His huckster of a manager, "Col." Tom Parker, wouldn't allow much of a stretch, but with the exception of Speedway (1968), all of Elvis's subsequent films were notably different. Stay Away, Joe, Live a Little, Love a Little (both 1968), Charro!, The Trouble with Girls, and Change of Habit (all 1969) did nothing to improve his flagging movie career. One can only wistfully imagine the performances Elvis might have given had Parker allowed him to accept offers in West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy, and the 1976 A Star Is Born. Almost certainly he would have been a revelation in any of those.
As for Clambake, despite Elvis's displeasure in making it, the movie is in fact quite enjoyable. Indeed, it's the last truly entertaining Elvis movie, not counting his later mostly excellent concert films (Elvis: That's the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour). Clambake doesn't set the bar very high, but it gets the formula right and is appealing throughout.
Echoing plot elements from Blue Hawaii particularly, in Clambake Elvis plays Scott Heyward, the son of wealthy oil tycoon Duster Heyward (James Gregory). Tired of his wealth and Duster's rigid helicopter parenting, Scott flees to Miami in his 1959 Corvette Stingray Racer, attracting the attention of free-spirited motorcyclist Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins). Immediately best of pals, they decide to switch identities: Tom pretends to be the heir-apparent to Duster's millions while Scott happily accepts Tom's role, as the new water skiing instructor at the same ritzy Miami hotel where Tom-as-Scott occupies the presidential suite.
There, Scott is immediately attracted to hotel guest Dianne Carter (Shelley Fabares). She likes him, too, but begs off any kind of romantic relationship because she's only there to snare a millionaire husband. Soon after Scott arrives Dianne attracts the lascivious attentions of snobby millionaire playboy James J. Jamison III (Bill Bixby). (With a name like that, what else could he be?)
Meanwhile, Scott puts his engineering degree (!) and experimental "goop" (!!) to use on a damaged speedboat owned by childless widower Sam Burton (Gary Merrill), who takes a paternal liking to super-polite, hard-working Scott. Jamison had won the last three Orange Bowl Races, and is all but guaranteed the $10,000 purse, especially considering the race is but days away. Can Scott finish the boat in time, and can Scott's "goop" save the craft from the brutal beating and 90 mph speeds needed to win?
Clambake is awash in the tropes an Elvis vehicle entails. Though set in Miami, nearly if not literally every minute of Elvis's footage was shot in southern California or recreated on soundstage sets unconvincingly positioned in front of rear-projected location footage. Again Elvis plays a wholesome rich son trying to prove his worth, again there's a snobby rival, and again Elvis warmly interacts with kids and, much like the real Elvis, Scott is unfailingly polite to his elders. (About the only variation in Presley's movies of this period are those where he plays a stubborn, brawlin' hothead.) Even the impossibly cute Shelley Fabares is familiar, she making her third (and last) appearance as Presley's co-star.
The déjà vu quotient may be off the charts, but Clambake is pleasantly diverting as all the familiar elements are well done and appealing, an achievement one can better appreciate when comparing Clambake to those done badly, notably Kissin' Cousins (1964), Tickle Me, Harum Scarum (1965), and others. Will Hutchins is broad but likeable as Scott's pal, and Bill Bixby makes an especially good, subtly sleazy nemesis. (An undervalued actor, he was equally adept at comedy and drama.) James Gregory is insufferably over the top as Scott's father, but Gary Merrill is so good as lonely boat-maker Sam that his scenes with Elvis are almost touching.
The film's LP soundtrack album is memorable more for the unrelated songs added to fill out the album than for the tracks from the movie. But they're not terrible, certainly better overall than anything in Kino's concurrently released Frankie and Johnny. Even its "High Hopes" imitation number, "Confidence" (featuring a young Corbin Bernsen) is okay.
Overall, Clambake resembles the better "Beach Party" movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as much as it does the usual Elvis vehicle. Those movies weren't very good either, but likewise followed a formula that was quite entertaining on their own terms. Clambake is much more polished than those and, on its own merits, succeeds better than its reputation would suggest.
Video & Audio
Unlike the beautiful video transfer of Frankie and Johnny, Clambake, filmed in (2.35:1) Techniscope, is just okay. The title elements are profoundly dirty, and the entire picture has rather tepid color. The image fluctuates madly between razor sharp, attractive moments and grainy or dull ones. The original camerawork and the two-perf Techniscope process may partly be to blame, but the transfer is no better than average. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono is fairly good, and English subtitles are provided to this region "A" disc.
Beyond the usual trailer, the main supplement is an audio commentary track featuring Gideon Kennedy, Matt Owensby, and John Robinson, proprietors of Videodrome, Atlanta's last-standing video rental store. It's disappointing, the kind of thing done off the cuff with little research or preparation. I can't imagine who they thought their work would appeal to; mainly, I guess, lonely movie fans looking for the company of others talking over the film, expressing a comforting if jaded air of superiority. Not that Clambake is anything approaching great art, but as both a consumer and creator of audio commentary tracks, my feeling is that, given the opportunity, commentators should put genuine effort into such tracks, and are really obliged to put their assigned movies into some kind of informed historical-industrial-cultural context, rather than simply condescendingly remark about things that are obvious even to casual viewers.
Though far from Elvis's best movie, Clambake certainly encapsulates the Elvis movie phenomenon well. It's not for everyone, but on its own terms has a lot of charm and thus is Recommended.