What was Elvis' worst film?: Author Paul Simpson takes aim at the fans!

Shame on you Elvis fans. It's hard to believe that 97 of you voted Harum Scarum (Harem Holiday) as the worst film Elvis ever made in a recent EIN poll. Every fan is entitled to their opinion but I have to confess to a secret addiction for this film in which Elvis plays Johnny Tyrone, a rock and roll signer kidnapped by assassins to kill the king of the mythical middle eastern kingdom Lunakan with his bare hands while singing "Shake that tambourine… that tambourine… that tambourine…" but somehow manages to get the girl (the gorgeous Mary Ann Mobley) and take the whole crew back to Las Vegas for a celebration.

Granted, it's not the best middle eastern romp in movie history, nor is it the best film Elvis ever made, but it is definitely the best film Elvis ever made wearing a turban. Produced by Sam Katzman and directed by Gene Nelson, whose other offences to be taken into consideration include Kissin Cousins and a few episodes of Fantasy Island, Harum Scarum is, at least, compellingly weird.

The plot is even weirder than my summary makes it sound, and the songs vary from the awful to the awfully addictive (the title song has a hook which sticks in your memory against your will) to the half-decent (Kismet, So Close Yet So Far). But the sense that you never quite know what will happen next, how often the thief will tell El his fee is "most reasonable" and the frequency with which lines sound like they're meant to be puns though you're not sure if it's deliberate (such as when the baddie tells Elvis: "Aishah is Aishah")… all these make Harum Scarum one of his most intriguing movies from the mid-1960s.

And it's not just me - if you check out the user comments on the film on the Internet Movie Database they're surprisingly evenly split. Harum Scarum is a genuine oddity which, for me, is infinitely preferable to factory fodder like Paradise Hawaiian Style - the only Elvis movie I can't bear to watch the whole way through.

The only way I can watch this movie is to fast forward through the scenes involving Donna Butterworth, the child actress whose appalling precocity is indulged by director Michael Moore. Nothing personal, Donna, but watching you crucify the classic Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home? must have been the worst, of many, humiliations that Elvis suffered in his movie career.

The love interest, Suzanna Leigh, could more accurately be described as the love lack-of-interest. You can't help wondering why Elvis doesn't just run off with Marianne Hill - her leg-flashing duet on Scratch My Back is, alongside This Is My Heaven/Drums of The Island and Stop Where You Are, one of the film's few genuine highlights. For all the originality and thought that went into this movie, they might as well have called it Blue Hawaii 2 or Elvis 21. His character's name says it all - Rick Richards - they couldn't even be bothered to think of a surname that differed from his first name.

I can - and do - enjoy watching all of Elvis's other 32 movies though, like many voters in this poll, I find Easy Come Easy Go hard to take. The movie I return to, for all its flaws, is The Trouble With Girls. It's never been a fan favourite because Elvis isn't on screen half the time and it would have benefited from judicious cutting (especially the scene where the murderer gets drunk) but it has a proper plot, some good lines and some real actors in the cast.

Gratifyingly, even the critics have belatedly begun to realise its virtues. French film critics have invented a genre they call "film maudit" to refer to movies which fall, unjustly, into disrepute or in which you can see the ruins of good films shining through. And the latter, to me, sums up many of Elvis's post-Army movies. Double Trouble, for all its flaws, has a genuine air of suspense for a while and one stand out number, City By Night. In Frankie And Johnny, Please Don't Stop Loving Me is affecting, as is They Remind Me Too Much Of You in It Happened At the World's Fair.

In Wild In The Country, the scene where Elvis stops at a motel with Hope Lange till the rain passes is so good you realise how fine this movie could have been. And Charro is saved by the thoughtful scene where Elvis bangs the prisoner's head against the bars. I could go on - Speedway, Clambake, Stay Away Joe, Kissin' Cousins, - all have similar moments of redemption which is why I still find them so watchable.

None of these glimpses were enough to save Elvis's movie career or to enable his female co-stars to beat the curse of the Elvis movie. Of all Elvis's love interests, very few went on to better things on celluloid. Dolores Hart, romantic lead in Loving You and King Creole, became a nun. Judy Tyler (Jailhouse Rock) died tragically before the film was released. Donna Douglas (Frankie And Johnny), Dodie Marshall (Easy Come Easy Go), Annette Day (Double Trouble), Quentin Dean (Stay Away Joe) and Nancy Sinatra (Speedway) never made another Hollywood movie after starring opposite Elvis.

Joan O'Brien made only one film after her turn in It Happened At The World's Fair. Jocelyn Lane (Tickle Me) saw her movie career peter out so fast that in her last film, a 1970 'thriller', she played opposite rock and roller Fabian, who was badly miscast as gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. Diane McBain (Spinout) soon sank into tacky exploitation movies. Even Shelley Fabares only made two movies in the next 23 years after her third, and last, role in an Elvis film in Clambake.

It's fashionable to sneer at Elvis movies but with each passing Elvisless year, they seem a greater treasure. And a handful of them - King Creole, Flaming Star, Jailhouse Rock, Loving You, Viva Las Vegas, most of Wild In The Country, Blue Hawaii - really do stand on their own merit as movies, as many critics are finally starting to realise. I haven't included GI Blues in this list because, although it's well made, it's not one of his movies I feel great affection for - I'd much rather watch Girl Happy or Fun in Acapulco although I can see they're not as well done.

Which proves, I suppose, why these polls are so compelling. It's all down to opinion. That said give me Elvis shaking his tambourine over Donna Butterworth shaking her grass skirt any day.

Comments on this article can be made to: Paul.Simpson@Haynet.com