An above average Elvis vehicle, It Happened at the World's Fair (1963) is bolstered by a terrific transfer to DVD that does justice to some eye-popping location work, filmed mostly at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle and its Century 21 Exposition. The movie sputters out in its last act but, like the best of Elvis's post-army movies, it glides on his natural charm, some not-bad songs, and slick production values.
The familiar story has Mike Edwards (Elvis Presley) working as a small-time free-lance pilot with partner Danny Burke (Gary Lockwood). The pair hopes to start a small airline, an ambition that turns up (more or less) in at least one other Elvis movie. After a season of crop-dusting, chronic gambler Danny loses their bankroll in a fixed card game, creditors attach their plane, and the pair eventually makes their way to Seattle.
While Danny looks for quick cash from shady Vince Bradley (H.M. Wynant), Mike helps out Sue-Lin (Vicky Tiu), a cute seven-year-old whose farmer uncle (Kam Tong) is too busy working to take her to the fair. When Sue-Lin gets sick from eating too much carny food, Mike takes her to the dispensary, where hot-blooded Mike falls for Nurse Diane Warren (Joan O'Brien).
Though O'Brien reportedly had a real-life, steamy romance with Elvis, onscreen the pair don't generate very much heat and lack the chemistry of Elvis's pairings with Ann-Margret, Ursula Andress, Stella Stevens, or even Shelley Fabares. Vicky Tiu fares much better, and her matchmaking schemes are real scene-stealers. Tiu apparently made no other movies, but later became the First Lady of Hawaii as the wife of Governor Ben Cayetano.
Beyond Elvis, the real star of the film is the World's Fair itself. A lot of his movies rely heavily and obviously on rear-projection and second unit doubles, but It Happened at the World's Fair mostly has Elvis really there, wandering about the actual fairgrounds. This gives him a chance to interact with exhibits that amusingly predict a Jetsons-style 21st century life full of scientific wonder. One scene, for instance, finds Mike and Sue-Lin admiring the coolest-looking rocket car you'll ever see, and there's also a lot of footage of Elvis riding the neat-o monorail. Unfortunately, scenes high atop Seattle's landmark Space Needle (which was built for the fair) were filmed at MGM's Culver City studio, complete with painted cycloramas of the city.
It Happened at the World's Fair was directed by Norman Taurog, his fourth of nine Elvis movies. A workhorse artisan-type, Taurog knew how to put scenes together, but even after a long and fairly respectable career stretching back to 1920, no one would accuse him of being a great auteur. Nonetheless, It Happened at the World's Fair does have one scene that really transcends the frequent blandness of Elvis's ouevre. Riding the monorail after a long day at the fair, Sue-Lin is fast asleep. Mike, meanwhile, sings a love ballad while thinking about nurse Diane. Unusual for the time, the entire song is performed in a single static shot, from inside the dimly lit monorail while through its windows the scenery and neon of the fair at dusk passes by. It's a terrific sequence, among the best ever in an Elvis movie, and a model of simplicity.
The rest of the songs are okay though only title tune "Beyond the Bend" and "One Broken Heart for Sale" stand out. The cast includes Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig as one of the girls in Elvis's little black book. And, years before he starred as The King in a famous 1979 TV biopic, 11-year-old Kurt Russell has a small, unbilled role as a kid who kicks Elvis in the shins.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Warner Home Video's DVD is a knockout. The 16:9 anamorphic transfer is razor sharp and bursts with the bright primary colors of the fair. (As opposed to the trailer park where Mike and Danny stay; the well-designed set uses striped pastel-colored canopies and brightly painted totem poles, a nice visual contrast.) The English mono is clean and clear, as is the alternate French language track. Kudos to Warners for adding more subtitles options than usual: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, simplified Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Indonesian. The songs, regrettably, are not subtitled.
The only extra, an Elvis Trailer Gallery is of interest and shows some thought and imagination on the part of Warner Home Video. Included are five trailers, all 16:9 enhanced: Jailhouse Rock (1957), It Happened at the World's Fair ("Something new has been added," it promises, "the warm touch of a great guy!"), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Tickle Me, and Harum Scarum (both 1965). Warner's DVD of Viva Las Vegas is flat 4:3 letterboxed, while Tickle Me is a Warners-owned title that hasn't even been announced for DVD, so these trailers are of particular interest to fans. All five are in good shape; the trailer for the CinemaScope Jailhouse Rock is in 1.85:1 format. Warner's concurrent Elvis DVDs (Spinout, Double Trouble, etc.) have different sets of trailers.
The best Elvis programmers are wholesome in the good sense of the word. Indeed, this being a family film, gangster Vince smuggles not drugs but furs, and into Canada yet. (Even more outrageous is the thought that a man would happily entrust the welfare of his seven-year-old niece to a near-penniless hitchhiker!) In its last third, the picture gets bogged down in conventional story machinations that even a few energetic fistfights can't liven up. But Elvis's scenes with little Vicky Tiu, and their visit to the space age wonders of the World's Fair keep it interesting.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.