandard. But this would fit perfectly on an album by virtually any other vocalist of the era. Featuring a sublime muted trombone solo and sumptuous strings, this tune is celestial. It was released as a single – with “A Little Less Conversation” on the B side – but only reached #95.
The songs from Live a little, Love a Little, being only four, were not released on an album or EP. Three of them appeared on budget releases in the early 1970’s.
Meanwhile in Elvis World: Live a Little, Love a Little was Elvis Presley’s second-last, non-period piece, narrative film. By March of 1968, he was certainly beginning to look elsewhere for career fulfillment and – conveniently – Hollywood was changing and the “Elvis Vehicle” was now no longer a guarantee of box-office success. They were both done with each other. Elvis would make the fine serious western Charro!, the disposable The Trouble With Girls and the watchable and ambitious Change of Habit and then be through with Hollywood, a place he never felt comfortable.
Elvis had just become a father when he started filming this film. Red West was given a small part which can be seen as an apology of sorts from Elvis. Red had left Elvis’ employ recently as part of the fall-out from Red not being invited to Elvis’ wedding. As soon as Elvis was done making this film, he embarked on the creation of the Elvis television special that would become known as the “’68 Comeback Special”. With this TV event – broadcast later that year in December – Presley regained his standing in the industry. Subsequently, Live a Little can be seen as the beginning of a new direction for Elvis that included not only stunning good looks but also rejuvenated musical inclinations.
Live a Little, Love a Little came out in October of 1968 and went ignored; the film was not even released in the United Kingdom. The film, though, was made at a pivotal part of Elvis’ career and is part of a historic turning point. Some six weeks after the film’s release, the TV special would hit the air and everything would change. Presley would also revisit the songs of Mac Davis successfully, a relationship that started with “A Little Less Conversation” from this soundtrack.
Live a Little, Love a Little was among a group of King Movies I taped off TV early in my teens. Subsequently, it became one of my favourites and the second of Presley’s films I ever bought on VHS (Jailhouse Rock was the first). I love the film, not only for its fun content but also for its unique status among King Movies.
And Elvis does really well as Greg. I can’t help but think of how Presley is considered historically as an actor. Consider this film; he does a lot of his own driving. Not only the big, beautiful 1968 Imperial convertible he drives but also the aggressive dune buggy racing at the beginning. Steve McQueen did the same in films like The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and is considered the “king of cool”. And watch the fight with Red and Sonny – watch any fight in any King Movie. It’s all Elvis with never a stunt double. Look at some of Roger Moore’s fights as James Bond; the director and editors had a job disguising the fact that Moore was basically a stand-in for the stunt men. Presley the actor needs more respect.
Funny: Elvis is sometimes heckled for not being a good actor while Dick Sargent is supposed to be an actual actor but is maybe the worst actor the world has ever seen. And Elvis is panned? When this film is dismissed, it seems the talking dog is always mentioned as a main reason the film is lame. Would I remove the talking dog to make this movie cooler? No. I would remove Dick Sargent to make it cooler. Keep the dog.
The movie benefits from a location shoot. The fantastic house that Bernice rents for Greg has been identified as being at 2200 Hercules Drive in Los Angeles. You’ll also see Marineland of the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes, Leo Carrillo State Beach and other locations in Malibu including the intersections of Encinal Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway and Larchmont Blvd near Beverly Blvd. Greg shoots at the Los Angeles County Music Center and works at the Hollywood Citizen-News building on Wilcox.
It’s worth noting that Bernice is maybe seriously psychotic. Different names for different moods? She drugs Greg with pills she keeps in the top drawer of Albert’s dresser? Sits around in her panties with the milkman? And sex is a real issue for her; it freaks her out when it happens. She keeps Harry on a string, still lives in his house and wants him to chaperon her time with Greg. The script lacks the depth to dig in to her issues but its fun to watch Greg tangle with her and cure what ails her. And speaking of “curing” her, much has been made about the fact that Elvis’ character in this film does, indeed, go “all the way”, a first and only in King Movies. He violently discards the divider he has placed in their bed, she gets the message and goes to him and we fade out. Live a Little, Love a Little is one of the first King movies I would mention when encouraging people to watch his films with a new eye and an open mind. This is a really good time and a great look at Los Angeles in 1968.