Tickle Me (1965)
Elvis Presley, Julie Adams, Jocelyn Lane, Jack Mullaney, Edward Faulkner, Red West, Grady Sutton, Richard Reeves, John Dennis, Barbara Werle and Sonny West.
Director Norman Taurog
Allied Artists Pictures (91 mins)
Lonnie Beale (Presley) is a rodeo rider down on his luck. A bus brings him into Zuni Wells to find an old buddy who has work for him but he learns his friend is no longer around. Instead, he takes a job singing in a restaurant but is fired when he gets in a fight with some red-headed guy. One of the patrons who witnesses the fight, Vera Radford (Adams), sympathizes with him and hires him to work at her Circle-Z Ranch, a guest ranch for ladies trying to lose weight.
Introduced around the ranch, Lonnie immediately clashes with swimming instructor, Brad (Faulkner), just as quickly spies cutie Pam (Lane) and bunks in with goofy Stanley (Mullaney). Hired to tend to the horses, Lonnie can’t help but break out into song while he works which disrupts the operations on the ranch. While all the girls have eyes for Lonnie, he only sees Pam but she is loathe to get involved with a “sagebrush lothario” who will no doubt be hitting the trail soon.
One night, Pam gets attacked by a masked man who is chased off by Lonnie. Pam tells Lonnie that her grandfather buried money somewhere in the local ghost town and she has the map. The two of them spend a romantic afternoon in the town and search for the money to no avail. During a luau to honour the ranch’s investors, masked men again make their play and again are run off. When Pam later catches Lonnie and Miss Radford kissing, she is enraged. Thinking he is only after her grandfather’s money, she tells Lonnie to hit the road and he does. He is a bust, though, on the rodeo circuit because Pam won’t answer his letters. He returns and begs forgiveness.
When Pam makes another trip to the ghost town, Lonnie and Stanley follow. A storm forces the three to spend the night but Pam still won’t give Lonnie the time of day. She’s not too proud, though, to ask for his help when the gang looking for the map and the money terrorize them through the night in the old hotel.
Believe it or not, Tickle Me is actually something of a unique entry in King’s filmography. We will get to the details but Presley’s 18th film was his only one for Allied Artists Pictures. I only recently wrote about a charming Christmas film called It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) that was the first film made by the new Allied Artists unit of Monogram Pictures when that B movie studio wanted to enter the world of big-budget movie-making. A scant 8 years later and Allied was on the ropes. In March of 1965, Allied reported losses of $1,512,000. According to Peter Guralnick, earlier in the year, Col. Tom Parker had been kind enough to allow Allied to break their contract to make Tickle Me if they could not afford to make the picture; but Allied could not afford not to. A budget of $1,480,000 was approved for the film with $750,000 of it earmarked for King’s salary. That’s 51% of the budget. I have also read that the “below-the-line costs” for the film totaled $406,400 making it the cheapest of all King Movies to that time; and it shows. As he often was in his films, Elvis Presley was the real-life hero and saved the day for Allied Artists. Tickle Me grossed $5 million dollars and the studio was granted a reprieve.
Tickle Me is not without its charm but we need to be honest about its place in Presley’s filmography. As I said, this is his 18th film and up to this point he had made only one film that could really be called a dog, Kissin’ Cousins. So, while the films were not terrible, fans and critics – and Elvis himself – must have spotted the trend by now. All and sundry must have understood the type of film Presley was going to make. Tickle Me is an instance of King Movie as Business Venture. It’s a prime example of trading Elvis’ aspirations as an actor for an entry on an accounting ledger. After this, things got worse. You could make a case, then, for Tickle Me being the death knell.
Director Norman Taurog was on hand for this his 5th of nine King Movies. Selected by Col. Tom for his renowned ability to bring films in on time and under budget, Taurog had already helmed It Happened at the World’s Fair and would go on to direct 6 more films after this; 4 for Elvis and 2 for American-International. You can read more about this prolific director in my review of Live a Little, Love a Little (1968).
Much of what you need to know about Tickle Me can be gleaned from who wrote the script. Both Memphis-born Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds had written for the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys. ‘Nuff said. In 1955, Ullman and Bernds wrote a Bowery Boys vehicle called High Society. Intending to nominate the big-budget Bing Crosby-Frank Sinatra film of the same name, the Academy actually made a mistake and sent Ullman and Bernds a nomination for their Bowery Boys script. An Academy Award nomination. For a Bowery Boys script. The two writers graciously returned the nomination but were allowed to keep the certificate that came with it.
Knock-out Jocelyn Lane was born Jocelyn Olga Bolton in Vienna the daughter of a Russian mother and English father. This compact beauty had an outrageous figure that is displayed throughout Tickle Me. Jocelyn’s sister, Mara Lane, was also a knock-out who had a short-lived film career and can be seen in Susan Slept Here (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds and a handful of European films. Billed as “Jackie Lane” until 1965, Jocelyn is the typical Elvis leading lady in many ways; she came from out of nowhere, was incredibly attractive and soon went back to anonymity. After playing a biker chick in Hell’s Belles (1969), Jocelyn quit the business and became a princess.
I’m always fascinated when I read about these attractive B movie actresses that catch the eye of international royalty or oil magnates or Russian oligarchs and leave Hollywood for the highest levels of world society. I picture them at fancy dress balls where everything is very sedate and proper. One young guy finally gets up the nerve to say to his hostess “weren’t you in The Son of Hercules vs. Venus?” Retiring in 1971, Jocelyn married Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Reading about this guy’s life, heritage and family can hurt your eyes; lots of long names and longer titles, diplomatic operations and continental living. (Hohenlohe-Langenburg was a county in south-western Germany) Prince Alfonso (full name Alfonso Maximiliano Victorio Eugenio Alejandro María Pablo de la Santísima Trinidad y Todos los Santos) was the typical international playboy who basically created the tourism industry of Marbella, Spain. He married Jocelyn after a messy and highly-publicized divorce. His marriage to Jocelyn was stormy as well and the two split in 1985, after Jocelyn had given birth to a daughter, Princess Arriana Theresa Maria of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Currently, Jocelyn designs and sells feather necklaces at Princess J Jewelry.
Jocelyn looks fantastic in this movie. Of particular note is a cute dress she wears briefly in one scene. It looks to me to be an exact copy of one that Ursula Andress wore earlier in Fun in Acapulco.
Julie Adams is known by movie fans for her role in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty from Iowa was a welcomed face in any film or TV episode. She appeared in many westerns and played the girl of another Elvis co-star, big Richard Egan, in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957). At 39, she is gorgeous in Tickle Me and handles the material well. Later in her career she appeared in two episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210, was a regular for a time on Murder, She Wrote and played Maggie Gyllenhaal’s grandmother in World Trade Center (2006). Always revered for her role in Black Lagoon, Julie was married for a time to actor Ray Danton, one of the many Americans who began working abroad in the 1960’s. Going one step further, Ray set up a production company in Europe, casting his wife in such films as Psychic Killer (1975). Julie Adams was a survivor. She lived to be 92 and died in 2019 in Los Angeles.
Hate to pick on Jack Mullaney but he’s a perfect example of the type of actor who shouldn’t have been cast alongside Elvis Presley. A lightweight, goofball comedy actor, Jack can also be seen with King in Spinout, made the following year. The Pittsburgh native has few credits to speak of, though some are notable; South Pacific (1958), Seven Days in May (1964) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). Poor Jack died of his second stroke at the age of 52. Much the same can be said about Edward Faulkner. Another lightweight, Faulkner did, however, turn up in a half-dozen John Wayne films, most notably McLintock! (1963) and had a small part in G.I. Blues, his first film. He was a USAF fighter pilot before becoming an actor and is still among us – age 89 – as of this writing.
Sharp-eyed fans of classic film will spot Grady Sutton as Circle-Z Ranch investor Mr. Dabney. Sutton started his film career in 1925 and made close to 200 films. He appears notably in White Christmas as the poor guy who keeps trying to dance with Rosemary Clooney. He also can be seen in Paradise, Hawaiian Style and three Frank Sinatra films. Richard Reeves is another face you see often; he provided harmonica accompaniment on “Beach Boy Blues” in Blue Hawaii. He can also be seen in four other King Movies for a total of six and he showed up in hundreds of television episodes. I remember him from I Love Lucy. A similar actor is John Dennis seen here as chef Adolph. He appeared earlier in Jailhouse Rock but also has scores of credits to his name including From Here to Eternity, The Night of the Hunter and countless television episodes. Barbara Werle is a decorative extra who had a larger role in Charro! (1969). Her son is entertainment lawyer John Branca. Branca has represented over 30 acts – more than any other attorney – including the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac and the Doors. He is regularly cited as one of the best lawyers in America and made his bones working with Michael Jackson. He is currently the chairman of the Michael Jackson Company and co-executor of Jackson’s estate.
Red West has a couple of lines early in the film before throwing the dukes with his buddy, Elvis. Watching this fight again recently really got me thinking. It is well choreographed, quite vigorous and features no stunt men. I can’t help but compare this to many other films and TV series of the day (Bonanza) and even some of Roger Moore’s turns as James Bond. Many actors stepped aside for on-screen fights. Not EP.
The Look: Made almost smack dab in the middle of his film career, Tickle Me catches Elvis looking only typically spectacular. Elvis just looks ordinary and the wardrobe is generic ranch hand garb. Nothing to see here.
King Moment: Tickle Me offers viewers a rare experience; Elvis looks at us. In a comical moment, Vera Radford is making a play for Lonnie in her office. As the two embrace, Lonnie says “I’ve never been kissed by my boss before”. He then breaks the fourth wall and, smirking at the camera, shares the laugh with us. The funny of course comes from the idea prevalent at the time that anyone’s “boss” was unlikely to be a woman and Elvis was unlikely to be kissed by a man. It’s a delightful, little moment.
The Music: “(It’s a) Long Lonely Highway”, “It Feels So Right”, “(Such an) Easy Question”, “Dirty Dirty Feeling”, “Put the Blame on Me”, “I’m Yours”, “Night Rider”, “I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever”, “Slowly But Surely”
Here’s what makes Tickle Me unique in Elvis World. There were no new songs recorded specifically for use in the film. This in itself is quite remarkable. Consider that, in the early days, Elvis did not want to sing in movies. But he caved to the pressure and insistence of the Colonel and I guess you could say he got on board with the idea of films and their soundtracks going hand-in-hand. Then, after he’s relented and allows his films to be loaded with new songs to sell on records, he’s asked to make a film for which there will be no new songs. Oh, there will be songs, yes. But not new ones. One might think Elvis may have been thrilled with the novel idea of making a film in which he wasn’t asked to sing and that he must have rolled his eyes when he learned they’d be recycling product. Elvis became aware of this plan in pre-production. Colonel telegrammed him to let him know they were considering not recording a soundtrack. Whether or not they did was totally up to Elvis, Colonel said. The producers just had to know by August 25. Elvis shot off a terse response – well after the firm deadline; “arrangements with records okay”. All this is truly odd. But it sets up an interesting paradox.
You could argue that Tickle Me has the finest soundtrack of any Elvis film – because it’s not really a soundtrack. It’s a collection of old songs recorded in the early 1960’s at a time when King was still engaged in recording music for jukeboxes and the radio and not simply to comment on the action in one of his movies. Meaning, these songs are good, they have a quality. Think of what we could have had if new songs had been commissioned. A song about “dang me, what a surprise. I can’t believe my eyes. This ranch is full of girrrrlllls!” Or maybe “that masked man, well, he wants your money, Pam. So stick with me and we’ll make this ghost town our hooommme”. “I lost you somehow, now I can’t ride this cow. Ahm comin’ home, baby, to you”
Recycling songs made it cheaper for Allied Artists as Elvis wasn’t gifting the studio and the picture with new songs. It worked out in a record business sense too; these good songs were given a second chance to be heard and perhaps to score, as two did. “(Such an) Easy Question” and “I’m Yours” both peaked on the charts at #11. These hits from the new Elvis movie from Allied Artists certainly helped the studio right the ship. And, as I say, the songs are excellent with no duds among them. “It Feels So Right” is a grinding rocker that should have been a hit when it was first released way back in 1960. Fresh home from the Army, then it was more about “It’s Now Or Never”, etc. but this tune is great.
“Will you or won’t you loooooovve me…” “Easy Question” is a fine mid-tempo song. While Presley is known for his rockers or his ballads, here is an example of how good he was at a sauntering gait. The pick of the bunch, though, is “Put the Blame On Me”. Another taken at an engaging tempo, it is punctuated by organ and features a sultry, playful vocal from our boy. Plus the sexy line about it not being her fault, she was under his spell; “you just did what I made you do”. Perhaps the Colonel and RCA couldn’t find exactly the right song for Lonnie to sing to Pam on the way to their honeymoon. While “Slowly But Surely” is a good song, the lyrics don’t quite fit; “Slowly but surely, I’m gonna make you mine”. Actually, Lonnie, she is yours. You’re married.
Meanwhile in Elvis World: Elvis has been lately described as “the searcher”. Perhaps especially in the 21st century, it is of general interest to many that Presley was constantly learning and reading books about different religions. He had a burning desire to know why he had been chosen to be “Elvis Presley”, perhaps the world’s most well-known entertainer. To this end he brought one Larry Geller into the fold. This was a time when Elvis’ long-time associate, Joe Esposito, had been ousted from the group. Things had gotten chippy among the boys and factions and class divisions had emerged. Finally, Esposito, who had acted as “foreman”, taking care of the day-to-day business of rolling with the king, had left and Marty Lacker had taken over. No one could understand it when Larry started hanging out with the group. Larry was different from every one of them and the guys couldn’t understand what his “connection” to Elvis was. On the surface, it was the king’s coif. Geller was a hairdresser and was employed ostensibly to cut and colour Elvis’ hair. But when Elvis and Larry went behind closed doors, hair was cut, sure, but the primary focus was on discussion.
Larry Geller worked with Jay Sebring and looked after the hair of people like Johnny Rivers. But Larry had also long immersed himself in spiritual studies. The first day Larry cut Elvis’ hair – April 30, 1964 – Elvis casually asked him “What are you into?” Larry answered that for the last four years he had been pondering the meaning of life, “why we are here, and where we are going…what (is) my purpose?” Elvis reportedly ate this up and began bearing his soul to Larry, eventually weeping. After this day, Geller quit Sebring and joined Elvis’ staff. He cut King’s hair but mostly he shared with Elvis scores of books about spirituality. The rest of the gang – simple southern boys – couldn’t fathom what was happening. Not understanding the connection between their boss and his new hairdresser, they began to think the worst, to become suspicious and to begin keeping Col. Parker abreast of this new development.
Jerry Schilling also came on board at this time and made the trip to Hollywood that October to shoot Tickle Me. The first night in town Jerry was too excited to sleep and sat up alone in the den of Elvis’ rented home in Bel Air. Sitting in the darkness, Jerry hears the front door open and a woman walk in. He watches her walk towards Elvis’ bedroom and – remembering he is supposed to be a bodyguard of sorts – he calls out “Miss?” The poor girl is startled and cries out. Hearing the commotion, Elvis opens his door and, seeing Jerry’s concerned look, begins to laugh. “It’s OK, Jerry”, he says, “it’s Ann (Margret)“.
Elvis engrossed himself totally in spiritual pursuits at this time. He even had to explain to Priscilla that – for a time, at least – they could not be intimate as he was focusing on cleansing himself and controlling his desires. He had finally gotten to the point where he realized his material wealth was not enough; there had to be something else. At this point, I would imagine, the bonds of fame would have felt considerably confining. Even if he had settled on a philosophy that he was ready to devote his life to, could he cease being an entertainer? Unlikely. So, as he approached his 30th birthday, Elvis Presley was unsettled and he was indeed searching. That’s the guy you’re seeing in Tickle Me. Hard to believe that he could turn away from these weighty matters and put in a convincing performance in a movie with such an asinine title, in which he played a rodeo cowboy who gets a job at a ranch full of women. One of the many paradoxes in Elvis World.
It’s hard to get past a few things with Tickle Me: the movie title, Jack Mullaney, what it means that no new songs were recorded and Elvis’ character’s name. Those who want to deride Elvis Presley’s film career can feel free to use this movie as a prime example of one of the least defensible King Movies. And while I will concede that the film could be described as “bad”, I would have to counter by saying that – like, Easy Come, Easy Go, to name one – it is also a good example of what is so great about his films.
It is plain to see its inherent flaws but it has a certain charm, regardless. Elvis looks interested and engaged. He seems dialled in and he appears comfortable with the lightweight material and his charisma shines through. He is provided with a few comical lines and he delivers them well. One of the many things Elvis the Actor excelled at was light comedy and while his work here may not be on par with his very best efforts in this vein as seen in G.I. Blues and Follow That Dream, it still showcases his breezy acting technique. When it comes to those Common Elements of King Movies, it bears noting that this is one of the few movies in which Elvis gets married. And the status of Elvis’ character’s parents is always worth recognizing as often he is free from any parents at all or he is rebelling against them. Early on, Lonnie says that an uncle raised him so here it’s the former. And the usual tough guy stance is neutered a bit in Tickle Me and the writers give it only token attention. When Vera offers Lonnie a job – not charity but a job – Lonnie bristles a bit and makes a point of saying that he makes his own decisions. Cut to the next day and Vera driving him out to the ranch.
His breaking the fourth wall seems to help illustrate that he is sharing the gag with the audience that the movie is less-than-stellar but, heck, life is short. Look at these girls and listen to me sing! Like so many other movies and TV shows of the era, the film suffers from a mostly interior shoot. Budget restraints obviously necessitated making the film in the confines of a sound stage but as I will often say about programs of the era the sets are delightful. Look at Pam’s room. Can you imagine a cuter place to relax?
Imagine it’s Elvis Week. The holidays are over and this has you a bit bummed out. Perhaps its a blizzard outside or you’re under the weather. Or, ideally, both. You stay home from work or school. You’re in your pajamas laying on the couch. This is when you can really appreciate the fun escapism of King Movies and Tickle Me in particular. Even with its blemishes, it’s a great example of the pleasant, lightweight joy Presley’s movies provide.