It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963)
Elvis Presley, Joan O’Brien, Gary Lockwood, Vicky Tiu, Yvonne Craig, Kurt Russell, Red West and Charlie Hodge.
Director Norman Taurog
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (105 mins)
Mike Edwards (Presley) and Danny Burke (Lockwood) are crop dusting pilots and business partners. Unfortunately, Danny is also a degenerate gambler who gambles away the duo’s nest egg and causes their plane to be impounded. Their search for work leads them to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair where they run into Sue-Lin (Tiu), a seven-year-old girl and her Uncle Walter (Kam Tong). Mike gets stuck taking Sue-Lin around the fair where he meets a pretty nurse named Diane Warren (O’Brien). As he is wont to do, Mike falls in love with Diane. He makes a play but is barred.
Next day, Mike returns to the fair determined to date Diane. Needing to brew up an ailment to get in to see his nurse, Mike pays a kid (Russell) a quarter to kick him in the shin. Mike hobbles in to see Diane and they end up going to dinner where Mike sings a nice love song, making a major move. Leaving the restaurant, Diane is on board until the “shin kicker” shows up asking if Mike wants him to kick him again. Diane becomes enraged and storms off.
Sue-Lin suddenly shows up crying that Uncle Walter is “lost” and she’s all alone. Mike takes her under his wing and back to the trailer he and Danny have been living in. Sue-Lin plays matchmaker by pretending to have a fever and insisting that Nurse Diane come and fix her up. Diane shows up and her and Mike share a tender moment.
All along Danny has been threatening to hook up with gangster-type Vince Bradley (H.M. Wynant). Bradley offers Danny some shady work and Danny shows his rat side by squealing to the child welfare board about the Sue-Lin situation. Danny hopes Sue-Lin going to a detention center will free Mike up so that the two pilots can pull a job for Bradley. Before the child welfare lady leaves with a tearful Sue-Lin, she claims that it was Diane that blew the whistle.
Mike and Danny get their plane out of hock with financial help from Bradley; he wants them to fly some stolen goods into Canada. Before the boys can load up the merchandise stashed in an airport warehouse, Mike finds out that Sue-Lin has run away. Mike heads back to the fair where Sue-Lin is hiding in one of the exhibits. He grabs her and takes her back to the airport. There he finds Diane has come looking for him, claiming it wasn’t her that squealed. Bradley starts to talk hardcore and brandishes a gun. Mike promptly thumps him, Danny apologizes for being a rat and the cops show up. At the police station, Mike and Diane make up and Uncle Walter is found. Mike then joins Diane in signing up to work at NASA and he sings about how much he loves a happy ending.
It Happened at the World’s Fair was Elvis’ 12th film – and he had not made a clunker yet. Although this film did, perhaps, indicate a descent into mediocrity was looming. This was his first of three in ’63, released April 3rd, and was followed by Fun in Acapulco – which suffered from rear projection and again featured a child, making three films in a row that co-starred a kid – and Kissin’ Cousins – often considered his worst. But things are still pretty kosher here although it doesn’t contain much in terms of plot that sets it apart. It may be something of a rarity when people talk King Movies and, for me personally, it was the last Elvis film I saw to finish his filmography.
The director was Elvis’ fave, Norman Taurog, who I talked about in some detail in my review of Live a Little, Love a Little. This was Norman’s fourth of nine King Movies directed. Continuing the unfortunate trend of TV types working on Elvis’ films, the two screenwriters were known – before and since – as writers exclusively for television specials and sitcoms.
Joan O’Brien is just wrong in this film. First of all, the legendary Sydney Guilaroff got her hair wrong. Second, she is one of the majority of Elvis’ female co-stars that simply don’t look “right” with him. Although, I will say that Joan’s character does go well with Presley’s character, Mike and additionally Joan acts well in this film. Actress and singer O’Brien was married at 18 to none other than Billy Strange, a musician and producer who would later work with Elvis Presley at a pivotal point in King’s career. Actually, Joan would marry a total of five times. Prolific on television as well as at the altar, Joan appeared in only ten films, The Alamo (1960) and The Comancheros (1961) among them. After World’s Fair, she would appear in Get Yourself a College Girl (1964) and then quit acting. In 1968, she joined Harry James’ band as a singer. Miss O’Brien – born in 1936 – is still with us as of this writing.
Gary Lockwood is pretty good casting as Mike’s degenerate gambler business partner, Danny. In later King Movies, some of the actors they put together with Elvis simply don’t look like people that someone that looks like Elvis would hang out with. This was by design, though; Colonel Parker didn’t want anyone acting with Elvis who might draw the viewers eyes away from his boy. But Lockwood makes sense. He had appeared previously with Elvis in his first credited role in the excellent Wild in the Country (1961) playing a character who was mean to King and who caused a lot of trouble for him. Until Elvis punched him out, causing him to die!
Also still with us as of today (born 1937), Lockwood is known more for three other roles he played. Lockwood appeared notably in the second pilot of the TV series Star Trek and would later portray Dr. Frank Poole in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A year later, he would play the irredeemable character of George Matthews in Model Shop, Jacques Demy’s film that may be best remembered for its depiction of the streets of Los Angeles of the time. Lockwood, a former stunt man, would be demoted in the 1970’s to appearing in episodes of television shows. Lockwood’s first wife was Stefanie Powers. They were married from 1966 until 1972.
Yvonne Craig makes quite an impression in her one scene as Dorothy, a sexy dish Mike has to break off with as he and Danny are leaving town. Yvonne had just turned 25 while making this film with King, who was 27, making this an appealing match. Craig had appeared in small roles in Gidget (1959) and By Love Possessed (1961) when she made our film. Her next job would be an equally sexy turn as one of Presley’s two Kissin’ Cousins. The former ballet dancer later made Ski Party (1965) and In Like Flint (1967) but is best known for playing Batgirl on the Batman television series which she did for the third and final season of that show. Like many of these actors and actresses we look at here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure, Craig went into real estate for a time. Yvonne Craig died in 2015 in Pacific Palisades from breast cancer. She was 78.
Much has been made down through the years of the fact that it is an 11-year-old Kurt Russell who kicks Elvis in the shin. World’s Fair was Kurt’s first acting job and he would go on to…be Kurt Russell. Notably, Russell would earn a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Elvis Presley in John Carpenter’s Elvis TV film from 1979 in which Kurt’s dad, cowboy actor Bing Russell, plays Vernon, Elvis’ dad. Kurt remembers that, while making World’s Fair, Elvis spoke to him fondly of having enjoyed Bing in westerns. Cute Vicky Tiu plays cute Sue-Lin. Vicky was part of the talented Tiu family and her two sisters, Ginny and Elizabeth, along with brother, Alexander, appeared in Elvis’ previous film, Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962). Born in Manila, this Tiu sister became First Lady of Hawaii in 1997 when she married Governor Ben Cayetano. Also, watch for Red West as a poker-playing scrapper that King beats on and Charlie Hodge as a carnival worker that awards Vicky Tiu a big, ugly stuffed animal.
The Look: While this film may not be as well known as his others, I would argue that Elvis may never have looked better in a movie than he did in World’s Fair. In his 11 previous films, Presley’s character called for him to look a certain way. Perhaps only Blue Hawaii‘s Chad Gates allowed him to dress up a bit and look sharp. That being said, Mike Edwards’ crop duster should not be as sharp-looking as Elvis is in this movie. For some forgotten reason, it was decided that he should be costumed in immaculate suits throughout this film. While it may seem incongruous, we as viewers are the better for it.
According to our friends at Elvis Australia, on August 31st, 1962, Presley met with legendary clothing designer Sy Devore. Devore needs his own post. Designer to the stars, Devore creations were worn by literally every major male star of the age. Full stop. Presley’s wardrobe for this film cost over $9,000 and “included 10 suits, 2 cashmere coats, 4 sport coats, 15 pairs of slacks, 30 shirts and 55 ties”. Elvis looks magnificent in these clothes and indeed appears to be in great shape and his hair is perfect. I did chuckle a bit when in one scene he was dressed in a real fighter pilot outfit with bomber jacket and flying white scarf. It just seemed so out of place. He’s a crop duster.
King Moment: It Happened at the World’s Fair is a breezy film that allows King to excel at light comedy, something he always did well. Early in the film, he and Danny are spraying some potatoes and Mike is showing off flying very low, almost skimming the tops of the potatoes. When Danny complains, Mike asks “doncha like ’em mashed?” But the funniest moment comes when Mike is trying to pick up Nurse Diane by claiming there is something in his eye. In an effort to bring their faces close together, Mike is blinking and opening his eyelid while lunging in close to a flummoxed Diane. It’s goofy fun and brings a chuckle.
The Music: “Beyond the Bend”, “Relax”, “Take Me to the Fair”, “They Remind Me Too Much of You”, “One Broken Heart for Sale”, “I’m Falling in Love Tonight”, “Cotton Candy Land”, “World of Our Own”, “How Would You Like to Be”, “Happy Ending”
I said before that World’s Fair basically straddles the two regions of King Movies. It’s great in many ways but flawed also and its flaws are indicative of what is the most disappointing about Presley’s films. Much like Blue Hawaii and Girls! Girls! Girls! before it, It Happened at the World’s Fair has great songs on it’s soundtrack but it also has songs the type of which represent the greatest defect of his movie music, that being; too many of the songs are not so much songs as they are plot devices, or comments on the action. This film is one of the few with no title track but the buoyant “Beyond the Bend” plays over the opening credits. Written by the prolific movie song-writing team of Wise-Weisman-Fuller, this tune is like many by that trio, perfect in this setting. The lyrics describe the carefree, easy-going wanderlust that is at the heart of King Movies; “Don’t know where I’m going, don’t know where it ends. ‘Til the grass is greener beyond the bend…I haven’t got a care. I’m just on my way to anywhere…” Another prolific songwriting team for Elvis’ movies was Sid Tepper and Roy C. Bennett and they contribute the fine “Relax”. Elvis sings this song to a paramour in an attempt to get her to…relax. We have Yvonne Craig to thank for one of the very few genuinely sexy moments in King Movies; I count three. In a scene in her living room, Craig’s character, Dorothy, is fending off Mike and she is dressed perfectly, her figure presented in the best possible light. The choreography and the close-quarters writhing of this smouldering sequence is something to behold.
Songwriter Don Robertson contributes two ballads to the film. Presley loved Robertson’s songs, recording many of them for soundtracks and albums. “They Remind Me Too Much of You” is a stunning tune that King presents in his gentlest tones. This tender song is notable in the film in that Elvis is seen on-screen while the song plays but his character is not singing (or lip-synching) the song. Mike is thinking back to his meeting with Diane, realizing he is smitten. Roberson also wrote “No More” from Blue Hawaii, “Born to Be With You” by the Chordettes and “Ringo”, a #1 song for Canadian Lorne Greene. The other ballad, “I’m Falling in Love Tonight”, is pleasant if less poignant than “They Remind Me”. Robertson plays piano on the album.
“One Broken Heart for Sale” may be one of the best King Movie songs of the early Sixties. Written by the formidable team of Otis Blackwell and Winfield Scott, the tune is sung in the courtyard of the trailer park where Mike and Danny have taken up residence. Comically, a quartet of neighbours are so taken with Mike’s song that the four old codgers gather around and sing a little back-up, perhaps recalling the old days on the village green when they were four little lambs who had lost their way and were batting their eyes at the sorority girls. The tune is excellent and deserves not to be lumped in with other “movie songs”. This song was released as a single but inexplicably the version released was a full minute shorter than originally recorded. This plus equally baffling poor sonics on the record resulted in this being the first Elvis Presley single to not reached the Top Ten; it peaked at #11.
Blackwell was a songwriter who’s early work influenced the formation of rock & roll. Perhaps more than any other single writer, Blackwell created what rock & roll songs were about and he penned many iconic tunes for Elvis and others including “All Shook Up”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Return to Sender”, “Fever”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Breathless”, “Hey, Little Girl” (Dee Clark) and “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones). Blackwell’s partner on “One Broken Heart”, Winfield Scott, teamed up with Otis on many other Elvis songs and has the interesting distinction of having reappeared in Elvis World during a totally different “Elvis era”. Not only did Scott co-write “We’re Comin’ in Loaded” and “Long Legged Girl (With the Short Dress On)” but he also penned the sublime “Stranger in the Crowd”, one of the finest of all of Presley’s recordings from perhaps his finest record, That’s the Way It Is.
The film ends with one of the most obviously appropriate closers of any King Movie, “Happy Ending”. The lyrics even mention Diane giving Mike a “second glance” and wrap things up in a bow; “Give me a story with a happy ending. When boy meets girl and then they never part again but live forever happily, like you and me.” But this song’s triteness speaks to the problem with this soundtrack. Aside from the fine songs highlighted above, the soundtrack features perfect examples of the lowest form of Elvis recording, the type of song that it infuriates me were ever released on a Presley album. The plot device songs, while apropos when watching the film, cannot exist outside of it and they rarely work as album cuts. The same goes for lullabies and/or songs sung to children. It Happened at the World Fair has both of this type of song and therefore the album suffers. With the relatively poor chart success of the album’s single and the album’s ridiculously short running time – a mere 21 minutes and 21 seconds – this music dissolves into obscurity and blends with the rest of the blandest of Elvis’ movie music. As noted though, there are a few stand-outs. I’ll wrap with the interesting (for me) note that the album was produced and the incidental music of the film created by composer Leith Stevens, a prominent figure in the music for films noir. I spoke on him briefly in my review of The Great Rupert.
Meanwhile in Elvis World: This film is on the precipice for Presley, personally and professionally. At this point in his life, Elvis, according to Peter Guralnick “felt frustrated and bored, tired of the same situations, the same conversations, the small dramas of petty jealousy, endlessly repeated, that seemed to make up his daily life”. The gang – the so-called “Memphis Mafia” – was splintering with guys coming and going randomly. Some had realized they must break away if they were going to forge careers for themselves. Elvis injected some new blood into the group when he invited some newcomers to join him for shooting in Seattle. Priscilla was coming to Graceland for an extended visit and arrived in Memphis while Elvis was away. King was excited to get home to see her but this also soon turned sour as Cilla began to bristle about her boredom, the school she hated attending and the tight social and financial leash that skeptical Vernon was keeping her on. Once World’s Fair was released, though, Elvis brightened as evidenced by an interview he gave at the time. A local reporter spotted Elvis and Cilla on E’s motorcycle and scored a chat with Presley during which King said his latest film was “one of the best” he had made. But Elvis’ mood at this time may suggest in part that he knew the writing was on the wall where his film career was concerned. While Blue Hawaii had set the template, it was followed by Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad, quality departures both. After World’s Fair, he wouldn’t make a non-formula film for another five years.
It Happened at the World’s Fair is a good King Movie. In terms of ranking, it probably sits somewhere in the middle but there are a couple of things to watch for that seem to set it apart. While he may be as carefree as other Presley characters, Mike Edwards is also responsible which we don’t often see in King Movies. He’s saddled with a gambler for a partner and is the voice of stability and reason in the partnership and works hard to find gainful employment in order to get ahead. When you add to this his concern for Sue-Lin and a desire to better himself by going into the space program, you have a bit of a change of pace. In most of his movies, Elvis is dressed either according to his character’s occupation or he’s dressed somewhat outlandishly. But in World’s Fair, he is simply dressed sharply and looks like any other leading man would look in a film from this time. In a way, Presley would never look just like anybody else again.
As I said earlier, Elvis is also paired with a believable best friend. Lockwood was a serious actor who looked appropriate as King’s partner. Of course, no $10,000 was spent on Lockwood’s wardrobe, that’s for sure. No viewer is apt to get the characters mixed up. The location shooting at the Seattle World’s Fair makes for some good images and a minimum of rear-projection shots. I, personally, like the coziness of a mobile home and we see a beauty in this film. Watch for trailer living to pop up again in Roustabout and Speedway.
But the thing you can’t escape when assessing It Happened at the World’s Fair is the fact that a child is involved in the story; in fact, the story is about a child. Make no mistake, Vicky Tiu is as cute as the dickens and not as irritating as some child actors can be but the whole idea of putting children in Elvis’ movies is part and parcel of Col. Tom Parker’s plan to neuter Presley’s rocker persona and remake him into a maker of films for the whole family. While watching Presley interact with children has its charm you can’t help thinking that the whole concept is wrong. King Movies should be cooler. A man who looks like that should be filmed in cooler situations in movies with more thoughtful plots. This also leads to the inevitable song sung to or with the child. These songs – obviously built to appeal to children – generally lack any merit and it’s a shame – it’s one of my biggest beefs with Elvis World – that they were released on Elvis Presley’s records. Especially when you consider the music being released in the mid-1960’s. And consider again RCA’s haphazard handling of the music – the single and the album – for this film. It’s sad.
But it’s fun. All things considered, It Happened at the World’s Fair is entertaining and contains just enough to set it apart and it all adds up to a King Movie I can highly recommend.