*½/**** Image B+ Sound A
starring Elvis Presley, Joan O'Brien, Gary Lockwood, Vicky Tiu
screenplay by Si Rose and Seaman Jacobs
directed by Norman Taurog
by Bill Chambers Over the main titles, Elvis sings the jaunty "Beyond the Bend" ("Breeze sing a happy song/This heart of mine is singing right along") from the cockpit of a cropduster. He playfully re-enacts North by Northwest by swooping down to ogle a couple of cuties in a convertible, telling his co-pilot, Danny (Gary Lockwood), that he can have the one in the red dress, 'cause "her ankles are a little thick." It's around this point that Elvis vehicles started to develop a sociopathic streak; Viva Las Vegas's crass reduction of anyone Elvis doesn't need to literal cannon fodder is perhaps in the embryonic stage in these opening moments of It Happened at the World's Fair, or when Mike ducks out on his quasi-daughter and his best friend without saying goodbye, effectively cutting them from the show-stopping, Music Man-ish final number.
Chased away after wolfishly showing up at the home of scrumptious Yvonne "Batgirl" Craig by her shotgun-wielding father ("He has a terrible temper when he has his gun," she says--a promisingly funny line that's sadly anomalous in the screenplay by sitcom vets Si Rose and Seaman Jacobs), Mike and his blue balls run back to Danny, a compulsive gambler who's bet and lost all their cropdusting earnings in the span of something like an hour. Then a sheriff grounds their plane for nebulous reasons, and they have to come up with $1100 to get it out of hock. Cue little Sue-Lin Ling (Vicky Tiu, in her only film), whose uncle Walter (Kam Tong) picks up the hitchhiking Mike and Danny. It seems anachronistically sensitive that the Lings' race is never lampooned (not one gong on the soundtrack!), except to say that Walter is offensively irresponsible in first granting Sue-Lin's request to ride in the back of his pick-up truck with these total strangers, then entrusting her to Mike's care upon dropping the trio off at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair on his way to work.
The main reason to see It Happened at the World's Fair, other than for the screen debut of one Kurt Russell ("Adults--they're all nuts!"), is that it was actually shot on location at the titular site, giving it an undeniable time-capsule quality/appeal. Blessed with ready-made, Playtime-esque sets, studio workhorse Norman Taurog, alas, proves he's no Jacques Tati, and the one attraction he lavishes with any attention, the Space Needle, is the one that's since been photographed to death. (On the other hand, a protracted shot in which Mike and sleepy Sue-Lin ride a chair lift as the day turns to dusk is impressively glazed in post-carnival melancholy.) The bulk of It Happened at the World's Fair takes place, like many Elvis pictures hereafter, in a backlot trailer park, where Mike babysits Sue-Lin following the ominous disappearance of Uncle Walter and Danny hatches sinister schemes to refill their coffers.
Mike's obligatory love interest is a nurse--their meet-cute in a spartan first-aid station the "it," I guess, that happened at the World's Fair--played by Joan O'Brien, a blonde too icy for Hitchcock, let alone Elvis; Sue-Lin endeavours to matchmake by faking a temperature, knowing that Mike will call Nurse Frigid instead of a doctor. Because the film is essentially a celebrity endorsement pitched to MGM by the governor of Washington, it's probably expecting too much to call It Happened at the World's Fair uninspired, but as you can see, it's definitely overwrought. On the other hand, the Lockwood/Elvis pairing may give contemporary viewers the urge to speculate about an alternate-universe 2001: A Space Odyssey starring Elvis in the Keir Dullea role, creating mental imagery ("Say HAL, howzabout openin' up them pod-bay doors?") that almost makes all that shaggy-dog storytelling worth it.
Warner's 2004 DVD release of It Happened at the World's Fair, recently reissued with the studio's signature Elvis cover art, is of average quality. The 2.37:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer has thick detail, suffers from aliased diagonal edges, and generally looks too pink, though this is coming from a jaded, post-Blu-ray perspective. Accompanying the image is crisp, full-sounding centre-channel Dolby Digital audio that could hardly be better. A gallery featuring trailers for this film plus Presley starrers Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas, Tickle Me, and Harum Scarum rounds out the platter, while the reissue's keepcase includes postcard-size reproductions of the lobby cards and original one-sheet for It Happened at the World's Fair. As usual, Warner's subtitling courtesy doesn't extend to music (diegetic or otherwise), meaning you won't be able to follow along with any of the movie's songs.
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