Wednesday, August 27, 2014

FOLLOW THAT DREAM: Blu-ray (The Mirisch Co. 1962) Twilight Time

In relative terms, director, Gordon Douglas’ Follow That Dream (1962) is an above par Elvis Presley movie musical, chiefly because its onus is not on the music (5 forgettable songs penned by eight different composers no less, it nevertheless, sold like hotcakes on the tie-in EP), rather Richard P. Powell’s 1959 novel, ‘Pioneer Go Home!’; a fairly eloquent indictment and cause célèbre against bureaucratic intrusions on the individualist spirit of America’s citizenry. As in the novel, the movie illustrates the power of one against this system. Elvis Presley’s Toby Kwimper is half country bumpkin/half philosophizing moralist: the most unlikely of patriots ready to defend his country against its government.  Presley’s own naturalist approach to the material – as only Elvis could deliver (and repeatedly did throughout his movie career - alas, mostly in big and splashy, though utterly vacuous concert-travelogues) is fittingly matched herein by Arthur O’Connell’s curmudgeonly truth-seeker – Pop Kwimper. Charles Lederer’s screenplay remains a winsome mix of potent social commentary and daft (at times, almost screwball) comedy, the two irreconcilable thematically; the latter, effortlessly coating the picture’s deeper message in a digestible outer shell of entertainment value, shamelessly married to Leo Tover’s utterly gorgeous vistas of swaying palms in the Florida Keys.
I must confess a bias. I didn’t hold out much expectation for Follow That Dream – a picture that has completely won me over as one of the most astute and honest critiques about America’s founding principles and the institutionalized threats set against personal liberty, prosperity and accountability; high-minded freedoms pitted in contradiction of the stringent edicts of rank statism – tragically, a topic more relevant today than arguably, even in the 1960’s. Elvis is the Edward Abbey of his generation; forsaking Davey Crockett’s coonskin cap for that inimitably Presley saunter in rolled up shirt sleeves and pants, some ‘good ole boy’ soft-spoken Southern comfort and that turbo-charged charisma always able to set cash registers ringing at the box office. It is a fairly safe assessment Elvis Presley’s promise as a movie star remained unfulfilled in his lifetime, particularly after his return from U.S. military service; the intensity Elvis revealed in his pre-service repertoire traded in for a kinder/gentler chick magnet with a thick mop of perpetually quaffed hair; often sporting the skimpiest attire to showcase the star’s more obvious talents.
It remains one of the great oversights of the twentieth century Presley’s overzealous and shamelessly self-promoting manager, Colonel Tom Parker along with movie producer, Hal B. Wallis – who made nine moneymakers with the hip-swiveling superstar in rapid succession (and whom Elvis would refer to as a ‘double-dealing son of a bitch’) - failed to exploit (or even acknowledge) Presley’s tangible gifts as more than a preening pinup. Let us be fair but honest in assessing the colossal waste of the Elvis who might have been on the screen.  Follow That Dream may not be vintage Presley – as in King Creole (1958) or even Jailhouse Rock (1957), but it packs an unexpected wallop just the same; Presley’s hillbilly logician managing to turn convention on its end, elude the ravenous man trap/social worker, Alisha Claypoole (Joanna Moore), and hold his own with brute strength against the nefarious gangland racketeer, Nick (Simon Oakland) and his bewildered right-hand, Carmine (Jack Kruschen).  That Presley’s Toby Kwimper cannot fathom how close he repeatedly comes to being played the fool, is, of course, the cream of the jest. We can cheer for this man, so utterly pure of heart he could still believe the best in people is possible - even as they only show him their worst possible character traits.  
Follow That Dream attempts to straddle an impossible chasm; between Elvis – the actor – and that megawatt sex symbol of crass commercialism concocted by Colonel Parker’s slick packaging of his acolyte as the proverbial bad boy with a soft center; Parker’s dealings with Paramount studio execs netting him millions while keeping Elvis a prisoner of this image by design. Mercifully, Follow That Dream has a fairly weighty tome to counterbalance this usual nonsense as well as the deadly pedestrian roster of songs. For once, the plot isn’t inconsequentially sandwiched between an obligatorily inserted back catalog of buoyant, but feather-weight pop tunes that, sung by any other artist except Elvis, would have been laughed off the screen. Such was Presley’s ‘lightning in a bottle’ screen presence, able to command even when the lyrics penned by these money-grubbing muses betrayed the strength of Presley’s own character, but especially - his talents. 
Elvis is very much an Americanized Alan-a-Dale in Follow That Dream; derelict in his military service, thanks to a trick back that gave out during basic training at Fort Dix, forcing Toby Kwimper to collect a disability pension; the money pooled along with his father’s welfare checks to support the family. The Kwimper’s extended family includes three orphaned children – doppelgangers, Gavin and Robin Koon (played by twins Eddy and Teddy Bascombe) and Adriane Pennington (Pam Ogles): plus, another adoptee, Holly Jones (Anne Helm) on the cusp of womanhood and fashioned as a love interest for our naïve and commitment-shy stud – also, something of a devoted matriarchal figure to this blended family. The Kwimpers stumble upon a natural sanctuary in the middle of the Florida Keys; a highway betterment project with lands allocated for the public good by H. Arthur King (Alan Hewitt), though arguably without the general public in mind. Using a bureaucratic loophole to his advantage, Pop evokes the Homesteader’s Act to get around King’s legalese; also to ingratiate himself to the governor (Harry Holcombe), who, after all, isn’t really interested in anything except getting the vote to remain in power.
King threatens to expose the Kwimpers as money-mooching wards of the state; a blight on the welfare system that, frankly, insults his own middle-class morality.  King is determined to cut off the Kwimpers’ government support; also to have their meager abode condemned as unhygienic; perhaps, even to suggest Toby and his Pop are unfit to raise young children, thereby splintering the serenity of this close-knit family unit. It’s a dismal prospect, until Toby befriends Mr. Endicott (Herbert Rudley), the president of a local bank, offering the usually shirt and tied (ergo, straightjacketed) Endicott the opportunity to exercise his own spirit of adventurism by reeling in a very large marlin off the bridge near their property. Endicott suggests the family establish tourism in the region to make their living without social assistance. In no time, Toby and Pop manage to exploit this opportunity to its fullest; Holly concernedly pointing out the bridge belongs to the state; ergo, Arthur King will likely disallow their tourist trade from using it as a pier. To help bolster their plan, Holly suggests Toby approach Mr. Endicott for the necessary bank loan to help pay for their dock, main house and the purchase of other supplies to launch their full-scale enterprise.
In what remains one of Follow That Dream’s most adroit and effervescently farce-laden vignettes, Toby inadvertently mistakes the bank’s vault for Endicott’s office, entering beyond its security door by following the bank’s easily befuddled chairman, George (Howard McNear) who immediately mistakes Toby for a robber and faints dead away. The bank’s security guards attempt to subdue Toby as he calls out for help, carrying George’s limp remains to safety. Eventually, Endicott emerges from his office; shocked to find his patrons clutching their wallets and purses in fear of a holdup; both guards relieved of their firearms by Toby’s quick thinking and genial approach to diffusing the tense situation. Endicott is impressed by Toby’s forthright request to borrow $2000 for necessary improvements to their property. The money is granted almost without question on Endicott’s blind faith in the Kwimpers, who do not disappoint.
In the meantime, King hires local social worker, Alisha Claypoole to administer a psychological exam of Toby; perhaps using the results to indict him as mentally unfit. Although not fleshed out, Charles Lederer’s screenplay hints King and Claypoole were perhaps more than colleagues at an earlier time and place. Much to King’s chagrin, Alisha is instantly attracted to Toby’s robust manhood, making fairly transparent advances he nevertheless easily thwarts. Toby suggests women can be detrimental to a man’s wellbeing; Alisha determined to test this theory by coaxing Toby to take her to a secluded spot in the woods where she again tries to seduce him – again, to no avail. Aware of Claypoole’s ulterior motives – even if Toby seems oblivious to them – Holly stalks the pair and interrupts Alisha’s orchestrated flagrante delicto. When Claypoole condescendingly refers to Holly as an Indian squaw, Holly cordially calls Claypoole’s bluff before submerging her in the lagoon; clothes and all. 
News of the Kwimper’s hideaway spreads quickly, attracting the criminal element along with other good-natured individualists yearning to breathe free. When racketeer, Nick brings his floating casino to the region, the atmosphere turns from pastoral to hedonistic; Endicott once again coming to the rescue by suggesting first, the Kwimpers call the police, then by evolving an even more brilliant line of defense. Since neither the county nor the state can lay claim to the Kwimpers’ land, they may elect their own sheriff to uphold the law with absolute immunity. Nick attempts to convince Toby – who has been appointed – to back off; Toby’s suggestion the casino close nightly at eleven o’clock shrugged off by Nick. 
When Toby refuses to budge on his unbelievably polite requests, Nick orders his right-hand, George to hire a hit squad from Detroit to take care of Toby and the family. Alas, the trio of goons meant to put a period to the Kwimpers instead find themselves at Toby’s mercy, trudging through the dense Florida terrain in the dead of night, getting lost along the way, and eventually being disarmed one by one by Toby – who mistakes them as mere harmless drunks who just happened to be carrying firearms. Diffusing the situation, Toby orders the goons to vacate the premises on the double. A short while later, Nick orders his own thug muscle, Jack (Frank de Kova) and Blackie (Robert Carricart) to plant a nitroglycerin bomb beneath the Kwimpers’ modest cottage. If they can’t be persuaded or chased off the land then they’ll simply be exterminated. 
Again, the family’s naïveté rescues the moment; Toby and Holly mistaking the bomb as a misplaced package belonging to Nick, and returning it to his casino trailer. As Nick and George have given themselves the perfect alibi by fishing with Pop on the docks, certain their hit squad is out murdering Toby and Holly in the underbrush, the pair are naturally befuddled when Toby and Holly return home unharmed; even more perplexed as they quietly observe their trailer burst into flames and burn to the ground. Nick and George clear out. But the Kwimpers are in for a horrible shock when Alisha has Teddy, Eddie and Adriane removed from their custody, using a court order to declare the Klempers’ unfit to raise a family. The Kwimpers are now charged with using ‘extreme force’ to chase Nick and George off their property at gunpoint. Furthermore, Alisha suggests an erroneous adulterous affair between Holly (who is underage) and Toby. Such salacious surmising perks the interest of the presiding judge (Roland Winters).
However, in the subsequent hearing, the tables are turned on Alisha by Toby and Pop; Alisha exposed for having unrequited romantic designs on Toby; also for harboring a distinct bias in the way she grades Pop’s replies to her psychological exam administered in the courtroom. Unbeknownst to Alisha, the judge has substituted his own replies in this word association game; appalled when Alisha is able to effectively twist his answers to suit her own agenda. The case against them dismissed, the Kwimpers are reunited with the rest of their family. In the penultimate moment, we find Toby serenading Holly on the veranda of their makeshift cottage; she disappearing inside to change into decidedly more adult and womanly attire to convince Toby, once and for all, she belongs to him. The romantic mood is broken when Pops sets off the portable toilet; its high water pressure release soaking him from top to bottom.
Visually, Follow That Dream isn’t all that ambitious; at least, not compared to other Presley pictures of its ilk and vintage. That isn’t the point, however. I’ve read numerous reviews claiming the movie simply falls flat, resting on Elvis’ laurels as a misguided fluff piece, decidedly missing its anticipated creampuff center. But this isn’t true at all. The intrusion of five disposable songs (four, if one discards the prerequisite ballad sung under the main titles) - all marginal and frankly, distracting – suggest ‘just another Elvis picture’ lurking around the corner. But Follow That Dream is far more and much better than any Elvis movie from the 1960’s; Presley delivering what seems to be, and undeniably remains, one of his two or three most unrehearsed and genuine performances; his delivery so slight, it becomes nuanced almost by accident. Yes, the picture rises and/or falls on Elvis’ ability to entertain. The rest of the cast are very much relegated to support and pushed back into the shadows via Presley’s own screen time, though never by his presence; appearing as equals when they share the screen with him. It’s this generosity in Elvis’ own presence some perhaps will find off-putting; Elvis somehow unimpressed by the status of his own star power and willing to share the spotlight in a two shot with humility and appreciation for his co-stars.
But entertain us he most certainly does – mostly as an actor of sustainable merit, who occasionally lets out with a song; infrequent missteps leading back to the mire of that anticipated pop-u-tain-ment never meant to reveal itself in full flourish this time around. Mercifully, there’s no hip-swivel here; no gyrations and only the faintest glimmer of Elvis’ trademarked rockabilly twang; accompanied by the Jordanaires. Instead, we get a nice and easy good ole boy, out to please by virtue of his big-hearted self-deprecating style. It’s impossible not to feel for, and fall in love with, this Elvis…a.k.a. Toby Kwimper, the chaste ‘free spirit’, dogged by others’ misconceptions; expecting his sinfully handsome physicality to translate into a more confident cock of the walk. Toby is more a ‘man’ than emblematically ‘manly’; Elvis’ own inner grace shining through. It is a joy, in fact, to watch him exude masculinity without actually having to strut – i.e. ‘sell’ his wares like that oft’ traded and trained circus pony, turning tricks for Colonel Parker’s benefit.       
In pre-production Elvis put his foot down, insisting the already pre-recorded song, ‘Sound Advice’ be omitted from the movie altogether; refusing to shoot the accompanying scene…just in case, lest Douglas – with the Colonel’s complicity – renege on promises made ahead of time. Again, it’s the songs that tend to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in Follow That Dream. The movie is far more effective when it adheres to its socially mobile critique of America’s flawed political system; a very strong message sheathed in the cordial trappings of the polite screwball/romantic comedy. Interestingly, when author, Richard Powell first learned of The Mirisch Company’s plans to transform his book into a movie starring Elvis Presley he was bitterly disappointed. By the time the movie made it into theaters, Powell was singing Presley’s praises. Clearly, it was more than Elvis’ charm having won the author over.
In retrospect, the tug o’ war between Powell’s ethically conscious prose and the traditional milieu of an Elvis picture becomes more transparently preposterous as the picture wears on; Presley’s Toby, in one scene, rolling about the sand (on a sound stage with rear projection badly subbing in for the Florida Keys), serenading Alisha with the impossibly buoyant Fred Wise/Ben Weisman title track. I mean, seriously – the composers aren’t even trying to tie in the songs with the plot, nor even to camouflage the fact Elvis is belting out these pop tart ditties with the benefit of a full orchestra, presumably concealed in the dense tropical underbrush just out of camera range.  It’s during such moments Follow That Dream has the proverbial ‘brain fart’. What were director, Gordon Douglas and producers, Walter Mirisch and David Weisbart thinking? Dollar signs, most likely. Early on, Hal Wallis gave his own assessment about the trajectory of Elvis’ movie career, saying “we did not hire Elvis as a second string Jimmy Dean. We signed him as a number one Elvis Presley.”  As such, this Elvis – like the others incarnated as carbon-copied triplicate in virtually all of his other movies – sings!
Mercifully, the inescapability of this predicament does not sink the enterprise as a whole because at 110 minutes, the less than six minutes of score is subservient – if hardly complimentary – to the plot. We get Elvis - the actor - with just a light sprinkling of Elvis – the musical phenomena. Those expecting more of the latter are certain to be doubly disappointed by the weight ascribed both story and character development, seemingly at the expense of the usual concert-styled program, usually pre-sold to audiences as par for the course of the typical Presley picture. But Follow That Dream is a movie marching to its own beat, and mostly with immense sincerity. In hindsight, it’s refreshingly offbeat and poignantly effective and affecting when it turns away from those formulaic aspects, giving us something more interesting to contemplate, digest and remember.
Although undeniably a major upgrade from Fox/MGM’s old non-anamorphic DVD, this new Blu-ray via Twilight Time is hardly perfect. At least it’s properly framed in 2.35:1. The DeLuxe palette exhibits vinegar syndrome – at times, so obvious it creates gritty ringing halos around background information. Thankfully, such instances are infrequent. Long shots are fuzzy in appearance. The court room sequence, as example, has some excruciatingly awful inserts; image sharpness taking the proverbial backseat to blurry, desaturated dreck; a hazy patina with moderate to heavy film grain that is most distracting. The use of rear projection is transparent, adopting a more brownish/beige level of color fading. Flesh tones waffle from remarkably lifelike to ruddy orange. When the image snaps together, we are treated to some lush green foliage, aquamarine and sky blues and sparkling candy apple reds. But there’s a built-in inconsistency at play; some scenes mostly solid one moment, teetering on the verge of complete color implosion the next.
The DTS mono audio is remarkably aggressive, particularly the songs, with a startling amount of midrange giving renewed life to the background vocals supplied by the Jordanaires. Personal opinion, of course, but I don’t really get the same oomph from Twilight Time’s isolated mono score; a rare occasion where I think we have a much better opportunity for sonic appreciation via listening to the integrated soundtrack of score, SFX and dialogue. Speaking of extras, the aforementioned isolated score and a crummy theatrical trailer is all we get…oh yes, and Julie Kirgo’s very fine mini-essay, effectively summing up the Elvis Presley mystique; alas, also the many reasons for his lack of good movie roles. I wouldn’t classify Follow That Dream among this disposable lot. It was a minor treat and a major revelation, particularly for someone whose appreciation for Elvis movies never ranked very high in the pantheon of great American cinema. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
1 

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