Far from Elvis's best, Harum Scarum is somewhat different from the usual Elvis fare but feebly executed, promising far more than it actually delivers. The movie has Presley playing a variation of his own screen persona, here called Johnny Tyronne, a rock'n'rollin' movie star on a goodwill tour of the Middle East to promote his new movie, an Arabian swashbuckler.
In Babalstan (!), Johnny is invited to the kingdom of Lunarkand (!!) by the king's brother, Prince Dragna (Michael Ansara), and beautiful Aishah (Fran Jeffries). On route, however, rebel spies in black capes and widow's peak skullcaps, unusual desert attire, kidnap Johnny. He's taken before Sinan, Lord of Assassins (Theodore Marcuse) who, despite the lofty title, wants Johnny -- apparently famous in Hollywood for his karate chop -- to assassinate King Toranshah (Philip Reed).
The thickly plotted but empty-headed script soon has Johnny escaping Sinan's clutches with the help of petty thief and chronic liar Zacha (Jay Novello). Johnny stumbles upon the king's daughter, Princess Shalimar (former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley), though she tells him that she's a mere slave.
Harum Scarum gets off to a shaky start and never recovers, though the action-filled climax helps marginally. The picture opens with a long, dull clip from Johnny's latest film, screened in a featureless room full of extras, apparently the American Embassy in Babalstan. The climax for the movie within the movie is set in the desert but is obviously filmed on a soundstage, complete with fiberglass rocks and painted backdrops. But when Johnny travels to Lunarkand the scenery is just as unreal. Except for a few stock shots, the entire picture is obviously shot in and around Hollywood, mostly on backlot streets.
None of this would matter much if the story was full of adventure and excitement, but the script, by Gerald Drayson Adams, is really terrible, full of clunker lines, Arabian adventure cliches, and contrived character relations. It also can't decide whether it wants to be a spoof or straight adventure with music. Elvis looks bewildered most of the time, as well he might. Part of the problem is that for its first two-thirds he's is like a prop, whisked about the story kidnapped and drugged, unaware of what's happening, and with little control of what's going on around him. The fact that Johnny is a movie star and karate expert play no real part in the story, once it gets underway. When he finally takes charge during the last act, the picture is somewhat better, though by then all interest has long evaporated.
The film was produced by the infamous Sam Katzman, whose cheap, 10-day programmers for Monogram and Columbia Harum Scarum closely resembles. The sets and costumes, for the most part, look like hand-me-downs from other productions, and their use is uninspired. The film makes no attempt to accurately depict its Middle East setting, despite the presence of more realistic films being made at the time. Harum Scarum is also a real mishmash of cultures. The big climax is shot on a backlot street that looks more like a redressed Mexican hacienda than anything Middle Eastern.
The picture is photographed like a '60s TV show, looking more like an episode of The Man from Uncle than, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Particularly bad is the harsh lighting; nearly the entire film is oppressively over-lit, with the cast often looking as if they were caught in the glare of offscreen headlights.
Elvis's character is like cardboard, so he's not really at fault for failing to bring any energy to the part. The songs are generally below par, though "Go East, Young Man" and "So Close Yet So Far (from Paradise)" aren't bad. Director Gene Nelson, the former dancer, shows a bit more energy shooting the musical numbers, but not much.
Jay Novello gives a spirited, bug-eyed performance as Johnny's unscrupulous ally. Someone, perhaps Novello himself, seems to have re-dubbed the original performance. Michael Ansara and Theodore Marcuse, typecast in standard bad-guy parts, go through the motions. Diminutive but energetic Billy Barty has a substantial but non-speaking role as a member of Novello's gang of thieves.
Video & Audio
Warner Home Video's DVD is an excellent transfer of an unattractively shot movie. The 16:9 anamorphic transfer of what was (presumably) shot for 1.75:1 theatrical release has great color and a sharp image drawn from good film elements, flawed only during some less than perfect process shots. The English mono is clean and clear. An Important Note: The menu screens offers subtitle selections only in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, using the subtitle button on your remote, other subtitles become available, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and (I think) Indonesian.
The one supplement is an Elvis Trailer Gallery, with five 16:9 enhanced previews: Jailhouse Rock (1957), It Happened at the World's Fair (1963), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Tickle Me (1965), and Harum Scarum. Warner's DVD of Viva Las Vegas is flat 4:3 letterboxed and Tickle Me isn't out on DVD, so these trailers are especially welcome. All five are in good shape; the trailer for the CinemaScope Jailhouse Rock is in 1.85:1 format. Warner's concurrent Elvis DVDs (those made later in the '60s, that is) have different trailers.
Contrary to popular myth, Elvis did make his fair share of good movies. But in the hands of "Colonel" Tom Parker and unimaginative producers like Sam Katzman, he also made too many routine potboilers that eventually did irreparable harm to his film career. Harum Scarum, unfortunately, falls in the latter category.
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.